Economics vs Gender Issues

I just read a great article from the Atlantic that responds to the whole “Can women have it all?” debate — from a male point of view. A year after this debate first emerged onto the national media platform (with Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in the Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”), it is very refreshing to see a man provide his viewpoint on the discussion. The author, Stephen Marche, recounts his experience of having to give up his promising career for his wife’s new job that made her the breadwinner of the family and him the stay-at-home dad.

Several points were raised in this article that I particularly liked:

First, Marche argues that Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg’s experiences cannot represent the average woman or man in America. These individuals are part of a “technocratic elite” who can afford to concern themselves with questions such as, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

Marche labels arguments from Slaughter and Sandberg as part of a “capitalist fantasy.” For most families, the question is about survival. Outside of this elite, men and women cannot afford to wax philosophical and fantasize about a social mobility that has become more restricted than ever.

Consequently, Marche asserts that the economics ultimately prevail over gender issues within the household. He cites a Pew Research study from this March that male and female attitudes regarding their role in the household are not significantly different. He concludes that:

Gender attitudes do not affect economic reality, but rather the other way around.

I appreciate Marche’s argument because I have often felt that arguments from women like Sandberg and Slaughter on behalf of the modern, powerful female were skewed given their socioeconomic situations. As part of that elite — Slaughter a high-profile figure in D.C. and Sandberg the chief operating officer of Facebook –, these women face a different set of questions from most of us in the working world. By contrast, Marche presents a more complete picture in which structural constraints, not our individual choices, matter more in shaping our work-life style.

Second, Marche points out that despite the remnants of patriarchy in modern society, much has changed. More women are now earning bachelor’s degrees and graduate degrees than men, and as more women are climbing the ranks, they are ascending to more powerful positions. Yet the paradox is that while the work structure is becoming more egalitarian for women at the average level, at the very top the positions are still dominated by men. Marche calls this paradox a “hollow patriarchy”:

We live in a hollow patriarchy: the edifice is patriarchal, while the majority of its occupants approach egalitarianism.

He argues that the new discussion on feminism often ignores the hollowness of the patriarchy, choosing to focus instead only on the residual existence of the patriarchy. Even while men still hold the most powerful positions, as a whole men are becoming less powerful.

Masculinity grows less and less powerful while remaining iconic of power.

Here’s where I felt Marche’s article fell short. Why does this paradox exist? Why is the image of masculinity still so potent and linked to power, while women so close to the top still cannot reach the very top?

Nevertheless, this was a great article that I would highly recommend.


2 thoughts on “Economics vs Gender Issues

  1. Loved your observation about the importance of “structural constraints” versus the effect of “individual choices.” Do you think that masculinity really is growing less and less powerful? If it is iconic of power, wouldn’t that mean it still retains power? What about the argument that many successful women adopt (typically assumed) masculine characteristics and elements?

    1. Exactly! I don’t believe that masculinity is growing less powerful. While masculinity *appears to* be less powerful, it still remains incredibly significant — which can help explain the argument you raise about successful women adopting traditionally perceived masculine characteristics. I think that’s a point which Marche doesn’t really distinguish, the difference between the appearance of power and the power itself. could argue vice versa, that masculinity is still important because it is symbolic of power while less inherently powerful.

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