The potential doesn’t age

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With the passing of the time, the high achieving women are more ready to help younger women who resemble their story and their ambitions

Alison Wolf, economist, author and the Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College in London

Alison Wolf is a British economist and the Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College in London. When her book “The XX Factor: How the Rise of Working Women Has Created a Far Less Equal World” came out, I had a great conversation with her. In a phone call across the continents, we discussed the emergence of the “Alpha woman” (this, in fact, was the title of her work in Italy) and how this event, to make a parallel with ethology studies, marked the advent of the “Omega man” in a historic-first subordinated role.

She pointed out that what propelled women into the higher ranks of society (read: economy and power) was not inherited wealth, but the sheer power of their brains. Their getting into the best schools and the best colleges, instead of choosing marriages as a “career”, determined the dawn of a new social stratification.

I was happily surprised when she accepted my invitation to apply her lens to the aging process of the Alpha woman.

Generally speaking, everything that has to do with male competence and status, increases with age. Is this true also for high achieving women?

Time makes high achieving women more competent and more respected. They are not considered a sexual target and are taken more seriously. Quite automatically, they stop worrying about how they are judged, although they know that if they were highly successful in their 40s, they are evaluated by different criteria and they have to look smarter. In the end, I would say that even if they benefit from a positive perception, aging is still harder for high achieving women compared with high achieving men.

In your book, you noticed that high achieving women invest money in their beauty and health and therefore they age better. Considering they are so successful and self aware, do you feel they are beginning to detach themselves from the social/market expectations and design their own path to aging the same way they moved away from what used to be the norm for marriage and sex-segregated jobs?

Women who are 65 do not try to look as if they were 25 obviously, but we can certainly say that they invest in looking good. They worry less than when they were in their twenties, when they were busy building their future, but we know they have to manage their appearance: aging is still an obstacle. This doesn’t mean that men are free from this care, simply the expectations for women are higher and things are not different for the high achieving cluster.

Talking about their aging, how do you imagine the needs of wealthier, healthier, more aware women in the future?

We are wired for beauty and I see no changes. Socially, the link between youth and beauty is still strongly in place.

You wrote that high achieving women are more equal to men, but less equal to one another: do you perceive any change in this dynamic when they age? Are they becoming closer to each other or leading a more active role in mentoring?

Women are a heterogeneous group. From my findings, the advent of the high achieving woman marked a growing distance between those who manage to improve their conditions and the less fortunate ones. In a certain way, this was the end of a sisterhood whose roots were lost in the mists of time.

It is possible that when they age, high achieving women tend to think about other less fortunate women more and reach out: I do not have evidence for that. But I recognize that with the passing of the time, the high achieving women are more ready to help younger women who resemble their story and their ambitions. Basically, there’s a generational link.

Education is the key to becoming a high achieving woman. How does it impact on aging?

There’s a potential in the 50s and 60s, because highly educated women have more ambitions. They have stored up energy and, at least in the Western world, women feel very creative at this stage of life. They are not negatively conditioned by their look.

As we said, they try to look as good as possible and they invest for this goal, but at the same time they are also responsible for the wellbeing of their brains. I might also say that this is true even for those women who didn’t have a chance to engage when they were young, if you consider, for example, their participation in the Third Age University for additional learning opportunities.

Do you have other ideas you would like to share on the subject of woman and aging?

We tend to think about the way a person looks, but I have been wondering about voices. Aging makes a big difference in the voice and I have the feeling that people perceive quivery voices as less competent. It would be interesting to find out more.

Who would you suggest I to talk with next about aging?

Lynda Gratton, she’s the co-author of “The 100-Year Life - Living and Working in an Age of Longevity.