07.08.2012 Mahler's Musings No Comments

Utopia or dystopia? What will the effects be of women earning as much/more than men?

When I was growing up in the 1970s as the only daughter in a family with three sons and a domineering father, I struggled to be valued as a female.  My father told my older brother to “take care of me” when we walked to school and to “take care of the family” when my dad was gone on a business trip.  I grew up largely ignorant of the Women’s Movement despite the fact that it overlapped with my adolescence (we lived in a small town among other reasons) but I was a firm participant in my own small world.  When I reached high school, Title IX was implemented and all of a sudden the sporting world—to which I had largely been shut out as a child, jealously watching from the stands as my older brother played Little League—needed me!  I played basketball and softball, learned to throw shot put and discus and I ran the mile.  I was never that good but when no one else is that good because everyone is learning the sport it’s not that hard to feel valued for whatever contributions you made.  And I did win on occasion, especially in discus.  In those hard years of adolescence it seems impossible to think that the day would come when society needed to worry about boys rather than girls.  But we second-class citizens were raring to show our stuff and we steadily moved into the few slots opened up for us.  We went to college and demanded Women’s Studies and we fought against misogynistic societies and practices.  We entered different occupations but rapidly our heads hit glass ceilings and the ERA was defeated

When I was growing up in the 1970s as the only daughter in a family with three sons and a domineering father, I struggled to be valued as a female.  My father told my older brother to “take care of me” when we walked to school and to “take care of the family” when my dad was gone on a business trip.  I grew up largely ignorant of the Women’s Movement despite the fact that it overlapped with my adolescence (we lived in a small town among other reasons) but I was a firm participant in my own small world.  When I reached high school, Title IX was implemented and all of a sudden the sporting world—to which I had largely been shut out as a child, jealously watching from the stands as my older brother played Little League—needed me!  I played basketball and softball, learned to throw shot put and discus and I ran the mile.  I was never that good but when no one else is that good because everyone is learning the sport it’s not that hard to feel valued for whatever contributions you made.  And I did win on occasion, especially in discus.  In those hard years of adolescence it seems impossible to think that the day would come when society needed to worry about boys rather than girls.  But we second-class citizens were raring to show our stuff and we steadily moved into the few slots opened up for us.  We went to college and demanded Women’s Studies and we fought against misogynistic societies and practices.  We entered different occupations but rapidly our heads hit glass ceilings and the ERA was defeated—affirming to us and seemingly to the rest of the world that we were still being kept behind our potential.

My times have changed.  It’s not that females have achieved equal status with our male counterparts.  Maybe it’s a question of measurement…what do we mean by “equal” anyway?  Equal pay for equal work?  We often don’t really work in the same sectors but statistics show we now earn about 80 cents of every male dollar, up from only 60% at the end of the 70s.  What about measuring equal in academic achievement?  With this measure girls are outpacing boys in most every way now…Sixty percent of all those in higher education are female and among people with bachelors degrees we are nearing the 2/3 mark.  So, is it time for celebration as Liza Mundy argues in her new book Breadwomen: The Richer Sex? It might seem so unless you take a view a bit down the timeline.  My father used to argue at the dinner table that gender is a zero-sum game.  If women rise, men must fall.  I never believed that then and I still do not (though it is a neat argument).  However, the contemporary world I live in certainly looks like males are losing ground and fast… Arguably they are losing ground largely to alpha males’ decisions about economics but the key in this particular case is not necessarily to ask why (which is always what I tend to do so it’s odd I am now not advocating that approach), but, rather, what are the consequences and how can they be addressed?

That is, I argue, we need to think about a world in which larger and larger percentages of the male population across the globe is increasingly irrelevant.  My colleagues in global development talk of females surging everywhere which would seem something to herald, especially since females tend to transfer their good fortune on to their offspring more than males do.  But what will we do with tens and indeed hundreds of millions of males whose lives are less and less important to their societies?  It seems to me that it’s a recipe for disharmony if not disaster.  Males who cannot be financially stable are less eligible for marriage and what do they do with their pent up sexual appetites?  What do under- and unemployed males do to establish their belonging in the world when their female counterparts are employed and often overemployed—working not only second but also third shifts?  Where does all this need for males to feel important and valued in society go under these circumstances?  The traditional outlets are all well-known and not terribly cheerful—war and other types of competition and violence, control of females, establishment and enforcement of rules that control and contain forces of change, particularly those forces that appear to undermine the males’ social position.  The tech sector is another great hiding place.  High paying and high social status jobs, this sector is highly unfriendly toward females.  My daughter knows; she’s there and aware.  There still are some oases for blue collar workers too.  I see women holding the “slow” and “stop” signs in road construction sites but rarely are they driving the muscular machines.  And, of course, the rising fundamentalisms around the world emphasize males as domestic and societal leaders—one of the few characteristics uniting as opposed to dividing them.  Yet, despite these areas the overall picture for an increasing percentage of males is more gloomy than arguably ever before in human history.

We really do have to care about this.  One can try to argue that today is justice for millennia of female subjugation.  Males are societies’ destructive members after all.  They commit way, way more crimes and chaos than their percentage in the population.  If they were not our sons, brothers, husbands, uncles, fathers then we might argue that they should be separated out in society and “rehabilitated”.  (Of course that does not mean females would ever have the power to do so…but this essay is speculative.)  So what do we do?  We really, really need to address the underutilized male segment of society effectively.  Even more urgent since now there is much less need for their physical labor as in yesteryears.  At least with high levels of physical exertion as food foraging hunters and farmer, males could invest their testosterone and frustrations into productive activities but in a post-industrial era wherein most men end up, arguably, fat and frustrated what solutions can there be?  With females, frustration is relatively attenuated through conversation, communication. But for males in general communication is about competition not about stress-relief.  Increase sex?  Bonobos handle social stress this way and they are our closest primate cousins.  Make love not war?  I’m not at all sure that would even do it in a world where all sorts of resources are so unequally “distributed”.

So the question I pose is, “How do we make sure that males are relevant in a world in which female relevancy is rising dramatically?”  To rephrase my father’s formula:  How can females’ lives be improved without that translating males feeling disempowered?  I don’t have the answer, but I do believe that a good place to start looking is sport.  The brain sciences show us that as we exercise our brains emit endorphins and this provides in us feelings of wellbeing.  Sex does this too.  Boys spend many waking hours playing sports but with age these hours become less and less.  And in the digital age, more of the playing is in front of video games—for males of all ages.  Getting up and playing is an important antidote to the ailing male, albeit surely not a total antidote.  Perhaps another is the male organization—the Rotarians and the Elks Club and the like, institutions where men can belong, be male and also do social good.  Get them out of the house and doing something with one another.  Female partners will have to be more tolerant of these types of male-male activities than we might be accustomed to when we want “companionate” relationships unlike the parallel relationships (the men’s room and the women’s room) of yesteryear.   And we might have to be less judgmental if guys are going to be allowed to socialize with other guys without jumping to conclusions about their sexual orientation.

Don’t have all the answers here, but society truly needs to invest the time to into males’ self-worth so I welcome your ideas…. —affirming to us and seemingly to the rest of the world that we were still being kept behind our potential.