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Men Not at Work

Fall 2012

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The modern economy is better suited to women, says Hanna Rosin, and men have so far been unable or unwilling to adjust.

By Matthew Budman

Matthew Budman is editor-in-chief of TCB Review.

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“For women, there’s still the question of diversity at the very top,” says Hanna Rosin, and indeed, articles and books continue to lament how few female CEOs and directors populate the corner offices of corporate America. But just a level or two down, women not only have achieved equity—in many industries and professions, they have surpassed men, and that fact has enormous implications for both employers and employees.

Rosin’s new book, The End of Men and the Rise of Women (Riverhead), ventures far beyond the workplace, but that’s where the story begins: with male-dominated professions waning and men failing to adapt to new economic realities. The result is men losing power and authority both at work and at home. Even as ambitious women continue to struggle with “having it all” issues of balancing careers and family, men increasingly grapple with an unfamiliar feeling of dispossession.

The End of Men grew out of a 2010 Atlantic article that drew feedback both positive and negative. “I’ve heard two main negative reactions: that I’m antifeminist and that I’m anti-men,” she says. “Men’s groups may agree with me on their circumstances, but to hear a woman say it is hard. Positive reactions have come from single mothers and struggling single women; they have really appreciated hearing articulated what is changing in power dynamics between men and women and how we can recognize what these new family configurations are.”

Rosin is a senior editor at The Atlantic and founder of DoubleX, the gender-issues section of Slate; she is married to Slate editor David Plotz, with whom she has three children. Rosin spoke via Skype from her Washington, D.C., home.

I had assumed that “the end of men” was somewhat hyperbolic. And it’s true that you don’t envision males disappearing altogether. But things do sound a little bleak. When did everything start going wrong for men?

Everything started going wrong for men when the manufacturing era started to end, maybe forty years ago. But you could also say a hundred years ago, when office work came into play, when brawn—sheer physical strength—started to become less important.

You cite “the growing demand for soft-skills jobs” beginning in the 1970s.

That’s more or less when we started to appreciate the creative economy and measure people skills. But even before that, in the literature of the ’50s, like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, men were beginning to rebel against office life as something that is unmanly; reading, you start to get a sense of the work world as something that men feel constrained by and that seems to play to natural strengths of women.

And as you write, “the modern economy is becoming a place where women hold the cards.” Women worldwide dominate colleges, twelve of the fifteen fastest-growing job categories are primarily female, and men are increasingly concentrated in industries that are fading away.

College is a big part of the picture because, whether we like it or not, college is a precursor to success these days. Some people argue against that and don’t want it to be true, but it is true. For reasons researchers can’t quite figure out, women are much more successful in getting college degrees; in fact, school at all levels seems to play to the natural abilities of women.

But the jobs that seem to be growing, the jobs we think of as stepping-stones to the middle class, are heavily dominated by women. And ironically, they depend on old stereotypes about nurturing—for instance, about nursing. Women are half of medical-school graduates and, in some countries, more than half of doctors. England is having a national conversation about the feminization of the medical industry because so many doctors are women. The healthcare industry has actually grown at about the same rate as the manufacturing industry has shrunk.

When you refer to “the new feminized economy,” it sounds as though it
includes everything but construction and manufacturing. Is there a
“masculine economy” anymore?

I don’t think there’s any growing economy we’d call masculine—except technology, which, at the top, is still dominated by men. And I don’t think any economist thinks that the manufacturing era is going to come back. It’s never going to be what it was.

From a corporate perspective, should employers care whether they’re hiring more men or women? It’s understandable why schools strive for gender parity, but what about companies?

Yes, companies should care about gender parity. This is a conversation I had with a lot of the young founders of tech companies. They approach this very clinically—not as a politically correct matter of “It’s really nice to have a lot of women around” but by reading decision-making studies that talked about the value of diversity in decision-making and how it’s better to have multiple perspectives. So for the bottom line, it’s better to have diversity.

In the ’80s and ’90s, companies strained to have diversity as one of their values; now it’s more moving past diversity to having women in actual positions of leadership. We have a lot of diversity in the manager class, and we have a lot of diversity in the lower executive class. The question is what happens after that—how to get more diversity in the upper executive class.

Of course, in technology the conversation may be about how to bring more women in, but in a lot of other industries, things have already tipped the other direction. At what point do some companies—like colleges—need to worry about hiring and promoting more men?

It's not so much empathy and nurturing that's valued in the economy when we talk about leadership skills as collaboration.

I think there will be a point very soon where we have to start worrying about diversity and men at the entry level, in the same way we started worrying about diversity and men at elite colleges. The natural next step is to worry about men graduating from elite colleges and getting entry-level jobs. This idea may sound absurd to feminists, but it’s the natural next step.

I’ve read about companies in China where, like in a lot of Asian societies, hiring and promotion are very much determined by exams. But so many women are getting ahead that they’ve started to agonize about that and worry about bringing men forward.

Now, it seems as though a big part of why women are more successful in the new economy is what you call “a traditionally feminine set of traits—social skills, caretaking, and cooperative behavior.” You write that “Traditionally feminine attributes, like empathy, patience, and communal problem solving,” have replaced “the top-down autocratic model of leadership and success.” But are gender roles so fixed? Elsewhere in the book, you look at claims by evolutionary psychologists that we’re all hardwired to play fixed societal roles, and you insist that things aren’t so rigid.

They’re not so rigid. I think we’re in a transition moment now: It’s not so much empathy and nurturing that’s valued in the economy when we talk about leadership skills as collaboration. There are still slightly different ways that women make decisions. They’re not necessarily nicer about making decisions, but there are certain things they do consistently, like take others’ views into account, and they tend to be a little bit more cautious. So this is a long continuum.

I am not of the view that there are fixed traits. It’d be much easier if I argued my book that way and if I believed that, because then I could say, “There are certain feminine traits, and the female mind works this way, and that’s what the economy wants.” But I think, after reading much of the literature on this, that we don’t have enough information to conclude that. There’s a broader continuum than we think, and women have moved far along the continuum in terms of aggression and dominance while still retaining some of the other qualities like empathy and collaboration, whereas men are a little more rigid on that continuum, at least in this moment. They haven’t been allowed to, for cultural reasons and maybe some neurological reasons, move quite as far as women.

That’s why I put my chapter on violence in the book, in order to scramble the picture a little bit, to show that we’ve long thought that men dominate because they’re aggressive, but we can see how far women have moved on that aggression-and-dominance scale.

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The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.