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Posts Tagged ‘M.I.T.’

That gagging sound you heard last week, when Ann Romney bellowed in her best Oprah voice, “I love you, womennnnnn!”? That was me.

And not because I don’t love women; I do. And not because I don’t believe that Ann Romney loves women; I’m sure she does. It’s because, at best, this sentiment is utterly beside the point. And at worst, it’s a cynical, calculated, transparent attempt to chip away at the current and sizable gender gap among voters.

My thoughts crystallized this weekend, while reading an adaptation from Hanna Rosin‘s forthcoming book “The End of Men: And the Rise of Women,” which ran in Sunday’s New York Times magazine. The piece–and Rosin’s book, which grew out of a much dissected article that ran in The Atlantic two years ago–focuses on several real-life families in Alexander City, Alabama, families who now rely on mom to bring home the bacon, a circumstance which leaves everyone puzzling over the reversal of roles. This change of fortune comes thanks to a confluence of factors including the disappearance of good-paying work in the manufacturing sector (jobs traditionally held by men), and the fact that the economy has changed, as have the types of jobs that are available, and the skills that are needed in order to land them:

These days that usually requires going to college or getting some job retraining, which women are generally more willing to do. Two-thirds of the students at the local community college are women, which is fairly typical of the gender breakdown in community colleges throughout the country.

These shifts represent a reality that bumps with the worldview there, informed by both Southern tradition and the Evangelical church. Rosin writes of a conversation with Reuben Prater, currently out of work:

Reuben has a college degree and doesn’t seem especially preoccupied with machismo, so I asked him why, given how many different kinds of jobs he has held, he couldn’t train for one of the jobs that he knew was available: something related to schools, nursing or retail, for example. One reason was obvious–those jobs don’t pay as much as he was accustomed to making–but he said there was another. ‘We’re in the South,’ he told me. ‘A man needs a strong, macho job. He’s not going to be a schoolteacher or a legal secretary or some beauty-shop queen. He’s got to be a man.’ I asked several businesswomen in Alexander City if they would hire a man to be a secretary or a receptionist or a nurse, and many of them just laughed.

All of which makes me chuckle a bit, when one considers this:

‘An important long-term issue is that men are not doing as well as women in keeping up with the demands of the local economy,’ says Michael Greenstone, an economist at M.I.T. and director of the Hamilton Project, which has done some of the most significant research on men and unemployment. ‘It’s a first-order mystery for social scientists, why women have more clearly heard the message that the economy has changed and men have such a hard time hearing it or responding.’

Why shouldn’t they have a hard time? We’re talking about nothing short of a wholesale redefinition of what it is to be a man. Or a woman. We’re talking about nothing short of a wholesale redefinition of what’s valued–and when, for centuries, to be a man was to hold power and make money, finding a woman to fill the role of “helpmate” along his ascent, I’d say it’s not mysterious at all that men are having a hard time hearing the message that things are changing.

Who wants to hear that their status is in jeopardy, their power no longer assured? Who wouldn’t find themselves at a loss?

And, as for the women, we’re taking on the challenges because we can. To earn a paycheck was not something expected of us as women; it’s something we’ve had to fight for the right to do.

And it’s not just the middle-aged men who have careers and lives to look back upon as they wonder what changed who are idling. Even young men seem resistant to what’s really going on. One family profiled in Rosin’s piece exemplifies it all: Rob Pridgen, whose job had recently been phased out; his wife Connie, a high school teacher; and her grown daughter Abby, who found Rob’s explanation of “man-as-provider” laughable:

At this point… Abby, who was then 19, piped up with her own perspective on the Southern code of chivalry, which she said sounded like nonsense to her, given how the boys she knew actually behaved–hanging out in the parking lot, doing God knows what, or going home and playing video games instead of bothering to apply for college…

[Another] afternoon, while Rob sat nearby, Connie and Abby were mulling over a passage from Proverbs that is sometimes read at church for Mother’s Day and that had come up in a Bible-study group.

The passage describes the ‘wife of noble character,’ who works with the wool and the flax, brings the food from afar, who ‘gets up while it is still dark,’ buys a field, plants a vineyard, turns a profit, and ‘her lamp does not go out at night’ because she’s still sewing clothes for the poor and generally being industrious while everyone else sleeps. Her husband, meanwhile, ‘is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.’

Traditionally the passage has been viewed as an elaboration of the proper roles of husband and wife. The husband sits in the dominant, protective role, watching his wife’s efforts on behalf of the family and taking pride. But in a town in which many men aren’t working steadily anymore, the words have taken on new meaning. There are people who have noticed that the passage never mentions what the husband is doing or what role he’s playing in providing food for his family, tilling the fields or turning a profit. And what’s dawning on Connie these last few months became obvious to Abby and Rob as she read the passage out loud. That noble wife is working from dawn to dusk. And the husband?

‘Sounds like he’s sitting around with his buddies shooting the breeze, talking about the ballgame and eating potato chips,’ Rob said.

Abby wasn’t surprised. Around Alex City, she said it seemed that it was the girls who were full of energy and eager to see the world. Her own brother, Alex, who was 17, seemed to want to stay in town forever and raise his family here. But Abby was enrolled in Southern Union State Community College, attending on a show-choir scholarship. Her plan was to go there for a year, as many girls in Alex City do, to save money, and then head to Auburn University.

Things are changing in major ways. And change is tough to deal with. But while we’re all puzzling over these seismic shifts is precisely the wrong time to accept blatant pandering with nothing of substance beneath it. And it makes such pandering even more offensive. Women are important to Republicans only in as much as a vote is a vote. But women are increasingly important to this economy, not to mention to the financial support of the typical family and household–we are, in so many ways, patently integral to the success of our society. And the outdated structures and policies we’re left with–and some are fighting fervently to preserve–are relics of a bygone era, useless as typewriters or VCRs. To refuse to recognize the changing times is the worst kind of denial–one that breeds backward-looking policies and irrelevant debate. Our society and our economy need us. To truly value women would be to prioritize policies that help working mothers, health care for everyone, reproductive rights. To patronize women by saying “we love you,” or “your job has always been harder,” is useless when it’s paired with a refusal to acknowledge who today’s women actually are, what they actually do. Because it’s not just women who depend on it.

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Oh, how I tire of the End of Men headlines.

Two recent books have reignited the conversation, though, as their titles indicate, they come at it from decidedly different perspectives. In “Manning Up,” Kay Hymowitz argues that men taking longer to grow up and get married (which are, you know, boogeyman-bad phenomena) is a problem for which feminism is to blame. Then there’s “Man Down,” by Dan Abrams, which argues that women are better than men at basically everything. (On a recent appearance on The View, Joy Behar made him blush when she asked: “Did you just write the book to get laid?”) In his book, Abrams cites a lot of science that’ll have women feeling proud, but some of it is cause for pause. Check, for example, this, from a Q&A at MyDaily:

You cite a study that shows that people often find news more credible when it’s read by a female newscaster, but that the same people often find male newscasters more credible in general. This dynamic shows up in your analysis of women in politics as well. Can you tell us what you think is going on here?
Look, I think that there are still a lot of people who have what I might view as antiquated stereotypes about how they view everything from world leaders to doctors to newscasters. It’s really striking, the idea that they viewed the messages coming from a woman as more credible but when they were asked who was more credible, they said men.

And this is exactly the kind of thing that gets my blood boiling whenever I come across something like Hymowitz’ “Manning Up”–woe be the man, no longer the king of the castle, the apex of the food chain! I’m not the only one; here’s a nice little taste from Kate Tuttle’s take down in the Boston Globe:

[Hymowitz’s] zeal to somehow tie women’s educational and economic advances to this perceived downward spiral in men’s maturity levels leads her to make wild claims and to confuse cause and effect, as when she points out that women only make less money than men if you take into account their disproportional numbers in low-paying careers–there’s a more logical way to spin that fact, as I’m sure she realizes. But when your point is that somehow women are doing better than men, and that this improvement in women’s lives somehow comes at the expense of men’s identity, well, it’s better to throw around lines like ‘feminism’s siren call to the workplace’ than to question why jobs traditionally held by women pay less than jobs traditionally held by men.

An important question, doncha think? Perhaps it has to do with fears of being perceived as too ambitious, or of women’s work being undervalued? (An equally important question might be this: who are these women–writing books, running for the second-highest public office–so quick to denigrate feminism?)

More annoying, though, is this: on the very same day I found myself reading one women’s argument as to why feminism is to blame for all that ails the modern man and one man’s assertion that, to quote the Grateful Dead, The Women Are Smarter, I came across an NYT piece titled “At M.I.T., Success Comes With Unexpected Consequences.” The story leads off with a nod to M.I.T.’s recent push to hire more women, but quickly takes a nosedive into the unexpected consequences. And as we all know, unexpected consequences are never good.

But with the emphasis on eliminating bias, women now say the assumption when they win important prizes or positions is that they did so because of their gender. Professors say that female undergraduates ask them how to answer male classmates who tell them they got into M.I.T. only because of affirmative action.

(I have some idea of how I’d answer such a statement. And I didn’t even go to M.I.T.)

But wait; there’s more! For every positive development, an unintended consequence. Pro: every committee must include a woman! Con: because there are so many fewer women than men on the faculty, nearly every woman is on a committee–and, thus, losing time for research,

as well as the outside consultancies that earn their male colleagues a lot of money.

Pro: There are better family leave policies in place. Con:

Yet now women say they are uneasy with the frequent invitations to appear on campus panels to discuss their work-life balance. In interviews for the study, they expressed frustration that parenthood remained a women’s issue, rather than a family one.

As Professor Sive said, ‘Men are not expected to discuss how much sleep they get or what they give their kids for breakfast.’

Better grab a Pop-Tart for this next one:

Despite an effort to educate colleagues about bias in letters of recommendation for tenure, those for men tend to focus on intellect while those for women dwell on temperament.

Sure doesn’t sound like we’re on equal ground [she typed with a smile]. And yet, it seems all but impossible to escape the hand-wringing over the End of Men.

Speaking of the end of men, Hanna Rosin, who wrote the article of the same name for The Atlantic, on last week’s Double X Gabfest spoke with her colleagues Jessica Grose and Kate Julian about manning up, manning down, and the end of men. In it, Rosin puts forth an interesting theory: They’re old themes in America: that of the self-made man, the constant opportunity for self-reinvention. It’s an ideology, she says, that created a constant state of “anxiety in men, that you were constantly having to prove yourself.”

At that point, another voice, I think Grose, pipes in to say that the women she knows, in their 20s and 30s, are incredibly anxious about making something of themselves, too, weighed down by the idea of having it all.

Um, yeah. We’d tend to agree. So, let’s just take a moment to review: in addition to the sorts of unexpected consequences outlined in the NYT piece about M.I.T., women are also facing the kind of anxiety that men have been dealing with for centuries–only, because it’s new to our gender as a whole, we have to navigate that without benefit of role models… And yet, we wonder, is this the end of men?

I suppose it depends on what is meant by the word “men.” Could it be that what’s really going on is that the traditional definitions are growing less and less relevant; that women are becoming more like traditional ‘men,’ and men, more like us?

Interestingly, later still I found myself flipping through the mountainous stack of unread magazines on my dining room table (/desk). A headline on this month’s Marie Claire caught my eye: “New Trend: Male Baby Fever.” Inside, the piece claims that men are hankering to become daddies, dumping women not yet ready to settle down. (Wonder what Hymowitz would make of that?)

(While this, I’m sure, is generally viewed as a warm-fuzzy variety story, a trend to be applauded, the logical counterpart–the one about those women who aren’t feeling the settling down thing–would likely be met with tsk-tsks and hyperbolic cries that this time, feminism has really done it; the end of the world as we know it is near!)

But. I wonder.

Even if it is only a (insert air quotes here) Trend Piece, and even if it only hints at an inkling of a trend, might it hold the potential for a pleasant-yet-unintended consequence: If men are increasingly the ones with baby-fever, maybe, soon enough, they’ll be the ones fighting for a more family friendly workplace. Maybe they’ll want their wives to make the same kind of money they do. While I don’t envision a day when they’ll be the ones stuck talking sleep, judged on their temperament, rather than their accomplishments, I like to imagine a time when it occurs to them that a more equal world is worth fighting for–and an unintended consequence of fighting for it might be better conditions for everyone.

Pipe dream or Pop Tart? Time will tell.


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