My head is still buzzing from yesterday’s discussion ‘The New World of Working Women: a divided sisterhood?’ put on by the RSA.

Prof. Alison Wolf, whose book The XX Factor was also released yesterday, had lots of data to back up her claim that educated and ambitious women have almost reached parity with their male peers in the workplace. In fact, Wolf argues that debates about the number of women CEOs and company directors are mostly symbolic at this point, and meaningless to the vast majority of women. That’s because these high flyers, says Wolf, have left the remaining 80% of their ‘sisters’ who don’t hold professional or senior managerial jobs mired in the gendered muck of low wage, low status and unstable jobs.

While I’m unconvinced that high flyers’ career trajectories are as smooth as she makes them sound, Wolf’s thesis is not especially controversial in light of reports that seem to come out weekly about the massively disproportionate effect of austerity on women. It’s widely known that the majority of civil servants – the ‘enemies of enterprise’, according to David Cameron – are women, as are the majority of hospital workers, social workers, carers, secretaries and sundry other ‘support’ staff. They’ve been hit hardest by government cuts and no one seems to give a hoot. (‘Collateral damage’ in the noble battle to ‘live within our means’ appears to be the unchallenged rationale.)

Statistics aside, there was lots to take issue with in Wolf’s presentation. For instance, the way her unquestioning view of ‘success’ led inevitably to the corollary that no meaningful proportion of men would ever be willing to trade career advancement for a better work-life balance. (I’ve read interviews with lots of men who’d disagree…) Or the tight, bright smile with which she announced that maternity leave that stretched a moment beyond the perfunctory should be expected to throw one’s career under the bus.

But it was the journalist Bidisha, chairing the discussion, who acknowledged the ‘elephant in the room’ – namely, class. Admittedly, she tried to put a positive spin on the issue by reminding us that education can transform one’s life chances in the market-defined sense, whilst acknowledging that tuition fees make it even harder for the less well-off to use education as a ladder.

Of course, expectations of a 50 minute long lecture that includes a 20 minute Q&A should necessarily be limited but I nonetheless left the RSA feeling irritated and unsatisfied by the way the class question was left. Indeed, it drew my attention back to what had originally irked me about the title of the lecture. ‘A divided sisterhood’ is a rather misleading phrase here, deploying as it implicitly does the notion of ‘sisterhood’ as a stand-in for ‘women’. Wolf’s lecture was about how women as a category are divided: by class, education, expectation, opportunity, and wealth. By contrast, sisterhood isn’t a category; it’s a relationship.

I’ve argued here before that the idea that anyone can speak ‘for women’ is unrealistic by definition, and tension about this question dates back to the first wave of the feminist movement. Recently, I read a profile of the sixties American feminist Shulamith Firestone, who died last August, which reminded me that those radical days featured as many implosions as they did confrontations with vested interests. Firestone herself was drummed out of pretty much every feminist group she ever joined, not to mention a few she founded, while Kate Millett, author of the groundbreaking Sexual Politics, was driven into a psychiatric institution after she was exposed for not ‘really’ being a lesbian (she was bisexual).

But yesterday’s RSA lecture nudged me further down a road that actually feels somewhat more dangerous and unfamiliar. I’ve begun to wonder whether debates about ‘women’ as a category are meaningful in today’s workplace. Wolf cited lots of statistics, but curiously absent were OECD figures showing that social and economic mobility in the UK have virtually stalled, leaving the country among the least fluid of any developed nation. The US – which is further ‘ahead’ of us in terms of women’s advancement within the upper echelons of the workforce, according to Wolf – has the lowest economic mobility of any OECD country. It strikes me that class and wealth have surpassed gender as meaningful categories by which to judge the ‘fairness’ of workplace attainment.

I’m not suggesting that issues like rape and domestic violence, female genital mutation, forced marriage and a litany of other horrors are not perpetrated against women as a category. Moreover, workplace sexual harassment is directed predominantly at women. But if you look at the loudest and fiercest battles about women at work, they’re invariably organised around benchmarks like women leading FTSE 100 companies and whether quotas would address the problem of their small numbers. In fact, I attended an Evening Standard debate on that very topic just a few months ago, featuring the likes of Helena Morrissey CBE  and Cherie Blair.

But if Wolf is right that these battles are mostly symbolic by now, why isn’t the Evening Standard hosting debates about the effect of the austerity agenda on women, surely a more newsworthy question that affects an exponentially larger number of women in ways that are dramatic, practical and profound. Indeed, why is the only broad public debate about women at work conducted and dominated by those who’ve nearly reached the top? And when we do look beyond them, why do we focus so feverishly on whether these women are pulling others up behind them, while collectively blanking the ordinary and uncertain work performed by the vast majority of their ‘sisters’, and the concerns that arise from that work?

There’s no doubt that the recession and the inequities of the austerity drive it has justified have exacerbated existing tensions about social and economic mobility for men and women alike. Nowadays most people are struggling simply not to fall behind.  There’s also little doubt – for me, anyway – that the New Labour project drove the last nail into the coffin of a politics informed by empathy, fairness and justice, which are now derided as unaffordable and woolly headed. Between the shrill hectoring of a predominantly right wing press and a Chancellor who ties receiving benefits with burning your children to death, defending the disadvantaged has become politically toxic.

So where does gender fit into this brave old world of strivers and skivers? Well, that really depends on your post code.

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