I don’t know how she does it: Ph.D. edition

The XX Factor’s arrival signals a burgeoning literary genre: ‘egghead chick lit’
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Four months ago, The XX Factor: How Working Women Are Creating a New Society was published in the U.K. to polite reception. Written by British economist Alison Wolf, the book examines a new class of “elite” women—the 15 to 20 per cent who work in professions and management. It’s a global tribe that numbers 62 million, Wolf writes, and is growing faster and “more comprehensively” in developing countries than in the West. As the subtitle suggests, the arrival of a femme “elite” has wrought seismic changes, not all salutory. The biggest, says Wolf, is a widening gap between well-educated women and women who toil in the poorly paid domestic sub-industries created by their ascent. The predictable result is that “elite” women have more in common with their male counterparts than those women below them socio-economically: “They are more like the men of the family than ever before in history. It is from other women that they have drawn away.”

This week, The XX Factor arrives in North America with a blame-laden subtitle destined to be gobbled up by the folks at Fox News: How the Rise of Working Women Has Created a Far Less Equal World. Wolf prefers it, she told Maclean’s: “It’s less bland.” The notion that professional women are wreaking social havoc will also position the book within a booming literary genre focused on instructing, scolding or fretting about the majority of women who work outside of the home. Think Sheryl Sandberg’s much-debated Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will To Lead. Or Anne Marie Slaughter’s controversial essay “Why women can’t have it all” in The Atlantic (soon to be a book). Or the stacks of articles dissecting Yahoo! Inc. CEO Marissa Mayer’s every decision. Controversy equals sales.

The XX Factor’s North American promotion is calculated to tap into this cluck fest. A press release calls it “the smarter, older sister of Lean In.” The jacket copy alludes to great social injustices perpetuated by feminism (though the Oxford-educated Wolf, who employed a nanny herself, is hardly advocating that women return to the kitchen). Most telling is the colour used as an accent and on the book’s endpapers: a lurid bubblegum pink, chick lit’s signature shade, Pantone 806C.

There’s marketing logic to the colour choice. Wolf’s book, with its chatty, anecdotal tone, is an example of egghead chick lit, the policy-wonk equivalent of fiction focused on engagement, shopping and frazzled working moms seen in Allison Pearson’s novel I Don’t Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother. Egghead chick lit covers similar territory, only with pie charts. Wolf’s chapter “Sex and the Single Graduate” reveals that “elite” women tend to remain virgins into university. Her discussion of the “beauty premium,” an economic concept, includes analysis of why stilettos signal affluence (they suggest access to a car service). And her finding that “elite” women refuse to marry men who would stay at home is straight out of Jane Austen.

In fact, the Sophie Kinsella variety of chick lit may be more revolutionary; at least its harried heroines moan about serious problems with “the system.” In the Ph.D. version, a double standard resonates. Income and class divisions have always existed, and are growing. Yet no one is fretting that Donald Trump isn’t bonding with his dry cleaner, or blaming male success for fracturing the “brotherhood.” The rise of “career men” has never been a pressing gender issue. Yet the idea that contemporary women share goals and mutual support persists.

The market for egghead chick lit is destined to grow. Wisely, Wolf doesn’t offer any quick fixes for the imbalances she outlines: “The fact that I don’t have an answer doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start with working out where we are,” she says. That “where” has the lens, and criticism, focused on the dilemmas of the top tier of women, leavened by the occasional Vogue spread starring Marissa Mayer. There’s little incentive to look beyond the lives of the Jimmy Choo-wearing “elite.” But why should there be? On top of spreading unhappiness worldwide, top-tier women excel as the subjects of controversial and bestselling books.