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The End of Men?

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So it turns out that what we knew for a long time is true: Women are better workers than men. They are more intuitive, more flexible and more creative. They go with the flow.

According to Hanna Rosin's The End of Men, all over the world women are honing their female skills to outpace men in all arenas, taking over from the boardroom to the bedroom. It's the beginning of a new era, in which the economy has grown to accommodate a woman's point of view and her abilities. After 200,000 years of occupying the passenger seat, women are taking over at the wheel, but with a new instruction manual. They know how to focus and adapt to road conditions.

Rosin's argument sounds a lot like Carol Gilligan's breakthrough revelations 30 years ago about the developmental psychology of girls, and how different it is from that of boys. Using a handful of adolescents from the elite Emma Willard School as her focus group, Gilligan argued that while male development focuses on separation, individuation, logic and hierarchy, female development emphasizes relationships, attachment, connections and communication.

What a surprise that 30 years later these communicative girls have become the emotionally intuitive women running the new service economy! It takes a lot of connections and emotional intelligence to make an economy thrive. No wonder flexible women have bypassed individuated men in the workplace.

It's almost as if Rosin took Gilligan's research and extrapolated it forward into the 21st century.

Except women haven't really bypassed men. And many of them aren't even that flexible. Compelling as her argument is, Rosin forgot to heed the well-deserved criticism of Gilligan's work as speculative and ideological.

First of all, we didn't need Murphy Brown to remind us that a woman can be just as badass as a man in the workplace. Remember when Dan Quayle ridiculed her for being a single mom? Everyone was watching when she took him down, point for point, and then went straight back to work.

A reduction to gender essentialisms like those that Rosin relies on ("plastic woman" and "cardboard man" are her protagonists) doesn't do anyone any good.

In my first job as an assistant professor, my boss was sensitive, emotionally supportive and kind. He was a man. My office mate was cold, inflexible and driven. She was a woman. Where are they now? My boss remains at a mid-tier university in the same job he had 10 years ago. My office mate is a dean at a major university. Of course this is just one example. I'm sure there are as many like it as there are different from it. That's the thing with statistics, of which Rosin has many. They can be spun to say just about anything you want them to.

Rosin is right to point out that in recent decades the economy has shifted from an industrial/manufacturing one to a service-oriented one. But gender bias remains. At the top end of the corporate world it's still a man's world while women are still doing the lion's share of the work at home. And outside the boardroom women are more likely than men to live in poverty.

Moreover, if women in the lower and middle classes that Rosin targets have become more flexible over the last 50 years it's not due to some innate tendency. It's because they've been forced to adapt to an unfair market/family bias. This bias has privileged the idealized worker (male) over the marginalized caretaker (female). And women have been put in the position of having to work the edges, be creative, less driven and more selfless in order to keep the system running. Put more simply, while men have been invested in hierarchy, women have been raising the kids.

Of course these women know about disappointment. Setbacks. Not having control. Fluidity and going with the flow of a mercurial clientele. How many times has the average mom waited for a toddler to tie his shoelaces or strap himself into the car seat? Wiped spit-up from her hair while reaching for a graham cracker to mollify a raging preschooler? Patience and humility are the names of the game in the familial economy. No wonder when this demographic works they have a different, less rigid perspective.

In fact, women have always performed the emotional labor now prized by a service economy. It's not by choice or temperament that nursing, secretarial work and childcare have always been the province of women. It's because patriarchal structures and institutions put them there.

Maybe you can argue that because of the shift away from industrial manufacturing, the value of adaptability has risen. People are realizing it just may pay to value the lower profile professions in which making the customer feel good is a worthwhile endeavor. But I'm suspicious of anyone who says that the real affective labor of these kinds of jobs will ever translate into economic bounty. No one has ever made a killing taking care of others. We've yet to experience an economy in which success is measured by collective human well being.

And if young women are really reaping the benefits of a campus hook-up culture so that they can pursue professionalism undaunted, as Rosin contends, I've yet to see these "hearts of steel" enter my classroom.

Rather, I see a young generation of women who are enraged that their male counterparts sail blithely through college without a worry about what lies ahead when the parenting question emerges for them. This is the unequal playing field of gender that Rosin dodges. Far from the free range of post-feminism that Rosin describes young women inhabiting, the parenthood discussion puts young women squarely back on uneven terrain.

What will the world look like when her plastic and cardboard co-eds become parents? A world in which women inhabit the traditionally feminine spheres of "communal problem solving" and men pursue the turgid spheres of corporate board rooms sounds a lot like a return to the hierarchies of the traditional family. And a world in which the gender tables are simply turned doesn't sound much better.

In my seminar about the history of motherhood in the U.S., my female students chafe against the idea that they will have to choose between incompatible options when it comes to parenting and career. But if they follow Rosin's prognosis, choose they will. And more likely than not their choice will be couched in rhetoric that veils the constraints of the breadwinner/caregiver framework from which Rosin's analysis cannot escape.

Both men and women suffer in a culture in which expectations about how they should behave take precedence over how they want to behave, so much so that cultural "shoulds" morph into innate "desires." This is going with a flow that follows a current, not one that challenges it, let alone foments a revolution.

If women and their adaptable selves are really going to take over the world, we need to make certain that they bring along some men and some historical hindsight. That way flexibility won't spell intrinsic personality, plastic selfhood or social marginalization for anyone.