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The End of Men and the Rise of Women By Hanna Rosin Viking
An unconvincing economics-led theory that predicts female supremacy and male demise
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014, and is currently judging the Aesthetica Magazine new writing prize.
Saturday 29 September 2012
The rule is not to judge a book by its cover, but in this instance one might want to defer judgment of its title too. Branded in big, screeching lettering, the titular claim seems to play to the crass assumption that the end-point for female empowerment is a Boudica fantasy in which men are crushed so womankind can rise.
For all its over-confident tone, this fails to tally with the contents of the book. Hanna Rosin, an American journalist, argues that as women have gained economic independence, as they increasingly forego marriage and the second-class citizenship of the nuclear family, they are nudging towards a power shift that will result in leaving men behind in every field, from the schoolroom to the boardroom.
The pendulum has not swung yet but it is at a tipping-point, she says. The biggest problem with her pendulum theory is that it hasn't even swung to halfway in many important respects, particularly at the top. She acknowledges this, and promptly dismisses the boring old statistics.
The majority of Rosin's data deals with an American ethnography (though she focuses on Korea in one chapter) and her findings are not particularly new. Magazine articles, newspaper columns and Mintel-style surveys have long mapped the changing economic dynamic between the sexes. Neither does her conclusion – that women are becoming the new men, of a kind, and the latter need to raise their game – necessarily follow from the evidence she presents.
In America in 2009, "the balance of the workforce tipped towards women, who continue to occupy around half of the nation's jobs". Yet women the world over are still paid lower than their male counterparts. "Women in poor parts of India are learning English faster than men, to meet the demands of new global call centers." Has this led to greater equality? There is more to gender theory than economics, after all. Iceland, she continues, has a lesbian prime minster who has vowed to end the "age of testosterone". Iceland has a fine tradition of progressive politics, but a woman at the top does not always hail an "oestrogen era", as Margaret Thatcher illustrated.
Often, promising ideas are left underdeveloped so the book reads more like a magazine article that skits too many surfaces. "The more women appropriate power, the more their behaviour will mimic that of other powerful people," she says, in a brief discussion on gender relativism. Girls are taking more risks at school age and women are increasingly becoming violent, she adds, citing new role models like Lisbeth Salander from The Girl in the Dragon Tattoo. This is an interesting line but it is stalled in favour of colourless statistical evidence.
The most problematic aspect of Rosin's argument is her tone towards the blue- and white-collar women who are fulfilling back-breaking dual roles at work and at home. There is not enough critical reflection on the long-term desirability of such intensive juggling.
In fact, she appears to mark out as exemplary the women who are "doing it all" with such intensity that they fall asleep in elevators, rather than berate the system. She cites some creative ways to manage this double role, giving Silicon Valley examples of female executives being offered the flexi-time to leave the office at 5.30pm, and begin work again at 8pm, after they have put the children to bed. This is hardly the work-life balance of which working women have dreamed. Fair and equal childcare policies on a national level need an overhaul of social policy, as in Scandinavia – which she holds up as the model, again and again. This would, in effect, require a substantial increase in taxation, an issue she evades.
She formulates new labels for the 21st-century coupling of over-achieving women and under-achieving men – Plastic Woman and Cardboard Man. The former has adapted to socio-economic changes, the latter is the dying breed who can't find new roles. If this is the economic future for the sexes, it is bad news for both, placing men in a redundant corner, and women in another form of bondage.
In Rosin's world, late American capitalism has mutated so that, in a disturbing new twist, women are the biggest slaves to the economy.
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