Thursday, August 12, 2010

a woman's world?

There has been a spate of articles in the last year or so to the effect that women are taking over, men are yesterday's news, and so forth. Hanna Rosin's piece in the Atlantic, "The End of Men," pretty much sums up the genre. The theme extends to popular culture as well: a new hit movie, "Eat Pray Love," celebrates a woman who leaves her husband for travels to various countries whose name begins with "I," although in a subsequent book she remarries.

All of this is fine as entertainment, and it probably has some substance too. As a professor I find increasingly that my best students, together with many of the best faculty candidates, are women: this before even reaching the advantages that women have in personal relationships. Still, I think the "men are history" argument suffers from numerous logical lapses and inconsistencies, so that things are not nearly as bad--or good--as Rosin and others put it.

To wit:

1. The argument tends to be very selective in its use of statistics. Sure, more women than men attend college, and they tend to get better grades. But of the Fortune 500 companies, 485 or so have male CEOs, and the number is changing very slowly. It's possible that this is a time lag, and we will eventually see half or more big companies run by women: but at this rate it would take 200 or 300 years.

2. The argument tends to focus on aggregate figures, like the number of students or employees, rather than investigating who really holds power in an institution. In law schools, for example, half or more of the students, and probably half or more the new faculty--much more, if you count adjuncts and clinical faculty--are female. But on a recent list of the 50 most heavily "downloaded" scholars, nearly all 50 were men. Of course, there are other things that matter besides downloads, and it's possible that this too merely reflects a time lag rather than a permanent impairment. But it's hard to say that women run the law schools in any real way, and I suspect this pattern repeats itself in other areas.

3. The argument ignores the powerful reaction against feminism both within and (more importantly) outside the U.S. and other advanced countries. Part of this involves natural cycles of change and reaction; but it is also fueled by demographics. People and countries with more traditional allocations of gender responsibilities have, on the average, tended to produce more children than those who emphasize modern ideas of quality. (Elena Kagan has no children,while Sarah Palin--who is at least a very different kind of feminist--has five.) This pattern, repeated over several generations, is a problematic one for women's equality, or at very least casts doubt on the end-of-patriarchy theme.

One of the hardest things about predicting the future is distinguishing between short-term and long-term trends. It is possible, indeed probable, that at least some of the stumbling blocks above will prove temporary, and women will indeed proceed to full equality with--or superiority over--men. But it is surely a lot more complicated than popular culture would lead one to think. Which, I suppose, is why they call it popular culture.


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