The lazy, stereotypical thinking in Hanna Rosin's "The End Of Men"

It’s okay, I checked - the men are still here!

Whenever a person makes any of the following statements – the future is female, men are the new weaker sex, masculinity is in crisis, the pendulum has swung too far, the male of the species is becoming redundant etc* – it is surprisingly hard to mount a challenge. Deep down, you know such people are talking straight out of their arses, but you really don’t want to be the one to say so. First, it sounds mean and unsympathetic. If, for instance, you are a middle-class woman and you’re being compared – somewhat conveniently – to a working-class man, you risk appearing rather uncaring and ungrateful (and that’s before you get onto the standard feminist rant about how positively frightful visiting Waitrose on a Saturday can be). Second, you don’t want to make it look as though you actually believe feminists are merely engaged in an ongoing competition with the patriarchy to win the coveted Crappest Life Cup. Challenging gender stereotyping and power imbalances – and actually proposing change – are rather different activities to splitting the human race into two undifferentiated groups and complaining that your group is the current “loser”. It’s important not to engage in such a stupid argument (even if stupid people have spent years trying to bait you into doing precisely that). So you might think “well, best say nothing – it’d only give them ammunition”. Or perhaps pull a sad face and nod thoughtfully, just to make sure these people get off your case.

Well, this evening I’ve decided that I am REALLY SICK of this bloody stupid LIE. And that’s, like, using capital letters and everything, so you can tell I’m totally cross. All of this “now it’s the men’s turn” bollocks – it’s just nasty passive aggression and I’ve had enough of it. It might get newspaper columns and sell books, soothing egos in the process, but not only is it rubbish, it’s cruel and damaging. This isn’t about feminists wanting to jealously guard some much-valued victim status. It’s about the ongoing discomfort some people have with women being active agents in the world. It’s about telling women they’ve taken something that isn’t theirs. What’s more, it’s about ensuring that the unease we have with women in positions of power endures and can continue to be portrayed as toxic to society as a whole.

Now I am not a conspiracy theorist. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might, for instance, go to Sainsbury’s, accidentally crash my trolley into another woman’s and then, rather than simply say “sorry, shall I pick up your custard creams?”, strike up a deep and meaningful conversation, find out about said woman’s whole life story and domestic set-up, decide it is emblematic for all relationships between women and men, then spend the next few months obsessing over said woman and her ex, regarding them as Everyman and -woman and longing for them to get back together. I might even invent cartoon superhero counterparts for the former couple, christening them Cardboard Man and Plastic Woman. Then I’d create a whole thesis around it, dropping in random facts picked up here and there, plus some stuff I didn’t really understand (which I would therefore dismiss as “irrelevant”). I might do all of these things, but for two reasons: 1) I’ve not completely lost it, and 2) the journalist Hanna Rosin’s done it all already.

In an extract from her new book The End of Men, Rosin plays straight into the hands of those who see the world in 2012 as a realisation of The Two Ronnies’ 1980 misogyny-fest The Worm That Turned. To be fair, I don’t think she means to do this. Even so, I can’t help feeling that without a backdrop of resentment at women behaving in ways they’re not meant to behave, owning things they’re not meant to own and making decisions they’re not meant to make, such flawed thinking would never have gained such support and publicity. Rosin argues that evidence that women have “in many ways surpassed” men (whatever that means) is “everywhere”: “it was only centuries of habit and history that prevented everyone from seeing it”. Thankfully, through bumping into “Bethenny”‘s trolly, then tracking down her much-pitied ex “Calvin”, Rosin is able to perceive that the rest of us can’t (oh, and she also did “a lot more reporting and research”, presumably damaging many more trollies in the process).

There are plenty of intelligent things one can say about the loss of traditionally “male” manufacturing jobs in the west and the ensuing instability of our replacement “knowledge” economy. This isn’t one of them:

In the past, men derived their advantage largely from size and strength, but the post-industrial economy is indifferent to brawn. A service and information economy rewards precisely the opposite qualities – the ones that can’t be easily replaced by a machine. These attributes – social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus – are, at a minimum, not predominantly the province of men. In fact, they seem to come easily to women.

While such an interpretation of the situation is satisfyingly simple, it’s also nonsense (not just because the most powerful men one might think of haven’t exactly spent their lives engaged in backbreaking work). Traditional ideas about male and female qualities have shifted to serve different purposes and in line with different roles. If you buy into notion of extreme male and female “hard-wiring”, you’d have to say that Rosin’s choice of stereotypes is selective, to say the least. For instance, you could easily vaunt women’s “open communication” while simultaneously regarding them as indecisive and unfit to lead i.e. still not “male” enough for the fewer but more privileged senior roles. Moreover, even if you accept the uneven, selective stereotyping, the argument that male unemployment has risen disproportionately within specific social groupings because men as a whole aren’t as good at sitting still and being socially intelligent seems to me a sneaky way of letting a series of social, political and economic failings off the hook. Does any man think “I’ve lost my job because the ladies have won, and that’s because they’re better at communicating?” Well, I suppose he might do. But it would seem to me a gross misdirection of justified anger.

Like many who panic over the “devaluing” of men, Rosin appears attracted to an essentialist understanding of gender roles, except when it doesn’t suit her argument. Hence we have Plastic Woman – who has “throughout the century performed superhuman feats of flexibility” – and Cardboard Man – who “hardly changes at all”. You could argue that this is linked to power; the weak can change because they have less to lose and more to gain. Or you could say that this challenges “hard-wiring” theories; the fact that women don’t remain the same in their roles and aspirations might indicate that the supposed essence of woman doesn’t exist. I’m not going to argue either of these things because it would mean arguing over imaginary, crude characters invented to support a failing argument. The choices open to men and women depend on a huge range of social factors. That gender should not limit their choices ought to be self-evident, but it isn’t, not least because of the publication and ever-increasing simplification of arguments such as Rosin’s.

So men haven’t grasped traditionally female roles with the eagerness with which women have grasped traditionally male ones. Rosin appears to be puzzled by this:

They could move into new roles now open to them – nurse, teacher, full-time father – but for some reason, they hesitate. Personality tests over the decades show men tiptoeing into new territory, while women race into theirs. Men do a tiny bit more housework and childcare than they did 40 years ago, while women do vastly more paid work. The working mother is now the norm. The stay-at-home father is still a front-page anomaly.

“For some reason”? Ooh, let’s think. Money and status, perchance? The fact that no one wants to do the housework? The fact that if “the working mother” is doing everything there’s no point in being arsed? I realise these are all gross simplifications, but I genuinely find Rosin’s bemusement disingenuous. Who doesn’t “hesitate” before cleaning a toilet for no wage whatsoever? Who wouldn’t want the freedom and choice that financial independence brings? It’s not rocket science (which, as far as I am aware, is not an area in which women now unjustly dominate, but hey, who knows? [Women, probably, what with them being good at gossiping and finding stuff out]).

Rosin indulges in lazy, stereotypical thinking which she assumes her reader to share:

For a long time, evolutionary psychologists have claimed that we are all imprinted with adaptive imperatives from a distant past: men are faster and stronger and hardwired to fight for scarce resources, a trait that shows up in contemporary life as a drive to either murder or win on Wall Street. Women are more nurturing and compliant, suiting them perfectly to raise children and create harmony among neighbours. This kind of thinking frames our sense of the natural order.

Well, it might have framed hers, but as for me, I’ve been too busy emulating my male partner in, um, murdering people and winning on Wall Street.** Therefore I have not been remotely surprised that women have been able to achieve things in supposedly “unfeminine” fields, nor that more women in power (intermittently) has not meant a more caring, sharing, flowery form of leadership. I am sorry that, to others, this has come as such a shock:

Difficult as it is to conceive, the very rigid story we believed about ourselves is obviously no longer true. There is no “natural” order, only the way things are.

What a depressingly unremarkable observation, and how sad to find it in a piece that continues to seek out winners and losers within a far more complex narrative.

What truly angers me about an argument such as this – and its public endorsement – is the fact that there are all sorts of inequalities and ways in which choice is unfairly withheld from others. These are based not just on gender, but on class, race, belief, sexuality, physical and mental capabilities, place of birth etc. etc. To crudely cast women as having “won” not only distorts the complexities of power imbalances, but also reinforces the active discrimination which still holds many women back from having similar choices to men when other factors are taken into account. It suggests that women – who simultaneously stand accused of having failed to capitalise on equality due to their “natural” difference and of having claimed too much by going against “natural” expectations – are interlopers. It adds strength to the feeling that women have encroached upon no-go areas. It blames female advancement for the failures of politicians and economists. It pretends ongoing inequalities in unpaid domestic labour are caused by the mysterious inability of “Cardboard Man” to pick up a dishcloth. In short, it sodding well isn’t fair.

I am now off to Sainsbury’s, in a suitably bad mood. If you see my trolly heading for yours, I’d watch it if I were you.

* Please add your own – there are loads.

** Both of these things are fibs. Obviously I wish one were true, but I’m not saying which.

This post first appeared here on glosswatch.com. Glosswitch is a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.

Men: really not that badly off. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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The 2017 Budget will force Philip Hammond to confront the Brexit effect

Rising prices and lost markets are hard to ignore. 

With the Brexit process, Donald Trump and parliamentary by-election aftermath dominating the headlines, you’d be forgiven for missing the speculation we’d normally expect ahead of a Budget next week. Philip Hammond’s demeanour suggests it will be a very low-key affair, living up to his billing as the government’s chief accounting officer. Yet we desperately need a thorough analysis of this government’s economic strategy – and some focused work from those whose job it is to supposedly keep track of government policy.

It seems to me there are four key dynamics the Budget must address:

1. British spending power

The spending power of British consumers is about to be squeezed further. Consumers have propped up the economy since 2015, but higher taxes, suppressed earnings and price inflation are all likely to weigh heavily on this driver for growth from now on. Relatively higher commodity prices and the sterling effect is starting to filter into the high street – which means that the pound in the pocket doesn’t go as far as it used to. The dwindling level of household savings is a casualty of this situation. Real incomes are softer, with poorer returns on assets, and households are substituting with loans and overdrafts. The switch away from consumer-driven growth feels well and truly underway. How will the Chancellor counteract to this?

2. Lagging productivity

Productivity remains a stubborn challenge that government policy is failing to address. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the UK’s productivity performance has lagged Germany, France and the USA, whose employees now produce in an average four days as much as British workers take to produce in five. Perhaps years of uncertainty have seen companies choose to sit on cash rather than invest in new production process technology. Perhaps the dominance of services in our economy, a sector notorious hard in which to drive new efficiencies, explains the productivity lag. But ministers have singularly failed to assess and prioritise investment in those aspects of public services which can boost productivity. These could include easing congestion and aiding commuters; boosting mobile connectivity; targeting high skills; blasting away administrative bureaucracy; helping workers back to work if they’re ill.

3. Lost markets

The Prime Minister’s decision to give up trying to salvage single market membership means we enter the "Great Unknown" trade era unsure how long (if any) our transition will be. We must also remain uncertain whether new Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) are going to go anyway to make up for those lost markets.

New FTAs may get rid of tariffs. But historically they’ve never been much good at knocking down the other barriers for services exports – which explains why the analysis by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research recently projected a 61 per cent fall in services trade with the EU. Brexit will radically transform the likely composition of economic growth in the medium term. It’s true that in the near term, sterling depreciation is likely to bring trade back into balance as exports enjoy an adrenal currency competitive stimulus. But over the medium term, "balance" is likely to come not from new export market volume, but from a withering away of consumer spending power to buy imported goods. Beyond that, the structural imbalance will probably set in again.

4. Empty public wallets

There is a looming disaster facing Britain’s public finances. It’s bad enough that the financial crisis is now pushing the level of public sector debt beyond 90 per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP).  But a quick glance at the Office for Budget Responsibility’s January Fiscal Sustainability Report is enough to make your jaw drop. The debt mountain is projected to grow for the next 50 years. All else being equal, we could end up with an incredible 234 per cent of debt/GDP by 2066 – chiefly because of the ageing population and rising healthcare costs. This isn’t a viable or serviceable level of debt and we shouldn’t take any comfort from the fact that many other economies (Japan, USA) are facing a similar fate. The interest payable on that debt mountain would severely crowd out resources for vital public services. So while some many dream of splashing public spending around on nationalising this or that, of a "universal basic income" or social security giveaways, the cold truth is that we are going to be forced to make more hard decisions on spending now, find new revenues if we want to maintain service standards, and prioritise growth-inducing policies wherever possible.

We do need to foster a new economic model that promotes social mobility, environmental and fiscal sustainability, with long-termism at its heart. But we should be wary of those on the fringes of politics pretending they have either a magic money tree, or a have-cake-and-eat-it trading model once we leap into the tariff-infested waters of WTO rules.

We shouldn’t have to smash up a common sense, balanced approach in order for our country to succeed. A credible, centre-left economic model should combine sound stewardship of taxpayer resources with a fairness agenda that ensures the wealthiest contribute most and the polluter pays. A realistic stimulus should be prioritised in productivity-oriented infrastructure investment. And Britain should reach out and gather new trading alliances in Europe and beyond as a matter of urgency.

In short, the March Budget ought to provide an economic strategy for the long-term. Instead it feels like it will be a staging-post Budget from a distracted Government, going through the motions with an accountancy exercise to get through the 12 months ahead.

Chris Leslie MP was Shadow Chancellor in 2015 and chairs Labour’s PLP Treasury Committee

 

 

 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour’s backbench Treasury Committee and was shadow Chancellor in 2015.