Why Study Elite Women?

by Professor Susan Rudy

The Rhodes Project is a research centre that investigates the lives and careers of women Rhodes Scholars to shed light on debates about the role of gender in personal and professional life. Our research subjects are Rhodes women, a group with exceptional academic and leadership skills who often go on to have conventionally successful careers. As part of this program of research, I am co-authoring Leading Women, a book about the experiences of the first cohort of women to be elected to the Scholarship, with my colleague Dr Kate Blackmon.   

The Rhodes Project sometimes faces criticism for its focus on the lives of elite women. The women we study, especially in the early cohort, are overwhelmingly middle class, white and North American, and they lead lives of relative privilege. How can their experiences have any relevance to the broader feminist movement?

This conversation is taking place more generally, too. Recently, Alison Wolf chastised "today's feminists" in The Guardian for their obsession with the pursuits of privileged women at the expense of the women's cause as a whole. In her article, she states that "the past half-century has been amazing for highly educated women. For them, professional success is the new normality." 

Firstly, I must acknowledge that the Rhodes Project does focus primarily on elite, white women. We were founded ten years ago by Dr Ann Olivarius, a Rhodes Scholar who sought to understand the gender gap in leadership, and wanted to examine the experiences of her peers to illuminate this question. But "elite" does not mean superior - it means occupying leading roles in traditionally prestigious professions. Our research does not rest on the assumption that these lives are more valuable than others.

Because the women we study are, largely, white and wealthy, our research will not be able to capture the full and nuanced experience of a high-powered black woman, or a working class white woman working as a waitress. To pretend otherwise would be irresponsible. However, we are aware of the diversity of women's experiences that exist beyond our research, and we support the struggle of every woman against oppression in all its forms. We study Rhodes women not because we believe their lives are more worthy than the lives of other women, but because our data affords the opportunity to study them with depth, integrity and nuance.   

The limitations of the Rhodes Project's work, though, do not denigrate its value. The reality is that elite women are still, in almost every way, treated as secondary to elite men. They are underpaid, under-promoted, and often have to sacrifice their careers to take on childrearing and caring responsibilities. They lack the mentors, role models and career networks that allow their male peers to achieve greater success. These subtle yet powerful inequalities fall under what Harvard’s Robin Ely and her colleagues call 'second-generation gender bias'.   Just because these women do not face the most egregious prejudices of all does not mean they are not worthy of exploration and attention. 

In fact, profiling elite women will help us to understand and address inequalities that exist across the experiences of different groups of women. Understanding the biases that affect elite women allow us to ask meaningful questions about the absence and omission of certain women's perspectives and experiences. Going forward, we will have the opportunity to explore the reasons why there are fewer working class women, women of colour and women who experience disability among the Rhodes community and among the community of elite women more generally. We will also be able to reflect on relations of power and questions of access that are applicable to more than just this sample of women. 

The second-generation gender bias that inhibits women from reaching the top levels of their fields also has an undeniable effect on the equality of our societies more generally. Worldwide, women make up 21 per cent of parliamentarians. Women make up 17 per cent of business owners in the UK, and 30 per cent of business owners in the US. We must recognise that there is a connection between the under-representation of women in positions of leadership and the neglect of important questions central to every woman's experience - issues like childcare, abortion, equal pay and paid family leave. Equal representation in positions of power will not solve all the structural problems that contribute to gender inequality, but it is one important step among many.

Yet while our research has application to broader conversations about gender inequality, Leading Women will not be the end of our contribution to feminist discourse. We are always thinking about how our work fits into the multiplicity of feminisms that exist in the modern movement. The most recent decades of Rhodes women have included more women of colour, women who experience disability, women of different class backgrounds and women with a variety of sexual and gender identities. The research we conduct in the future will present us with opportunities to investigate the intersections of gender and other identities, as well as comparative analyses of different generations.  We recognise that our research doesn't encompass every feminist issue or priority. We recognise that our work exists in a broader context of feminist scholarship, conversation and activity, and we seek to meaningfully engage with those whose perspective is different to ours. We welcome criticism and will work hard to foster accountability and dialogue going forward.

However, we do believe our work is valuable and important, and we will continue to seek answers to questions about women in leadership, using the community of Rhodes women as our lens. Despite Alison Wolf's criticisms of contemporary feminism, we still have no idea what the world would look like if half its leaders were women. And until we do, we believe our work on the gender gap in leadership is sorely needed.