The Women at the Top

Thomas Barwick/Getty Images
A woman at work, from the ‘Lean In Collection’ presented by a new partnership between Getty Images and, intended to promote ‘images of female leadership in contemporary work and life’

In just the past two or three decades, women in more than token numbers have taken their place alongside men at the upper levels of government, the professions, and business. They now earn more than half of all college degrees, and they will shortly make up a majority of lawyers, doctors, and college faculty. While they still account for only a small minority of political and business leaders, that, too, is changing. The rapid ascension of women to the most influential sectors of society—occurring in all advanced Western countries—is likely to have profound implications for public policy, and perhaps even more for the way families construct their lives and raise their children.

In her remarkably wide-ranging book, Alison Wolf describes these women at the top—why their numbers have grown so fast in recent years and what their lives are like. She estimates they make up roughly 15 to 20 percent of working women in advanced countries, or about 70 million women worldwide. (Whether she is defining them by education or income is not clear, but it doesn’t much matter, since the two are so closely correlated.) She calls them variously “professional women” (an unfortunate choice), “graduates,” and the “elite,” but none of those terms quite captures the combination of education, ambition, and professional commitment that characterizes them. Clearly, we need a term that refers to something more than just graduating from college, but it’s hard to come up with one, as Wolf demonstrates. I’ll call them “upper-middle-class,” although that is not very precise either. Whatever the term, if you are reading this, the chances are that you are one of these women or living with one.

The book says relatively little about the other 80 to 85 percent of women, and virtually all Wolf’s interviews are with women in the upper-middle class, mainly her friends and colleagues; and, it seems to me, disproportionately women in business or finance. But that is a small cavil (mainly with the subtitle, which seems to promise a focus on all working women) in a book that is so interesting and well documented, drawing on a variety of surveys as well as interviews. Moreover, the focus on upper-middle-class women seems justified, since their rise to the top is a new and largely unexamined phenomenon. Despite the mountain of data Wolf amasses, however, she does not say very much about what she thinks the reader should conclude from all of it. I will try to draw some conclusions here, based on her book, on other publications, and on my own experiences.

Until the 1960s, with few exceptions, the only way even educated women could gain security, let alone status, was to make as good a marriage as possible as early as possible, leave the workforce (if they were ever in it), and spend the rest of their lives caring for their families and homes. Their social standing was that of their husbands. For practical reasons, sex, marriage, and children were tightly bound together, at least in respectable circles. There was no reliable birth control, the social stigma of extra-marital pregnancy was great, and unmarried men often did not take responsibility for the children they fathered, leaving single mothers barely able to support their children. Smart women made sure not to get pregnant before marriage, and the best way to ensure that was not to have sex.

From earliest history right through the 1950s, there was therefore a transactional element to marriage. In return for the security and protection and social approbation the husband provided, the wife provided sex and children and management of the household. If the man was wealthy and the woman beautiful and charming, so much the better. Of course, there was often love and companionship as well, but throughout history, as Wolf writes, “sex proffered, sex withheld were the main assets that girls possessed.”

All that changed almost overnight when the birth control pill hit the market in the early 1960s. Suddenly, premarital sex was no longer risky. Very quickly, the Pill (everyone knew what that capitalized word meant) came into widespread use, and for the first time, both women and men could have sex without fear of pregnancy. That certainly suited the times, and the Woodstock generation enthusiastically embraced free sex—or at least a certain segment of that generation did—and premarital sex generally lost its stigma. Both women and men often had multiple sex partners before marriage, and began to marry much later. The median age at first marriage for women increased from twenty-one in 1960 to twenty-seven in 2011.

Reliable contraception also made it feasible for women to undertake long years of education and commit to careers in a way that had not been possible before, and they began to be encouraged by, of all people, their fathers—their “besotted” fathers, in Wolf’s words. One reason for the change in the attitudes of fathers is that in the second half of the twentieth century, families became smaller; children were no longer economically valuable for the labor they provided on farms and family-owned businesses, and with the rise in the standard of living and improved health care, they were all expected to survive to adulthood. Jennifer Senior, in her new book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood,1 refers to the end of World War II as the beginning of modern childhood, and quotes Viviana Zelizer as characterizing today’s child as “economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”

As families became smaller, fathers became more ambitious on behalf of their daughters, since in a two- or three-child family they might have no sons. By the 1980s, women were entering the upper echelons of society on their own, and many had high enough incomes to have children without marriage and support them, if they had to. Sex, marriage, and children no longer had to go together.

Yet in the upper-middle class, they usually do go together. These women rarely go it alone, but instead make what Wolf calls “assortative” marriages; they marry men very much like themselves—well educated and fully engaged in their own high-powered careers. Assortative mating, of course, greatly increases the family income, and exacerbates the inequality that plagues the US. Even though men and women in all social classes are marrying later, upper-middle-class couples wait to have children until they are married, and their divorce rate is low. In contrast, more than 40 percent of children in the general population are now born to single mothers, and the divorce rate in the lower classes is about double that of upper-middle-class couples.

According to Wolf, couples at the top lead very different lives, not only from the lower classes, but from previous generations. Within the households, husbands and wives are virtually interchangeable. Both tend to be high earners, and both tend to be equally competent at childcare and household tasks. I say “tend,” because she says that some differences remain once children arrive, but the differences are not great. Women and men function like a team in all parts of their lives, pulling together at their manifold jobs, one stepping in when the other falters. They now have more in common with each other than either has with members of their own sex in the lower classes.

What most differentiates them is their total absorption in two things—their careers and their children. They devote extremely long hours to their professions, which often require them to be electronically available at almost all hours. According to Wolf’s data, upper-middle-class couples now work on average more hours per day than the rest of the population, and unlike the lower classes, they have no more leisure time now than they did in the 1960s. Contrary to what one might expect, upper-middle-class women usually return to work full-time after childbirth, whereas other women more often stop paid work at least temporarily or return only part-time. As Wolf points out, for upper-middle-class women to interrupt their careers means large sacrifices of opportunity. Moreover, their income is usually sufficient to cover the considerable expense of hiring nannies or other forms of child care. But even more important than the money is the fact that for these women, their sense of identity is tied to their professions. They are full participants in what James Surowiecki recently called “the cult of overwork.”

The commitment of power couples to their professions is outweighed only by their extraordinary involvement with their children. Wolf titles a section on children “Willing Slaves,” and begins with a one-sentence paragraph, “And then there are the children.” The next paragraph starts, “Young children dominate the lives of their parents not just emotionally but by completely upturning their lives.” Against all logic, as documented by Wolf, upper-middle-class couples somehow manage to spend more interactive time (not just being in the same room) with their children than any group in history—with or without careers, rich or poor.

True, they have fewer children; in fact, their fertility rate is so low that they don’t even replace themselves. But the few children they have are at the center of their lives, and fathers are often just as much involved as mothers. They spend enormous amounts of money on them, and employ a vast network of experts to help—beginning with childbirth classes and lactation consultants, and continuing through tutors to help them get into the best schools, athletic coaches to help the children make the team, teachers to help them develop their musical and dramatic talents, and so forth. Nannies alone cost on the order of tens of thousands of dollars per year. Children are also incorporated into their parents’ social lives, and parents dote on their friends’ children as well as their own (or pretend to), sending photos around to one another on Facebook, and celebrating their birthdays together with festive parties.

The absorption with children has entered the lower classes, as well, and is reflected and amplified by the media. Anyone who glances at celebrity magazines knows all about Suri Cruise and the Jolie-Pitt brood. A few generations ago, celebrities kept even the fact of their children quiet, and seldom displayed them, but now children are downright fashionable and nothing melts the hearts of fans more than a picture of, say, Seraphina Affleck in her daddy’s arms.

According to Wolf, the total amount of time spent working in the upper-middle class is the same for men and women, if you count both paid work outside the home and childcare and housework, even though it is widely assumed that women work longer hours altogether. Time studies show that women do more housework, says Wolf, but the men work more hours away from home, so it all comes out even. I’m skeptical about equating another hour at the office (these men are not laborers, remember) with another hour of housework. Wolf acknowledges that women in general are more stressed, which she ascribes to having “more balls in play.” Whatever the division of labor, these parents work very hard and very long hours on their twin immersions—career and children.

Twentieth Century Fox/Kobal Collection
Harrison Ford, Melanie Griffith, and Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl, 1988

I grew up in a middle-class family in the 1940s and 1950s, and things were very different. My father, a civil engineer, went off to work at 8:30 am and came home at 5:30 pm. I had no idea what he was doing during that time, and I don’t think my mother did either. Like every other woman in the neighborhood, she was a housewife. I was expected to obey my parents, and I did some chores, but mainly I played outside (“up the street”) with my friends, not inside with my parents, and straggled home in time for dinner. My parents were not much concerned with my opinions or feelings, just with my behavior. I was supposed to get good grades and behave myself. They certainly did not consult me about family decisions and only minimally about decisions that affected me directly. I could hardly wait to grow up, and my parents thought that was a good idea, too. Staying close to home in an extended childhood was considered inappropriate. Childhood was to be gotten through, not savored.

By the time my children were growing up, in the 1970s and 1980s, I was working (part-time at first), as were about half the women in my neighborhood, and, of course, all the men. The whole family went off in different directions every morning. Nannies were not common, daycare centers were even rarer, as were nearby extended families. We had a series of au pairs and baby-sitters. I was responsible for nearly all the child care, and most of the housework, although my husband “helped,” that is, pitched in with whatever I thought needed doing. (This was the transition generation.) The household was generally disorganized, as we tried to fit everything in, and I was constantly tired.

But the children were the focus of much of our lives. I cared very much what they were thinking and feeling, and they usually played indoors, often with friends, whom I tried to get to know. Still, my husband and I were the parents and our daughters were the kids, and they were expected to obey us, even though they sometimes resisted—resistance that would not have been tolerated when I was a child. And although we sometimes consulted them in daily decisions, they did not make many of them.

Now my two daughters are married and have children (ages four to eight). Both sets of parents work at demanding, high-level jobs, and they find it hard to get everything done, just as I did, so that part is the same. There are, however, many more child care options, if you can afford it, and my sons-in-law take equal responsibility for child care and housework. What is most different is the fact that the households now more or less explicitly revolve around the children. They are asked for their opinions about many details of their lives—from what socks they want to wear to what they want for breakfast to whether they want to go to the playground—and they can change their minds repeatedly (manifested at mealtime by refusing to eat what they just said they wanted). Often both parents are simultaneously involved in decisions that look unimportant to me, and it takes on the character of a staff meeting. Child rearing is therefore less efficient than it was, because both parents are involved and there are more choices on offer.

Moreover, as some of my friends—also grandmothers—have observed, parents seem almost superhumanly patient. Discipline consists of distracting young children, not confronting them. When there are serious infractions, parents count to three, with the threat that at the end of three there will be a “time-out,” but it doesn’t usually come to that because by the end of the count, the whole thing has been renegotiated. Young children seldom have to face a head-on No. Reprimands often end with “Okay?,” as if they were the opening of a negotiation or assent were required. Jennifer Senior quotes one mother saying to her four-year-old, who has just put Play-Doh in his yogurt, “Everything off the table until I wipe it up, okay?” Although Senior’s book focuses on the middle class, not just the upper 15 to 20 percent, she, too, finds that children have come to dominate many households, and that within marriages, “children generate more arguments than any other subject,” including the venerable money, in-laws, and sex.

Since upper-middle-class parents spend almost all their time on work and children, what do they have to give up? Sleep, for one thing. According to Wolf, upper-middle-class women sleep much less than lower-class women. (The difference between the top 20 percent and the bottom 20 percent is an hour and a half nightly.) And perhaps they give up sex, as well. Surveys cited by Wolf show they have sex on average once a week, but wish they had more. As Margaret Carlson observed in Time magazine, “sleep is the new sex.” In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg claimed that “couples who share domestic responsibilities have more sex” than other couples, but Anne Applebaum, in her review of Sandberg’s book in these pages,2 cited research showing the opposite.

In a provocative recent article in The New York Times Magazine, titled “Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex?,” Lori Gottlieb presents evidence that the more couples share childcare and household jobs, the less sex they have, even though marital harmony is greater. She quotes sociologist Pepper Schwartz, who says these relationships can be “more sibling-like than erotic.” Probably no one knows the truth, since it is unlikely that surveys about sex are very reliable. I think there is some reason to believe that the emotional bond between parents is to some extent redirected toward the children; the term “housewife,” which calls attention to the woman’s relationship to her husband, has been replaced by “stay-at-home mom,” which focuses on her relationship with her children.

Upper-middle-class couples also give up home-cooked meals and spotless households, as documented by Wolf. Very little time is now spent on cleaning and other household drudgery (which still tends to be done mainly by wives), and even less on cooking. In fact, cooking usually amounts to warming up prepared foods or ordering take-out. Couples often hire women to come in and do housework once or twice a week, but they do very little themselves between visits from the maid. In the 1970s, there were ads for Wisk detergent that featured women who felt mortified because their husband had “ring around the collar.” Nowadays almost no one would be mortified, and certainly not the wife. In a New York Times article titled “The Case for Filth,” Stephen Marche concludes, “A clean house is the sign of a wasted life, truly. Hope is messy: Eventually we’ll all be living in perfect egalitarian squalor.” Despite the hyperbole, there is something to this view. Since housework takes time these couples just don’t have, I think lowering neatness standards is sensible, even though it is sometimes hard on us grandmothers, who grew up rating ourselves on our cooking and the appearance of our homes.

But there is something more serious these couples are giving up—civic engagement—and Wolf has a chapter on that, called “Something to Regret?” “Earlier generations of educated women,” she writes, “worked largely in schools, or volunteered in the community, because little else was on offer.” They were the social and political activists. Now paid employment has largely displaced volunteering in the community. Moreover, many ambitious women no longer become teachers, except at the college level, because the pay and prestige are greater in other professions. Wolf quotes from an interview with sociologist and political scientist Theda Skocpol: “Women were the ones who stood up for welfare, and made the case for the public good, for everyone. Now it’s all so narrow.”

Obviously, we can’t and shouldn’t return to a time when women were expected to tend to the needs and welfare of the community gratis because they had no other options and no one else would do it. But we do need to modify the cult of overwork, in child rearing as well as in careers, to make room for highly educated women and their husbands to be more active citizens. In particular, I wish upper-middle-class women were stronger advocates for the rights of less privileged women, both in their own country and abroad.

One of Wolf’s main themes is the “fracturing of sisterhood.” As men and women in the upper-middle class attain something very close to equality both in their work and at home, they pull away, Wolf writes, from the bottom 80 to 85 percent, where men and women remain segregated at work—in part because of the changes in the upper-middle class. Since upper-middle-class women are working long hours outside the home, someone has to care for their children and clean their houses, and those people are almost always other women. This is what Wolf refers to as the “return of the servant classes.” When I visit my daughter in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in northwest Washington, D.C., I can look out the window early in the morning and watch the nannies arrive while the homeowners leave for work.

Most of the nannies are from Latin America (my younger grandchildren’s nanny is from Peru), which Wolf says is typical in the US, whereas in Europe, they often come from Poland, and in wealthy Asian countries, from Indonesia. In general, jobs that involve caring for children, the elderly, and the ill fall to women, whereas their husbands work at jobs filled almost exclusively by men, such as construction or trucking. That is not to say that the lifestyle at the top has not had influence. Wolf shows that parents in the lower classes, including husbands, are also spending more interactive time with their children, and husbands are doing more housework. But on balance, as women at the top become more like their husbands, at the lower levels their work lives remain sharply separate.

The most important questions about the new upper-middle class, it seems to me, are these: What are we to make of the new ways of child rearing? How will these children turn out? And what kind of adults will they be? There is little question that children have moved from the periphery of family life to the center—a seismic cultural shift that began in the upper-middle class and, for practical reasons, can only be fully realized there. Nearly all parents want the best for their children, but upper-middle-class parents have the means to buy the best, or what they think is the best, and they are willing to throw in phenomenal amounts of their own time as well.

Much of what privileged parents are trying to accomplish, says Wolf, is to ensure that their children do not fall out of the upper-middle class. To that end, parents work on their children’s résumés, almost from birth. As infants, their toys need to be educational as well as enjoyable. Getting into the right preschool is a precursor to getting into the right elementary school, and so on, right up until they are set up to get into the most prestigious colleges and beyond. I believe obsessive parenting, born of insecurity about the future, imagines the world to be more precarious than it probably is for upper-middle-class children. Just as upward mobility has become harder, I suspect downward mobility is also harder. Socioeconomic strata are now, unfortunately, fairly fixed, and these parents have the means to cushion setbacks. Nevertheless, privileged parents don’t want to take any chances.

There is probably also an element of competition with their peers. As in Lake Wobegon, all the children in their social group need to be above average—way above average—and these parents keep close track of one another’s children. One reason upper-middle-class women and men marry people like themselves, says Wolf, is that they believe it will increase the chances of getting a “high quality” child.

The consequences of hyperparenting are unknown, since the phenomenon is only a few decades old. My views are shaped largely by observing my own family and friends, and that is not much to rely on, but I will speculate anyway. I see great advantages for the children, but also some warning signs. Young upper-middle-class children are, indeed, remarkably precocious. Since they have been exposed to adult conversations almost constantly from birth, they are much more articulate and broadly knowledgeable than children were a generation ago. They are also remarkably at ease with other people, both adults and children, because they are with them so much—with their parents’ friends, in early preschool, and in playgroups often organized among nannies. And having endured little frustration or isolation, they seem to me happier and more affectionate than children were in earlier generations. They love being with their parents (and why not?). They don’t go “up the street” to do “nothing,” as my friends and I did. They stick close to home, and their best friends are their parents. Of course, as they get older, they are subject to the influences of their peers and wider culture, including the omnipresent social media—a mixed bag.

My concerns are the other side of the same coin. If children are the center of their universe, if their parents’ feelings are so contingent on theirs, will they expect that always to be the case? The risk is that these children come to feel entitled and become narcissistic—while they may have a devastating sense of failure if they don’t meet expectations. Moreover, when parents anticipate and fend off all adversity, children might not develop the resilience and confidence to deal with adversity on their own, or the self-discipline necessary to navigate life as an adult. And they might not have enough solitude to learn to think their own thoughts, a lack that Facebook and other social media exacerbate.

The tendency of childhood to extend almost to middle age is also a problem. Privileged children put in many years of education, and therefore are likely to be financially dependent on their parents longer than in previous generations. But the dependence goes beyond money. In many cases, they become such pals of their parents that they become helicopter children—hovering over their parents almost as much as their parents hover over them. I know people in their twenties who text their parents nearly every day from college, just to keep in touch. One of the provisions of Obamacare is that “children” can be covered under their parents’ health insurance until age twenty-six. I approve of that, but still, there is something about the language that emphasizes the long, long childhoods.

For their part, many parents I’ve known increasingly ape the culture of their children, whereas in earlier generations, adolescents usually modeled themselves on adults. I’ve heard otherwise educated and articulate adults pepper their speech with “like”—as in “it’s, like, awesome”—or “cool.” They are in a sense bilingual—able to speak ordinary English and also to converse with their children in their language. One result of extended childhoods plus the aping of adolescent culture by adults is that middle age, which I found the richest part of life—providing as it did both possibility and independence—is badly truncated. Adults can remain pseudo-adolescents until they’re almost ready to retire.

The most important question, and the biggest mystery to me, is the connection between what happens to us as children and the kind of adults we become. Does a happy childhood, as today’s upper-middle-class children seem to have, presage a happy adulthood or at least increase the odds of one? Most of us assume that it does. But maybe it doesn’t, or maybe happiness is not what matters most in adulthood anyway, but something more like accomplishment or fulfillment.

Perhaps this question doesn’t even get asked because we have moved from seeing childhood as preparation for adulthood to being an end in itself. In any case, the cult of overwork has been joined by the cult of children, and even though one would suppose upper-middle-class working women would have less time to indulge the latter, against all odds it has reached its apogee among them and their husbands. How that turns out remains to be seen.

In recent years, there have been many books about working women, their marriages, and their children (Senior’s is one of the most readable). Most limit themselves to one or another part of the whole. What Wolf has accomplished is to address the subject broadly, albeit with particular emphasis on the upper-middle class, and to provide us with a trove of data as well as sharp observations. If final conclusions are scarce, that is perhaps because the subject in its full scope and complexity doesn’t readily lend itself to them.

  1. 1

    Ecco, 2014. 

  2. 2

    The New York Review, June 6, 2013