Male Decline Is No Myth

Things are changing. So why do we only focus on what’s exactly the same?

Women are dominating some fields
Women are dominating some fields

Photograph By BSIP/UIG via Getty Images.

There have been moments during my book tour when I’ve wondered if I should have chosen a less combative title than The End of Men. The End of Male Privilege or The End of Macho or something that does not so easily alarm and send people running for safer ground. One of those moments was when I read historian Stephanie Coontz’s op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times, “The Myth of Male Decline,” the latest entry in this important debate about whether women are still doing what they have always been doing—that is, struggling to catch up to men—or whether, as I argue, something new and more interesting is going on.

I have always been grateful to Coontz for the valuable lesson she taught me in her 2005 book Marriage, a History, in which she argues that we’ve all essentially gotten stuck in a rigid reading of the history of Western marriage: that the 1950’s Ozzie and Harriet days were the golden age, and everything since has been a tragic decline. Coontz shows that if you get a little more nimble and creative about how you read the trajectory—zoom back 100 years, for example, or telescope out to look at different cultures—you see that the pat narrative we have told ourselves about marriage is actually a lot more complicated. It was liberating for me to learn that, for example, some of our modern Jerry Springer-ish ways (my-sister-slept-with-my-husband!) were actually standard practice in ancient China.

This is what I have tried to do in my new book: get people to see that they are applying the same standard gender analysis to a rich and new landscape, and thus are missing or downplaying some of the genuinely novel trends that are emerging.

I hesitate to get drawn into data wars (if you have an appetite for them you should visit the blog of University of Maryland professor Philip Cohen). I’ve learned over the course of my research that data can support many different stories. For example, one figure in my book, and in Liza Mundy’s The Richer Sex, that’s been much fought over is how many wives earn more money than their husbands.

We all agree that the number of female breadwinners leapt from only 4 percent in 1970 to nearly 30 percent in 2010. Coontz, however, discounts this gain by arguing that when we look at all married couples, not just dual-earner couples, the numbers look much weaker because some wives don’t work at all. This is a fair point. But if we are going to add on extra data samples, then I offer another, more relevant one: the growing number of single mothers. Trends in the United States do not point toward an explosion of full-time stay-at-home mothers but of single mothers who are, by default, for better or worse, often the main breadwinners of their families. We recently passed the threshold, for example, at which more than half of all births to mothers under 30 were to single mothers. I’m not sure this counts as feminist progress, but it does count as a profound shift in the traditional power dynamics of the American family.

In my book I call it “ambiguous independence.” The women are struggling financially but also learning by necessity to support themselves and their children. And because they are less economically dependent on men, these women are also less likely to stay in abusive relationships, as Coontz herself mentions.

Coontz takes on another data set that I discuss in my book: that young, childless women in their 20s have a higher median income than the equivalent men in the vast majority of metropolitan areas. These findings by market researcher James Chung were first reported in a Time magazine story in 2010. Coontz cites a new analysis of similar data showing that this particular demographic includes a disproportionate number of low-earning Latino men, which explains why women in this age group earn more.

For one thing, it’s hard to say if this new data set she points to is a statistical anomaly. Unlike Chung’s, the new numbers only cover a single year. But even if her data is accurate, and young Latino men are weighting the data, should we not care about that? It seems like just a fine-tuning of my thesis, that certain men are struggling in this economy. And even by Coontz’s reading, these young, childless Latino women are out-earning the Latino men, and these young white women and men earn the same—which alone is a remarkable shift. The explanation for that is simple: At that age, many more women have college degrees, and there are generally better jobs available for college graduates.

Coontz mentions a new analysis that will be unveiled later this month proving a wage gap in various professions for that same young, childless set. But how is that new? We know there is a wage gap. We know that Suzy likely earns less money than Bill who sits in the cubicle next to her, for many complicated reasons that I discuss in the book. The new development is this: For many jobs there are a lot more young Suzies in those cubicles these days than young Bills. That’s why these young women as a group have a higher median income.

Coontz makes the broader point that women—and even college-educated women—are continuing to segregate themselves into less prestigious, lower-paid professions. She points out that women are even more concentrated now than they were before in the fields of legal secretaries or “managers of medicine and health occupations.” We can call this by its old disparaging name: “gender segregation.” But we can also see it through a new paradigm—as Coontz so successfully encouraged us to do when looking at marriage—as women making intelligent decisions about what jobs are available in this economy. (You can see this decision-making at work in community colleges, the training camps for the current workforce, where the gap between men and women is the greatest.)

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.