Terence Blacker: Women have won the gender war

If only niceness and sexiness were more closely connected, then the world would be a simpler place
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The Independent Online

Some men are born grumpy, some achieve grumpiness and some, particularly if they happen to be middle-aged and working in the communications business, have grumpiness thrust upon them by the demands of their career. For the ambitious male of a certain age, cheeriness ceases to be an option. He is obliged to conform to type. Rather as a young women with curves and blonde hair is expected to be a sex-bomb, a media man of middle age must now be grumpy.

Michael Buerk, the former newscaster and journalist, now presiding over Radio 4's The Moral Maze, came late to this discovery, but his public moaning over the past few months has seen him rise to the Premiership of moaners, alongside such veteran grumps as Jeremy Clarkson. Michael Winner and Will Self.

First, he had a pop at newsreaders ("lame brains"), then it was the turn of the London Olympics ("years of misery"). Invited, as is only right and proper, to contribute to Don't Get Me Started!, channel Five's riposte to Grumpy Old Men, Buerk has raised his game by going for grump gold. What really annoys him about life in Britain in 2005 is ... women.

To judge by a promotional interview in the Radio Times, the Buerk view of the gender agenda is likely to be brave, bordering on the reckless, but ever so slightly predictable. The balance of power between the sexes has gone too far, he says. These days, the world is run in accordance with women's rules. "The traits that have traditionally been associated with men - reticence, stoicism, single-mindedness - have been marginalised."

As a result - and who could seriously argue with this? - men are becoming more like women. With a grim inevitability, Buerk turns to that favourite point of reference when it comes to the modern girlie-man, David Beckham, and even pulls in poor old Tim Henman for good measure.

The fact that, as a player, Becks is tough and uncompromising while, off the pitch, he is manly enough not to be bullied by the media passes Macho Mike by, as does the guts and determination required to be the best tennis player of a discontented nation. It is, predictably, their faces and voices to which he is attending.

In the world of grumps, the only acceptable model of masculinity is gruff, brawny, as uneasy with words as he is handy with his fists, a sort of cross between John Prescott and the former shot-putter Geoff Capes. Now that work requiring physical strength is in decline, employers value people skills and multi-tasking and these, Buerk concludes gloomily, women are much better at.

If reticence and stoicism are great male virtues, it might be questionable whether they are best exemplified by maundering on about a lost age when jobs required muscle rather than understanding or flexibility, but Buerk's case against women's rules does not end there. "What are men left with?" he asks, going for that all-important grumpy money-shot. "All they are is sperm donors, and most women aren't going to want an unemployable sperm donor loafing around and making the house look untidy."

It would probably be too unkind to point out that, in the long term, even this view might turn out to be optimistic. In his recent book Y: The Descent of Men, Professor Steve Jones suggests that, genetically, men are the parasitical sex. Female ascendancy at the workplace and within Western culture as a whole are reflections of an evolutionary process - indeed, once sperm can be cranked out from a stem cell, the importance of the poor old male erection is likely to become even more marginal.

Before that happens, those of us who belong to the sperm donor class are justified in asking what precisely are these women's rules by which we are all living and whether they are such a terrible thing.

The example of female dominance given by Michael Buerk, that of the higher echelons of the BBC, is an unfortunate one. As it happens, the increase of women in senior management at Radio 4 and on BBC1 has coincided with a period of stability and seriousness. There has been little sign of the need to revolutionise the corporation and rebuild it, as there was under that corporate he-man, John Birt. Something in the new management style - perhaps the introduction of multi-tasking and people skills - has put the emphasis instead on building upon staff strengths.

Another way of interpreting a world run according to women's rules is that we have all simply begun to grow up. Traditional aspects of male management style - displays of ego and aggression, a tendency to bully rather than lead, the knee-jerk competitiveness which used to be known as "willy-wagging" - now seem Neanderthal and counter-productive. If a fat bully like Robert Maxwell waddled into the public arena today, he would be more an object of ridicule than fear.

It is true that, in business, women's rules convey a possible disadvantage when it comes to risk-taking. Female executives, it has been proved, are less likely to be recklessly competitive in order to win a deal than their male counterparts. But then most sensible shareholders would prefer to invest in, and most sane employees would choose to work for, a company that does not pursue a perilously aggressive, winner-takes-all approach to its business.

The real problem with women's rules is altogether trickier and resides in the bedroom, not the boardroom. It is all very well for sensible female priorities to prevail at the workplace, for men to discover that waving their willies at one another is futile, but the newly sensitive, genderless male, for all his managerial effectiveness, is also profoundly unsexy.

Here is the dilemma for any man who has yet to reach the grumpy stage of life. He is evolved and sensitive enough to realise women have won the gender war, and their rules are the only ones in town. Yet, by becoming more like what women say they want in a man - an understanding, sharing, multi-tasking people person - he is also, in some mysterious way, becoming less what they actually want. The very authority, confidence and competitiveness that are so outmoded at the workplace are the qualities that make a man different from a woman and which (so one understands) can make him attractive to her.

It is an embarrassing and difficult situation for all concerned. If only niceness and sexiness were more closely connected, then the world would be a simpler, if slightly duller, place. But they are not, and in that sense at least, Michael Buerk is right about women's rules. Too comprehensive a victory for female values risks reducing the gender divide still further by making women as restless, dissatisfied and grumpy as middle-aged men.

terblacker@aol.com

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