I will state this upfront, as I don’t want you to misunderstand me: I am a feminist. I can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t be. Of course we need more women in executive positions at work; on boards; in the senior levels of politics. From an economic perspective alone it’s a no-brainer – and while progress is undeniably being made, much, much more needs to be done; and faster.
Yet, here’s the thing: in (rightly) focusing on women’s advancement, we have (wrongly) ignored men. Now, we’re facing a crisis in masculinity.
How many times have you heard the cliche ‘boys will be boys’ to justify some particularly ‘boisterous’ behaviour? Boys, after all, should be risk-takers, out-spoken, demanding of our attention. Girls on the other hand are praised for being quiet, unassuming, self-deprecating – dare I say ‘ladylike’.
Not always, not by everyone, and times are changing, but it would be head-in-sand denial to say these expectations don’t persist. Translated into adulthood it’s detrimental to both sexes – women are not programmed to ‘lean in’, and too many men retain an old-fashioned view of what it means to, well, be a man.
As Richard Reeves and Isabel Sawhill argued in the New York Times, the problem is that while we’ve understood the damage to women and acted, meaning “women have learned to become more like men”, we have not taught men “to become more like women.”1 The consequences can be seen in men’s sliding educational and labour market outcomes, and most devastatingly in their suicide rates.
In focusing on empowering women, we have ignored a crisis among men
For decades governments in the West have sought to increase women’s participation – in education and work – and their earnings. The benefits have been huge. In the US, analysis by McKinsey shows that increased female participation in the labour market between 1970 and 2010 boosted GDP by 25%.2 And with GDP growth needing all the help it can get, this is no time to take the foot off the pedal: the IMF estimates that raising the US female participation rate to that of men would add 5% to GDP (yet it’s recently started falling).3 Among other things, that means tackling bias; ensuring access to affordable childcare, ‘returnships’ and flexible working; and boosting low pay.
But it also means addressing those outdated social constructs – and that is as important for men as it is for women.
Over the past few decades, while we have been celebrating increases in women’s participation in the workplace, men’s participation has been declining – in the US by a worrying 8 percentage points in the past 60 years;4 in the UK by 2.5 percentage points in the two decades to 2014.5
Let’s be clear, this is not a problem of vacancies, ‘new’ jobs are being created as ‘old’ ones disappear – in the US in July there were 6.2 million job openings.6 (Though it might become one if the robots really rise.)
It is about the changing nature of Western economies, in which service sector growth dwarfs that of manufacturing, and the future is high tech, high skill or ‘pink collar’. Which is where the outdated social constructs come into play (the unhelpful term ‘pink collar’ being exhibit A). Researchers at Brookings suggest that:7
“Culture might play a role deeper still in dictating the jobs that men think are worthy of taking. As the traditionally male-dominated, labor-intensive fields like manufacturing and mining diminish and are replaced by service-oriented positions in retail, healthcare, and education, men might see themselves as ill-suited for these ‘pink collar’ jobs, believing them to be ‘women’s work.’”
This is compounded by the fact that wages in these sectors may be lower than in the lost manufacturing jobs, making them doubly ‘unworthy’.
We might have seen this crisis brewing had we not, in both nations, been so busy celebrating super low unemployment. And had we seen it, we might also have been actively concerned at the ever-widening educational gap between men and women. Alongside the many initiatives to encourage girls to code and women to study STEM,8 we might have implemented initiatives targeted at disadvantaged young men.
In the UK, by 2015 an 18-year old woman was 35% more likely to enter higher education than a male peer – and for the poorest (those in receipt of free school meals) that figure is a huge 51%.9 By 2012 in America, 61% of male recent high school graduates were enrolled in college, while women’s enrolment was a full 10 percentage points higher.10 In both countries, women’s educational attainment is generally above that of men, at all levels.
This is important because people with low qualifications are much less likely to be employed. Which gives women a double advantage over men. Not only are they better placed to take advantage of the growth in ‘pink collar’ jobs (which, incidentally, are least likely to be automated), they are also winning the labour market battle of escalating qualifications.
Perhaps the sharpest example of our failure to give the success of men equal focus to that of women, however, is in the suicide statistics. In the UK, men are around three times more likely to commit suicide than women; in the US it is three and a half times. Unmarried, middle-aged, workless and low education men are particularly high risk. Julie Phillips, a professor at New Jersey’s Rutgers university, sees challenges to traditional values of “masculinity and self-reliance” as an aggravating factor. Research by suicide prevention charity the Samaritans supports this:11
“Masculinity – the way men are brought up to behave and the roles, attributes and behaviours that society expects of them – contributes to suicide in men. Men compare themselves against a masculine ‘gold standard’ which prizes power, control and invincibility… Having a job and being able to provide for your family is central to ‘being a man’, particularly for working class men.”
So yes, we must continue to push for more women on boards, in STEM, and in politics, and for equal pay and recognition, but we must also start talking about men – because in contrast to women, the data for men is stark. In proactively seeking to overturn centuries of women’s oppression, to redefine their role in society and at work, we have forgotten that the flip side of that is redefining what it means to be a man. As women are progressing, men are withdrawing, too often into a spiral of hopelessness – and that is no good for anyone.