A FLURRY of books and articles in recent months, with titles like The End of Men and The Richer Sex, have sounded the alarm–watch out, fellas, women have you on the run.
According to these publications, women are surpassing men on any number of fronts, but especially jobs and wages. They cite various pieces of evidence–from employment levels in the U.S., to polls about whether male or female offspring are preferred in South Korea, to interviews with men who feel they're being replaced–to back up their claims.
Well, you could have fooled me. It's not just that many of the statistics used are misleading, and sometimes incorrect, but they get in the way of a serious examination of the day-to-day reality for most working-class women.
On top of that, the claims about women passing up men mask the deteriorating conditions and living standards that working-class women and men are both facing–while a select few men and an even select fewer women are doing better than ever.
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ACCORDING TO Hanna Rosin, author of The End of Men, women are on their way to making as much, if not more, than men–and could soon take men's place as the main "breadwinner" in conventional families. "Our vast and struggling middle class, where the disparities are the greatest, is slowly turning into a matriarchy," writes Rosin, "with men increasingly absent from the workforce and from home, and women making all the decisions."
Is there any truth to this picture?
Since the 1960s, women's earnings have increased relative to men's overall. But women still make less than men–on average, 77 cents to every dollar a man made as of 2011, according to government statistics. According to the most recent Census Bureau figures, women are still more likely to be poor, too.
More women are filling jobs that were dominated by men in the past, but it's still the case that certain fields remain "women's work"–and along with gender segregation in employment comes lower pay for female-dominated jobs. And historically, as women have made gains in a new field, wages decrease compared to jobs that continue to be male-dominated.
What we are seeing is a convergence in economic fortunes, not female ascendance. Between 2010 and 2011, men and women working full time year-round both experienced a 2.5 percent decline in income. Men suffered roughly 80 percent of the job losses at the beginning of the 2007 recession. But the ripple effect of the recession then led to cutbacks in government jobs that hit women disproportionately. As of June 2012, men had regained 46.2 percent of the jobs they lost in the recession, while women had regained 38.7 percent of their lost jobs.
Working-class women aren't eclipsing working-class men. At most, women are meeting men on the way down, which isn't exactly good news for either one. While some journalists might be happy to muse about women's new position as the "breadwinners" in families, what they're ignoring is the fact that most families as a whole are getting by on less.
According to University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen, there has been a significant increase in the frequency of wives earning more than their husbands. But this was true for only 28 percent of married heterogamous couples in 2010–and in the most common scenario, women didn't earn that much more than their spouse.
If some women now have the lead role in bringing home the bacon, the reality is that the meat is sliced very thin all around.
So how is it anyone can claim that women are taking over? The question begs another: Which women?
A small number of women have made it to the top and now wield power in the worlds of business and politics where men once ruled alone. Hillary Clinton, for instance, was a successful attorney before she took her latest job as Secretary of State, one of the most powerful political positions in the world. Forty-five women made the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans this year.
Of course, this small group doesn't represent the majority of women–and in many cases, the women who achieved great wealth or political power contribute more to other women's suffering than success. Alice Walton, one of the richest people in the world thanks to being born into the family that owns Wal-Mart, comes to mind.
For the majority of women–those who don't own any companies, but have to work for them–there hasn't been any meteoric rise to the top, just like for the men they work alongside.
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IN ADDITION to the misleading statistics about jobs and wages, books like the The End of Men offer additional pieces of "evidence" for women's supposed ascendancy–that more women are deciding not to marry or pursue the sex lives of their choice than in the past, and that more men are sharing in work inside the home, like cooking, cleaning and child-rearing.
Rosin also offers some other facts that venture into the head-scratching realm–for example, that women are committing more murders than ever before. I'll set aside the "more likely to get into a bar fight" measure of women's changing role in society for now, and focus on some of her other points.
It is indeed the case that women have greater freedoms than they had in the past, in the areas of jobs and reproductive freedom and family choices.
The first thing to say is that's a good thing. But End of Men spends some pages contemplating the ramifications of women frittering away their "erotic capital" by having sex too freely. For most women, however, there's no debate about whether it's liberating to be freer in making decisions about their sex lives.
It's also no small improvement that women are part of the workforce in a way that was unimaginable just 40 years ago. The social movements of the 1960s and '70s–when women were inspired by the African American struggle for civil rights and Black Power to organize around their own demands–made these changes possible. That's what transformed U.S. society from a place where a woman could be legally raped by her husband to one where women had the right to legal abortion.
Instead of recognizing the role of political and social activism, books like The End of Men try to associate changes in women's lives with supposed unchanging differences between men and women. Rosin's conception is of "Cardboard Man" and "Plastic Woman"–with women possessing the ability to adapt and transform themselves to new work situations while men stagnate in their old unbending role. Women's successes, like men's failures, are, in the end, the product of the natural differences between the sexes.
Thus, Rosin asked, in an article written for the Atlantic:
What if the modern, postindustrial economy is simply more congenial to women than to men? For a long time, evolutionary psychologists have claimed that we are all imprinted with adaptive imperatives from a distant past: men are faster and stronger and hardwired to fight for scarce resources, and that shows up now as a drive to win on Wall Street; women are programmed to find good providers and to care for their offspring, and that is manifested in more nurturing and more flexible behavior, ordaining them to domesticity. This kind of thinking frames our sense of the natural order.
But what if men and women were fulfilling not biological imperatives, but social roles, based on what was more efficient throughout a long era of human history? What if that era has now come to an end? More to the point, what if the economics of the new era are better suited to women?
Women's supposed natural advantages in the modern world come down to being flexible and–believe it or not–their ability to sit still. "The postindustrial economy is indifferent to men's size and strength," Rosin writes. "The attributes that are most valuable today–social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus–are, at a minimum, not predominantly male."
First of all, this just isn't true–I know plenty of women who can't sit still. But the whole proposition makes a mockery of the reality of inequality, whether in the past, present or future.
Sexism and discrimination do exist. Maybe it sells books to portray it all as a good-natured "battle of the sexes," where the question is who hunts and who nests, who's from Mars and who's from Venus. But there is a much more serious dynamic at play. Real discrimination and real sexism are a part of day-to-day life–and their roots lie not in any fundamental differences between men and women, but in the structure of our society.
It isn't a coincidence of biology that women are unequal to men. It's part of the fabric of a capitalist society, where workers are pitted against one another in a multitude of ways. Gender is one of those ways, and that's what keeps women in a subservient role.
If conditions and opportunities for women have improved at all, it's because there was a struggle to improve them–and that struggle was only possible when sexism and discrimination were acknowledged, faced and confronted.
The fake men vs. women debate blurs the reality that working-class women and men have a common interest in improving their conditions of life together. Tucked away in The End of Men are a few important stories of men who have lost their jobs during the economic crisis and are struggling for a way forward. The lesson should be that the futures of working-class men and women are intertwined–and depend on a common struggle for a better life.