What is the cure for Hopeless Male Syndrome?

We men are the dreaming sex, the romantic sex, resisting the crushing conformity of business life
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The Independent Online

It is only recently that I have become aware of an instinctive, powerful and undeniable gender bias within me. It is something I have tried to resist, being a fair-minded, contemporary sort of person, only for circumstances to confirm my prejudice once more.

It is only recently that I have become aware of an instinctive, powerful and undeniable gender bias within me. It is something I have tried to resist, being a fair-minded, contemporary sort of person, only for circumstances to confirm my prejudice once more.

The problem occurs most frequently when I contact a call centre on a matter of dreary everyday urgency – a money thing, perhaps, or a computer screw-up. A key moment occurs after I have negotiated the automated assault course between me and the department which I need and I finally find myself addressed by a live rather than a recorded voice. "Hello, my name is –––. How can I help you?" My reaction at this point is either "Oh, thank God, it's a woman" or "Uh-oh, it's a bloke".

This is not blind prejudice but is born of experience. With female assistance, a solution to my problem is normally at hand; with a man – well, to put it politely, it can go either way. A few male operators are fine, so competent that they could almost be women, but dealing with the others is like swimming through mud. Some are under-trained, scurrying off to consult their manager at the earliest opportunity. Others communicate like a badly-programmed computer or try to be jokey or are simply, doggedly, demoralisingly stupid.

I had put the trend down to the crisis of confidence in young men of which we read so much but now it has been revealed that it reaches far up the management ladder, or at least as far up as women can be found in any quantity – weirdly under the circumstances, more than 90 per cent of senior management jobs are said still to be occupied by men.

In a study completed by Professor Alimo-Metcalfe of Leeds University and published this week, 3,500 middle managers working in business and the NHS were asked to assess their immediate superiors. It was found that in virtually every area – decisiveness, leadership, originality, communication, adaptability, industry, the ability to plan strategically and manage staff – women were rated more highly then men. Male managers earnt an honourable draw only when it came to delegating, to being accessible to staff and, rather sadly, for being honest and consistent.

Few of those who work in an office would dispute the general thrust of these findings. On the whole, women managers can be snippy, difficult, over-emotional or so ambitious that it makes the teeth ache; but they very rarely reach the level of dead-eyed hopelessness achieved by their male colleagues in management.

It may well be that this problem, the Male Hopelessness Syndrome, has been with us for many decades and has only been thrown into relief by the brilliance of women recently released from domestic life, but the fact is that every office will have several men who suffer from it. They are the pen-pushers, the cloggers-up of meetings, the vacillators, the senders of facetious e-mails, the people who make it their business to ingratiate themselves with the boss. By keeping out of trouble and going about with a serious expression on their faces, they have risen to a level where they earn a living off the efforts of their staff.

Almost certainly, there is a tragedy at work here. Just as female managers are realising a dream of organising people, of being recognised for their efforts and gaining financial independence, so many a hopeless male has a private fantasy, too. He might believe that he should have become an actor. He could have a flair for making toy soldiers. There might be a half-written novel, uncompleted for lack of time. If he is a daddy, he could well be wishing that he was at home, sticking the kid's drawings on the cork board in the kitchen, or doing the ironing before the school run.

We are approaching the moment, perhaps, when we should encourage these men, so frustrated and baulked by society's expectation of them, to escape the environment where they contribute so little, replacing them with sharp, smiling, briskly competent women.

The effect on national life would be instantaneous and dramatic. Whole areas blighted by Hopeless Male Syndrome would undergo a transformation. The House of Commons would no longer echo to the bass rumble of bored backbenchers. The railways, almost a physical embodiment of male idleness and self-hatred, would cease to be run as if punctuality, efficiency and communication were very occasional treats which travellers have done nothing to deserve.

And men – thousands of them – would be freed to pursue their own version of happiness away from the office. We are the dreaming sex, the romantic sex, the gender which wants to resist the crushing conformity of business life but never quite has the nerve. It is time to let women do what they are good at, organising things, bossing people about, while we go out and play.