Alright Then, Let Men Compete

by Megan Carpentier

from On The Issues Magazine

This summer, Hanna Rosin warned readers of The Atlantic that the apocalypse was nigh — for boys, at least. In an article provocatively titled The End Of Men, Rosin used the increasing preponderance of women in higher education and the low rungs of our recession-impacted workforce (as well as their somewhat disproportionate success at elementary and secondary schools) to argue that feminism had failed boys, who would eventually find themselves the second sex. And it wasn’t hard to find plenty of people who agreed with her.

But, then, it wouldn’t be: a recent flip through literature shows that she has lots of fellow travelers. From Christina Hoff Summers to Kathleen Parker, around talk radio and into the blogosphere, statistics showing that boys aren’t competing as well in schools as their female counterparts have led to much soul-searching and many calls for school reforms to take into account boys’ delicate constitutions, development inferiorities and special natures to make sure they don’t continue to fall so far behind the hearty, mature and overachieving female counterparts.

The way people have been going on of late about how everything from schools to colleges to the modern workforce is failing men, one would almost think they were about to be prohibited from the majority of colleges, provided an inferior education before that, barred from most work environments, encouraged (to put it nicely) to keep a nice home for their wives and stay home with children to the detriment of their careers.

Sad Plight of Male Subordination

In fact, you’d think they were being taught to make themselves inoffensive and pretty in order to attract the best wife to take care of them, to not speak before being spoken to and to never dream any further than their front doors and a bright future for the daughters they would deliver unto a society awaiting a new generation of leaders. In the dark corners of the blogosphere even those men in this dark age of an encroaching matriarchy who have achieved a modicum of political or economic power are subject to disparaging comments about their looks (and how either the lack or preponderance thereof makes them unfit to wield power), speculation about the lineage of their apparent progeny and accusations that their feeble minds either leave them too open to feminine influence or simply don’t prepare them to wield power.

Oh, wait. While science fiction has given us books like that before — Turning on the Girls by Cheryl Benard springs to mind — but then it’s only 2010 and doesn’t resemble the gender status quo into which I was born.

It’s hardly a difficult environment for men to gain money, power or status (let alone at greater rates than women). Last I checked — and I’ve checked a lot — while the numbers of men and women in the labor force are about to reach parity and the unemployment rate among women is lower than men, the overall participation rates remain vastly dissimilar. That is to say, in June 2010, 73 percent of men 20 years and older were considered part of the labor market, and only 60.3 percent of women.

There’s still a decent-sized pay gap — both in terms of current pay and especially with regard to lifetime earnings — between men and women. To say that women are woefully underrepresented in elected political office in the United States is to laughably underestimate how far behind they are compared to the rest of the world.

And taking race and sexual orientation and gender identity into account only adds to the difference, making it ever more clear that our society’s most powerful people are disproportionately white, male, straight, cisgender and, of course, already wealthy.

Paying a Terrible Price for Nondiscrimination

Almost 40 years ago, Congress passed Title IX to eliminate discrimination in educational institutions based on sex — although it’s now better known for its role on gendered athletics (a development that emerged as part of the regulatory process and then was enshrined in law due to NCAA attempts to try to get its members out of the regulation), Title IX is technically the law that protects women and men from discrimination in schools.

It reads: No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…

Heady stuff — as was the fact that such a law was necessary in 1972, only five years before I was born.

Of course, it was also passed seven years after my mother, now a computer programmer, graduated from high school. In those days, my mother — who loved math — was overtly told by her high school guidance counselor that she’d never succeed and faced teachers more concerned with keeping her down than helping her learn.

In those days, no one talked of reforming the ways that schools operated, writ large, to help women; they talked of eliminating both overt, personal discrimination against women and girls, and of eliminating institutional discrimination, such as guidance counselors whose mandates helped steer men to Harvard and women to Vassar. The idea behind Title IX was that, absent overt discrimination or practices that innately privileged men, women could succeed at higher rates.

And, whoa, could they ever. Less than 40 years in, and women make up almost two-thirds of this country’s college students; they are rapidly taking over medical and law schools; they seemingly love to get professional degrees. Colleges are stuck practically giving high school boys points in the admissions process just for being boys in order to prevent a wholesale takeover of the university system by women. Absent discrimination, the age-old triumvirate of grades-SATs-extracurriculars that privileged men four (and three, and two,) decades ago now works in women’s favor.

Then, of course, the hue and cry! Boys aren’t ready for the rigors of school! They need time! They need special attention! Boys need to be boys, the critics of feminine hegemony say, and the matriarchy makes them just sit there for hours trying to learn things as women raise their hands and — gasp — get called on in equal numbers! Why, the new SATs – now somewhat more rigorously redesigned to try to remove traces of class and gender privilege — are just too hard! Why, it looks just like when you take out the discrimination from the system in large part, girls do better! It’s time for reform! Or else women might take over the world!

And yet, primary and secondary education has been stultifying since its introduction. Rows of students made to sit for hours on end, lectures, memorization, regurgitation, quiet contemplation — for years, boys were able to make the most of it and come out lionized as Great Men. Now that women have mastered the formula and law has stamped out the most overt forms of discrimination, the rapid rise of women seemingly puts the defenders of men ill at ease.

And the First Shall be Last?

What is it, really, that’s so bothersome? For generations, women’s lack of advancement in post-secondary education and the workplace bothered few people, in large part because women’s intellectual and professional achievements were secondary to their agreed-upon roles in society: wife and mother. Getting and using education were nice things, and helped garner a higher-status marriage partner, but it was secondary to a woman’s real role in society. Not having an education didn’t make one a lesser wife or mother — and readers of The Feminine Mystique might venture to guess that it, in fact, had the potential to cause less dissatisfaction.

But, when it comes to men having less educational attainment than women — due to supposed “natural” factors like boisterousness or an inability to focus in school — it’s a national crisis worthy of serious consideration. Why? Because, of course, men aren’t expected to stay home with children and keep homes for their wives. Men aren’t expected to sacrifice their educational or professional achievements on the altars of their wives’ careers. Men aren’t expected to compete for powerful women’s affections on the basis of their external attractiveness (for all that there are cougars in pop culture, there are rarely trophy husbands) or suitableness to the spouse role.

In fact, all of this hue and cry about how hard it is for men to keep up reveals that the expected roles of men and women outside the labor force haven’t really changed … and that few people want them to. Adults expect that girls will want equally hard-charging partners in their own adulthood, and that things like childcare and high-powered career maintenance — despite all the evidence that many CEO-like careers all but still require a career spouse — will work themselves out later (and, in all likelihood, still fall to the woman — or to lower-status women of color). And if boys can’t keep up, and gender roles outside the workplace remain stagnant, both those boys and girls will suffer.

I’ll give the critics like Rosin and Parker, who see female educational and professional achievement coming solely at the expense of the men who seemingly deserve it, one thing: it is probably easier to remake the public educational system of the United States from one based on equality of opportunity to one based on the equality of outcomes than it is to change society’s ingrained views that women need men of equal or better educational attainment and earning power to be happy.

But let’s no longer pretend that it’s for the sake of women’s emotional happiness: critics are doing it for the boys, and to regain the status quo in which men just don’t have to work as hard as women to get ahead. Given equal opportunities, it seems, women do better than men quite often: rather than letting men learn to compete, runs the argument, we ought to change the rules of the game to let them win more. That sounds a lot like the discriminatory system we worked to change, actually.


Megan Carpentier is an Associate Editor at Talking Points Memo and freelance writer whose work has been published by The Guardian, Bitch, RHRealityCheck.com, Women’s eNews, the Women’s Media Center and Ms. Magazine, among other places. She was previously the editor of news and politics at Air America and an editor at Jezebel.com

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3 Comments

  1. Posted August 12, 2010 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Many people would sooner cast in with the devil they know than risk the possibility of things being better in ways that have not been tested. Reform, much like Democracy, is inexact, messy, and not always satisfying. But it is progress.

  2. Posted August 13, 2010 at 2:35 am | Permalink

    All of this is so true! I’m not phrasing that as eloquently as I would like, but I can’t think of a better way to say it. I don’t want boys to suffer in school, but I do agree that it seems suspicious that a system which is essentially the same as ever – “Rows of students made to sit for hours on end, lectures, memorization, regurgitation, quiet contemplation” – is suddenly detrimental to boys in particular. Granted, this system isn’t optimal for anyone to learn at their fullest potential, but as the OP states, it helped boys grow into “Great Men” for generations, now the problem seems to be that SATs have pieces written by and pertaining to white women and POCs of both genders, rather than written by, for, and about white men. (I put white women in a separate category because a lot of society still feels that way, and when people talk about “women,” what they often mean is “white women”.)

    Absolutely, let the boys compete. I’m not talking about crushing them under the combat boots of radical feminism, I just mean that all people should be competing on equal footing, and it’s time for privileged groups to stop leaning on the crutch of their privilege. To purposely repress any group of people of a particular gender from reaching its potential is to deny society as a whole the achievements that individuals in the group could contribute to the rest of society, and is frankly a waste of resources. By making boys compete with equally competent girls, both are driven to try harder, and we all benefit.

  3. Posted August 13, 2010 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Whether it is boys/men or girls/women seemingly at an advantage, artificially skewing evaluations to favor the lower-rated group is not the answer. Nevertheless, it is worth considering where the reason for the disparity arises. Is it because the evaluations are biased (cronyism provides a decent partial explanation of why women are not CEOs in the numbers they ought to be)? Are there some factors that adversely affect the group (does society condition boys to not take education seriously)? A total approach to addressing inequality has to consider problems in a mature nuanced way that considers ALL groups involved — one that works to break down stereotypes rather than assumes them. We want everyone to compete to the best of their ability, we want them to feel comfortable competing, and we want a fair system of evaluation.

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