Sure, Men Have It Rough. But Let’s Not Forget about the Women

It’s easy to lament these days that men are falling behind—and women, as a result, are on their way to ruling the world. The crisis of manhood has become something of an obsession, with belligerent, contradictory, nonstop messages hitting us from every angle. Hundreds of articles refer to the current economic downturn as a “Mancession” (despite new job data showing we’re more likely in a “Mancovery.”) The Atlantic declared late last year that we had come upon “the end of men,” while Newsweek, conversely, urged men to “man up!” by embracing dirty diapers and girly jobs. Amid all of this, Kay Hymowitz came storming out of the gates with “Manning Up,” a compelling argument that women’s rise had turned men into “aging frat boys, grubby slackers, and maladroit geeks.” (Ouch.) Her essay here takes us through a historical analysis of what, exactly, went wrong.

Now I’m not here to argue that men don’t face challenges. Indeed, as Hymowitz makes clear, males now lag behind females in the earning of college and advanced degrees; last year, they were surpassed by women as the majority of the American workforce. Those are major changes—both economically and culturally. And for young men, the repercussions may be even more severe. Women are waiting longer to get married and have children, with many of them rejecting these notions as a whole (or deciding to go at it alone). In urban areas like New York and Los Angeles, single, twentysomething women are now out-earning their male peers.

All of which sounds worthy of a journalistic trend story, and, yes, more than a few books. But before we get ahead of ourselves, a thought: let’s not forget about the women.

Yes, washing machines and birth control pills have helped us (a lot!). Sure, we outpace the guys around us in high school, college, and post-graduate degrees. But there’s a crucial shift that we’re leaving out when we talk about the “new gender gap”—that when women reach a certain age, most of these trends reverse themselves.

A few statistics to drive the point home:

By the time women enter college, studies show they’ll have given up many of their leadership roles. The rise of the knowledge economy may have multiplied opportunities in other fields (Hymowitz sites public relations, graphic design, and management). But women will still make up just a third of business-school students and barely a quarter of law firm partners.

The workplace may value female business traits, and they should: studies correlate women on corporate boards with profit, including a McKinsey report that estimates the United States could increase its GDP by 9 percent if we achieved true equity at work. But that doesn’t mean the workplace necessarily rewards them. Women still have trouble penetrating the highest rungs of the corporate world: they are also just 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, less than a quarter of politicians, and just 22 percent of the leadership positions in journalism.

And then, of course, there’s what happens when women get home from work. The Industrial Revolution may have left us with super-powered washing machines (and the tech revolution has brought us online-order grocery delivery), but at the end of the day, most women remain burdened by domestic life. (And they still do the vast majority of the chores.)

Where this leaves us? Up in arms about a cultural trend that is both exaggerated and, by some perspectives, plain wrong. As Rachel Simmons, the author of The Curse of the Good Girl, told me recently: “The zeitgeist is that girls are excelling and boys are having trouble. But it all depends on what you’re measuring.”

The result of such over-analysis is twofold. First, it threatens to send men into a frenzy, as they are bombarded by advice from seemingly every angle. They have women shouting at them to get back to work. Men telling them to “man up!” They are expected to wax and coif and keep up with the latest fashion trends, all while embracing the Don Draper masculine demeanor. (With all the mixed messages, is it any wonder men don’t know how to behave?)

But perhaps more detrimentally, the man crisis perpetuates a notion that women are doing just fine—or worse, creating the problems men now face. It spreads the notion that feminism is dead—and that we have no need for it anyway, because we’ve already won the gender war.

Exhibit A: Last week’s New York Times, in which Frank Bruni laments that if you look beyond the Beltway, the gals are doing pretty damn good—as evidenced by this year’s ladies World Cup (“it wasn’t the boys but rather the girls of summer who had sports fans clustered around television sets, cheering and swearing”); “Bridesmaids” (“a side-splitting, end-of-discussion retort to the writer Christopher Hitchens’s impudent assertion a while back that women just weren’t funny”); and Lady Gaga and Adele, whose album 21 “sold at the sort of clip—2.7 million copies and counting—more typical of the predigital, predownload era.”

These are great strides, indeed. But for every statistic showing girls are “better at school,” or “dominating the box office,” there is another to show that men continue to be better compensated, more prominent in politics, dominating the business spheres, and rising up the corporate rungs while leaving the women behind.

Consider this survey, from Catalyst, which found that motivated female M.B.A.s who graduated from top-tier schools—and had no intention to have children—still earn $4,600 less per year than their male counterparts in their first jobs out of business school.

Or U.S. Department of Education data, which separated pay by job sector to determine that whether women who go into teaching or business, social work or science—and before they’ve had the chance to cripple themselves by life choices like babies—they will still make roughly 20 percent less than the men they work with, regardless of the field.

It’s true, we’re recovering from a recession in which men made up the vast majority of job losses. But let’s not forget, men out of work means women are often the sole breadwinners in their homes. And then there’s the recovery—where it’s women, not men, who are continuing to lose jobs. Since June 2009, when the recovery started, through July of this year, men have gained 998,000 jobs overall, but women lost 301,000, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. As Joan Entmacher, VP for family economic security at the National Women’s Law Center, put it last week: “Women were already losing ground in this so-called recovery, and a closer look show that the job market continues to worsen for women.”

In many regards, Hymowitz is right: the depth of evolution of men and women’s place in the culture is a first in human history. But let’s not worry about the boys while we forget about the girls.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Kay Hymowitz connects several worrisome trends: Men underperform women in high school and college. Men are going to college less altogether, even at many elite schools. Men are often less likely than similarly situated women to own a home. Men earn fewer graduate degrees and are underrepresented in the new, knowledge-based economy. Hymowitz suggests three possible causes for the decline of men: the decline of the industrial economy; girls’ superiority in the context of traditional educational methods; and a third, “existential reason” — men are increasingly deprived of marriage, and thus of a key motivator to male achievement. Public policy implications may vary depending on which cause one finds most important, but they might range from pedagogical reforms to government incentives for marriage and family.

Response Essays

  • Jessica Bennett characterizes the decline of men as both “exaggerated” and sometimes “plain wrong.” Women have made great strides, but the pay gap persists across occupations, even after controlling for children and education. The recent recession has been difficult for men, but at least they’ve bounced back in the recovery; women haven’t. Elaborate concern about masculinity at best hides enduring inequality—and at worst blames women for a lengthy set of non-problems.

  • Amanda Hess argues that not much has changed for men in recent years. Juvenile behavior among adult men is nothing new; it’s part and parcel of male privilege, and it has been that way for many years. Likewise with men who underachieve in school yet go on to high-status careers, owing mostly to their networking with other men. The reason for male dominance? The Old Boys’ Club, which has never truly left us.

  • Myriam Miedzian considers the 1960s, the era that formed the parents of many of today’s underperforming men. For a generation of women, second-wave feminism opened the job market, while the 1960s “do your own thing” ethos meant educational and career success. For the same generation of men, education and career meant conformity; “do your own thing” meant having fun. Miedzian points to a wide variety of other cultural trends in a far-reaching response, but ultimately concludes that we have failed men in two ways—by placing sports and conflict ahead of study and communication, at least for them; and by culturally shutting them off from traditionally female traits, like nurture and care, and the careers associated with these traits.