Male Decline Is No Myth
Things are changing. So why do we only focus on what’s exactly the same?
As I write in the book, of the top 15 jobs projected to grow in the next several years, 12 of the categories are dominated by women. Maybe women are choosing health occupations because the health care field is booming, not because they are blindly walking into a female ghetto.
There is a pretty clear pattern in the professions women tend to gravitate toward, as Harvard economist Claudia Goldin outlined in a paper on labor force trends. Women tend to thrive in jobs where some structural or technological innovation has made it possible for workers to succeed without sacrificing their personal lives. Women are dominating pharmacy school because pharmacists now work in shifts and don’t generally have to take on the extra headache of owning their own business the way they used to. This means that it’s possible for women to scale back for some years while raising children, or otherwise manage their time. (This is, of course, possible for male pharmacists, too, but men aren’t going into the profession at the rate that women are.) Other high-paying jobs women are lately dominating— as veterinarians, accountants, and in certain medical specialties (none of which appear in the New York Times chart that ran alongside Coontz’s piece)—have their own versions of this story.
We could argue whether it’s fair that women are still the ones who more often have to consider time management, but I don’t think we should automatically conclude that women are drawing the short end of the stick. An equally plausible interpretation is that women are taking over professions that allow them to be decent parents and that are likely to last in the new economy. They are acting with an eye to their own ambition and to the well-being of their children and mates, and their own sanity. The most hopeful interpretation is that women are helping to remake the workplace in an era when men and women both increasingly want more flexibility, the freedom to skip out for a kid’s school assembly or doctor’s appointment.
Now, of course, I live on this planet and, more specifically, I live in Washington, D.C. I can see that neither the corner suites of corporate America nor the halls of Congress echo with the clacking of heels. After doing dozens of radio shows and interviews to discuss my book, I have grown accustomed to being asked about why, if women are so hot and men are so not, there aren’t more women at the top. But I’m still searching for a way to answer without irritating the host (or op-ed contributor) who insists that it can’t be the end of men until we’ve had our first female president and Coke and Pepsi are both run by women.
But here’s the thing: The upheaval in gender dynamics I’ve spent three years reporting and writing about all points in one direction. Yes, there are zigs and zags. Yes, different sectors of the economy and society are moving at different rates. Yes, in the last decade progress has slowed down (it has slowed down for men, too). Yes, a female MBA earns less than a male MBA out of school (although the difference, before children, is now negligible). Yes, the richest of the rich are still almost exclusively male, or their wives. And yes, we have not yet remotely figured out how to make most American workplaces family-friendly.
But zoom the graph back a few decades and you can see how far we’ve come—and that the lines all point one way: Men’s wages have been stagnating, and by some measures declining, as women’s economic fortunes continue to rise. The wage gap has been slowly closing for women, but the education gap has not been closing for men. We can focus only and eternally on the fact that those lines have not yet crossed or even converged in many professions. But isn’t that vantage point a bit narrow? Why does we’re-not-there-yet mean we’re not headed there?
Coontz concludes her op-ed just as I conclude nearly every speech and interview I give. There is one essential, cultural way in which men and women have switched places, and which Coontz and I agree explains shifting power dynamics. She puts it this way:
Just as the feminine mystique discouraged women in the 1950s and 1960s from improving their education or job prospects, on the assumption that a man would always provide for them, the masculine mystique encourages men to neglect their own self-improvement on the assumption that sooner or later their “manliness” will be rewarded.
This masculine mystique is imposed by men on themselves, by women on men, and even by workplace structures that penalize men more heavily for, say, taking time off to be with their families. The place I would like to arrive after the “end of men” is not Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s Herland, a mystical biological matriarchy in which the men are literally obsolete. It’s a place where my son’s girlfriend earns more money than he does and no one cares or interviews him about it for a story. It’s a place where he decides he wants to work four days a week and spend the fifth picking up the kids from school, or doing his sculpting, and no one thinks there is anything wrong with him. It’s also a place where, if he decides he wants to work all five days, and his wife decides she doesn’t, they can both make that work. It’s a place where the single standard for power and success is not hours logged and paychecks earned. It’s a place where we use our imagination to give men and women, both, a little more room to breathe.