It’s not a young woman’s world

Do economics and fiction mix? It’s hard to think of many successful novels of economics – I’ve posted here before about economics/business and culture and here about economists as fictional heroes.

This week I read a novel applying economic principles to a young woman’s analysis of her life. It’s Saying Goodbye to Verena: What is Your Life Worth? by Ivy Turow.

Saying Goodbye to Verena: What is Your Life Worth

The pseudonymous author’s website indicates that it’s quasi-autobiographical. The heroine is a seemingly accomplished young woman who has discovered that she’s a misfit in the world of work and concludes, using the economic analysis she’s learned at university, that she isn’t economically viable. Her rational solution is that she should end her life. The website pins the blame on corporate capitalism. “I simply don’t have sharp enough teeth to flourish in today’s corporate society. The thing is, I don’t think I’m alone in this predicament. This book is for all of those who find themselves in the same boat,” says Ivy Turow. “It shouldn’t matter who I am and what I look like. Sadly, women’s achievements are often considered less important than their appearance.”

The novel is a book of two halves. The first few chapters describe the heroine’s experiences of work, and her dawning realisation that it’s a man’s world, that diligent application to the job isn’t rewarded, and power games matter in corporate life. The author’s writing style is clunky but lively, and this part is a good read. The passion of real experience shines through. I have every sympathy with her, too. It is a man’s world, and the status and potential of women in the workplace have definitely gone backward since I started work in the 1980s – not that it was great then. What’s more, the UK is low down the international league table for women’s achievement in key positions of power such as politics and the boardroom. The more this is shouted about, the better. While the book emphasises the main character’s struggles because she’s female (at least as I read it), the website emphasises the problems affecting her generation, with a system stacked against them by the voracious baby-boomers. This issue is equally valid.

The second half of the book is less successful. It turns into a kind of Socratic dialogue in which the heroine explains ideas ranging from game theory to Foucault’s analysis of power to her patient friend over lunch. I think the claim is that the economic non-viability of women in modern capitalism can be proven analytically, but the first part of the book trying to demonstrate the point through the emotional power of a good story and sympathetic character actually does a better job of making the point. And actually, I disagree with her claim to be setting out a “proof” because this half of the book omits the sociology of patriarchal power that’s described so effectively in the first half. She could also have made a more interesting point about social norms – having shown that most people are weak and allow an unscrupulous minority to set the standards of behaviour, the interesting debate about why those norms change and whether they can be improved is missing. I would argue that they can change substantially, as attitudes to top pay shifted between the 1970s and 1980s.

Still, the book is quite a digestible way of encountering these ideas. It’s interesting – not great fiction but a passionate and welcome contribution to a debate we should be having on why career structures in particular and society more generally have become once again so heavily stacked against young women.

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2 thoughts on “It’s not a young woman’s world

  1. “status and potential of women in the workplace have definitely gone backward since I started work in the 1980s”

    Is this really true? If so, why?

    • 1. The pay ‘penalty’ for motherhood has increased;
      2. Even adjusting for maternity gaps (and obvious differences like level of degree, part-time work etc), the gap between male and female pay has not declined despite equal pay legislation;
      3. The proportion of women at senior levels in a range of professions has been declining (although I can’t quickly put my hand on the stats to show this across the board) – but see eg this from a senior judge pointing out that only Armenia, Azerbaijan and Scotland have lower proportions of women judges than England and Wales:
      http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2013/feb/21/lady-hale-speech-judicial-diversity
      4. Can you name more women in prominent senior positions (eg FTSE 100 CEOs, cabinet ministers, chairmen of major public bodies, high-profile entrepreneurs….) now than 30 years ago? Unscientific, but certainly no better now;
      5. Impressionistic – but public culture is extremely hostile to successful women – & young women now grow up in a far more sexualised culture than in my youth;
      6. For all young people, compare their student debt + necessary mortgage as a ratio of salary to the near-zero debt and low mortgage people of our generation had when starting work. Plus having to start work for free in ‘internships’. Plus having to pay for the pensions and healthcare of us old-timers.

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