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The End of Men and Equality for Men

September 17, 2012

A little more this…

A little less that…

An interesting commentary from The Globe’s Margaret Wente on how women are better able to adapt to the changes in global economy than men are. Wente is summarizing the argument from Hanna Rosin’s new book The End of Men (reviewed by Jennifer Homans for The New York Times). There are problems with the argument, but the broad trend about middle- and working-class demographics in the US seems persuasive. In short:

Today, the things that women excel at – human contact, interpersonal skills, verbal skills, creativity – are more valuable than brawn and muscle. These skills can’t easily be outsourced. Women are good at interpreting feelings and ideas. They’re smart, diligent and reliable, and they mostly stay out of trouble. On top of that, they’re extraordinarily adaptable. Women have taken on new roles and colonized male realms (pharmacy, veterinary medicine) with astonishing speed, and held on to their old roles and realms as well.

But the men are stuck. It’s much harder for them to adapt, and a lot don’t even want to try. Few men of any age are willing to go back to school, especially if they have to clean toilets for the privilege. Even fewer are interested in “women’s” roles, even though those fields are where most of the employment growth will be. Of the 30 professions projected to add the most jobs over the next decade, women dominate 20. Many of these jobs (home care, child care, food preparation) replace things women used to do at home for free.

What happens when women start entering a male trade? That job becomes devalued (at least in men’s eyes), and men flee – a phenomenon that Harvard economist Claudia Goldin calls “pollution.”

While women’s career opportunities and earning power have clearly improved in recent decades (see Liza Mundy’s book The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love, And Family), men have ceded more economic territory to women than they needed to by refusing to work in certain industries. On the one hand, women have fought for the right to work as firefighters, as construction workers, and as soldiers. On the other hand, men have shied away from industries as they became more feminized. Somehow, our culture has signalled to men that it is not okay for men to become primary school teachers, nurses, and pharmacists.

This attitude of “pollution” permeates the US, Canada, and the UK at many levels, even for kids. Girls can dress as tomboys, but we become deeply uncomfortable if a boy puts on a dress. A young girl who cries in the playground is consoled by her dad. A young boy who cries in the playground is told to stop being such a sissy. Girls are encouraged to play with trucks, but when boys start dressing up Barbie dolls, parents get worried. We can see a lot of these concerns play out in the controversy around a Toronto couple who are raising their children to be genderless.

As women begin to colonize new service sector opportunites and make significant gains at the higher end of the economic spectrum, these types of attitudes on “pollution” will pose more and more of a social problem. Men will feel particularly squeezed because industries like manufacturing have collapsed. Through a few snide comments and some snickers about wanting to see that guy in a nurse’s uniform, we signal all sort of things about what is and is not acceptable for a teenage boy to aspire to.

That needs to change.

Here is the core of the problem: Women’s opportunities have expanded and become more flexible in the workplace and at home, and women have fought hard to gain societal acceptance for these changes. Culturally, we have made it acceptable, even desirable for women to have a choice of roles in the workplace and in their family life. In sharp contrast, the range of socially acceptable choices for men at home and in the workplace is tightly bound (though evolving). Stray outside of these boundaries and you risk ostracization.

Over the years, we’ve managed to destroy a lot of gender stereotypes about women. Now, we need to do the same for men.

* * *

Hanna Rosin’s article, The End of Men, in The Atlantic, 2010.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Giles permalink
    September 17, 2012 4:01 pm

    Women are being abandoned as they appear less feminine AND HENCE less sympathetic in the career choices they make.

    To drop the stereotype of men as lazy grunts would take a lot, I guess, perhaps it’s more than a woman can keep in her cliched mind

  2. Giles permalink
    September 17, 2012 4:18 pm

    I would like to see how the overthrow of male stereotypes can be achieved with the background being the “nice guys finish last” idea in all the swearing in male company

  3. Terry permalink
    September 17, 2012 7:27 pm

    Yup. We definitely need to work on not having this negative social stereotype applied to historically female jobs. That said, I have a hard time getting all that worked up about it. All the data in that “The End of Men” article is just indicating that, yes, the gender gap is closing in a fair number of areas, which is damn cool. But I’m pretty sure there’s enough entrenched male biases in place that it’s not like the pendulum is going to swing all the way around the other way.

    That said, I’m saying this from a profession that is still entirely male dominated, so that may colour things a bit. Academia’s still pretty bad, and engineering/computer science is worse. We’re now up to 15 people in our lab, all male. And it significantly affects the language used in the lab, which doesn’t help at all….

    And, of course, I have to highlight what I always try to point out when this topic comes up: The vast majority (90%+)of this effect is cultural. Genetics has nothing to do with it. There were three different times in “The End of Men” that the author tried to make genetic links, and they were all wrong or deeply misleading. Yes, evolutionary psychologists “have claimed that we are all imprinted with adaptive imperatives from a distant past”. And they’ve been wrong — when they go back and do careful studies, the genetic effect (if any) is at least 10x smaller than the cultural effects.

    People seem to really want to blame this on genetics, and I’ve never understood why. And it’s the main reason I get really uncomfortable attaching “male” and “female” to different traits/professions/etc, as it seems to imply there’s a genetic basis there (or at least it does to me). Yes, there are different skills, personality types, professions, ways of learning, and so on. And yes, historically there have been some pretty extreme biases in terms of gender roles, and they’re still around. But the vast majority of that effect is cultural, not genetic. There are exactly two reasonably strong genetic gender biases — immediate detail memory and a sense of smell, both of which are strongly linked to estrogen, and both of which you see a sudden increase in for trans women when they start hormone therapy. But everything else I’m aware of gives genetics as a ridiculously tiny or non-existent role. Much like that now thoroughly-debunked idea that men are genetically better at math.

    But, hopefully that language will change as we start seeing more cultural role models of men and women doing non-traditional roles. Although it’ll probably be a two-stage process — first we start seeing more of those, and then we STOP referring to them as non-traditional roles.

  4. September 17, 2012 8:43 pm

    Thanks for the comments. Terry, I find the nature vs culture effect to be fascinating. I’m surprised by the size of the cultural effect, but it’s consistent with other things that I’ve read about. For example, the effect of a short writing exercise has been shown to immunize women against gender stereotypes and help them match their male peers in performance. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2010/11/25/15-minute-writing-exercise-closes-the-gender-gap-in-university-level-physics/. I know that your’e also a fan of this study. Perhaps we need to develop something similar to “immunize” boys against similar stereotypes.

    • Terry permalink
      September 17, 2012 11:43 pm

      The genetics vs culture effect (with regards to gender) really does seem to be pretty strongly culture-only…. (or at least the variance within the two main genders completely swamps any difference across them). I still idly fantasize about living in a world where gender gets noticed about as much as hair colour or birth order or astrological sign (all of which do have effects that are about the same size as the genetics effect — actually birth order’s probably way strong than any of them). But we probably won’t get there within the next hundred years…Aw well, gotta have goals. :)

      As for the need to develop something to “immunize” boys in a similar way, I think I’d hold off till there’s evidence of a need. The anecdotes in the article didn’t convince me that this is a systemic problem — I feel like I could also find stories about disaffected women to match all the ones given. Mind you, I think I generally have a negative reaction towards men’s complaints on this issue — too often it sounds to me exactly like the people complaining that any form of affirmative action is “reverse” discrimination and so we shouldn’t do it. All the while not paying attention to the thousands of other ways that men’s lives are made easier by current society. John Scalzi had a good rant on that that made the rounds on the internet a few months ago: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/05/15/straight-white-male-the-lowest-difficulty-setting-there-is/

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