Don’t Blame Women’s Workplace Successes for Men’s Problems

The illustration accompanying Hymowitz’s essay captures the crisis she posits with respect to the status of men: The female marches ahead triumphant, while the male, on a leash, crawls behind on all fours.

While male educational and workplace problems need to be addressed, Hymowitz’s arguments in no way point to a crisis. Nor does she convincingly argue that the increased equality of women in the workplace comes at the cost of men’s decline.

Take the following argument: Men’s wages have stalled, Hymowitz points out. They remain about the same as in 1970 after inflation, while “women’s earning have climbed steadily.” Of course women’s earning have risen more since the days when newspaper want ads were divided into male/ female columns, with higher paying jobs in the male column, and when 5% female quotas kept women out of professional schools. Most of the brilliant women who did get in met the same fate that Sandra Day O’Connor first met. Upon graduating Stanford Law School, she was unable to get a job in a law firm—and rejected an offer to serve as legal secretary! The second-wave feminist movement changed all that, but in spite of enormous progress, on average men still earn more than women.

The knowledge economy has indeed been good to women, opening up jobs in computers, graphic design, public relations and so forth. But men also profit from this expansion. While women may be doing better in some areas, men dominate in many others including the very lucrative hi-tech industry. In many traditional fields including engineering, finance, academia, and politics, men remain the majority.

Women have hardly taken over the knowledge economy; nor is its growth the major reason for women’s progress in the workplace.

While giving some credit to the women’s movement, Hymowitz plays down its role and emphasizes the advent of household technology—dish washers, washing machines, vacuum cleaners—and the knowledge economy as the crucial forces leading to change. But upper middle class women did not need household technology in order to enter the workplace—they had maids. Traditional gender roles kept talented, motivated women in the home. For every Elizabeth Blackwell who struggled to become the first U.S. female physician, imagine the thousands of 19th and 20th century women denied the right to any profession. As for working class women, many worked in factories even after they married.

Hymowitz acknowledges that women still earn less on average than men, that only 22% of wives earn more than their husbands, that the higher echelons of corporate boardrooms are dominated by men (in fact, even at middle and lower levels, men are the majority), and that work possibilities and wages of college-educated men improved substantially over the past thirty years. She notes that while male unemployment rates have been considerably higher since the 2008 recession, recently men have been gaining and women have been losing jobs.

Hymowitz points to the fact that young unmarried women in many large cities are earning more than their male counterparts. She cites this fact as evidence that college educated men are being left behind. For many of these young women, the advantage will be short-lived: A third of professional women leave the workforce voluntarily for an average of 2.7 years to care for their children. When they return, only 40% find full time jobs.

In discussing why boys are falling behind girls academically, Hymowitz ignores two factors essential to understanding the problem.

Today’s young people have been raised by baby boomer parents, many of whom brought with them sixties values. “Do your own thing” was the slogan embodying the movement away from traditional values like responsibility and duty. (A correction to stifling earlier values was necessary, but went much too far.) Psychology professor Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, is among the researchers who have amassed data on the self-focus, self-centeredness, and conviction you can attain whatever you want that characterize many of today’s young.

Why would these characteristics have a worse effect on boys than girls? Baby boomers were the first generation to treat their daughters seriously in terms of academic and professional achievement, and encouraged traits of hard work, determination, postponement of gratification necessary to achieve those ends. Mothers were excited by this new found freedom; some went back to school themselves.

Fathers who had only daughters no longer needed to bemoan the absence of a male heir. Daughters could now take over the business, join the law firm, or be a source of pride by doing well academically and professionally. Young women were excited about the new prospect of being taken seriously. There was no such excitement for young men, who had been taken seriously forever. To them “do your own thing” might well mean doing what’s fun, not following in your hard-working father’s footsteps. (Anecdotally, among my highly educated acquaintances five sons are jazz or rock musicians; one is a circus acrobat.)

Much of the often very crude media and entertainment aimed at young men has further encouraged a “boys just wanna have fun” mentality. I would suggest that these cultural changes provide a more convincing explanation for the increase in young men choosing not to take on familial responsibilities than do women’s earnings or opting for single motherhood. Most women do not opt to raise their children alone; they do so when the father is not available. Many of today’s young men want to share with their wives the burden of providing with their families.

The other factor that Hymowitz ignores is how the emphasis on sports discourages boys from focusing on their studies.

Studiousness seems to come less naturally to boys as a group than to girls. Even countries like Iran and the Arab Emirates have more female than male students at universities. If we are serious about helping boys do as well as we know they can, we need to reward the boys who write the best essays, get the highest grades, create the best art work, excel at chess or on the debate team.

But outside a small number of elite and private high schools, boys who read, study, and do homework most often are viewed as geeks, nerds, or sissies. The heroes of our high schools are athletes—especially members of the football team. With this value system—further encouraged by the entertainment industry— is it surprising that boys do not do as well as girls and do not develop the good study habits that make for success in college?

The present cuts in government spending present an opportunity to press for cutting spending on high school sports instead of eliminating art, music, and pro-social programs such as conflict resolution and anti-bullying. These latter programs encourage “emotional intelligence”—including traits such as patience, empathy, ability to communicate. Hymowitz correctly points out that these traits, more common in women, are useful in a knowledge economy.

In a study measuring stereotypically masculine and feminine traits, Jean Twenge found that college women endorsed “masculine” traits such as ”forceful, ambitious, assertive,” at a high rate, but men showed “only a weak trend toward” feminine traits including nurturance and caring.

It makes sense that since women have gravitated toward higher paying and often more prestigious male jobs, they have also developed some masculine personality traits. The reverse is not true. Men have not gravitated toward traditionally female jobs or the traits connected to them. This is particularly deleterious to working class men, so many of whom have lost their blue-collar jobs. If boys were rewarded and admired for studiousness and empathy more than for sports, some of these men would at least have a chance at succeeding in a knowledge economy. I doubt that there will ever be as many male nurses or health care attendants, but the percentages might increase significantly. There are already indications of small increases in male nurses—from 9.5% in 2003 to 12.2% this year.

These new job possibilities would make a dent in male unemployment rates, but would not solve the problem. Since it doesn’t look like our government will be making any significant investments in rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure in the near future, or in helping to launch 21st-century alternate energy projects—as other advanced industrialized countries are doing—it is hard to see how we can significantly reduce blue collar workers’ unemployment rates. This is the real male crisis that may well be on the horizon.

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.