Work and Life – Helen Wilkinson

“If feminism doesn’t address what’s happening to men today, it’s not going to move forward.”

Feminism is dead. Or rather, the feminist movement as it is best known — the crusade for feminine identity inspired by Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer, among others — has become mostly irrelevant. It triumphed, after all. Women have been liberated, by new economic forces as much as by any ideological awakening, to seek individuality and autonomy, to dictate the terms of their lives. They have not achieved equality. (Witness the persistent gender pay gap and the paucity of female senior executives.) But at least they’re allowed to play on the same field as men, under the same rules.


Helen Wilkinson is a beneficiary of the feminist movement. Growing up in Mold, a working-class Welsh town where her father was a steelworker, she watched as Margaret Thatcher bulldozed a highway into politics for women. Indeed, Wilkinson’s mother became mayor of her town. A recipient of government-sponsored grants, Wilkinson was able to pay her own way through school at the University of Leeds. She acquired in adolescence a vigorous sense of entitlement. “As a teenager,” she has written, “I remember confidently and boldly proclaiming that I wanted to be prime minister when I grew up.”

But she also was wary of what she labeled “soft-focus feminism” — symbolic advances without practical effect. She lamented its tendency toward academic abstraction, which allowed conservatives to seize control of the family debate. So today, as Britain’s leading progressive voice on gender and family, Wilkinson is recasting the women’s movement in terms that resonate with women — and men — who are grappling not just with their gender identities but with some of the urgent human concerns in the new world of business: the ongoing work-life conflict, the struggle for quality child care, and the troubling reality of disintegrating families.

Call it postmodern feminism. In her first manifesto of sorts, “No Turning Back: Generations and the Genderquake” (Demos, 1994), Wilkinson called the women’s movement to task for failing to move past “the assertion of rights relative to men and the demand for quantitative changes,” thereby antagonizing younger women. In other words, she argued, don’t just get a raise — get a life. Progress for women depended on far-reaching social solutions: Come up with ways for women to cope with the impact of the high-flex job market on the costs of mortgages and health care. Change school hours to accommodate the needs of working parents. Reinvigorate the role of the extended family and other community-support networks.

And, perhaps most important, give men some respect. The remarkable surge of women into the labor force has muddied men’s roles at home and in the workplace, Wilkinson says. Expanding women’s freedom requires economic and social policies that encourage new patterns of male behavior. For example, Britain, like the United States, has mandated that employers offer both men and women unpaid leave after the birth of a child. Wilkinson argues, though, that since men typically make 33% more than women, few will forfeit their salary for parental leave. A policy requiring paid leave for both men and women would provide incentive for men to share the responsibility at home.

What has given these ideas special heft in Britain has been Wilkinson’s perch at Demos, the think tank (populated by staffers in their twenties and thirties) that has had an unusual degree of impact on the Labour government of Prime Minister Tony Blair. Wilkinson left her post as a BBC producer in 1994 to help Demos cofounders Geoff Mulgan and Martin Jacques develop a research and communications strategy. Over the next five years, she authored a flood of books and pamphlets that crystallized the work-family debate in Britain and helped define social policy.

One reason why Wilkinson’s ideas have achieved such clout is that she has a knack for packaging and marketing them in terms that people can understand. Her writing is populist, filled with catchy labels and eye-opening anecdotes. Her most notorious work in Britain was an article published in the “New Statesman” in August 1998, in the midst of her yearlong American sabbatical as a research associate at the Families and Work Institute in New York City. In “The Day I Fell Out of Love With Blair,” she accused the Labour government of abandoning women and, more broadly, its promise of creating an open, empathetic organization. “Power remains firmly in male hands,” she wrote. “I feel an outsider in a new Labour culture which parades rootless, individualistic, brash and boastful boys.”


So Helen Wilkinson has become, in fact, an outsider — a free agent at work on her own agenda. She writes frequently for London newspapers on politics and family policy, comments on radio and television, and recently presented a BBC documentary on changing family patterns. Her next book, “The Age of Androgyny,” is scheduled to be published by HarperCollins in 2001.

She lives in London’s East End, in a building that once housed the Bryant & May matchstick factory. “A bit of synchronicity, isn’t it?” she says. It is just that: The newspaper ad for the condo had touted its high ceilings and common swimming pool, but not its noteworthy pedigree. In 1888, social reformer Annie Besant inspired a watershed strike by 1,400 women workers at Bryant & May. After a boycott and union drive, the “matchgirls” triumphed — striking a blow for organized labor and for women. Fast Company met with Wilkinson in her top-floor condo, which seems not so much historic as, well, disheveled. Just back from her year in America, she has not completely unpacked her life yet. But she unpacked her ideas about women, men, and families.

What is the “state of the union” between men and women?

We are in the midst of an historic shift in the relationship between men and women. It is neither subtle nor painless. It is quite striking: Attitudinally and behaviorally, at home and in the workplace, women and men have more in common with each other today than they do with women and men, respectively, of a generation ago. Our values and our lifestyles are converging. We are entering the age of androgyny.

We’ve seen two simultaneous transformations feeding off of each other and creating the need for a new kind of politics. First, of course, there was the popularization of feminism. The feminist logic began with the importance of individualism — reflected culturally in the birth-control pill, changes in abortion law, and the outlawing of sexual discrimination. More important, though, was the flood of women into the labor force — drawn not just by a need for a second income but by a desire for autonomy and the chance to create new identities through work. Women’s participation in the labor force has reached 80%, and, increasingly, women are entering professions that were once the sole preserve of men.

At the same time, we’ve seen seismic economic changes swirling about. We have seen a shift from manufacturing to services, and to a knowledge economy that values brains more than it does brawn. As a result, many men — particularly low-income men — have dropped out of the labor market. Those who remain face the reality that, more and more, success at work depends on traditional feminine attributes, like flexibility and dexterity. Today’s workplace values team-based networking and interpersonal skills. Skills that historically have been necessary to thrive in the private sphere — skills like conflict resolution, communications, and juggling — have suddenly acquired a premium in the public sphere. And as women have moved into the labor force, from the private to the public sphere, they’ve taken these skills with them.


Organizationally too, business is becoming more feminine. And it’s not just the talk about family-friendly companies, flexible scheduling, or mentoring, all of which are targeted at female workers. Rigid hierarchies of control are giving way to management styles that combine tough control over some functions with much looser, more team-based approaches. The shift away from full-time employment and toward networks of contract workers and free agents itself implies a structure that’s rooted in more feminine values.

The army (both in the United States and the UK) is an interesting example. The feminization of the army has been dramatic, because the army is the archetypal system of masculine order: It’s based on tough, masculine work. But the history of the army in the past generation has been one of feminization. It has been forced to accept women and gays. And technology has changed the nature of warfare, which is now fought more by brain than by muscle. The military more often serves as a “peacekeeper” than as a war maker. So the old arguments of male superiority have disappeared, and the army talks about communications and negotiating as its key skills.

What does that shift mean for the women’s agenda?

In a very real way, feminists have won the battle. We have witnessed the democratization of identity for women. However, it isn’t about embracing so-called feminine characteristics, as traditional feminists would have it. Today’s young women are more overtly masculinized than previous generations, more comfortable with male attributes, and reveling in ambition, drive, and success. Young women are seeking risk and excitement. A third of the women surveyed by Demos — and a much higher number of younger women — said that they wouldn’t mind being reborn as a man. And my discussion groups with men and women in their twenties confirm that only a minority of people believe that there are innate differences between male and female managers and leaders.

This convergence — which I call the “ladette” phenomenon — isn’t all welcome news, of course. For one thing, more and more women are suffering from illnesses that were once viewed as predominantly male, such as heart disease and alcoholism. On the other hand, it truly has been liberating. Some people look at women’s adoption of male attributes and say that convergence is all about sameness. I disagree. To me, it means much greater diversity than we have now. I would hope that, with women’s entry into the labor force, we are liberated from the straitjacket that says that we must behave in a certain way. We all have the opportunity to become ourselves. There’s no longer one gender model; there are many. I feel at ease with women who are stay-at-home moms because that’s what they want to do. They aren’t framed by a culture that says, “This is what you should do. This is what being a woman is all about.” Staying at home is fine. It’s democracy. It’s a choice.

Certainly, we’re in a peculiar transitional state where we still need a traditional feminist discourse. We still need that pressure, because inequality persists. But traditional feminism has proven to be an inadequate response today, for several reasons. First, when feminist analysis observes that men are still on top, it doesn’t recognize the reality below the top. Sure, men are running government, and they hold all of the big CEO jobs. But where the majority of men are living their lives, something very different is occurring. Men at the bottom don’t have any sense of power anymore. Just as my generation of women has grown up with the notion of equal treatment, men have grown up with images of coal-mine closures. They face the beginning of a history of female success and male underachievement. If feminism doesn’t address what’s happening to men today, it’s not going to move forward.


Second, feminism has had difficulty wrestling with the notion of flexibility in the workforce. Its standard response has been that phenomena such as part-time work, job sharing, and outsourcing really represent a leveling down rather than a leveling up, forcing everyone into low-paid, insecure work. Certainly, that’s true on one level: The shifts in the workplace do mean an erosion of standards, and have meant less power for both genders at the low end of the income scale. But the shift at the high end has been even more profound. The fastest-growing part of the economy is based in high-skill jobs, and women are getting more of those jobs. Self-employment and entrepreneurship among women are booming.

The key fault line in society a generation ago was gender. The old order depended on a deal between men and women: He was the breadwinner, and she was homemaker. Today, those roles are more fluid. There may be gender convergence, but there’s more economic inequality between income groups. So the key division of the future is going to be between those with skills and those without, and will be defined less and less by gender. Any feminism that doesn’t try to address that dynamic isn’t going to speak to women. We need to facilitate a new debate that’s much deeper than traditional feminism.

What are the issues confronting men today?

With the convergence of men’s and women’s lives, what unites men is their utter confusion. The feminization of society has made women feel useful. But men, faced with the same phenomenon, no longer know how they differ from women and what their places are. Their journey is one that requires relinquishing their status in the public sphere, and trying to move into the home sphere. Men feel that it’s about their livelihoods, their families, their very sense of identity. There’s a great uneasiness with gender, despite the rhetoric of our generation.

People ask, “Why can’t men move into the home sphere as women have moved into the work sphere?” The answer is simple: As a society, we derive status and self-esteem from our paid roles at work — a sphere that we’ve traditionally viewed as masculine. We haven’t valued our private relationships or our home lives — the sphere that’s been feminine. So we’re asking men to do jobs that, culturally, we haven’t really valued. Women have colluded in this by saying that the way we derive value is through paid work.

I should say that this phenomenon isn’t completely new. My father lost his job when manufacturing was decimated in North Wales, so I saw firsthand the impact of unemployment on male identity. I saw depression unrolling before me. I lived bits of “The Full Monty” when I was 18. But I also saw how flexible the male identity was when my dad wound up working in the service sector. He worked in traditionally female jobs — in a bakery and in the catering business — before starting his own garage business. For a time, my mom was the breadwinner.


Meanwhile, we had this female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, behaving more butch than most men. She showed us that women could be just as assertive, strong, and authoritarian as men. In her we saw a woman who did not shy away from showing how much she loved power. That made it legitimate for us to love it too.

What do these ideas mean for social policy? After all, that’s where most activists still focus their attention.

In this new world, the old industrial-era separation of work and home disappears. Or rather, there is greater porousness between the two — more blurring between the spheres that have defined our identity as men and women. Where the old system relied on rigid roles, the new system relies on a convergence between family relationships and paid work. Work is home, and home is work. It’s redolent of our preindustrial past, but with a peculiar modern spin driven by globalization and technology.

But our politics haven’t caught up with the new paradigm. Instead, we get the same old debate: Traditional feminists see marriage and family life as problematic. Conservatives, on the other hand, see women’s participation in politics as having a grievous effect on family life. Neither view really comprehends the full aspect of gender change, which is a story of decline and progress. Convergence has brought women greater freedom and autonomy — but not without some costs, which have been borne mostly by children.

You can’t fix gender inequality without fixing men’s relationships to the home and their roles as parents. That means legitimating them and giving them power in those spheres — the power, if you will, that women have had historically. But that requires addressing the economic imbalance.

What we’re seeing today is a philosophy that recognizes families as the primary basis of social capital from which all sorts of dividends accrue. The breakdown of relationships, of families, is bad not only for individuals but also for society. If we live in an era when both men and women work, when we can no longer rely on women to work exclusively at home, then we have to seek out a new balance of work and family.


We’re going to have to rebuild the social infrastructure. Some changes are simple, like changing school hours and those of other public institutions to better fit parents’ work schedules. National insurance contributions could be diverted into accounts that would fund training sabbaticals or periods of parenting.

We’re also going to need policies like paid parental leave. Both the U.S. and Britain have passed laws requiring employers to offer unpaid leave to new parents. But as long as men earn more than women, unpaid leave doesn’t address the inequalities of time spent on parenting and in the home. As long as men earn more, they’ll have an incentive to work more. We either have to fix the pay gap or offer paid parental leave so that men will have the same economic incentive to stay home as women do.

If we “knowledge workers” are so smart, then why do issues of men and women, of work and life, seem so hard to address?

The entrance of women into the workforce has exposed the economic value of family. Families have always had economic value, but it wasn’t visible because women did the work. Now, in effect, women have gone on strike. We’ve had a decline in the birthrate, and less housework is getting done. What we’ve learned is that we have to value and nurture the private sphere, because if we don’t, society comes under strain. There’s an economic cost to that.

In the last generation, we had a system based on the male breadwinner. Now that’s been torn asunder, and we haven’t found the new system. Instead, ambiguity is the reigning feature. And I think that ambiguity is permanent. We’ve come out of a very black-and-white culture in which roles were very clearly demarcated, and moved into a land of technicolor — a kind of crazy patchwork painting. Men and women may have come to a much closer, more equal place, but we’re still coming from very different places, right?

Keith H. Hammonds (, a Fast Company senior editor, is based in New York City. Contact Helen Wilkinson by email (


Sidebar: What’s Fast

According to Helen Wilkinson, the relationship between men, women, and work is undergoing an epochal shift — and in the coming years, it needs to change still further. Here, adapted from her book “No Turning Back: Generations and the Genderquake,” are Wilkinson’s prescriptions for gender and family in the 21st century.

Rewrite our rights.

Our inherited framework of rights needs to be extended to fit the new working, living, and learning realities of our times. That means guaranteeing pensions, benefits, and learning opportunities for women and men whose work is discontinuous, part-time, or insecure in some way.

Link rights to responsibility.

People want more choices — and are more prepared to shoulder the consequences of those choices. Freedom to enjoy diverse forms of family can be linked to responsibilities for both men and women to provide financial support to children. Rights to child care can be linked to requirements to take active roles in care centers and schools.

Target new areas of disadvantage.


Single women need a raft of new supports, such as the low-income allowance for child care and reformed benefits structures. Unskilled young men, too, need long-term subsidies for job creation, training schemes to encourage their shift into service industries, and incentives to share in parenting. All will be essential not just for men themselves but to reduce the pressure that their problems impose on women.

Revalue care.

We need new ways to replace informal child care with formal paid care — a costly undertaking. We also need to encourage more men to take on caring roles, by reshaping their image and by promoting a less segregated labor market. We need to devise new caring relationships — both within and outside of the family. And we need to socialize young people, particularly men, into the world of caring work via community service.