Today, if Shakespeare had a sister, she could not only be a playwright—she could produce the whole show. It is, genuinely, a brave new world for women, but it is also a world that requires a completely new divide: between a cadre of educated, elite women at the top and the great female majority for whom things have barely changed except that now instead of cooking, cleaning or taking care of their own children in their own home, they’re performing such duties in restaurants, office buildings, and ironically, the homes of the successful female professionals.
Allowing women to head for the top means that earnings inequality among women has soared, with the share held by the top 1% of women almost doubling since 1980. By 2010, almost 200,000 women in the US were earning a quarter-million dollars or more. Yet, for full-time women overall, median annual earnings were just $33,000 – which means that half of them were earning even less.
Meanwhile, instead of breaking down gender barriers in the workplace, most working women are grouped into low-paying female-dominated positions. While there are only 100,000 male housekeeping cleaners in the US today, there are nearly 1.3 million women occupying these roles. And of American secretaries and administrative assistants, over three million are women —which makes this sector of the workforce a staggering 97% female. The US has also outsourced female caretaking roles beyond the nuclear family, transforming “invisible labour” into formal employment. Although they are taking home a pay check, women still make up the overwhelming majority of the home-based care industry: 89% of nursing, psychiatric and home health aides are women.
Scandinavia shows us how inevitable this segregation is. Scandinavian countries are seen as beacons of equality, but their workforces are the most gender-segregated in the world. When Scandinavian governments created networks of nurseries and day-centres and care homes, women duly moved to take those roles, which are steeped in traditionally female labour. As a result, Scandinavian women are the most likely to be in jobs where the workforce is overwhelmingly female, and the least likely to be working alongside men.
At the top, Scandinavian women and men work alongside each other, just as they do in the United States, Britain, France or Germany. But in every case they have the latitude to do so because other women are working in traditional roles. The rise of a select group of professional superwomen has come without bringing progress (or “creating opportunities”) for their less educated counterparts, and these elite women (and men) stand on the backs of the nannies, maids, and other members of the female working class.
The iconic feminists of the 1960s and 1970s believed passionately in sisterhood. Instead, we have a world in which elite women are more and more like men, and less and less like other women. There has been a true liberation of female talent, but freedom for a few has a cost for many. Women have been able to join men, to put in the long hours at the office and secure their places at the boardroom table because other women—this lower paid majority –are cleaning their homes and caring for their aging parents. We could and should make pay, pensions and benefits a lot more equal than today. We should make it easier for everyone to get the education that women have used to climb the ladder. But female success demands a servant class; and ours is a female one.