The so-called ‘weaker sex’ was the topic of this week’s long essay in The Economist – ‘men adrift’. If you haven’t read it, it is men that have now apparently slipped into this somewhat derogatory category. It alludes, I think, to the need for a new ideal of what it is to be a man. Rather than focusing on how we construct a new model of masculinity, one better suited to changes in the labour market and to the rising role of women, we should be moving away from our restrictive gender binary of ‘masculinity’ versus ‘femininity.’ This means moving away from the idea that certain qualities are innate to people based purely on their genitalia.
The divided workplace
The essay looks at the ‘dead hand of male domination’ in contemporary society and the problems this poses for both sexes. It argues that as technological progress causes major shifts in the labour market and previously male-dominated, manual labour occupations are in decline, men at the bottom of society are becoming increasingly economically marginalised. This, in part, is attributed to the difficulties some men are experiencing in adapting to the changing job market, in which the list of working class jobs expected to grow consists predominantly of female dominated, social and care roles. While the percentage of women in work has increased by over 10% since 1971 to around 68%, the proportion of men with a job has declined from 92% to 77% in the same period.
It is, I think, important not to overstate the extent to which this trend is evidence of the withering of male domination. The gender segregation of professions still works very much in favour of men, as jobs traditionally done by women remain chronically underpaid and undervalued. While 78% of those working in health and social care for example, a low paid sector, are women, 88% of those working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), a high-paying sector, are men. Furthermore, due to women’s association with the domestic realm they are often still expected to do the bulk of household duties alongside working full time hours, effectively working a ‘double shift.’ To add to that, if the UN’s predictions are correct the gender pay gap is not set to close for another 70 years. We haven’t exactly seen a reverse in gender inequality just yet.
However, what the essay ‘Men Adrift’ most importantly draws attention to is the inhibiting nature of culturally engrained stereotypes – stereotypes that reinforce notions of masculinity and femininity. Despite feminism’s best efforts, social and care roles continue to be seen as ‘women’s work’ and boys aren’t generally brought up considering themselves suited to such occupations. A rather pressing issue if this is the direction in which the labour market is heading.
But we are I think mistaken in approaching this issue, as this essay appears to, as a ‘crisis in masculinity’ – a term that crops up again and again and is to denote the way in which men are being ‘left behind’ as society progresses. Doubtless traditional notions of masculinity, premised on the ideal of man as provider, are being increasingly undermined by the equalising of opportunities for women (thank god) and doubtless this is leading to a degree of disconnect between how some men still view their place in society and the reality of where they stand. Yet in framing this issue as a problem of masculinity the author seems to be suggesting that what we need is a new ideal of what it is to be a man, one that can be reconciled with doing ‘women’s work’.
What this fails to recognise is that this restrictive gender binary, masculinity versus femininity, is itself the problem insofar as it perpetuates a biologically deterministic view of sex. How many times do we hear variations on the idea that men are ‘naturally’ better leaders; that they are more aggressive; dominant; strong (the list goes on) and that women are ‘naturally’ more cooperative; conciliatory; empathetic and maternal? This creates certain gender-specific expectations that so often prove difficult for individuals to reconcile with their own experiences and sense of self. What about everyone who does not fit neatly into either category, who feels their attributes are not aligned with what is expected of them as a man or as a woman?
For example, what about the new mother who has grown up being told by society that women are natural care-givers, that the ‘maternal instinct’ is innate to all women, predestined as they are to be mothers, but who finds herself totally overwhelmed by the experience of motherhood and unable to cope? The woman who suffers from postnatal depression, whose anxiety is compounded by a sense of having somehow failed as a woman? Or what about the young boy who is told by society that being a man means being tough and strong and steely in the face of his emotions? But who struggles with depression, unable to ask for help for fear of displaying vulnerability? That cultural barriers inhibit men from seeking help with mental health issues is, doctors suggest, being borne out in disproportionately high suicide rates as men now account for 77% of all suicides in the United Kingdom – an increase from 63% in the 1980s. The rate of suicide for men in their forties is now at the highest it has ever been.
In the week in which Caitlyn Jenner has occupied headlines our attention is also drawn to the often overlooked experience of the transgender community, for whom the schism between gendered expectation and bodily reality is ultimately irreconcilable.
Demystifying sex and gender
Demystifying reductionist gender categories has historically been associated with Second Wave Feminism, specifically with Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal text ‘The Second Sex’ (1949) in which she observed ‘one is not born, but rather one becomes, a woman.’ This made the then revolutionary distinction between sex and gender, citing the former as relating to what is anatomically distinct about the female body and the latter as the culturally constructed meaning imposed upon it. However, we should not confine this denaturalising of sex from gender to the intellectual halls of feminism. As the issues touted as indicating a ‘crisis of masculinity’ attest, reductionist gender norms are as damaging to men as they are to women. And now, thanks to the ongoing technological transformation of the labour market, we are becoming increasingly aware of how potentially damaging they might prove to the economy too.
Drawing on the legacy of Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler argues that gender is performative – real only insofar as we act out a gendered identity as though it were innate and then come to believe it to be so. This idea is liberating. As soon as we understand gender as socially constructed and therefore contingent, we can question and refute the expectations imposed upon us as sexed beings. We can see then that it is not a new masculinity we need, a new idea of what it is to be a man, but an open-mindedness as to the diverse capabilities and attributes of individuals as individuals. We are already seeing positive moves toward opening up traditional roles, for example through shared parental leave, which removes the sole onus of childcare from women’s shoulders. But as the frictions eluded to by the idea of a ‘crisis of masculinity’ attest, we still have a long way to go.
The RSA’s work is underpinned by a commitment to the idea that everyone should be empowered to be the author of their own life, what we call the 'power to create'. Given that prescriptive gender stereotypes are a central and too often overlooked barrier to self-fulfilment their removal is key if we are to make the 21st Century Enlightenment a reality. The RSA and its 27,000 Fellows are committed to challenging stereotypes, will you join us?
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