The XX Factor by Alison Wolf

10th May 2013

The XX Factor Alison Wolf

Alison Wolf’s The XX Factor is an inspiring read which traces the ways in which working women in the developed world are helping to create a new society.

Packed full of wide-reaching and fascinating statistical data, Wolf presents us with a detailed study of today’s high-achieving women, offering a logical argument which suggests education (and access to it) underpins women’s changing place in the world.

Wolf herself is most definitely one of those high achievers. Awarded a CBE, she is a British economist and Director of Public Services Policy and Management at King’s College London, where she holds the Sir Roy Griffiths Chair.

So far, her published works have been aimed at the academic and political communities, all centred around her key subject – the relationship between education and labour markets. The XX Factor is her first ‘mainstream’ work in the field.

For all its hard facts and impressive analyses, this is a surprisingly personal book. For all its hard facts and impressive analyses, this is a surprisingly personal book. The objective, quantitative research conveys a very real sense of the pressures women face in both the workplace and in their domestic lives; perhaps unexpectedly, the hard evidence has a satisfyingly emotional resonance.

The discussion of women’s changing attitudes to motherhood is particularly interesting. Wolf reports that at the start of the nineteenth century, the USA had one of the highest birth-rates in the world and the UK was averaging at around five or six births per woman.

Today, the UK’s birth-rates show a drop which directly correlates with income growth, and women in the USA now average at under two children per woman. This falls under replacement level (the level needed to keep a population stable over time). As Wolf states, this is ‘in response to world that offers new choices’, observing data which demonstrates ‘how closely the odds of having children have become linked to one’s educational level.’

She also notes how uncalculated women’s decision not to have children is. In fact, statistics show that most women in their twenties intend to have children, but the fabric of our social and cultural lives is so changed that it is now entirely possible that both male and female elites will have fewer children than their contemporaries, and many will be child-less. Less pressure on the creaking sides of our planet, perhaps?

Wolf also offers a detailed discussion of the rise of the servant classes and the way food and eating habits are adapting to suit a society in which women’s traditional position in the home is no longer a given. She also provides an interesting study of women’s changing sexual behaviour.

While describing Girls Gone Wild as sitting ‘firmly within the law’ (‘by the skin of its sorry teeth’ would be more my definition), and rather unnecessarily giving her opinion on beauty when she states that Nuts and Girls Gone Wild have ‘some utterly gorgeous girls on view’, she also raises interesting points that fall more in line with the book’s general style and aims.

Wolf notes that Britain has ‘thousands of girls desperate to become ‘glamour’ models’ and interprets this as their attempt to feel less powerless. ‘Heterosexual sex is something that only women can give to men,’ she writes ‘and heterosexual sex is something that men really, badly want.’

But what many define as a growing trend in female ‘raunch culture’, is, in Wolf’s eyes, nothing new. ‘These girls are traditional to the core,’ she states. ‘They are following the most long-established pursuit of single females […] selling sex to men. Sex for them remains the basis of their fortune and their career.’

Wolf’s argument is that readily available education offers women new options  – and her conclusion is a positive one. These options, she states, are being fully grasped by a growing and ever-more powerful demographic.

The XX Factor is a fascinating and detailed study of the way in which women in developed countries are collectively responding to a world which they, increasingly, have the power to shape.

The XX Factor is published in paperback by Profile and is available from Foyles, Amazon, and all good independent bookshops, priced at £15.99.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended for… those interested in Gender Studies, society and education

Other recommended reading: Sheryl Sandberg‘s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead for another leading woman’s take on the working world.

Kate Kerrow