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Shifting Roles for Women and Men in the New Economy 

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Old 10-09-2011, 05:23 AM
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Shifting Roles for Women and Men in the New Economy

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Hanna Rosin

(CNN) -- I can't help but notice that while most of the other TED talks shown on the TED website draw comments of "inspiring" or "courageous" or "beautiful," mine is labeled ... "obnoxious." Am I insulted? Of course! But it's perfectly obvious from reading the comments why this is so.

Most people who see one of the tag lines for the talk -- "end of men" or "rise of women" -- assume that my talk is merely the latest volley in the gender wars: men up, women down; now women up, men down. Many commenters even call me a "radical feminist."

To many people who read me on DoubleX, the women's section of Slate I helped found, the notion that I am a "radical feminist" would be funny. Most days I struggle just to be accepted into the camp of plain old feminists. This is mainly because I am not by nature ideological and generally suspicious of people who are.

I came to the conclusion that we have reached this new point in history, where the power dynamics between men and women are shifting rapidly, not by preformed ideology but by connecting the data points: college graduation rates, job projections, marriage patterns, pop culture images.

When you open your eyes to the evidence, you can see that so many of our assumptions about the natural order between men and women are no longer relevant.

In a recent article I wrote for the Atlantic, called "The End of Men" (the basis for the talk), I lay out all the statistics. In the United States, for every two men who receive college degrees, three women will do the same. This past year, for the first time, there were more women than men in the workplace.

Women are starting to flood professional fields -- they are doctors, lawyers, accountants, bankers. They hold more than half of all managerial and professional jobs. They dominate all but two of the professions projected to grow the fastest in the next 15 years (janitor and computer programmer). The worldwide economy is becoming a place where, overall, women are finding more success than men.

Lately this economic success is starting to affect the culture -- our dating lives, our marriages, how we raise our children. The phrase "first-born son" is so deeply ingrained in our culture that this statistic alone opened my eyes: In American fertility clinics, 75 percent of couples are requesting girls.

Why is this? As one fertility expert surmised in my Atlantic story: These mothers "look at their lives and think their daughters will have a bright future their mother and grandmother didn't have, brighter than their sons even, so why wouldn't you choose a girl?"

In certain segments of society, men are struggling to stay relevant in this rapidly changing economy, as manufacturing jobs disappear. Women, meanwhile, are making many more of the decisions: how to raise the children, manage the money, even whether to get married at all.

Let me say this again: This is not feminist gloating. It's not any kind of value judgment. It just is. Women are in so many ways filling the roles that men traditionally filled.

Many of the changes happening are obviously beneficial to women: They have more economic freedom and power than ever. But many of the changes are not all that positive for women.

With more freedom and power comes the burden of managing, heading households alone, being ever more perfect. And the stresses show up in reports of increased rates of unhappiness, alcoholism and even violence among women. Plus, the prospect of women rising is quite threatening to men in many places, so the transition can look ugly.

I have a father, a brother and a husband I love, not to mention innumerable male friends and colleagues. Most importantly I have two darling sons. I talk about the "end of men" not to make them feel hopeless and doomed to failure, but to open their eyes to the idea that gender roles are more fluid than ever, and that they do not have to fill some particular expectation. If you are prepared for it, then the end of a particular kind of macho can be a relief, not a curse.

I grew up with a pretty tough mom. She was a self-appointed neighborhood watchdog and if she saw that any of the local boys were up to no good she would scold them on the spot. Although she is only 5 feet 2, she was famous in our neighborhood for intimidating men three times her size and getting them to do the right thing. In our family, she was definitely the dominant player.

I'm not half as tough as she is. But I do take this lesson from her: You may be the boss, but you'll get nowhere if you don't bring the men up with you.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Hanna Rosin.

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