September 29, 2012
The Myth of Male Decline
By STEPHANIE COONTZ
SCROLL through the titles and subtitles of recent books, and you will read that women have become “The Richer Sex,” that “The Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys,” and that we may even be seeing “The End of Men.” Several of the authors of these books posit that we are on the verge of a “new majority of female breadwinners,” where middle-class wives lord over their husbands while demoralized single men take refuge in perpetual adolescence.
How is it, then, that men still control the most important industries, especially technology, occupy most of the positions on the lists of the richest Americans, and continue to make more money than women who have similar skills and education? And why do women make up only 17 percent of Congress?
These books and the cultural anxiety they represent reflect, but exaggerate, a transformation in the distribution of power over the past half-century. Fifty years ago, every male American was entitled to what the sociologist R. W. Connell called a “patriarchal dividend” — a lifelong affirmative-action program for men.
The size of that dividend varied according to race and class, but all men could count on women’s being excluded from the most desirable jobs and promotions in their line of work, so the average male high school graduate earned more than the average female college graduate working the same hours. At home, the patriarchal dividend gave husbands the right to decide where the family would live and to make unilateral financial decisions. Male privilege even trumped female consent to sex, so marital rape was not a crime.
The curtailment of such male entitlements and the expansion of women’s legal and economic rights have transformed American life, but they have hardly produced a matriarchy. Indeed, in many arenas the progress of women has actually stalled over the past 15 years.
Let’s begin by determining which is “the richer sex.”
Women’s real wages have been rising for decades, while the real wages of most men have stagnated or fallen. But women’s wages started from a much lower base, artificially held down by discrimination. Despite their relative improvement, women’s average earnings are still lower than men’s and women remain more likely to be poor.
Today women make up almost 40 percent of full-time workers in management. But the median wages of female managers are just 73 percent of what male managers earn. And although women have significantly increased their representation among high earners in America over the past half-century, only 4 percent of the C.E.O.’s in Fortune’s top 1,000 companies are female.
What we are seeing is a convergence in economic fortunes, not female ascendance. Between 2010 and 2011, men and women working full time year-round both experienced a 2.5 percent decline in income. Men suffered roughly 80 percent of the job losses at the beginning of the 2007 recession. But the ripple effect of the recession then led to cutbacks in government jobs that hit women disproportionately. As of June 2012, men had regained 46.2 percent of the jobs they lost in the recession, while women had regained 38.7 percent of their lost jobs.
The 1970s and 1980s brought an impressive reduction in job segregation by gender, especially in middle-class occupations. But the sociologists David Cotter, Joan Hermsen and Reeve Vanneman report that progress slowed in the 1990s and has all but stopped since 2000. For example, the percentage of female electrical engineers doubled in each decade in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. But in the two decades since 1990 it has increased by only a single percentage point, leaving women at just 10 percent of the total.
Some fields have become even more gender-segregated. In 1980, 75 percent of primary school teachers and 64 percent of social workers were women. Today women make up 80 and 81 percent of those fields. Studies show that as occupations gain a higher percentage of female workers, the pay for those jobs goes down relative to wages in similarly skilled jobs that remain bastions of male employment.
Proponents of the “women as the richer sex” scenario often note that in several metropolitan areas, never-married childless women in their 20s now earn more, on average, than their male age-mates.
But this is because of the demographic anomaly that such areas have exceptionally large percentages of highly educated single white women and young, poorly educated, low-wage Latino men. Earning more than a man with less education is not the same as earning as much as an equally educated man.
Among never-married, childless 22- to 30-year-old metropolitan-area workers with the same educational credentials, males out-earn females in every category, according to a reanalysis of census data to be presented next month at Boston University by Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland. Similarly, a 2010 Catalyst survey found that female M.B.A.’s were paid an average of $4,600 less than men in starting salaries and continue to be outpaced by men in rank and salary growth throughout their careers, even if they remain childless.
Among married couples when both partners are employed, wives earned an average of 38.5 percent of family income in 2010. In that year nearly 30 percent of working wives out-earned their working husbands, a huge increase from just 4 percent in 1970. But when we include all married-couple families, not just dual-earner ones, the economic clout of wives looks a lot weaker.
In only 20 percent of all married-couple families does the wife earn half or more of all family income, according to Professor Cohen, and in 35 percent of marriages, the wife earns less than 10 percent.
Once they have children, wives usually fall further behind their husbands in earnings, partly because they are more likely to temporarily quit work or cut back when workplace policies make it hard for both parents to work full time and still meet family obligations.
But this also reflects prejudice against working mothers. A few years ago, researchers at Cornell constructed fake résumés, identical in all respects except parental status. They asked college students to evaluate the fitness of candidates for employment or promotion. Mothers were much less likely to be hired. If hired, they were offered, on average, $11,000 less in starting salary and were much less likely to be deemed deserving of promotion.
The researchers also submitted similar résumés in response to more than 600 actual job advertisements. Applicants identified as childless received twice as many callbacks as the supposed mothers.
Much has been made of the gender gap in educational achievement. Girls have long done better in school than boys, and women have now pulled ahead of men in completing college. Today women earn almost 60 percent of college degrees, up from one-third in 1960.
The largest educational gender gap is among families in the top 25 percent of the earnings distribution, where women lead men by 13 percent in graduation rates, compared to just a 2 percent advantage for women from the lowest income families.
But at all income levels, women are still concentrated in traditionally female areas of study. Gender integration of college majors has stalled since the mid-1990s, and in some fields, women have even lost ground. Between 1970 and 1985, women’s share of computer and information sciences degrees rose from 14 percent to 37 percent. But by 2008 women had fallen back to 18 percent.
According to the N.Y.U. sociologist Paula England, a senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families, most women, despite earning higher grades, seem to be educating themselves for occupations that systematically pay less.
Even women’s greater educational achievement stems partly from continuing gender inequities. Women get a smaller payoff than men for earning a high school degree, but a bigger payoff for completing college. This is not because of their higher grade point averages, the economist Christopher Dougherty concludes, but because women seem to need more education simply to counteract the impact of traditional job discrimination and traditional female career choices.
If the ascent of women has been much exaggerated, so has the descent of men. Men’s irresponsibility and bad behavior is now a stock theme in popular culture. But there has always been a subset of men who engage in crude, coercive and exploitative behavior. What’s different today is that it’s harder for men to get away with such behavior in long-term relationships. Women no longer feel compelled to put up with it and the legal system no longer condones it. The result is that many guys who would have been obnoxious husbands, behaving badly behind closed doors, are now obnoxious singles, trumpeting their bad behavior on YouTube.
Their boorishness may be pathetic, but it’s much less destructive than the masculine misbehavior of yore. Most men are in fact behaving better than ever. Domestic violence rates have been halved since 1993, while rapes and sexual assaults against women have fallen by 70 percent in that time. In recent decades, husbands have doubled their share of housework and tripled their share of child care. And this change is not confined to highly educated men.
Among dual-earner couples, husbands with the least education do as much or more housework than their more educated counterparts. Men who have made these adjustments report happier marriages — and better sex lives.
ONE thing standing in the way of further progress for many men is the same obstacle that held women back for so long: overinvestment in their gender identity instead of their individual personhood. Men are now experiencing a set of limits — externally enforced as well as self-imposed — strikingly similar to the ones Betty Friedan set out to combat in 1963, when she identified a “feminine mystique” that constrained women’s self-image and options.
Although men don’t face the same discriminatory laws as women did 50 years ago, they do face an equally restrictive gender mystique.
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.
According to a 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center, 77 percent of Americans now believe that a college education is necessary for a woman to get ahead in life today, but only 68 percent think that is true for men. And just as the feminine mystique exposed girls to ridicule and harassment if they excelled at “unladylike” activities like math or sports, the masculine mystique leads to bullying and ostracism of boys who engage in “girlie” activities like studying hard and behaving well in school. One result is that men account for only 2 percent of kindergarten and preschool teachers, 3 percent of dental assistants and 9 percent of registered nurses.
The masculine mystique is institutionalized in work structures, according to three new studies forthcoming in the Journal of Social Issues. Just as women who display “masculine” ambitions or behaviors on the job are often penalized, so are men who engage in traditionally female behaviors, like prioritizing family involvement. Men who take an active role in child care and housework at home are more likely than other men to be harassed at work.
Men who request family leave are often viewed as weak or uncompetitive and face a greater risk of being demoted or downsized. And men who have ever quit work for family reasons end up earning significantly less than other male employees, even when controlling for the effects of age, race, education, occupation, seniority and work hours. Now men need to liberate themselves from the pressure to prove their masculinity. Contrary to the fears of some pundits, the ascent of women does not portend the end of men. It offers a new beginning for both. But women’s progress by itself is not a panacea for America’s inequities. The closer we get to achieving equality of opportunity between the sexes, the more clearly we can see that the next major obstacle to improving the well-being of most men and women is the growing socioeconomic inequality within each sex.
Stephanie Coontz teaches family history at Evergreen State College and is the author of “A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.”