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Gender Gap


September 17, 2012

Hanna Rosin’s controversial new book proclaims the "end of men." But what about the women?

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Image courtesy Nina Subin

Despite the shocking-pink title on its bright yellow cover, Hanna Rosin’s new book The End of Men focuses primarily on women. Her idea, she says, was to look closely at women in the public sphere, focusing on the workplace and delving into marriage and sexual relationships as a way of showing how public relationships blur into the private arena. According to Rosin, we are at a key moment in history, where women are beginning to outperform men economically and in higher education (in fact, they may begin outperforming men in elementary school). While much of this accomplishment has taken place within the grueling, at times inhumane, environment of the traditional workplace, women in the upper echelons of business have made some strides to change the workplace to better accommodate complex living and working arrangements. Problematically, however, these well-publicized advancements (such as the appointment of former Google executive Marissa Mayer at Yahoo!) also seem to mask need for more sweeping changes that could help lower-income women manage the demands of breadwinning and child care.

I interviewed Rosin over the phone, two weeks before her book was published at Riverhead. There was the sound of sawing from her end of the line. “Someone’s putting new windows into my attic and it’s very loud” she said. The added chaos seemed emblematic of the women she writes about: busy, perhaps too busy, and seeming to make it up as they go along. In her book, Rosin writes admiringly of what she calls a “Seesaw Marriage,” an arrangement that allows for high-achieving couples in an uncertain economic environment to take turns as breadwinner.

For men, it seems, there is more standing in the way of social acceptance as one of this “seesaw” arrangement. For it to work, Rosin explains, it needs to be socially acceptable for the man to stay home with the kids sometimes, even for long periods of time. On the other hand, studies showing boys falling behind in school are a warning that there may be more standing in the way of men becoming co-breadwinners. And then there is the fact that it’s not only women who dislike traditional office hours. As Rosin told me, her goal in writing this book was that “I really want people to realize what an important role women play in the workforce, not because I want to shove it in people’s faces, or even that this is a straightforward feminist argument, but because I think that if people don’t recognize that, the workplace is never going to change. The American workforce is effectively set up for a world in which one person is always at home and the other person is working.”

Rosin’s book has not been free of criticism. Reuters’ Anna Louie Sussman, for example, has written that Rosin “barely pauses to acknowledge some realities behind the statistics, such as the thankless nature of many of the professions in which women dominate.” This interview, like the book itself, is not free of generalizations, but it also examines the consequences of the changes at hand.

Tana Wojczuk for Guernica

Guernica: You write admiringly of the Dutch style of social welfare, which enforces mandatory paternity leave, and how that’s changing some definitions of manhood. On the other hand you’re also celebrating women who’re skipping those kinds of laws, and, also kindred social movements and making changes once they get to the top. Is America just relying on these superwomen to change the culture one field at a time?

Hanna Rosin: A good example is a country like Norway, where corporate boards have to have a certain percentage of women on them. I can’t remember if it was equal or 40 percent, but they legislated this by law: If you are a company of a certain size you have to have a certain number of women on your corporate board. Then they studied the results of that. Do they make different decisions or not?

I think it’s great, I just think it’s just not what America does. I don’t think our way is necessarily better, it’s just obviously slower and more erratic and I think each method creates a different set of problems. The Norwegian method is great because it enacts change incredibly quickly, and we get to study it pretty closely, like, okay, what does happen to the bottom line when you have more women on the corporate board?

In Scandinavia, the downside of forcing women to take a year of maternity leave is that women then have to take a year of maternity leave whether they want to or not. So there’s quick social change, but it also creates a standard of behavior.

Whereas in America you take someone–I don’t know if you know Marissa Mayer but she was a chief executive at Google and now she’s CEO at Yahoo!, she announced that she was the CEO and she also announced that she was pregnant and that she was not going to take a lot of maternity leave. Now in Norway that would be massively socially unacceptable, but I guess I think it’s okay. It’s not what I did and it’s not what a lot of women would choose to do, but am I happy that there’s such a model for women to follow? She has a husband, you know, he can take care of the kids–and I think it’s great that there are alternate models. I also think that forcing women onto corporate boards is pretty great. I just wish it would work in America.

Guernica: That seems like it would create a lot of problems for lower-class women in America who can’t always choose [whether to take maternity leave or not].

Hanna Rosin: Well, I do agree with Sheryl Sandberg on that front. It’s not a public duty to stick to the workforce, but if I happen to be in a position of power, where I have influence over the corporate policies of Facebook, and I can make sure that at Facebook women have a certain amount of maternity leave, then [dropping out of the workforce to have children] is going to affect the women at Facebook. If I’m in a position like that which can affect other women that’s just a good thing.

Guernica: You talk about this new trend of high-powered men marrying high-powered women and then sort of putting them out of business.

Hanna Rosin: Yeah. I think people talked about that in the 2000s, and it’s amazing it still exists. I only noticed this particular phenomenon in America, not in other countries, but it tends to totally skew towards super-rich men. Not just rich men, but super-rich men. They still pretty much dominate the top of the economic hierarchy, you know. There are these great studies that show that if you were a guy in business school who was going places you would marry your secretary, like in Mad Men. But now if you’re that guy you marry your fellow pretty business school graduate and if you’re very rich she’s almost certain not to work. It’s just the way it works out. Whereas if you’re averagely rich, meaning you make like $100,000, then your wife is still likely to work.

Guernica: So you can get to be super-rich.

Hanna Rosin: Yeah, so you can get to be super-rich in a slightly more equitable way.

I think the men’s movements over the century have been largely a failure.

Guernica: In terms of shifting identities, the women’s movement historically excluded men. It still often exists as this opportunity for female bonding but the men are not invited.

Hanna Rosin: Right.

There is no movement that’s fighting for more paternity leave, you know, or that’s fighting to take the pressure off men who want to be more involved fathers.

Guernica: And the men’s movement seems to have been about reinforcing traditional “male” values rather than evolving them. Have you seen any different kinds of movements, where men and women are able to converse about these things?

Hanna Rosin: Not really. I mean honestly, no. I think the men’s movements over the century have been largely a failure. It’s not that they haven’t existed, it’s that they’ve been fairly niche. There’s obviously a gay men’s movement—that’s a pretty powerful movement and that was in the ’60s and ’70s, and was more about relaxing the roles around gender, and now it’s about social rights and it’s slightly different. It’s focused on marriage and a slightly different set of issues. But we wouldn’t say that’s broadly a men’s rights movement. And in America what we have as the men’s rights movement is “post-divorce”—its focused on child care and alimony and those kind of issues but it hasn’t added up. There is no movement that’s fighting for more paternity leave, you know, or that’s fighting to take the pressure off men who want to be more involved fathers. Men don’t do movements, you know, and I think that is actually, in retrospect, that’s one of the advantages for women—is that they band together in movements and thus that’s done them a great amount of good in the last hundred years.

It’s not like everywhere you go people don’t understand male privilege—they certainly do. But it’s fading as a national style.

Men could use a movement right now, you know? They could use a movement even if it was kind of the way Europeans have unions. We don’t have intensely strong unions anymore–that’s the closest we have to the men’s movement. [Men] could use it to improve their work situation and they could also use it to improve workplace policies. I do have a hope that for younger men, while there’s definitely no movement, they have different expectations and desires for the workplace than older men did. What the researchers often say is that a man in his twenties has the same expectations in his workplace as a forty-five-year-old mother of three. He wants it to be flexible, he wants to be able to work at home, he wants to be able to work on his laptop. And anyway those guys have not had steady employment. They have a much more kind of flexible, spotty relationship with work than older men.

Guernica: Going back to this idea that men don’t do movements, this might not end up being as important for the younger generations of men, but I’m wondering to what degree they don’t do movements because they’re told that they have privilege. But that now the privilege they have had is eroding.

Hanna Rosin: I think their privilege is eroding. For one thing, for progressive guys I think it’s embarrassing to have male privilege. If you look at the TV role models, you see the big boy bosses in 30 Rock or The Office, whatever, they’re “figures” between quotation marks. You’re not supposed to wholeheartedly embrace the sort of “white man in power.”

I did this survey of women who make more money than their partners or husbands and I got one man who was unequivocally like, “I don’t know what everyone’s talking about, this is really great, I love the changing gender roles,” and then I noticed the guy was from Portland, Oregon.

Now that’s not true everywhere; there are definitely pockets where that attitude survives. Finance is one of them and there are southern fraternities where the attitude exists. It’s not like everywhere you go people don’t understand male privilege—they certainly do. But it’s fading as a national style, let’s say. In other parts of America it exists because of the Bible—in churches around America being the head of the household is still a very important thing and that’s a male privilege. So even when men are not the main breadwinner and they’re out of work, they’re still the head of the households.

Guernica: You cite evidence that private colleges are creating some form of affirmative action for men. What do you think of this?

Hanna Rosin: What do I think of affirmative action for men? First of all I feel like you do, that it’s slightly alarming, and sort of a known secret amongst all college admissions people. Every once in a while you have a list, like the one I’ve just published and like the ones in the World Report, or a revealing quote by a college admissions official which makes it perfectly clear and plain. You can also look at the state universities, because they don’t go by anything but grades and test results, and they are heavily skewed female. It’s perfectly obvious to everyone, but it’s hard for both the left and the right to talk about this—for different reasons.

To the left it’s difficult to talk about it because the [prevailing] narrative is of women being helped. It is hard to fully acknowledge—even in these circumstances, which were designed to create the next generation of elites—it’s actually men who need help. And I think on the right it’s difficult to talk about it because we have pretty fixed ideas about maleness and femaleness, that men should be dominant. Not that women should be submissive but that men should take the lead.

I think it’s a little uncomfortable to talk about it on both sides, for different reasons. Now what do I feel about the fact that they have affirmative action? I mean, I don’t mind affirmative action, I’m not a big opponent of affirmative action, I just wish it was all above board. I just wish we would all discuss these issues. Because it’s very erratic. Some colleges use it more than others, it’s… it’s just not acknowledged. It’s awkward.

People come up with very exacting and interesting algorithms for who needs help: If you have a white boy from a poor family, a poor Southern family, that’s fine with me. I think that [class] should be counted in the formula in which affirmative action is determined.

Guernica: So you’re saying that class is relevant.

Hanna Rosin: Yeah! If you take a middle-class woman, a woman with two college-educated parents and you take a white boy who grew up in a family where, say, there was no father, and his mom didn’t have a lot of money, he’d be the underprivileged one for sure. And that’s just not a calculation that anyone else has made.

Guernica: When are men more likely to adapt, like going back to school to retrain? Is it age, is it class, is it region?

Hanna Rosin: They have a really hard time adapting. I mean, they just do. I did this survey of women who make more money than their partners or husbands and I got one man who was unequivocally like, “I don’t know what everyone’s talking about, this is really great, I love the changing gender roles,” and then I noticed the guy was from Portland, Oregon. And I was like, well sure! In Portland everyone thinks it’s awesome that you’re home with your children. There’s no social stigma at all, but in other places, even in Brooklyn, there is some stigma.

Guernica: That reminds me of what you termed the “seesaw marriage,” where partners take turns as the primary earner and/or childcare provider. I’m curious as to that model versus the stay-at-home father model, both of which are not the norm but seem to be on the rise. Do you see one or the other creating a better balance for partners?

Given what I have understood about the seesaw marriage, if we have a large number of stay-at-home dads it would just create the same problems as a large number of stay-at-home moms. The key to the success of the seesaw marriage is the ability to choose different roles at different times.

Hanna Rosin: There are relatively few stay-at-home fathers and when they grow, they grow very, very slowly. Given what I have understood about the seesaw marriage, if we have a large number of stay-at-home dads it would just create the same problems as a large number of stay-at-home moms. The key to the success of the seesaw marriage is the ability to choose different roles at different times. In order for that model to be successful on a large scale, you want the possibility of stay-at-home dads to be socially acceptable. So if the mom is Marissa Mayer, she wants it to be okay for her husband to be able to stay at home for six months, or a year, or two years, or whatever, while she is killing herself at Yahoo!. But the key to the model is that people can take turns, so nobody feels trapped in one spot or another. Nobody feels forced to be one type of spouse.

Guernica: Do you think that the seesaw marriage, if it were to keep increasing, would alleviate the problems some people have reentering the workforce after taking a couple years off?

Hanna Rosin: Yes. It already is starting to do that. In an ideal world, you would allow people to take turns so that it wouldn’t just be a woman thing to stay home with children. It would become increasingly a man thing, even for some amount of time. But the second revolution that has to happen–there’s the domestic revolution and the public revolution–the pubic revolution, and part of the reason I wrote this book, is that I really want people to realize what an important role women play in the workforce, not because I want to shove it in people’s faces, or even that this is a straightforward feminist argument, but because I think that if people don’t recognize that, the workplace is never going to change.

The American workforce is effectively set up for a world in which one person is always at home and the other person is working. That’s how it’s structured. We get very little vacation; there is very little recognition that children have to be raised. We are the only industrialized country that doesn’t have paid maternity leave. We still fail to acknowledge that children have to be raised by somebody. The assumption is that there is somebody home with the children all the time, and really, that’s not the way it is.

Families are utterly dependent, sometimes singularly dependent, on mothers working. We have to take that into account and it is taking us a bizarrely long time to acknowledge that. And it’s not like we want to be kind to women out of civil rights–it’s an economic reality. A huge number of women work and a huge number of families are dependent on those women working.

Guernica: So it seems like, as the workplace “feminizes” as you say in the book, and it becomes a little more about cooperation and creative problem solving, including maybe creative problem solving for childcare, do you think that might also raise the cachet of housework? Does “gender pollution” work in reverse?

Hanna Rosin: That’s a good point. What does this do to the value of housework? On the one hand, you have what I talked about in the Sheryl Sandberg chapter: We want more women to climb to the top to make it possible for other women to have a decent work life. But can we also make it possible for housework to be valuable, for people to stay at home? I hadn’t really thought about that. Nobody wants housework to be devalued, but my entire argument is about women in the public sphere, so what does that do to women who don’t want to be in the public sphere? I don’t know.

You need some women to be like Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg, because there are always going to be some women who have to work. So you need women who are dedicated to remaking the workforce. But then you leave a degree of space for women who just don’t feel like it. And there shouldn’t be a lot of women who just don’t feel like it.

Guernica: If women are rising to expectations, their own and others’, then what are men supposed to do? They are going to go have coffee with their friends, or beer with their friends.

Hanna Rosin: Well, that was something that I was amazed to discover in the book. Women just don’t cede spheres when they take on new spheres. Women just take on more and more and more, and they don’t really give up anything. That’s exhausting to think about.

Guernica: The implication is that in some way they are contributing to their own situation of having to do way more work…

Hanna Rosin: I think they probably are without thinking about it. When people think of this it’s a very feminist triumphalist argument. It can’t be, because women are not happier than they were in the ’70s. When you poll women, excess choice and excess things to be in charge of and take care of has not made women happier. You also have to grapple with that part of the argument. We haven’t created a world which is perfect for ourselves. We have just created a world in which we have infinite options, and that hasn’t really made people happy.

Guernica: Do you see any connection between that and the evidence you’re showing of growing female aggression?

Hanna Rosin: Between the lack of choices?

Guernica: Between increased pressure on women and growing female aggression? Or is that two different classes [of women]?

Hanna Rosin: I’m thinking about that. If you think of the female aggressive role model, they’re generally women who have a huge amount of responsibility. Take Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. They are people who have a load of responsibility on them. They’re dominant and aggressive in the same way that a male warrior would be if put into that situation.

Think of the biggest female heroines of the last couple of years, like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or The Hunger Games or other mass-market, violent heroines of the past year—they are not violent, exactly, but incredibly aggressive. It is because they have large domestic and public responsibilities at the same time. But I never thought of them as analogous to women in general.

I hate the argument that women are gentle and nice and the world would be a better place if women were in charge.

I think the violence is slightly separate, but it’s related–it’s just that spaces have been opened up and women tend to step into them more quickly than men do. So if a space opens up to have a public brawl at the bar or fight on TV, that’s acceptable in a way. You never would have shown women fighting on TV some number of years ago. Lots and lots of women get arrested [for brawling]. The studies on women’s aggression for years had never shown that women are less aggressive, exactly; they just show that women stifle their aggression.

Guernica: That seems related too–how in the workplace–especially in high finance, the kind of aggression that could be channeled into violence can also be considered a tool within mergers in the workplace.

Hanna Rosin: That’s why I put that chapter in there, because I hate the argument that women are gentle and nice and the world would be a better place if women were in charge. I’ve always found that argument condescending because I think deep in our hearts, we believe that men are in charge because they have the capacity for aggression and violence, that dominance and aggression and violence in our minds and cultural narrative and our evolutionary narrative that we’ve all agreed on are all connected to each other. So if you cut women off from that progression, then we are essentially saying that women can never be dominant and I just don’t think it’s true. Power is what it is and if you are arguing that people exist along a continuum, you have to acknowledge that the continuum also includes aggression and violence.

Guernica: In your conclusion, you start to talk about the ways in which this warrior mask is not as gendered as we think. Is this changing our concept of gender?

Hanna Rosin: Very slowly. There were two things that I took with me when I finished the book: One was the notion that we are very uncomfortable with female power. We are in this transition moment where women are itching to get to the top, they’re close to a tipping point. But there’s still a lot of societal discomfort around female power and aggression. So we’re starting to see it more and more, like in TV and the movies, these violent heroines. But it’s not super mainstream yet.

And the other thing that stuck with me, given that it’s called The End of Men, was that I began to think really hard about men’s roles and whether they can change. If women exist along a continuum, men must too, and what does that look like and how quickly does that change?

Guernica: How did you come up with the title? It’s very striking, and it looks like a big warning sign.

Hanna Rosin: It looks like a big warning sign, I completely agree. The title was not mine. When I wrote this as a magazine story in the Atlantic, the editors came up with this title and I didn’t see it until it was on the newsstands. And when I was first interviewed when the magazine story came out, which is now almost two years ago, I would always say, “not my title, the editors made it up.” But over time it really stuck to me, and really stuck to the argument, and became really memorable, so it’s mine now. I own it, I stick that pole in the ground, like, “that’s my stake in this progression of gender dynamic arguments,” and then we can debate around it. Like: Do you really mean the end of macho, or do you more mean the rise of women?

Guernica: I have one more question that’s more general. It’s this idea that you bring up of plasticity with women–“plastic women,” and it reminded me that Shakespeare has a similar term, “waxen women”— they’re impressionable, like wax, they can mold, they’re flexible, and they can fit anything. Is this idea of plasticity being re-appropriated or is it actually problematic?

Hanna Rosin: Yeah, I was thinking about that, that that’s a quality that’s often used against women, that they can mold to every situation, that they can be imprinted with whatever man they’re with, or whatever workplace situation they’re in and they take on the qualities of that situation. But I think now it’s become a source of empowerment, like if once it was a source of weakness, now it’s not seen as a source of weakness. And I think that’s true of a lot of qualities. If you look at the way we view certain qualities after the Wall Street crash, the way we used to think quick decision making and making lots of deals was a good thing, and suddenly we’ve recast all those things: caution, checking in with people before you make deals, collaborative decision making. We’re now starting to think of those things as the marks of leadership. In different eras of history, qualities are reinvented and have different meanings or powers, are sources of empowerment or not. This is one of those moments, where elasticity, reactivity, and responsiveness are considered very good things.

G

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One comment for Gender Gap

  1. Comment by jana on December 9, 2012 at 11:30 am

    In an era of unemployment eclipsed only by the Great Depression, irresponsible journalism like Rosin’s adds fuel to a rising fire, desperation and fear seeking a scapegoat ripe for the sacrificial slitting against that angry edge. She delivers up “other” women, not herself, of course… More: http://journal6other.wordpress.com/2010/07/11/what-is-the-difference-between-a-feminist-and-a-whore/

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