August 28, 2010 § Leave a comment
A few months ago I was told that it would be impossible for me to be an interventional cardiologist AND a wife/mother. What I was really hearing was that it’s impossible to be a woman and live my personal dreams. Unfortunately I admired the neurologist who told me this far too much otherwise I would have printed this article and stapled it to his forehead….or somewhere else.
Women in Medicine Force Change in Workforce Dynamics
By Bonnie Darves, a Seattle-based freelance health care writer.
Career Resources Editor’s Note: Women are finally gaining equality with their male colleagues in terms of admission to medical school and representation in non-surgical sub-specialties. However, significant disparities remain in surgical sub-specialties, senior academic and leadership positions, as well as in salary. Crucial to the advancement of women in medicine is positive role modeling and mentoring from those who have overcome obstacles and achieved success. The outlook remains bright for women entering medicine and choosing a career path that will bring personal and professional satisfaction.
— John A. Fromson, M.D., Vice President for Medical Affairs, Massachusetts Medical Society
In July 2003, when Nancy Nielsen, M.D., Ph.D., was elected speaker of the House of Delegates at the American Medical Association, the Buffalo, New York internist was presented with a box containing glass shards. With becoming the AMA’s first female HOD speaker, Dr. Neilsen had truly broken the glass ceiling.
That story contrasts sharply with what happened 70 years earlier in Dallas, Texas. A year after the country’s first female orthopedic surgeon, Ruth Jackson, M.D., started her practice, the newly founded American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS) opened its membership to all practicing orthopedic surgeons — except Dr. Jackson. It wasn’t until four years later, when Dr. Jackson passed the American Board of Orthopedic Surgery’s newly instituted exam, that she was admitted to the AAOS.
Dr. Jackson’s struggle paled in comparison to the discrimination and ostracism the country’s first female physician, Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D., faced en route to receiving her medical degree in 1849 from Geneva Medical College. Yet it illustrates how little the acceptance environment had changed by the early 20th century.
Perhaps the most telling story about how things have changed in the intervening years for women in medicine — and what the future holds — lies in two statistics that made headlines last November. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) reported that for the first time in history, women made up the majority of medical school applicants, and that the number of black women applicants exceeded 1,900 — a 10 percent increase over the previous year. And in 2002, 40 percent of all residents were women, a statistic that clearly supports the prediction that by 2010, approximately 40 percent of U.S. physicians will be women.
In certain specialties, especially primary care, women have made large strides. Women comprised only 20 percent of pediatricians in 1970, for example, but accounted for 49 percent in 2002. In obstetrics and gynecology, the growth of women in the field is even more dramatic: from 5 percent in 1970 to more than 70 percent three decades later.
Despite how the overall numbers picture is changing, women in specialties such as orthopedics are still relative rarities — in 2001, less than 9 percent of orthopedic surgery residents were female. Yet times are changing, if slowly, even in this traditionally male-dominated specialty. Sybil Biermann, M.D., associate professor of orthopedics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who has conducted research on orthopedics work force trends, is buoyed by the changes she has witnessed in the field since she completed her residency in the early 1990s. She is also well aware that much work is needed to increase recruitment in orthopedics and other surgical specialties.
“In my field there is tremendous opportunity for women, and there really are no obstacles in terms of gender bias when you are at the level of being considered for a residency program,” says Dr. Biermann. “The issue is that we’re not recruiting women into the field early enough.”
Dr. Biermann, who joined the University of Michigan faculty 11 years ago, credits the tremendous support she received from the department chair at the University of Iowa as one of the chief factors in her decision to pursue orthopedics. “I was fortunate to be in a program that had trained more women than perhaps any other program at the time, and that really helped to create a supportive environment,” Dr. Biermann recalls.
Orthopedics has been considered one of the last “holdouts” in the surgical specialties, as regards the presence of women in the field. In general surgery, for example, nearly one-fourth of residents are women; and even in neurosurgery, another traditionally male-dominated field, women account for approximately 10 percent of residents, according to the most recent data from the American Medical Association and research conducted by Dr. Biermann for her article published in the December 2003 issue of the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery. Changes are also occurring in thoracic surgery, where women residents made up nearly 7 percent of the total in 2001, compared to only 0.61 percent in 1970; and in urology, which saw the percentage of female residents increase from 0.27 percent to 12.6 percent over that three-decade period. The most dramatic increase is seen in ophthalmology, in which there has been a tenfold increase — from 3.6 percent in 1970 to 32.4 percent in 2001 — in women in training programs.
The career path of Ellen Raney, M.D., a pediatric orthopedic surgeon in Honolulu, exemplifies the changes that are occurring in the surgical field as a whole and orthopedics in particular. Now chief of staff at Shriners Hospital for Children in Honolulu, Dr. Raney might not have imagined that eventuality when she was the sole woman in her training program 12 years ago. “I was fairly naive to the obstacles in the beginning, and it was hard to be in a program where I had no role model,” Dr. Raney says. “But I loved orthopedics — and I found I had an aptitude for and special love of pediatric orthopedics, so I was determined not to lose sight of my goals. Today, I like to think that my success is making it easier for the next woman.”
Illinois neurosurgeon Gail Rousseau, M.D., a past president of the organization Women in Neurosurgery, was also a “solo act” as a woman in her training program at George Washington University, which she completed in 1992. “I think the environment was fair. I got no breaks for being a woman, but encountered no special difficulties because I was a woman, either,” says Dr. Rousseau. “Neurosurgery is an exacting science and a rigorous residency for anyone who undertakes it — as it should be.” She notes that then department chair, Edward R. Laws Jr., M.D., was supportive during that time, as were her male counterparts in training and the attending physicians. “They were all very supportive and I’ve felt that way, almost without exception, throughout my career,” says Dr. Rousseau, who has held leadership positions for both the American Association of Neurological Surgeons and the Congress of Neurological Surgeons.
Despite the increasing numbers of women in the field — only eight women composed the founding membership of Women in Neurosurgery in 1989, but there are approximately 250 practicing women neurosurgeons in the United States today and 550 internationally — women remain a small minority in the field.
In traditionally male-dominated non-surgical specialties, relative representation of men and women is changing far more rapidly. According to the most recent data published by the AMA, in the September 3, 2003 issue of JAMA, women physicians, in growing numbers, are choosing to go into a broad range of non-primary care specialties. For example, 27 percent of anesthesiology residents are female, 25.7 percent of radiology residents are women, and 49.4 percent of pathologists in training are women.
The successes of pioneers such as Drs. Raney, Biermann, Rousseau, and others who have ventured into surgical specialties are, in fact, figuring in the career decisions medical students are making these days. Catherine Mohr, a California medical student who is in her fourth year of Stanford University’s five-year program, credits several mentors — both men and women — with her decision to go into general surgery. A female friend who is a surgeon has given Mohr an honest picture, she says, of “the pluses and minuses of the field, so I’ve been able to watch her career develop. But one of my strongest supporters is a male surgeon,” says Mohr, referring to Stanford’s chair of surgery, Thomas Krummel, M.D., with whom Mohr consulted even before she decided to go to medical school.
At the time, Mohr already had an established career in engineering, but was wrestling with the growing personal recognition that she had shied away from her true calling. “I shared my interests with him, and he simply said, ‘what will it take to get you to come to Stanford?’ ” she says.
Women figure prominently in medicine’s wave of the future, but challenges remain
Although women physicians are far more common in the OR and the ER than they once were, they are still a minority — if a visible one — in the boardroom, the executive suite, and the upper echelons of academia. Diane Magrane, M.D., associate vice president for faculty development and leadership programs at the American Association of Medical Colleges, notes that there has been a stagnation of sorts in academia, in particular. “Women have been about 30 percent of [medical school] faculty since the 1970s, but what we know is that women are less likely to advance past assistant professor than men are,” Dr. Magrane says.
Further, women physicians continue to earn less than their male counterparts — an estimated 25 percent to 35 percent less, depending on the field. While part-time employment status and the predominance of women in primary care surely contribute to the earning disparity, those likely aren’t the only factors, according to the AMA office of Women and Minorities Services.
Dr. Magrane agrees. “There is still a disparity that can only be attributed to gender. How much that is, we don’t know, but it has been consistent,” she says.
In 2002, for example, only 12 percent of full professors were women, compared to approximately 1 percent 30 years ago, and women comprised only 14 percent of tenured professors, according to the AAMC report “Advancing Women’s Leadership.” “That’s not that much of a shift, considering the number of women in the [academic] field now,” Dr. Magrane says. And while there are now 11 female medical school deans, women clearly remain a small minority given the fact that there are 126 teaching institutions, Dr. Magrane adds.
Responses to a survey regularly conducted by AMA’s Women Physicians Congress support Dr. Magrane’s contention, but indicate that advancement opportunities are improving for female physicians. In 1998, respondents cited “leadership development, education, and training” opportunities as their No. 1 priority, but by the 2003 survey that issue had dropped down the scale considerably. And when asked whether the professional climate, as regards disparities or discrimination, had improved for women since they entered medical school, 44 percent of respondents said “somewhat” and 27 percent said “very much” — and only 6 percent said “not at all.”
Despite the statistics on women in leadership positions, which may be attributable more to women physicians’ lifestyle choices than to actual obstacles in academia or the business side of medicine, the environment is far more “women-welcoming” than it once was, recalls one pioneer, Barbara LeTourneau, M.D., M.B.A., vice president for medical affairs at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota. “When I received my MBA in 1987, there weren’t very many women in medicine — and there definitely weren’t any women in management positions,” says Dr. LeTourneau, an emergency medicine physician. “When I was 35, I almost never saw a woman in the role of an elected medical staff position, but that’s changed now.”
For Dr. LeTourneau, the move into management was gradual and, as was the case with many of her female colleagues at the time, the first leadership position came about almost by way of default. After she had been in practice for a few years, the physician group with which she was affiliated discovered that although the number of women in the group was increasing, the board of directors was composed entirely of men.
“I think I was recruited because I was the only female full-time ER physician. But then I discovered that I liked management and had a flair for it,” she says. Even though she experienced occasional roadblocks in the management side of her career, mostly because she was a rare sight at the time, Dr. LeTourneau thinks that opportunities for female physician executives are abundant now, for those who are willing to deal with the minority factor that persists in the business arena.
“Women who are entering the physician executive field now will find the playing field level at the entry level. But I still think that where women have to work harder and outperform men is at the upper levels — because even though you’re not excluded, you have to overcome the difficulty of not being part of the male ‘club,’ ” Dr. LeTourneau says.
June 23, 2010 § 1 Comment
I should preface this by saying that I am not a raging feminist by any measure. I love men, working with them, befriending them, and learning from them. My father is my greatest mentor and has taught me to never lose faith in being a woman, and to strive to be independent and compassionate, mature “young lady” (yuck, hate those words). With that being said, I thought I’d write about a few women I’m grateful to in light of a well written article I read in The Atlantic. It was also a support to an article I read in the NYTimes a few months back about the number of women entering the professional work force compared to men. Good stuff. I’m buying a round of shots to that!
before you read on I thought I’d add a little something to prime you for the what’s to come. Reintroduced to I am Woman during Sex and the City 2 and had to share.Turn up the volume Chickies!
I first heard the author, Hanna Rosin, talking about her article (full text below) on NPR this afternoon on my way from work. It was and interesting parallel to what I had noticed all day at the hospital; there are SO many “she-docs” in those pressed white coats! Our instructor for the day was female; a very well spoken and articulate Emergency physician whose poise and charisma filled the room. Hilarious, too, might I add. I was pretty impressed. I get all sorts of giddy when I meet a female physician who loves to teach her profession with pride.
I will use this entry to describe one of the most influential women I’ve encountered in my field, whom I strive to mirror in both professionalism and character.
One of my best mentors is a strong, stern Russian (is this politically correct?) who’s personality gave me goosebumps. Before I met her I was forewarned, “watch out for her, she can be such a BITCH” or “make sure you know everything about your patients otherwise she’ll tear you a new asshole”. These comments had me nearly needing to change my Victoria’s Secret undergarments but I made it through the month without major road bumps. She scared the bajeezus out of me on my second week of medical ICU. As soon as she walked in I could feel tensions rising. The RN’s and residents began to whisper and I had a feeling the storm was rolling in. I pulled out my umbrella and prepared to get showered on as the lowest idiot on the totem poll.
As we began rounding I was asked to listen to a patient’s heart and immediately identify her murmur. I got it. Then i was asked the physiology of the murmur…and asked me specific questions from our suggested reading list, which I had mainly read out of fear of being called out….this was turning into a serious load of fun. I calmly stated my answers and that’s when she noticed that I had a tendency to be very timid, almost mumbling answers and hesitating – she loved this. In a matter of 5 minutes she had me answering her with confidence. i thought I might cry – not out of fear, but because I never was told to hold my chin up and speak like the “woman I was”. I think this was the “BITCH-iness” that everyone referred to. Wow, this was as far from bitch as I could imagine. She was no bitch, this woman wanted to help develop character in the students she trained. She wanted us to be confident, logical and flawless. I LOVED her and was excited by the pseudo-motherly/goddess-like attraction I was developing towards her. I had never been so impressed by a woman before. She expected us (student and residents) to be good doctors and overall, just plain old good people. This didn’t make her a bitch or a work-horse. Simply put, AN AMAZING, TALENTED physician who demanded the best for her patients. Thoroughness. What more could anyone ask for?
I think what helped me get through the “torture” was actually taking the time to get to know her as a person, showing her the respect she absolutely deserved without kissing her ass, and above all, logging as much detail as I could about y critical patients so she knew I wasn’t there just to fluff off. She knew that I was eager to learn and me as much medical info as she could. Believe it or not, I even opted to leave my beloved ICU just to work iwth her inher private office for a week. Best. week. ever. We would meet up for lunch in the lounge, share champagne grapes, and she’d give me a one-on-one lecture on whatever topic I wanted. I loved her perspective of being a successful working mother, a view I wasn’t exposed to all too often. As opposed to other attendings who suggested I rethink my dream of becoming an a mother AND an interventional cardiologist, she nurtured it. Who else would do this? Only an excellent mentor. I hope she reads this one day so she would know how much I adore her. Side note: not only did she pass down some pretty cool medical facts but she also had a very chic sense of style and had me totally addicted to and longing for more PRADA and Christian Louboutin shoes. This, I’m afraid, was the only downside of meeting her. 🙂
This brings me to my next celebration of female success and the friends/family I have who support me to be the best that I can be. One is a quote from a greeting card I received in the mail from a family friend, followed by two sweet, moving notes from a two women I consider family. They support me with their words of encouragement and wisdom, knowing that I struggle with feelings of intense insecurity yet wishing I could always work at my best. Not gonna lie, I cried like a toddler with a skinned knee reading these. I’ll quote all three.
“it’s impossible to a woman to learn too much,
dream too big, or live too joyously.
You’ve proved to the world
that when a smart young woman sets out to do something….
..she’s going to do it with style, grace, and determination.”
“I know with being a doctor your confidence will grow! look at how much you have accomplished, no one handed you that, you worked for it and you totally deserve it. I am sooo proud of you in a mommy type of way! You are a terrific person and you are a great doctor now. Keep your chin up, don’t let anyone take that from you, sweetie. It takes special people to be doctors and i believe with all my heart that you definitely are taking a path that will prove you are where you are supposed to be in life. You will have bad days, stressful days, “bumps in the road”, days where you will question “what the hell did i do”, but there are going to be the day a patient says to you “Dr. S” if it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t be here. Treasure all those moments because for the million people who don’t appreciate good health care there are the few who truly appreciate and will forever be thankful for the little things you say or do for them, even if it just makes them smile. Keep true to who you are!!!! Always let your patients know (well within distance) you are human. You are a doctor and you do what you do to help them!”
“So tomorrow is the big day. *** and I both wish we could have been there with you to help you and your family celebrate such a wonderful occasion. So being that I could not be there to say these things to you I guess this will have to do, so here goes. I am so proud of you for accomplishing what others only wish they could do. You are going to make a wonderful doctor and your patients will be lucky that you are in their lives, even if it is for only a few hours. Please always remember my “words of wisdom” which I mentioned to you a few weeks ago. Always question yourself, because when you think you know it all you become sloppy and cocky. Always listen to your patients. No one knows there own bodies like they do. Never stop learning. Medicine changes to quickly and you need to stay fresh and one step ahead of others. Always believe in yourself, because if you don’t, no one else will. And now I’m gonna add one more thing to the list. And this is something I tell my girls all the time; Always remember, there’s nothing you can’t do or be if you want it bad enough. Always reach for the stars and know that no matter what I am always here for you if you need me. Our door is always open when you need a shoulder, or some advise or yes, even some craziness. So with all that said, Congratulations Dr. S, today and always and I feel so honored and to call you “my other daughter”.
May all your dreams become reality and all your wishes come true always.”
Am I a lucky girl or am I a lucky girl? Knowing that I have such strong women supporting me and sharing their strength empowers me. Love it. For all of the days that I feel I’ve attempted to learn more than I can handle, retained too little, or couldn’t think fast enough on my feet, this quotation helps me remember that I’ll be okay. I’ll learn, I’ll survive.
The article from Atlantic:
The End of Men
Earlier this year, women became the majority of the workforce for the first time in U.S. history. Most managers are now women too. And for every two men who get a college degree this year, three women will do the same. For years, women’s progress has been cast as a struggle for equality. But what if equality isn’t the end point? What if modern, postindustrial society is simply better suited to women? A report on the unprecedented role reversal now under way— and its vast cultural consequences
By Hanna Rosin
Image credit: John Ritter
In the 1970s the biologist Ronald Ericsson came up with a way to separate sperm carrying the male-producing Y chromosome from those carrying the X. He sent the two kinds of sperm swimming down a glass tube through ever-thicker albumin barriers. The sperm with the X chromosome had a larger head and a longer tail, and so, he figured, they would get bogged down in the viscous liquid. The sperm with the Y chromosome were leaner and faster and could swim down to the bottom of the tube more efficiently. Ericsson had grown up on a ranch in South Dakota, where he’d developed an Old West, cowboy swagger. The process, he said, was like “cutting out cattle at the gate.” The cattle left flailing behind the gate were of course the X’s, which seemed to please him. He would sometimes demonstrate the process using cartilage from a bull’s penis as a pointer.
In the late 1970s, Ericsson leased the method to clinics around the U.S., calling it the first scientifically proven method for choosing the sex of a child. Instead of a lab coat, he wore cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, and doled out his version of cowboy poetry. (People magazine once suggested a TV miniseries based on his life called Cowboy in the Lab.) The right prescription for life, he would say, was “breakfast at five-thirty, on the saddle by six, no room for Mr. Limp Wrist.” In 1979, he loaned out his ranch as the backdrop for the iconic “Marlboro Country” ads because he believed in the campaign’s central image—“a guy riding on his horse along the river, no bureaucrats, no lawyers,” he recalled when I spoke to him this spring. “He’s the boss.” (The photographers took some 6,500 pictures, a pictorial record of the frontier that Ericsson still takes great pride in.)
Feminists of the era did not take kindly to Ericsson and his Marlboro Man veneer. To them, the lab cowboy and his sperminator portended a dystopia of mass-produced boys. “You have to be concerned about the future of all women,” Roberta Steinbacher, a nun-turned-social-psychologist, said in a 1984 People profile of Ericsson. “There’s no question that there exists a universal preference for sons.” Steinbacher went on to complain about women becoming locked in as “second-class citizens” while men continued to dominate positions of control and influence. “I think women have to ask themselves, ‘Where does this stop?’” she said. “A lot of us wouldn’t be here right now if these practices had been in effect years ago.”
// Ericsson, now 74, laughed when I read him these quotes from his old antagonist. Seldom has it been so easy to prove a dire prediction wrong. In the ’90s, when Ericsson looked into the numbers for the two dozen or so clinics that use his process, he discovered, to his surprise, that couples were requesting more girls than boys, a gap that has persisted, even though Ericsson advertises the method as more effective for producing boys. In some clinics, Ericsson has said, the ratio is now as high as 2 to 1. Polling data on American sex preference is sparse, and does not show a clear preference for girls. But the picture from the doctor’s office unambiguously does. A newer method for sperm selection, called MicroSort, is currently completing Food and Drug Administration clinical trials. The girl requests for that method run at about 75 percent.
Even more unsettling for Ericsson, it has become clear that in choosing the sex of the next generation, he is no longer the boss. “It’s the women who are driving all the decisions,” he says—a change the MicroSort spokespeople I met with also mentioned. At first, Ericsson says, women who called his clinics would apologize and shyly explain that they already had two boys. “Now they just call and [say] outright, ‘I want a girl.’ These mothers look at their lives and think their daughters will have a bright future their mother and grandmother didn’t have, brighter than their sons, even, so why wouldn’t you choose a girl?”
Why wouldn’t you choose a girl? That such a statement should be so casually uttered by an old cowboy like Ericsson—or by anyone, for that matter—is monumental. For nearly as long as civilization has existed, patriarchy—enforced through the rights of the firstborn son—has been the organizing principle, with few exceptions. Men in ancient Greece tied off their left testicle in an effort to produce male heirs; women have killed themselves (or been killed) for failing to bear sons. In her iconic 1949 book, TheSecond Sex, the French feminist Simone de Beauvoir suggested that women so detested their own “feminine condition” that they regarded their newborn daughters with irritation and disgust. Now the centuries-old preference for sons is eroding—or even reversing. “Women of our generation want daughters precisely because we like who we are,” breezes one woman in Cookie magazine. Even Ericsson, the stubborn old goat, can sigh and mark the passing of an era. “Did male dominance exist? Of course it existed. But it seems to be gone now. And the era of the firstborn son is totally gone.”
Ericsson’s extended family is as good an illustration of the rapidly shifting landscape as any other. His 26-year-old granddaughter—“tall, slender, brighter than hell, with a take-no-prisoners personality”—is a biochemist and works on genetic sequencing. His niece studied civil engineering at the University of Southern California. His grandsons, he says, are bright and handsome, but in school “their eyes glaze over. I have to tell ’em: ‘Just don’t screw up and crash your pickup truck and get some girl pregnant and ruin your life.’” Recently Ericsson joked with the old boys at his elementary-school reunion that he was going to have a sex-change operation. “Women live longer than men. They do better in this economy. More of ’em graduate from college. They go into space and do everything men do, and sometimes they do it a whole lot better. I mean, hell, get out of the way—these females are going to leave us males in the dust.”
Man has been the dominant sex since, well, the dawn of mankind. But for the first time in human history, that is changing—and with shocking speed. Cultural and economic changes always reinforce each other. And the global economy is evolving in a way that is eroding the historical preference for male children, worldwide. Over several centuries, South Korea, for instance, constructed one of the most rigid patriarchal societies in the world. Many wives who failed to produce male heirs were abused and treated as domestic servants; some families prayed to spirits to kill off girl children. Then, in the 1970s and ’80s, the government embraced an industrial revolution and encouraged women to enter the labor force. Women moved to the city and went to college. They advanced rapidly, from industrial jobs to clerical jobs to professional work. The traditional order began to crumble soon after. In 1990, the country’s laws were revised so that women could keep custody of their children after a divorce and inherit property. In 2005, the court ruled that women could register children under their own names. As recently as 1985, about half of all women in a national survey said they “must have a son.” That percentage fell slowly until 1991 and then plummeted to just over 15 percent by 2003. Male preference in South Korea “is over,” says Monica Das Gupta, a demographer and Asia expert at the World Bank. “It happened so fast. It’s hard to believe it, but it is.” The same shift is now beginning in other rapidly industrializing countries such as India and China.
Up to a point, the reasons behind this shift are obvious. As thinking and communicating have come to eclipse physical strength and stamina as the keys to economic success, those societies that take advantage of the talents of all their adults, not just half of them, have pulled away from the rest. And because geopolitics and global culture are, ultimately, Darwinian, other societies either follow suit or end up marginalized. In 2006, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development devised the Gender, Institutions and Development Database, which measures the economic and political power of women in 162 countries. With few exceptions, the greater the power of women, the greater the country’s economic success. Aid agencies have started to recognize this relationship and have pushed to institute political quotas in about 100 countries, essentially forcing women into power in an effort to improve those countries’ fortunes. In some war-torn states, women are stepping in as a sort of maternal rescue team. Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, portrayed her country as a sick child in need of her care during her campaign five years ago. Postgenocide Rwanda elected to heal itself by becoming the first country with a majority of women in parliament.
In feminist circles, these social, political, and economic changes are always cast as a slow, arduous form of catch-up in a continuing struggle for female equality. But in the U.S., the world’s most advanced economy, something much more remarkable seems to be happening. American parents are beginning to choose to have girls over boys. As they imagine the pride of watching a child grow and develop and succeed as an adult, it is more often a girl that they see in their mind’s eye.
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?
Once you open your eyes to this possibility, the evidence is all around you. It can be found, most immediately, in the wreckage of the Great Recession, in which three-quarters of the 8 million jobs lost were lost by men. The worst-hit industries were overwhelmingly male and deeply identified with macho: construction, manufacturing, high finance. Some of these jobs will come back, but the overall pattern of dislocation is neither temporary nor random. The recession merely revealed—and accelerated—a profound economic shift that has been going on for at least 30 years, and in some respects even longer.
Earlier this year, for the first time in American history, the balance of the workforce tipped toward women, who now hold a majority of the nation’s jobs. The working class, which has long defined our notions of masculinity, is slowly turning into a matriarchy, with men increasingly absent from the home and women making all the decisions. Women dominate today’s colleges and professional schools—for every two men who will receive a B.A. this year, three women will do the same. Of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most in the next decade in the U.S., all but two are occupied primarily by women. Indeed, the U.S. economy is in some ways becoming a kind of traveling sisterhood: upper-class women leave home and enter the workforce, creating domestic jobs for other women to fill.
The postindustrial economy is indifferent to men’s size and strength. 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. In fact, the opposite may be true. Women in poor parts of India are learning English faster than men to meet the demands of new global call centers. Women own more than 40 percent of private businesses in China, where a red Ferrari is the new status symbol for female entrepreneurs. Last year, Iceland elected Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir, the world’s first openly lesbian head of state, who campaigned explicitly against the male elite she claimed had destroyed the nation’s banking system, and who vowed to end the “age of testosterone.”
Yes, the U.S. still has a wage gap, one that can be convincingly explained—at least in part—by discrimination. Yes, women still do most of the child care. And yes, the upper reaches of society are still dominated by men. But given the power of the forces pushing at the economy, this setup feels like the last gasp of a dying age rather than the permanent establishment. Dozens of college women I interviewed for this story assumed that they very well might be the ones working while their husbands stayed at home, either looking for work or minding the children. Guys, one senior remarked to me, “are the new ball and chain.” It may be happening slowly and unevenly, but it’s unmistakably happening: in the long view, the modern economy is becoming a place where women hold the cards.
In his final book, The Bachelors’ Ball, published in 2007, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu describes the changing gender dynamics of Béarn, the region in southwestern France where he grew up. The eldest sons once held the privileges of patrimonial loyalty and filial inheritance in Béarn. But over the decades, changing economic forces turned those privileges into curses. Although the land no longer produced the impressive income it once had, the men felt obligated to tend it. Meanwhile, modern women shunned farm life, lured away by jobs and adventure in the city. They occasionally returned for the traditional balls, but the men who awaited them had lost their prestige and become unmarriageable. This is the image that keeps recurring to me, one that Bourdieu describes in his book: at the bachelors’ ball, the men, self-conscious about their diminished status, stand stiffly, their hands by their sides, as the women twirl away.
The role reversal that’s under way between American men and women shows up most obviously and painfully in the working class. In recent years, male support groups have sprung up throughout the Rust Belt and in other places where the postindustrial economy has turned traditional family roles upside down. Some groups help men cope with unemployment, and others help them reconnect with their alienated families. Mustafaa El-Scari, a teacher and social worker, leads some of these groups in Kansas City. El-Scari has studied the sociology of men and boys set adrift, and he considers it his special gift to get them to open up and reflect on their new condition. The day I visited one of his classes, earlier this year, he was facing a particularly resistant crowd.
None of the 30 or so men sitting in a classroom at a downtown Kansas City school have come for voluntary adult enrichment. Having failed to pay their child support, they were given the choice by a judge to go to jail or attend a weekly class on fathering, which to them seemed the better deal. This week’s lesson, from a workbook called Quenching the Father Thirst, was supposed to involve writing a letter to a hypothetical estranged 14-year-old daughter named Crystal, whose father left her when she was a baby. But El-Scari has his own idea about how to get through to this barely awake, skeptical crew, and letters to Crystal have nothing to do with it.
Like them, he explains, he grew up watching Bill Cosby living behind his metaphorical “white picket fence”—one man, one woman, and a bunch of happy kids. “Well, that check bounced a long time ago,” he says. “Let’s see,” he continues, reading from a worksheet. What are the four kinds of paternal authority? Moral, emotional, social, and physical. “But you ain’t none of those in that house. All you are is a paycheck, and now you ain’t even that. And if you try to exercise your authority, she’ll call 911. How does that make you feel? You’re supposed to be the authority, and she says, ‘Get out of the house, bitch.’ She’s calling you ‘bitch’!”
The men are black and white, their ages ranging from about 20 to 40. A couple look like they might have spent a night or two on the streets, but the rest look like they work, or used to. Now they have put down their sodas, and El-Scari has their attention, so he gets a little more philosophical. “Who’s doing what?” he asks them. “What is our role? Everyone’s telling us we’re supposed to be the head of a nuclear family, so you feel like you got robbed. It’s toxic, and poisonous, and it’s setting us up for failure.” He writes on the board: $85,000. “This is her salary.” Then: $12,000. “This is your salary. Who’s the damn man? Who’s the man now?” A murmur rises. “That’s right. She’s the man.”
Judging by the men I spoke with afterward, El-Scari seemed to have pegged his audience perfectly. Darren Henderson was making $33 an hour laying sheet metal, until the real-estate crisis hit and he lost his job. Then he lost his duplex—“there’s my little piece of the American dream”—then his car. And then he fell behind on his child-support payments. “They make it like I’m just sitting around,” he said, “but I’m not.” As proof of his efforts, he took out a new commercial driver’s permit and a bartending license, and then threw them down on the ground like jokers, for all the use they’d been. His daughter’s mother had a $50,000-a-year job and was getting her master’s degree in social work. He’d just signed up for food stamps, which is just about the only social-welfare program a man can easily access. Recently she’d seen him waiting at the bus stop. “Looked me in the eye,” he recalled, “and just drove on by.”
The men in that room, almost without exception, were casualties of the end of the manufacturing era. Most of them had continued to work with their hands even as demand for manual labor was declining. Since 2000, manufacturing has lost almost 6 million jobs, more than a third of its total workforce, and has taken in few young workers. The housing bubble masked this new reality for a while, creating work in construction and related industries. Many of the men I spoke with had worked as electricians or builders; one had been a successful real-estate agent. Now those jobs are gone too. Henderson spent his days shuttling between unemployment offices and job interviews, wondering what his daughter might be doing at any given moment. In 1950, roughly one in 20 men of prime working age, like Henderson, was not working; today that ratio is about one in five, the highest ever recorded.
Men dominate just two of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most over the next decade: janitor and computer engineer. Women have everything else—nursing, home health assistance, child care, food preparation. Many of the new jobs, says Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress, “replace the things that women used to do in the home for free.” None is especially high-paying. But the steady accumulation of these jobs adds up to an economy that, for the working class, has become more amenable to women than to men.
The list of growing jobs is heavy on nurturing professions, in which women, ironically, seem to benefit from old stereotypes and habits. Theoretically, there is no reason men should not be qualified. But they have proved remarkably unable to adapt. Over the course of the past century, feminism has pushed women to do things once considered against their nature—first enter the workforce as singles, then continue to work while married, then work even with small children at home. Many professions that started out as the province of men are now filled mostly with women—secretary and teacher come to mind. Yet I’m not aware of any that have gone the opposite way. Nursing schools have tried hard to recruit men in the past few years, with minimal success. Teaching schools, eager to recruit male role models, are having a similarly hard time. The range of acceptable masculine roles has changed comparatively little, and has perhaps even narrowed as men have shied away from some careers women have entered. As Jessica Grose wrote in Slate, men seem “fixed in cultural aspic.” And with each passing day, they lag further behind.
As we recover from the Great Recession, some traditionally male jobs will return—men are almost always harder-hit than women in economic downturns because construction and manufacturing are more cyclical than service industries—but that won’t change the long-term trend. When we look back on this period, argues Jamie Ladge, a business professor at Northeastern University, we will see it as a “turning point for women in the workforce.”
The economic and cultural power shift from men to women would be hugely significant even if it never extended beyond working-class America. But women are also starting to dominate middle management, and a surprising number of professional careers as well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women now hold 51.4 percent of managerial and professional jobs—up from 26.1 percent in 1980. They make up 54 percent of all accountants and hold about half of all banking and insurance jobs. About a third of America’s physicians are now women, as are 45 percent of associates in law firms—and both those percentages are rising fast. A white-collar economy values raw intellectual horsepower, which men and women have in equal amounts. It also requires communication skills and social intelligence, areas in which women, according to many studies, have a slight edge. Perhaps most important—for better or worse—it increasingly requires formal education credentials, which women are more prone to acquire, particularly early in adulthood. Just about the only professions in which women still make up a relatively small minority of newly minted workers are engineering and those calling on a hard-science background, and even in those areas, women have made strong gains since the 1970s.
Office work has been steadily adapting to women—and in turn being reshaped by them—for 30 years or more. Joel Garreau picks up on this phenomenon in his 1991 book, Edge City, which explores the rise of suburbs that are home to giant swaths of office space along with the usual houses and malls. Companies began moving out of the city in search not only of lower rent but also of the “best educated, most conscientious, most stable workers.” They found their brightest prospects among “underemployed females living in middle-class communities on the fringe of the old urban areas.” As Garreau chronicles the rise of suburban office parks, he places special emphasis on 1978, the peak year for women entering the workforce. When brawn was off the list of job requirements, women often measured up better than men. They were smart, dutiful, and, as long as employers could make the jobs more convenient for them, more reliable. The 1999 movie Office Space was maybe the first to capture how alien and dispiriting the office park can be for men. Disgusted by their jobs and their boss, Peter and his two friends embezzle money and start sleeping through their alarm clocks. At the movie’s end, a male co-worker burns down the office park, and Peter abandons desk work for a job in construction.
Near the top of the jobs pyramid, of course, the upward march of women stalls. Prominent female CEOs, past and present, are so rare that they count as minor celebrities, and most of us can tick off their names just from occasionally reading the business pages: Meg Whitman at eBay, Carly Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard, Anne Mulcahy and Ursula Burns at Xerox, Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo; the accomplishment is considered so extraordinary that Whitman and Fiorina are using it as the basis for political campaigns. Only 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and the number has never risen much above that.
But even the way this issue is now framed reveals that men’s hold on power in elite circles may be loosening. In business circles, the lack of women at the top is described as a “brain drain” and a crisis of “talent retention.” And while female CEOs may be rare in America’s largest companies, they are highly prized: last year, they outearned their male counterparts by 43 percent, on average, and received bigger raises.
Even around the delicate question of working mothers, the terms of the conversation are shifting. Last year, in a story about breast-feeding, I complained about how the early years of child rearing keep women out of power positions. But the term mommy track is slowly morphing into the gender-neutral flex time, reflecting changes in the workforce. For recent college graduates of both sexes, flexible arrangements are at the top of the list of workplace demands, according to a study published last year in the Harvard Business Review. And companies eager to attract and retain talented workers and managers are responding. The consulting firm Deloitte, for instance, started what’s now considered the model program, called Mass Career Customization, which allows employees to adjust their hours depending on their life stage. The program, Deloitte’s Web site explains, solves “a complex issue—one that can no longer be classified as a woman’s issue.”
“Women are knocking on the door of leadership at the very moment when their talents are especially well matched with the requirements of the day,” writes David Gergen in the introduction to Enlightened Power: How Women Are Transforming the Practice of Leadership. What are these talents? Once it was thought that leaders should be aggressive and competitive, and that men are naturally more of both. But psychological research has complicated this picture. In lab studies that simulate negotiations, men and women are just about equally assertive and competitive, with slight variations. Men tend to assert themselves in a controlling manner, while women tend to take into account the rights of others, but both styles are equally effective, write the psychologists Alice Eagly and Linda Carli, in their 2007 book, Through the Labyrinth.
Over the years, researchers have sometimes exaggerated these differences and described the particular talents of women in crude gender stereotypes: women as more empathetic, as better consensus-seekers and better lateral thinkers; women as bringing a superior moral sensibility to bear on a cutthroat business world. In the ’90s, this field of feminist business theory seemed to be forcing the point. But after the latest financial crisis, these ideas have more resonance. Researchers have started looking into the relationship between testosterone and excessive risk, and wondering if groups of men, in some basic hormonal way, spur each other to make reckless decisions. The picture emerging is a mirror image of the traditional gender map: men and markets on the side of the irrational and overemotional, and women on the side of the cool and levelheaded.
We don’t yet know with certainty whether testosterone strongly influences business decision-making. But the perception of the ideal business leader is starting to shift. The old model of command and control, with one leader holding all the decision-making power, is considered hidebound. The new model is sometimes called “post-heroic,” or “transformational” in the words of the historian and leadership expert James MacGregor Burns. The aim is to behave like a good coach, and channel your charisma to motivate others to be hardworking and creative. The model is not explicitly defined as feminist, but it echoes literature about male-female differences. A program at Columbia Business School, for example, teaches sensitive leadership and social intelligence, including better reading of facial expressions and body language. “We never explicitly say, ‘Develop your feminine side,’ but it’s clear that’s what we’re advocating,” says Jamie Ladge.
A 2008 study attempted to quantify the effect of this more-feminine management style. Researchers at Columbia Business School and the University of Maryland analyzed data on the top 1,500 U.S. companies from 1992 to 2006 to determine the relationship between firm performance and female participation in senior management. Firms that had women in top positions performed better, and this was especially true if the firm pursued what the researchers called an “innovation intensive strategy,” in which, they argued, “creativity and collaboration may be especially important”—an apt description of the future economy.
It could be that women boost corporate performance, or it could be that better-performing firms have the luxury of recruiting and keeping high-potential women. But the association is clear: innovative, successful firms are the ones that promote women. The same Columbia-Maryland study ranked America’s industries by the proportion of firms that employed female executives, and the bottom of the list reads like the ghosts of the economy past: shipbuilding, real estate, coal, steelworks, machinery.
If you really want to see where the world is headed, of course, looking at the current workforce can get you only so far. To see the future—of the workforce, the economy, and the culture—you need to spend some time at America’s colleges and professional schools, where a quiet revolution is under way. More than ever, college is the gateway to economic success, a necessary precondition for moving into the upper-middle class—and increasingly even the middle class. It’s this broad, striving middle class that defines our society. And demographically, we can see with absolute clarity that in the coming decades the middle class will be dominated by women.
We’ve all heard about the collegiate gender gap. But the implications of that gap have not yet been fully digested. Women now earn 60 percent of master’s degrees, about half of all law and medical degrees, and 42 percent of all M.B.A.s. Most important, women earn almost 60 percent of all bachelor’s degrees—the minimum requirement, in most cases, for an affluent life. In a stark reversal since the 1970s, men are now more likely than women to hold only a high-school diploma. “One would think that if men were acting in a rational way, they would be getting the education they need to get along out there,” says Tom Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. “But they are just failing to adapt.”
This spring, I visited a few schools around Kansas City to get a feel for the gender dynamics of higher education. I started at the downtown campus of Metropolitan Community College. Metropolitan is the kind of place where people go to learn practical job skills and keep current with the changing economy, and as in most community colleges these days, men were conspicuously absent. One afternoon, in the basement cafeteria of a nearly windowless brick building, several women were trying to keep their eyes on their biology textbook and ignore the text messages from their babysitters. Another crew was outside the ladies’ room, braiding each other’s hair. One woman, still in her medical-assistant scrubs, looked like she was about to fall asleep in the elevator between the first and fourth floors.
When Bernard Franklin took over as campus president in 2005, he looked around and told his staff early on that their new priority was to “recruit more boys.” He set up mentoring programs and men-only study groups and student associations. He made a special effort to bond with male students, who liked to call him “Suit.” “It upset some of my feminists,” he recalls. Yet, a few years later, the tidal wave of women continues to wash through the school—they now make up about 70 percent of its students. They come to train to be nurses and teachers—African American women, usually a few years older than traditional college students, and lately, working-class white women from the suburbs seeking a cheap way to earn a credential. As for the men? Well, little has changed. “I recall one guy who was really smart,” one of the school’s counselors told me. “But he was reading at a sixth-grade level and felt embarrassed in front of the women. He had to hide his books from his friends, who would tease him when he studied. Then came the excuses. ‘It’s spring, gotta play ball.’ ‘It’s winter, too cold.’ He didn’t make it.”
It makes some economic sense that women attend community colleges—and in fact, all colleges—in greater numbers than men. Women ages 25 to 34 with only a high-school diploma currently have a median income of $25,474, while men in the same position earn $32,469. But it makes sense only up to a point. The well-paid lifetime union job has been disappearing for at least 30 years. Kansas City, for example, has shifted from steel manufacturing to pharmaceuticals and information technologies. “The economy isn’t as friendly to men as it once was,” says Jacqueline King, of the American Council on Education. “You would think men and women would go to these colleges at the same rate.” But they don’t.
In 2005, King’s group conducted a survey of lower-income adults in college. Men, it turned out, had a harder time committing to school, even when they desperately needed to retool. They tended to start out behind academically, and many felt intimidated by the schoolwork. They reported feeling isolated and were much worse at seeking out fellow students, study groups, or counselors to help them adjust. Mothers going back to school described themselves as good role models for their children. Fathers worried that they were abrogating their responsibilities as breadwinner.
The student gender gap started to feel like a crisis to some people in higher-education circles in the mid-2000s, when it began showing up not just in community and liberal-arts colleges but in the flagship public universities—the UCs and the SUNYs and the UNCs. Like many of those schools, the University of Missouri at Kansas City, a full research university with more than 13,000 students, is now tipping toward 60 percent women, a level many admissions officers worry could permanently shift the atmosphere and reputation of a school. In February, I visited with Ashley Burress, UMKC’s student-body president. (The other three student-government officers this school year were also women.) Burress, a cute, short, African American 24-year-old grad student who is getting a doctor-of-pharmacy degree, had many of the same complaints I heard from other young women. Guys high-five each other when they get a C, while girls beat themselves up over a B-minus. Guys play video games in each other’s rooms, while girls crowd the study hall. Girls get their degrees with no drama, while guys seem always in danger of drifting away. “In 2012, I will be Dr. Burress,” she said. “Will I have to deal with guys who don’t even have a bachelor’s degree? I would like to date, but I’m putting myself in a really small pool.”
UMKC is a working- and middle-class school—the kind of place where traditional sex roles might not be anathema. Yet as I talked to students this spring, I realized how much the basic expectations for men and women had shifted. Many of the women’s mothers had established their careers later in life, sometimes after a divorce, and they had urged their daughters to get to their own careers more quickly. They would be a campus of Tracy Flicks, except that they seemed neither especially brittle nor secretly falling apart.
Victoria, Michelle, and Erin are sorority sisters. Victoria’s mom is a part-time bartender at a hotel. Victoria is a biology major and wants to be a surgeon; soon she’ll apply to a bunch of medical schools. She doesn’t want kids for a while, because she knows she’ll “be at the hospital, like, 100 hours a week,” and when she does have kids, well, she’ll “be the hotshot surgeon, and he”—a nameless he—“will be at home playing with the kiddies.”
Michelle, a self-described “perfectionist,” also has her life mapped out. She’s a psychology major and wants to be a family therapist. After college, she will apply to grad school and look for internships. She is well aware of the career-counseling resources on campus. And her fiancé?
Michelle: He’s changed majors, like, 16 times. Last week he wanted to be a dentist. This week it’s environmental science.
Erin: Did he switch again this week? When you guys have kids, he’ll definitely stay home. Seriously, what does he want to do?
Michelle: It depends on the day of the week. Remember last year? It was bio. It really is a joke. But it’s not. It’s funny, but it’s not.
Among traditional college students from the highest-income families, the gender gap pretty much disappears. But the story is not so simple. Wealthier students tend to go to elite private schools, and elite private schools live by their own rules. Quietly, they’ve been opening up a new frontier in affirmative action, with boys playing the role of the underprivileged applicants needing an extra boost. In 2003, a study by the economists Sandy Baum and Eban Goodstein found that among selective liberal-arts schools, being male raises the chance of college acceptance by 6.5 to 9 percentage points. Now the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has voted to investigate what some academics have described as the “open secret” that private schools “are discriminating in admissions in order to maintain what they regard as an appropriate gender balance.”
Jennifer Delahunty, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College, in Ohio, let this secret out in a 2006 New York Times op-ed. Gender balance, she wrote back then, is the elephant in the room. And today, she told me, the problem hasn’t gone away. A typical female applicant, she said, manages the process herself—lines up the interviews, sets up a campus visit, requests a visit with faculty members. But the college has seen more than one male applicant “sit back on the couch, sometimes with their eyes closed, while their mom tells them where to go and what to do. Sometimes we say, ‘What a nice essay his mom wrote,’” she said, in that funny-but-not vein.
To avoid crossing the dreaded 60 percent threshold, admissions officers have created a language to explain away the boys’ deficits: “Brain hasn’t kicked in yet.” “Slow to cook.” “Hasn’t quite peaked.” “Holistic picture.” At times Delahunty has become so worried about “overeducated females” and “undereducated males” that she jokes she is getting conspiratorial. She once called her sister, a pediatrician, to vet her latest theory: “Maybe these boys are genetically like canaries in a coal mine, absorbing so many toxins and bad things in the environment that their DNA is shifting. Maybe they’re like those frogs—they’re more vulnerable or something, so they’ve gotten deformed.”
Clearly, some percentage of boys are just temperamentally unsuited to college, at least at age 18 or 20, but without it, they have a harder time finding their place these days. “Forty years ago, 30 years ago, if you were one of the fairly constant fraction of boys who wasn’t ready to learn in high school, there were ways for you to enter the mainstream economy,” says Henry Farber, an economist at Princeton. “When you woke up, there were jobs. There were good industrial jobs, so you could have a good industrial, blue-collar career. Now those jobs are gone.”
Since the 1980s, as women have flooded colleges, male enrollment has grown far more slowly. And the disparities start before college. Throughout the ’90s, various authors and researchers agonized over why boys seemed to be failing at every level of education, from elementary school on up, and identified various culprits: a misguided feminism that treated normal boys as incipient harassers (Christina Hoff Sommers); different brain chemistry (Michael Gurian); a demanding, verbally focused curriculum that ignored boys’ interests (Richard Whitmire). But again, it’s not all that clear that boys have become more dysfunctional—or have changed in any way. What’s clear is that schools, like the economy, now value the self-control, focus, and verbal aptitude that seem to come more easily to young girls.
Researchers have suggested any number of solutions. A movement is growing for more all-boys schools and classes, and for respecting the individual learning styles of boys. Some people think that boys should be able to walk around in class, or take more time on tests, or have tests and books that cater to their interests. In their desperation to reach out to boys, some colleges have formed football teams and started engineering programs. Most of these special accommodations sound very much like the kind of affirmative action proposed for women over the years—which in itself is an alarming flip.
Whether boys have changed or not, we are well past the time to start trying some experiments. It is fabulous to see girls and young women poised for success in the coming years. But allowing generations of boys to grow up feeling rootless and obsolete is not a recipe for a peaceful future. Men have few natural support groups and little access to social welfare; the men’s-rights groups that do exist in the U.S. are taking on an angry, antiwoman edge. Marriages fall apart or never happen at all, and children are raised with no fathers. Far from being celebrated, women’s rising power is perceived as a threat.
What would a society in which women are on top look like? We already have an inkling. This is the first time that the cohort of Americans ages 30 to 44 has more college-educated women than college-educated men, and the effects are upsetting the traditional Cleaver-family dynamics. In 1970, women contributed 2 to 6 percent of the family income. Now the typical working wife brings home 42.2 percent, and four in 10 mothers—many of them single mothers—are the primary breadwinners in their families. The whole question of whether mothers should work is moot, argues Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress, “because they just do. This idealized family—he works, she stays home—hardly exists anymore.”
The terms of marriage have changed radically since 1970. Typically, women’s income has been the main factor in determining whether a family moves up the class ladder or stays stagnant. And increasing numbers of women—unable to find men with a similar income and education—are forgoing marriage altogether. In 1970, 84 percent of women ages 30 to 44 were married; now 60 percent are. In 2007, among American women without a high-school diploma, 43 percent were married. And yet, for all the hand-wringing over the lonely spinster, the real loser in society—the only one to have made just slight financial gains since the 1970s—is the single man, whether poor or rich, college-educated or not. Hens rejoice; it’s the bachelor party that’s over.
The sociologist Kathryn Edin spent five years talking with low-income mothers in the inner suburbs of Philadelphia. Many of these neighborhoods, she found, had turned into matriarchies, with women making all the decisions and dictating what the men should and should not do. “I think something feminists have missed,” Edin told me, “is how much power women have” when they’re not bound by marriage. The women, she explained, “make every important decision”—whether to have a baby, how to raise it, where to live. “It’s definitely ‘my way or the highway,’” she said. “Thirty years ago, cultural norms were such that the fathers might have said, ‘Great, catch me if you can.’ Now they are desperate to father, but they are pessimistic about whether they can meet her expectations.” The women don’t want them as husbands, and they have no steady income to provide. So what do they have?
“Nothing,” Edin says. “They have nothing. The men were just annihilated in the recession of the ’90s, and things never got better. Now it’s just awful.”
The situation today is not, as Edin likes to say, a “feminist nirvana.” The phenomenon of children being born to unmarried parents “has spread to barrios and trailer parks and rural areas and small towns,” Edin says, and it is creeping up the class ladder. After staying steady for a while, the portion of American children born to unmarried parents jumped to 40 percent in the past few years. Many of their mothers are struggling financially; the most successful are working and going to school and hustling to feed the children, and then falling asleep in the elevator of the community college.
Still, they are in charge. “The family changes over the past four decades have been bad for men and bad for kids, but it’s not clear they are bad for women,” says W. Bradford Wilcox, the head of the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project.
Over the years, researchers have proposed different theories to explain the erosion of marriage in the lower classes: the rise of welfare, or the disappearance of work and thus of marriageable men. But Edin thinks the most compelling theory is that marriage has disappeared because women are setting the terms—and setting them too high for the men around them to reach. “I want that white-picket-fence dream,” one woman told Edin, and the men she knew just didn’t measure up, so she had become her own one-woman mother/father/nurturer/provider. The whole country’s future could look much as the present does for many lower-class African Americans: the mothers pull themselves up, but the men don’t follow. First-generation college-educated white women may join their black counterparts in a new kind of middle class, where marriage is increasingly rare.
As the traditional order has been upended, signs of the profound disruption have popped up in odd places. Japan is in a national panic over the rise of the “herbivores,” the cohort of young men who are rejecting the hard-drinking salaryman life of their fathers and are instead gardening, organizing dessert parties, acting cartoonishly feminine, and declining to have sex. The generational young-women counterparts are known in Japan as the “carnivores,” or sometimes the “hunters.”
American pop culture keeps producing endless variations on the omega male, who ranks even below the beta in the wolf pack. This often-unemployed, romantically challenged loser can show up as a perpetual adolescent (in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up or The 40-Year-Old Virgin), or a charmless misanthrope (in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg), or a happy couch potato (in a Bud Light commercial). He can be sweet, bitter, nostalgic, or cynical, but he cannot figure out how to be a man. “We call each other ‘man,’” says Ben Stiller’s character in Greenberg, “but it’s a joke. It’s like imitating other people.” The American male novelist, meanwhile, has lost his mojo and entirely given up on sex as a way for his characters to assert macho dominance, Katie Roiphe explains in her essay “The Naked and the Conflicted.” Instead, she writes, “the current sexual style is more childlike; innocence is more fashionable than virility, the cuddle preferable to sex.”
At the same time, a new kind of alpha female has appeared, stirring up anxiety and, occasionally, fear. The cougar trope started out as a joke about desperate older women. Now it’s gone mainstream, even in Hollywood, home to the 50-something producer with a starlet on his arm. Susan Sarandon and Demi Moore have boy toys, and Aaron Johnson, the 19-year-old star of Kick-Ass, is a proud boy toy for a woman 24 years his senior. The New York Times columnist Gail Collins recently wrote that the cougar phenomenon is beginning to look like it’s not about desperate women at all but about “desperate young American men who are latching on to an older woman who’s a good earner.” Up in the Air, a movie set against the backdrop of recession-era layoffs, hammers home its point about the shattered ego of the American man. A character played by George Clooney is called too old to be attractive by his younger female colleague and is later rejected by an older woman whom he falls in love with after she sleeps with him—and who turns out to be married. George Clooney! If the sexiest man alive can get twice rejected (and sexually played) in a movie, what hope is there for anyone else? The message to American men is summarized by the title of a recent offering from the romantic-comedy mill: She’s Out of My League.
In fact, the more women dominate, the more they behave, fittingly, like the dominant sex. Rates of violence committed by middle-aged women have skyrocketed since the 1980s, and no one knows why. High-profile female killers have been showing up regularly in the news: Amy Bishop, the homicidal Alabama professor; Jihad Jane and her sidekick, Jihad Jamie; the latest generation of Black Widows, responsible for suicide bombings in Russia. In Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, the traditional political wife is rewritten as a cold-blooded killer at the heart of an evil conspiracy. In her recent video Telephone, Lady Gaga, with her infallible radar for the cultural edge, rewrites Thelma and Louise as a story not about elusive female empowerment but about sheer, ruthless power. Instead of killing themselves, she and her girlfriend (played by Beyoncé) kill a bad boyfriend and random others in a homicidal spree and then escape in their yellow pickup truck, Gaga bragging, “We did it, Honey B.”
The Marlboro Man, meanwhile, master of wild beast and wild country, seems too far-fetched and preposterous even for advertising. His modern equivalents are the stunted men in the Dodge Charger ad that ran during this year’s Super Bowl in February. Of all the days in the year, one might think, Super Bowl Sunday should be the one most dedicated to the cinematic celebration of macho. The men in Super Bowl ads should be throwing balls and racing motorcycles and doing whatever it is men imagine they could do all day if only women were not around to restrain them.
Instead, four men stare into the camera, unsmiling, not moving except for tiny blinks and sways. They look like they’ve been tranquilized, like they can barely hold themselves up against the breeze. Their lips do not move, but a voice-over explains their predicament—how they’ve been beaten silent by the demands of tedious employers and enviro-fascists and women. Especially women. “I will put the seat down, I will separate the recycling, I will carry your lip balm.” This last one—lip balm—is expressed with the mildest spit of emotion, the only hint of the suppressed rage against the dominatrix. Then the commercial abruptly cuts to the fantasy, a Dodge Charger vrooming toward the camera punctuated by bold all caps: MAN’S LAST STAND. But the motto is unconvincing. After that display of muteness and passivity, you can only imagine a woman—one with shiny lips—steering the beast.
I hope this hasn’t turned anyone’s stomach – I make no apologies. I liked this and thought my girls out there would also get a little kick out of it. Happy reading, ya’ll! 🙂