Not What We Bargained For
June 16th, 2010

When our most recent issue of The Atlantic arrived in the mail the other day I was excited to read it.  The cover story is entitled “The End of Men: How Women Are Taking Control – of Everything.”  I felt empowered just by reading the title.  I couldn’t wait to see what feminist conquest awaited my eager eyes inside. 

For the most part, I wasn’t disappointed.  The article (which is long, but absolutely worth reading in full) dropped frequent statistics about how the ascent of women in the workplace positively correlates to increase economic success nationally; how women will earn three bachelor’s degrees for every two earned by men; how women dominate all but two of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most in the next decade; and so on.  Bring on the girl power, right?  Well, maybe not.

As I made my way through the article I began feeling less empowered and more depressed.  While there is a certain vindication in knowing that we’ve finally arrived at a place where brains are valued over brawn, reading about the degradation this has caused in the male workforce brought a twinge of sadness with it.  Those feelings of regret were compounded when I learned that this phenomenon disproportionately affects blue-collar male workers, who lose not only their incomes, but their entire identities, when the economy no longer requires their services. 

Apparently part of the reason for this growing gender gap (for the first time in America’s history, women now make up more than 50% of the workforce) is that women have proved more adaptable than men. 

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.

The article goes on to trace this gender gap back to education.  Women earn more bachelor’s and master’s degrees than men.  They earn half of all medical and law degrees.  And they earn 42% of all MBAs.  Women in undergraduate programs interviewed for the article commented on their male counterparts’ lack of commitment to a major, and confessed that they fully expected to be the primary – or in some cases only – breadwinner in their marriages.  One of the many reasons for the classroom gender gap seems to be that traditional classroom settings, beginning at the elementary age, focus largely on sustained periods of sitting still and focusing on highly verbal curricula.  This environment is, evidently, much more conducive to girls’ learning style than boys’.

And so it is that we’ve arrived at a place where women are finally surpassing men in achievements both academic and professional.  But the sadness sets in when I stop to think that this wasn’t ever the goal of feminism, was it?  Of course there have been moments of the past 40 years in which women secretly or overtly wished to dominate their male counterparts.  But I count such sentiments as the natural over-correction resulting from generations of marginalization.  The true aim of feminism was equality.  What women have always wanted was equal opportunity, equal pay, and equal value. 

I find this recent turning of the tables to be every bit as problematic as the trials faced by the women of my mother’s generation and every generation before her.  Perhaps the idea of wielding power over men is captivating for a moment.  But it is no more a solution for women to be disproportionately valued by the workforce today than it was for men to have been valued yesterday. 

The one caveat to all of this is that men are not being denied opportunities today in the way that women were in the past.  We all have the same choices on the table in front of us.  Adapting to a changing economy is a challenge for anyone.  Raising a family while working one job and attending night school is a nightmare scenario in the best of circumstances.  But women have signed up for that very nightmare time after time.

A 2005 survey of lower-income adults in college revealed that:

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.

So what do we do now?  It seems incumbent upon us as a society to harness the intelligence and productivity of a complete workforce.  But how do solve the problems of insecurity, fear, initiative, and commitment?  Should we compromise our standards?  Surely not.  Should we leave men to struggle as the gender gap widens?  Probably not. 

And so we are left with a conundrum we’ve never faced.  I don’t have the answer.  But I suggest we don’t wait four or five generations to start looking for it.

11 Responses to “Not What We Bargained For”

  1. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    Wow, what an enlightening piece. I agree with you…while I’m proud of women and how far we’ve come, don’t we need to strive for balance, for a society where everyone can find a place to thrive?

  2. Nicki Says:

    You are so right! The one thing that we cannot do is sit and wait, hope that a solution or new process will appear. We have tried that method with female equality and with foreign oil dependence. It doesn’t work. We need to be proactive in this issue.

  3. Laura H. Says:

    I haven’t had the time to read the article you reference, so I may be speaking out of line here. I just don’t perceive a need to focus on a potential gender gap with men when the gender gap is still huge with women on the equality of pay front. In the United States women still make only 70-80% of what their male counterparts make. And the gap is a lot worse worldwide.

    Maybe in this tough economic environment women are getting hired more (and thus representing a higher percentage of the workforce) because employers know they can pay us less. That doesn’t mean we’re taking over everything! And it certainly isn’t new news that girls do better in school because boys can’t sit still. Teachers have been using different teaching methods for boys for many decades for this reason. Girls being less educated for centuries didn’t have to do with girls being less educatable…it had to do with girls not having the opportunity for education. Now girls are raised knowing they can go to medical school and law school, so they do and that’s why graduate admissions are 50%+ women now…but when they graduate they still are earning 70-80% of what the men are earning.

    So I think the mark is completely missed in saying being hired is being valued by the workforce…in my opinion being valued is being hired AND paid an equal wage.

    Once equality of pay happens, then I’ll query whether women are getting more bachelor’s degrees than men, or are being hired more than men. But until then, I feel that women are becoming more educated because we have to be more educated than men in order to earn a comfortable wage, and I feel that we make up more of the workforce because we’re working more than one job in order to earn a comfortable wage. And men just don’t have to do those things at the same rate as women because they earn more.

  4. Gale Says:

    Laura – Thanks for this response. You make some really valuable points here. And you’re right about women’s earning power still not being on par with men’s. The article goes into significantly more detail than what I conveyed here, but it does in fact portray women as being in a more advantageous position than what you indicated in your comment. I think what was most alarming to me was the trend. Women aren’t just making up ground. Men (particularly blue collar men) are losing ground. That’s the element that troubles me. In an ideal scenario the advancement of one gender wouldn’t come to pass at the expense of the other. Is this a naive or utopian goal? I don’t know. I certainly hope not, but it may be.

  5. Jane Says:

    Such a thought provoking piece. Thanks for bringing my attention to it. My sister and I were just discussing this very issue over the weekend. Not only do we have to find balance – but we have to adjust our mindset about what is important, truly important. There needs to be an overall shift in society. But how to do that? I have no clue.

  6. Anne Says:

    Yeah, balance is really important. I do wonder though, if the “top” positions–those that come with the most owning power–are still dominated by men? And of course I’m always coming back to the hard sciences (especially engineering) where men still dominate.

    Do you think this hit you in a different way than it would have if you didn’t have a son?

  7. Laura H. Says:

    I think in most cases the advancements of one gender do have to come at the expense of the other. And this does not mean I’m some super-charged feminist who wants more than equality. I think this is what has to happen in order for there to be equality. For example:

    If Employer has $100 dollars to pay Male Employee and Female Employee, and in the past Employer has paid Male Employee $60 and paid Female Employee $40, then for equal wages to occur, Male Employee has to take a cut so that Male Employee and Female Employee can both be paid $50. In an ideal world with unlimited resources, both would be paid $60. But in a realistic world, yes I believe that in most cases one gender has to take a cut in order to provide for equality.

    And I have a son too! I hope to raise him to know that this trend does not mean women are better than men or that they deserve more than men or that men are “losing ground,” but it means that sometimes those who have gotten more than they deserve need to give up something (stop being greedy) in order to help those get what they deserve.

    If our whole country “got” this concept, then we could make steps to end other problems that are resultant of our greed – dependence on oil, on cheap food, etc. but that’s a whole new blog topic! :)

  8. Kate Says:

    This is fascinating! Well done. Should women give up ground? No.
    I think part of the problem is that gender roles and expectations haven’t changed as quickly as the access to jobs and career paths for women, and the inevitable impact that has on men’s jobs. Each of us is taught (explicitly or not) what we bring of value to the world. Helping our sons and daughters have the broadest sense of self worth may help. And teaching in innovative ways that reach all students.
    This is leaving me with lots to think about.

  9. BigLittleWolf Says:

    I have come back to this (beautifully written) essay several times. Trying to find the right words. And I cannot.

    I don’t think we’ve come very far at all. We have the semblance of entry into a world that we may or may not actually want. If we have that semi-access which was unthinkable even 25 years ago (when I was entering it), the back rooms are still largely off limits, and women are going entrepreneurial routes as a matter of survival, often with children to raise by themselves, or with insufficient support in the workplace or the culture.

    I come at this from a different place, I realize. But a place that many women will reach, having “done all the right things” and put in their time, only to have it all crash and burn if divorce hits and kids still need to be raised.

    Women don’t need men?

    Not true. Men and women need each other – to build families, to benefit from varying perspectives, to intermix roles in whatever way suits them. Gender barriers remain and always will as long as women are having the babies and the working world makes no allowances for the fact that someone needs to raise the children, and do so mindfully, respectfully, thoughtfully.

    Ideally, men and women both would share that responsibility and pleasure. Ideally, our social network would ensure health care for women raising cchildren on their own. Ideally, our organizational structures would allow sufficient flexibility for men and women both to exercise their skills AND parent – and pas the age of 40, past the age of 50, past the age of 60.

    Women putting men out of work? Maybe by the numbers, depending upon how the data is interpreted. In the real world? Not in any significant way. Not once kids are in the picture. Or aging is.

  10. Gale Says:

    BLW – Thanks so much for this response. I’ve been so intruigued by the comments to this post. Perhaps naively I didn’t question the content of the Atlantic article that much. (Probably because I was so focused on trying to distill it adequately.) But with your perspective here and that of other commenters my eyes have been opened to a more skeptical view.

    I particularly appreciate your comments about men and women needing each other. Much of my happiness is based squarely on that premise. My husband is supportive of my career, of our son, of my hobbies, interests, and personal fulfillment. Without him I my life wouldn’t include much of the richness that it does. Not just the richness of a happy marriage, but richness that comes from having time for volunteer work, time to go out with girlfriends, time to work out, and so on. Without a supportive spouse (or any spouse at all) these things that are now available to me would not be.

    As you wrote, there is much ground to make up. But no matter what happens in the workforce, unless men and women are supporting each other both inside and outside of the office, we will all fall short.

    Thanks again for your continued and thoughtful comments here. I always value your insights.

  11. Laura H. Says:


    Here’s an interesting story I received today that made me think of your blog post from a few weeks ago:

    I am shocked that it is newsworthy that women lawyers are dissatisfied over disparity in pay. What, do they think we’re indifferent to it? Or that we’re just fine as can be with it?!