Between Individual Choice and Cultural Destiny

I’ve watched with interest as this discussion of the future of men and women has danced along the divide between individual choice and cultural destiny. In her lead essay, Hymowitz suggests that the decline of men could be a product of “our culture and its expectations” for them. Our society is “agnostic” toward the “future familial responsibilities” of men, she writes, and the “effect of this agnosticism on black men has been particularly dramatic.”

As black men have fallen prey to cultural agnosticism, however, black women have exercised their agency. “Black women chose to have children of their own,” Hymowitz argues. And the choices women make, she says, hurt men. “Sons grew up observing that men were of little consequence to family life,” Hymowitz writes, “which in turn gave them less incentive to adapt to changes in the labor market or more generally to become reliably productive husbands and fathers.”

In Hymowitz’ worldview, the very ability of women to make their own financial and personal choices is enough to send men on the path to ruin. “The economic independence of women and the collapse of marriage norms,” Hymowitz writes, “have deprived men of the primary social role that incentivized their achievement.” Men have failed because they are no longer “expected to become providers”; they are blocked from success because no one is “depending on them.”

What can be done about the rise in single motherhood and female financial independence, which Hymowitz suggests has devalued men both in the home and the workplace? “The most obvious answer is that men take equal responsibility for the kids,” Hymowitz says. But that would require men to make some choices. Faced with the statistic that “40% of births in the United States are to single mothers,” Hymowitz decides that wide-scale fatherhood is “simply unattainable.” What’s the alternative? Women stop “depriving” men of fatherhood and make themselves more dependent upon them?

Beyond the puzzling implication that women restrict their own agency in the service of men, it’s worth nothing that many women do not strictly “choose” to have kids on their own. Half of pregnancies are unintended. [1] Unmarried women are more likely to experience an unintended pregnancy than married women, and the unplanned birth rate of poor women is six times that of higher-income women. Many women in America don’t choose motherhood—it chooses them. Men are left with the choice to stick around or not.

When women make choices that devalue men, it’s a problem; when they make choices that devalue themselves, that’s inherent. In her latest response, Hymowitz writes that women’s “occupational choices” are responsible for the wage gap, writing that “high-paying STEM fields, for instance, are more likely to be male,” while “lower-paying jobs” like those in education trend female. Hymowitz does not discuss the possibility that our society has in fact “deprived” women of jobs in these higher-paying industries by way of lowered cultural expectations, but some new research into the STEM gap does.

State University of New York at Buffalo psychology professor Lora Park hopes to explain one reason women may not “choose” to enter STEM fields—because they see the field as inconsistent with their other duties as a woman. [2] According to Park’s research, a focus on romance can deter female students from their interest in STEM, while college men are capable of juggling an interest in romantic relationships and a focus on math and science. The “problem is related to a sense in traditional society that science is somehow masculine, and that men may be put off by women becoming a force in STEM fields,” Park says. “This is about the cumulative impact of romantic images and scripts for women’s lives.”

I can’t pretend to know how the complex constellation of cultural, biological, and individual factors works to influence relations between the genders in America’s new knowledge economy. What I do know is that we won’t gain any real insight by claiming that women choose, and men just follow.




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.