The Decline of Men is a Women’s Issue

It’s still a man’s world: that’s the idea that connects the three responses to my essay “What’s Happening to Men?Bennett, Hess, and Miedzian point to two related facts to support their position: women continue to earn less than men and to be MIA at the highest levels of business and politics.

But by failing to grapple with one of the major reasons for the wage gap and the glass ceiling, and by downplaying men’s problems in the knowledge economy, they are telling half truths that don’t do women any favors. That’ s because of this simple formula: fewer competent and successful young men equals more single mothers. More single mothers? Well, that means more wage gap.

The two main sources of the wage gap are 1) occupational choices (high-paying STEM fields, for instance, are more likely to be male and lower-paying jobs in education, female), and 2) hours of work. Simply put, women work fewer hours than men. Complaints about the wage gap almost always ignore this fact, and I’m sorry to say that my respondents continue the tradition. Amanda Hess cites a chart showing that “a woman must earn a Ph.D. in order to earn the same as a man with a bachelor’s degree.” The chart in question not only doesn’t take occupation into account. It also groups together all “full time year-round” workers, meaning, according to the Department of Labor’s definition, people working 35 hours a week or more. That “or more” is crucial. Women are far more likely to be closer to the 35-hour end of the spectrum than men, who are disproportionately represented at higher end. So yes, because they work more hours and in higher-paying fields, men with fewer education credentials earn more than women with more.

Why do women work fewer hours than men? The answer is obvious: motherhood. Research consistently shows that women’s hours and earnings take a big hit once they have children. This also affects their ability to move up the career ladder. (A fuller discussion and citations can be found here.) As I noted in my essay, the opposite is true for (married) men; they work harder, get more promotions and earn more once the kids arrive.

What can be done about this? The most obvious answer is that men take equal responsibility for the kids. On a broad scale, this is simply unattainable. Remember that 40% of births in the United States are to single mothers. In the majority of those cases there is no father at home. With whom are these mothers supposed to share responsibilities? There’s no evidence that the most common answer—government supported parental leave, childcare and so forth—will solve the problem. In Iceland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, generally regarded as the countries with most female-friendly policies in the world, women still work fewer hours and earn considerably less than men.

In fact, in rich countries over the past decade part time work has become more popular among women. Married mothers in the United States are no exception. About two-thirds of the part-time workforce in the United States is female. Bennett, Hess, and Miedzian seem to assume that children and domestic responsibilities are a “burden” to women who really want to be at the office. It’s not at all clear that most women feel that way. According to a 2007 Pew Research survey, only 21 percent of working mothers with minor children want to work full-time. Sixty percent say that they would prefer to work part-time, and 19 percent would like to give up their jobs altogether. For working fathers, the numbers are reversed: 72 percent want to work full-time and 12 percent not at all.

That said, stably married mothers are in a much better position than their unmarried sisters to get support for longer work hours and more ambitious careers, if that is what they want. And that brings us back—at last!—to the subject of our debate: the predicament of contemporary men. Among 23 year olds, an age when many people are beginning to think about finding a mate, there are 164 women with a college degree to every 100 men. Unless women marry less-educated men, a lot of those who want children will not be able to have them. Many others will become single mothers, who, if for no other reason than the laws of physics, won’t be able to compete on an equal footing with either men or their married peers. Fewer educated or competent men, then, is a women’s issue. And a big one.

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.