Review: Inequality is the dark side of leaning in

October 11, 2013

By Christopher Swann

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Inequality is the dark side of leaning in. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, used “Lean In” as the title of her book about how women should be more assertive. Alison Wolf shows in “The XX Factor” that elite females are already catching up with male peers. Wolf, a professor of public sector management at King’s College London, shows gains at the top have only been possible because of a revival of a distinctly non-elite occupation: the “female servant”. The result is a rising income gap among women.

Sandberg laments that women account for less than a tenth of America’s best paid executives. Wolf gives alpha females more encouragement. Women make up half of the top 2 percent of U.S. earners. The pay of female physicians and surgeons in the United States has climbed about 50 percent faster than that of their male peers over the past decade. The salaries of the small cadre of female chief executives have also climbed faster. Women get a bigger salary boost from higher education than men.

Such strides are long overdue, Wolf argues in her fascinating new book. The narrowing gender gap, however, has exacerbated income inequality between social classes. Elite women depend for their newfound freedom on a growing underclass of modern servants providing childcare and performing other domestic chores. About 97 percent of childcare workers are women, according to the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. The salaries of such workers have been falling even further behind. Females are twice as likely as men to be earning the minimum wage, America’s Congressional Research Service now reckons. As a result, the much discussed surge in inequality is even more pronounced among women.

Of course, this would not be boosting overall income inequality if women were merely substituting men in the workplace. Instead, high-powered women usually want alpha fathers for their children. Only about 3.5 percent of American families have stay-at-home dads, according to Census Bureau figures. Even many of these men do not seem to be the main caregivers and are only at home because they can’t find work.

In effect, desirable gender equality supports undesirable social inequality. The privileged save and invest, the rest of the population scrounge and borrow. The social hierarchy is becoming more rigid, as highly successful women use their economic and social resources to ease their children’s path to the top.

Wolf points out that there’s no easy way out of this trap. Better educated women could not gain ground on men without some sort of female underclass. In the United States, the support staff is mostly immigrants from developing nations.

Still, Wolf argues, inequality between women can be tempered. Fairer access to education won’t on its own reduce the quantity of women in low-paying jobs. But it would give low-income girls a better chance of breaking out of relative poverty. A privileged upbringing should not be the dominant factor determining which people – women and men – occupy the top jobs. Higher tax rates on higher earners would also make it possible to provide better welfare services to women stuck in low-paid work.

An increasing number of women can have it all. Sadly, as Wolf convincingly argues, it seems that society as a whole cannot.

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