Are men now the second sex? Or are they still barking orders from the helm of an unsinkable patriarchy? If you haven’t been secluded in a Zen monastery over the past few weeks, you’ve no doubt noticed this debate raging on the Internet, thanks largely to Hanna Rosin’s new book called, far too bluntly, “The End of Men.” Whatever one thinks about the content of the book, the unfortunate effect of the title has been to provoke the usual mash-up of false binaries, misleading statistics, and grievance mongering that accompanies most discussions of gender issues.
One of the reasons for the confusion is the difficulty of talking about men, or women for that matter, as a single demographic group. As we know from a large social-science literature, including most notably Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, fortunes differ profoundly by class. In a takedown of the end-of-men theory published in the New York Times this past Sunday called “The Myth of Male Decline,” Stephanie Coontz correctly noted that men are at the top of almost every industry. They dominate the higher levels of government. They make more money and have more wealth. We might add that men rule in the innovation sector; women hold less than 19 percent of all patents.
Still, if talking about the end of men without mentioning the masters of the universe misses a big piece of the story, so does dismissing the idea without considering the predicament of lower- and working-class men. The only arenas where these men dominate are the ranks of high-school and labor-force dropouts. There are some important economic reasons for their troubles. In my book Manning Up, I’ve written about how the transformation from a manufacturing to a knowledge economy has meant a shift in the requirements for labor-market success, including more education and training. Things don’t look promising for boys on that front. Compared with girls, their grades are lower and their soft skills — concentration, organization, and motivation — weaker. So who has it better, men or women? Who knows?
In fact, the end-of-men debate assumes that we know how to accurately measure power or success, which we don’t. Women now have more human capital than men. They are the majority of college graduates; they earn the bulk of master’s degrees and Ph.Ds. This puts them in a better position to thrive in a knowledge-based economy, where higher education means better jobs. It makes them less likely to become unemployed and more likely to find a new job if they do. It means they are able to choose more interesting, gratifying jobs. But the prevailing assumption, which Coontz apparently shares, seems to be that the only honest measure of power and success is income. Women earn less than men; ergo, men are still in the captain’s seat.
Yet that idea rests on the presumption that the raw wage gap is an accurate reflection of inequity. It’s not. Every year the Bureau of Labor Statistics announces median earnings for men and women. Though the gap has narrowed over the years, men still earn about 20 percent more than women. But those numbers don’t take into account hours worked, occupation (on average, men go into higher-paying occupations than women), educational background (among older workers, men have more schooling than women), or career gaps (women more frequently reduce hours or take time off when they have children). Discussions about the gender gap are often remarkably naïve about the complexity of wage determinants. Coontz quotes a Catalyst study concluding that women MBAs are paid an average of $4,600 a year less than men in starting salaries. The study fails to mention that female graduates are less likely to go into the higher-paying financial sector and more likely to work for lower-paying nonprofits.
To put it crudely, men earn more than women largely because they’re more likely to work 60 hours a week, and they have more bankers and computer programmers in their numbers. By the logic of wage-gap naïfs, the end of patriarchy will come only when more women work 60 hours a week and become bankers and computer nerds or, conversely, men stop doing either. But what if more men than women are willing to be at the office 60 hours a week? Most surveys suggest that a hefty majority of women, or at least mothers, prefer fewer hours of work. Is the resulting wage gap still proof of gender inequity? Is it a reason for continuing to believe that men are a privileged group? Which takes us back to our first question: Which men?
As it happens, in the relentless gender war the end of men is not the only myth that needs deconstructing.