“This world has always belonged to males, and none of the reasons given for this have ever seemed sufficient.” -Simone de Beauvoir
Like many who grew up in the girl-power nineties, it took me awhile to notice that gender had anything to do with professional success. For my sisters and me, our ambitions were treated as achievable with hard work – up to and including my sister’s ambition to become the President of the United States. It wasn’t until she passed on to me the harsh education in sexism she received working as an intern on Capitol Hill that it occurred to me that gender had any affect on professional success. It certainly had nothing to do with academic success; the valedictorian of practically every class I can remember had been female. Up until that point, my sex had never affected my success in the slightest; the fact that it might be a barrier to my career came as quite a shock.
To hear Hanna Rosin tell it, that barrier has just about been breached. In her book The End of Men, an expansion of her Atlantic article of the same name, she argues that women are outperforming men by just about every metric. Economies around the world increasingly depend on women’s involvement to succeed. Here in the US, the recession hit men much harder than women, with traditionally male dominated jobs disappearing and female dominated industries recovering much more quickly. The rate of women rising to executive level positions is skyrocketing, even despite the persistent dearth of women occupying positions in the highest echelons of society, which according to Rosin can be explained away not as evidence of a permanent fixture, but of the last gasps of a dying empire unwilling to relinquish their grasp on power.
It’s a persuasive argument. As women continue to make inroads into areas traditionally dominated by men, there is no equivalent move by men to traditionally feminine spheres. Rosin credits this phenomenon to the inherent adaptability of women. She describes the 21st century gender archetypes as “Plastic Woman” and “Cardboard Man,” the former able to more easily fit into shifting economic and social demands than the latter. Certainly, the date bears her out: industries that were male-dominated such as pharmaceuticals have ceded to women, and yet there are almost no examples of industries going the opposite ways. To simplify: women are becoming doctors, but no men are becoming nurses.
And what of the domestic sphere? Well, turns out we haven’t exactly ceded dominance there, either. Instead of men and women switching places, with men carrying the bulk of child-raising and domestic duties, or sharing duties, with both sexes working and sharing domestic duties equally, it seems that women are just working twice as hard in both arenas. Many of the women Rosin interviewed described the men in their lives as “just another mouth to feed” – jobless, broke, and completely useless in the domestic sphere. As a result, women are delaying marriage or, particularly in the case of lower income women, forgoing it all together.
Any temptation to react to the title of this book with “Ha! We’re winning!” is quickly shut out by situations like the above. The truth is, none us are winning. Not low-income women, who are managing education, motherhood, and multiple jobs often without any help. Not low and middle income men, who are increasingly at loose ends as traditionally male-dominated industries like manufacturing continue to have an almost non-existent recovery (though recent signs are tentatively increasingly positive that some of those jobs may return). And not society, which seems increasingly confused at how to operate in this new frontier. It’s no wonder; transitional periods are always confusing as hell, and this one has been particularly jarring. It’s confusing to women who are becoming more and more successful but starting to question the terms of those success. It’s confusing to men, who are starting to sense that traditional modes of masculinity might not fit in a 21st century world, but haven’t yet received an alternative model.
Appropriately, reading this book was a confusing process for me. I found myself outraged at certain arguments only to reluctantly cede the point a page later. Which isn’t to say I was completely uncritical: Rosin occasionally speaks in broad strokes, summarily dismissing whole groups in one pithy sentence. Her use of data was also spotty in areas; some chapters, particularly those focusing on the US, were backed up by significant statistical evidence. Others were by and large anecdotal. On the whole, however, the combination painted a picture of society in flux that is very hard to argue with.
The exercise of reading this book made me ask a lot of tough questions of myself: I realized that I occupy a relatively privileged spot in this gender transition when it comes to relationships. I live with a man who was brought up in a household that equitably shared household tasks. We both make roughly the same amount, but throughout our relationship there have been times that one of us has made significantly more than the other. We trade off career moves for each other, and we don’t want children. In this way, I match up pretty closely to the ideal Rosin paints of the new upper middle income couple, which caused me no small amount of smugness, I can tell you.
When it comes to work, however, I face the same pitfalls as many women at my same level: constantly questioning whether my professional ambitions are worth the trade-offs I’d have to make to achieve them. Is professional success worth the loss of time, flexibility, and a personality that is my own vs. the manufactured persona that most women have to invent in order to be successful? In a two-income age, asking this questions at all seems pointless: like most women my age, work is not an option but a necessity. But it’s still worth thinking about. Women are making inroads into every power structure in the United States, so it’s high time we sat down and thought about what we’re going to do with that power once we get it. As Rosin mentions, the ascendance of women has not always necessarily led to female-friendly policies; instead, with the exception of a few creative industries (Silicon Valley being the most notable example), we all seem to be repeating the same script, a script which is serving no one particularly well. It’s hard to tell a woman who is still juggling work, domestic obligations, and day-to-day sexism “Hey, things have gotten better for you, so now it’s time for you to start thinking about how to make things better for the rest of us.” And yet, that is exactly what we must do. Like it or not, women are at the forefront of 21st century society. Increasingly, we are finding ourselves in leadership positions. We owe it to ourselves to have a conversation about how our leadership will differentiate itself from male-dominated models of the past.
When you consider how long men have held dominance over women, it’s astonishing how much has changed in just the last forty years, and yet rarely is this new reality addressed. Hanna Rosin’s book offers us the rare opportunity to take a long, hard look at where we were, where we are, and where we want to go from here.
Recommended for: professional men and women. Polemical title notwithstanding, this book is the beginning of a conversation that we need to have with each other.
Read When: if you’re a woman, right after your boss says something hideously condescending to you. If you’re a man, right after you have doubts about your performance, whether it be professional, domestic, or hell, sexual.
Listen With: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville