Chiara Cargnel wants to have it all: a high-flying career and a successful marriage. So far she is halfway there. At 26, she is an investment banker in London working over 70 hours a week and earning more than £80,000 a year. Cargnel, like many other young women, is excelling in a world many thought governed not by their rules, but by rules set and enforced by men.
For the first time in history these 'elite women' can succeed in any career they want. According to a remarkable thesis that has blown open the debate around feminism, sexism and the future role of women, a new generation of bright, rich professionals have broken through the glass ceiling and have nothing to fear from the men around them. They will be just as successful.
The thesis was expounded in a highly controversial article for Prospect magazine by Alison Wolf, a professor at Kings College London and author of Does Education Matter? She argues that the meteoric rise of this new generation of 'go-getting women' who want high-powered, well-paid jobs has dire consequences for society. Wolf says it has diverted the most talented away from the caring professions such as teaching, stopped them volunteering, is in danger of ending the notion of 'female altruism', has turned many women off having children - and has effectively killed off feminism.
'[It is] the death of the sisterhood,' Wolf writes. 'An end to the millennia during which women of all classes shared the same major life experiences to a far greater degree than men.
'In the past, women of all classes shared lives centred on explicitly female concerns. Now it makes little sense to discuss women in general. The statistics are clear: among young, educated, full-time professionals, being female is no longer a drag on earnings or progress.'
The article argues that the most educated women will now earn as much as men over a lifetime if they have no children. Even with children, the gap will be small. The desire to be successful acts as a major disincentive to women starting a family, Wolf argues.
'Families remain central to the care of the old and sick, as well as raising the next generation, and yet our economy and society steer ever more educated women away from marriage or childbearing,' she writes. 'The repercussions for our future are enormous, and we should at least recognise the fact.' The growth, Wolf argues, of the 'because I'm worth it' generation has led to the end of 'female altruism', where women would see the caring part of their life as normal.
'If you give 100 per cent to the job - if you behave like a man - the fact that you are a woman will not stop you,' Wolf told The Observer
Wolf insisted her argument was not that the workplace revolution had been a 'terrible mistake' and admitted she had gained from it herself: 'I am not saying we should be driven back into the homes and not be allowed to work. I am not suggesting we reintroduce the marriage bar [which required female teachers and civil servants to stay single or resign in favour of male workers]. I am just saying there have been consequences.'
Wolf's views will ignite fierce debate. It is a topic that is discussed at breakfast and dinner tables, and in restaurants and pubs across the country. Many women face the difficult decision of how to strike a balance between pursuing ambitious careers and focusing on motherhood. In that setting, Wolf's two main arguments will be met both with empathy and anger.
She is wrong on one point, according to Katherine Rake, director of women's equality group the Fawcett Society. Rake argues that 'the sisterhood' is very much alive and rejects Wolf's thesis that women of all classes no longer share the same major life experiences. 'Women are not a homogeneous group, but we never have been,' said Rake. 'We are a diverse group, but we still share experiences.'
Rake dismissed as 'an unfair portrayal' the idea that feminism focused overly on getting women into employment. She argued: 'The most interesting and radical strands of feminism value a whole variety of roles. It is about working on a balance between men and women and valuing unpaid work such as looking after the children.' She said women did not have a true choice about whether to take the larger burden of childcare because the pay gap meant it was often more economical for the woman to do it. She highlighted the fact that part-time work was often not available in the professions chosen by 'elite women'.
Others argued that there was still a glass ceiling blocking the path of young professionals. Jenny Watson, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, accused Wolf of 'painting a rosier view than exists of the realities of women's lives' and ignoring the difficulties many women face when trying to resume their careers after a break to give birth.
'Wolf completely misses the point on several key issues,' said Watson. 'She does not reflect the fact that this whole debate about work and family is no longer only about women and these days involves, for example, fathers' increasing desire to be more involved at home. Women experience a thin veneer of equality, but that veneer often cracks once they take on a caring role.'
Watson said many women with children faced difficulties finding flexible work and often ended up with poor pay, reduced promotion prospects and a lack of senior posts available on a job-share basis. It was the archaic rules on parental leave, she argued, rather than some high-flying women's desire to have a successful career, that were responsible for the declining birth rate. More leave for new fathers could address the imbalance.
The decline in child birth rates is one of the 'grave consequences' of the rise of career-focused women that Wolf highlights. She points to a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research that tracks the trend. But Julia Margo, co-author of the report, said that 'elite women' who wanted to have more children were forced not to because they would lose too much income. Margo said the pay gap would be closed only if women could have children early on and still maintain their income.
'[The present system] is deeply unfair for women,' she said. 'We will not close the pay gap until men take time out to look after children. Then employers will not think they cannot employ a woman in her late twenties or early thirties because they cannot afford maternity leave. As a society we have not caught up yet with the consequences of women in the labour market. Women manage by holding off one thing or another; they sacrifice children or they sacrifice their career.'
It is a decision that is already haunting Cargnel, an archetypal 'elite woman'. From a young age she knew she wanted to go far in her career and until recently had no desire for children - but that is changing. 'I want to have a child eventually, but I will postpone the decision until the hours become more manageable as I advance in my career. You can't work from 8.30am till 11pm and look after a child.'
She admitted that the ideal would be a husband in a more flexible job who would be prepared to take on above average responsibilities. 'But does such a man exist?' she said.
Finding and keeping a partner is difficult because of her long hours. She is seeing a man who lives 200 miles away and admits that makes life easier. 'It would not last if he lived here. What man in the same city is happy to see you four days a month, and then when he sees you, you are tired?'
It is a high price for success - Cargnel works six days a week and always faces being called in. Once she was called back from a holiday in Italy after just one day. Nevertheless, she finds time for charity and dismisses the idea that women like her fail to show their altruistic side by doing things like volunteering. Cargnel takes disadvantaged young people on week-long trips out of London.
Being an 'elite woman' was not about acting like a man, she said, but about being a 'more complete individual' who no longer worries about finding a partner with enough money to look after her. 'I can choose a partner on affinity and love rather than money,' she said. Brought up to believe her sex did not matter, she was no longer sure. 'I always thought that gender would not matter if I was good at what I did. But I wanted to be in the diplomatic service back home in Italy and I went to see them and a senior diplomatic officer said to me - "You are a woman, why don't you just marry a diplomat?" '
Cargnel said in principle she would do as well as any man if she stayed single and childless. But she said a woman was still expected to be the main carer, and if she had children she would have to work harder than a father to get ahead.
As such, she did believe society discriminated against elite women. 'There is a conception shared by women and men alike that you can be a good professional and have a career or a good woman and have a family. My ex-boyfriend had a mother who was educated but stayed at home and thought I was inappropriate because I wanted to travel the world and study at Cambridge.'
But men, she argued, were allowed to have careers and families. 'Women are given up to a year off in maternity leave and men are given two weeks - that is intrinsically discriminatory, and an assumption that women should stay at home. I believe it should say men and women can take the same leave, so it is a true choice that we face.'
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Sisters speak out
Men make the moral code and they expect women to accept it.'
Emmeline Pankhurst, My Own Story, 1914
'I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.'
Rebecca West, author and journalist, 1913
I've never been drawn to the feminist movement. I was brought up to believe that men had little to do with the home or children - except to bring in the money.'
Beryl Bainbridge, author, The Observer Woman magazine, 2006
'Any woman whose IQ hovers above her body temperature must be a feminist.'
Rita Mae Brown, author
'Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but she did it backwards and in high heels.'
Faith Whittlesey, former US ambassador to Switzerland
'All societies on the verge of death are masculine. A society can survive with only one man; no society will survive a shortage of women.'
Germaine Greer, Sex and Destiny, 1984
'If we help an educated man's daughter go to Cambridge, are we not forcing her to think... about war, how she can fight that she might win the same advantages as her brothers?'
Virginia Woolf in Three Guineas , 1938