James is 15 years old, coming up to his GCSEs; and the researcher he is talking to is clueless about girls. Yes, he tells her, girls at his school, underage girls, do indeed have sex. With guys in their class, like him. The researcher is surprised. Haven’t girls gone studious; aren’t they collecting the top grades, leaving the boys behind?
James states the obvious. ‘It’s not girls with As or A*s,’ he explains. ‘Girls with As are virgins.’
Today, almost a quarter of girls report having underage sex. But there are almost as many girls waiting till they’re 20 or more. This isn’t random, a question of whether and when the right boy appears. Instead, it’s a parting of the ways. One group of girls is setting off along an alpha track, leaving their contemporaries behind; and teenage sex lives are a very good predictor of who they are.
A* girls stay virgin because they have more important things on their minds. It’s not just peer pressure, or social class: it’s also ambition. These girls have realistic, achievable and life-altering goals for which it’s well worth postponing sex. Others don’t. In the years since the Pill made teenage sex a safe activity, a gulf has emerged. In America, high-school dropouts now report becoming sexually active almost three years earlier than girls with law school in their sights.
In England, by the age of 16, girls are dividing into two distinct groups. The top sixth set off along a well-signed route: more hard work at A-level, and then a good university (where they can lose their virginity to an alpha-track boy). A full bachelor’s degree and, increasingly often, a postgraduate one as well; and a well-paid ‘Class 1’ alpha job, professional or managerial.
It’s the same all over Europe and North America, where half of ‘Class 1’ jobs are held by women. Professional men work with and for them, just as they work with and for men. It may not be half-and-half at the very top, but in these integrated workplaces, an all-male meeting is a curious sight. These alpha women are the subject of my new book, The XX Factor, and there are lots of them: 20 million in Europe alone, and -rising.
And the other five-sixths of British women? They lead lives that are essentially female and surprisingly -traditional. Most women enter a very different labour market from the alpha females, one where most jobs are either dominated by women or dominated by men. Here gender still rules: hotel maids are female and street cleaners male; care assistants female and lorry drivers male; registered nurses female, electricians male.
Not only do most women work in occupations dominated by women, and in work groups that often lack a single male. They also do the most traditional of female tasks — but outsourced from the home to the workplace. This hollowing out of the home is one of the most striking features of modern life. People are being paid, in formal jobs, to do things that were once organised in our houses. The process went furthest, fastest, in Scandinavia: as a result, these pin-up countries for female equality have the most traditional–looking, sexually segregated labour markets in the western world.
But not at all levels. It is Scandinavian women who care for children, the sick, the old, as state employees. Meanwhile, at the top of the pyramid, like everywhere else in Europe, Scandinavian life is gender-mixed: alpha women, alpha men.
All this feeds our societies’ growing economic inequality. A lot of women now make big money. Moreover, inequality among women is growing very fast indeed. In both the UK and the US, the percentage of total female earnings that goes to the top female 1 per cent has doubled since the 1980s. In America, almost 200,000 women are earning a quarter of a million dollars a year, or more: and the average income, within that group, is a breathtaking $475,000. This is the world for which our virgin swots are heading.
That growing inequality reflects the diverging paths of the most recent generations. Many graduate women don’t have children. Among mothers, graduates are far more likely to work full time, far less likely to drop out of work for years than other mothers. That is the way you keep your career on track; and if your career is on track, so is your income.
This isn’t about the ‘mummy wars’. The women who can enjoy years at home in full-time motherhood are mostly at the very top, where it’s still possible to live well on one salary; or they’re single and at the bottom, where the state plays breadwinner husband. In between, couples’ lives today assume two earners. It’s more about dropping out when children are very small, or not; and about whether and when to work part-time.
And alpha-path women decide differently. For them, dropping out completely can do serious harm to their career, and so most don’t. But if the job you’re quitting is at a checkout, or in a restaurant or call centre or care home, it will still be there, much the same, when you come back. And nurseries, besides being expensive, follow regular office hours: the hours of civil servants and bank managers, rather than shift workers in coffee shops or office cleaners.
Thirty years ago, mothers of all classes spent much the same amount of time out of, and in, work. Not any more. It is another parting of the ways.
Alpha women tend to love their jobs: they are part of their identities, not just a way to make money. They also work hard — not just in the office, but out of it, on themselves. They go to the gym. They spend serious money at the hairdresser. They use Botox. Some of this is true of alpha men as well, but less. Because it is the women who most need a peacock’s tail.
Peacocks’ tails are glorious things, but seem crazy in a world of hungry predators. They have therefore fascinated evolutionary biologists. Darwin deduced that, way back, peahens started to prefer males with large showy tails. The larger the tail, the more offspring a peacock was likely to have, and so over time tails got bigger and bigger still. But why would dowdy, sensibly camouflaged peahens prefer this to a lean, mean fast-flying bird? ‘Costly signalling’ is the answer; and costly signals are what successful women need to make — especially as they get older. Costly signalling is behaviour which is both very costly in terms of resources — time, energy, money — and commands potentially big returns. A peacock with a fine tail proclaims that he is physically so strong and fit that he can easily cope with the extra demands a tail imposes, and is therefore a desirable mate. Among humans, young people’s looks also signal fecundity or strength, sexual attractiveness and availability, albeit in less eccentric ways. But human society isn’t just about mating and breeding. It is about power, influence, respect, and money.
That is why there isn’t a grey hair to be seen among America’s female senators, and why top female lawyers tread their carpeted corridors in Manolos and Louboutins. They aren’t in search of a toy boy but they are signalling sexual fitness. And far from being retrogrades of whom any true feminist should be ashamed, these women are engaged in successful competition.
First impressions matter in society, and are largely subconscious. To do well, we need to convey to other people, at first meeting, that we are competent, trustworthy and, indeed, superior. One way we do that is by signalling that we are sexually desirable; not because we want sex, but because other people respond to these signals automatically, for good evolutionary reason. Good-looking lawyers of both sexes consistently earn more.
But as women get older, they find signalling tougher and more expensive than do men. Grey hair and a certain amount of bulk in a man signal wealth and success — both desirable in a potential father for one’s children. For women, grey hair signals infertility and irrelevance; bulk, the disappearance of a sexy (read fertile) figure. Obese women suffer in the job stakes far more than obese men.
And so, if you’re a successful woman, your appearance goes on mattering. Mrs Thatcher’s heated rollers were a central weapon in her armoury. Expensive clothes signal power: look at Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, and prominent in the ‘best dressed’ lists. And yes, these women are indeed dressing for women as much as for men; because women, as well as men, are their competitors.
Among young women, class isn’t easy to spot from dress, hair or make-up. Among the middle-aged and old, it is. Partly, it’s money. A good hairdresser and colourist, let alone a plastic surgeon, costs money. But it’s more than that. Alpha women have to stay seriously ‘fit-looking’ or people think — subconsciously — that they aren’t alphas any more. If you’re working part-time at B&Q to top up the household’s earnings, there’s no such motivation.
But there are worse fates in life than shopping for good clothes, or passing on the chocolate cake. And among the new elites, successful women are not just drawing away financially. They also catch up on the sex.
Ambitious professional women missed out in their studious teens; it was worth it for the prizes that follow. But they also stay single later, and have children late or not at all. By their thirties, they are averaging as many sexual partners, in their lifetime to date, as their contemporaries. More importantly, they’re still enjoying sex.
Among adult British women under 45, in every education-based female group bar one, at least 80 per cent — four in five — register high satisfaction with sex. The exception is the youngest, non-graduate group, the under-25-year-olds, the group which started having sex youngest. (And men are the same: young non-graduate men are the dissatisfied outliers.)
Most graduate British women would also like more sex, please — and not because they’re having less than their peers. By their twenties or thirties, they’re not. Men (of all types) predictably want more; but graduate women say they would like ‘more’ or ‘much more’ sex pretty much as often. Non-graduate women, in contrast, give very different answers. Most of these less-educated women think they are having quite enough already — or indeed would like a break. The figures don’t tell us why; it may be because of their earlier sexual histories, it may be because of other things in their lives. But the difference is significant and sizeable.
It’s a new world, and a new set of inequalities. We agonise over the 1 per cent, but extreme financial privilege is nothing new. What is new, the seismic shift, involves a far larger group: the female elites, the top sixth. They are pulling away, and are leaving the rest of the ‘sisterhood’ behind.