It's really not The End of Men

Clad in a striking red stripey jacket, the woman tapped away busily on her lap-top. But as the train clattered towards East Croydon, she suddenly stopped typing. “Sorry,” she blurted out:, “I know it’s terribly unEnglish to talk to strangers on a train but you can’t say women have a stronger pull to their children than men; my husband used to be a blacksmith but now looks after our children full-time and they have a massively connected bond. That yearning is not just felt by women.” Her passion was contagious. Soon several others joined the fray, determined to tell me – and each other – their contrasting points of view.  

London Mayor Boris Johnson marvelled at the “Olympic Effect” and how it had finally made Brits talk to each other on public transport; well, in this case, it wasn’t Mo Farah’s heart-stopping race to the line that got my fellow passengers going but the knotty issue of the new roles men and women play in a world where traditional notions of gender are being challenged every day. The woman in the red jacket was an academic and her family’s main breadwinner, while her husband stayed at home. A young woman with long red hair said she’d just gone back to work after her first maternity leave and was worried she was seen as less of a player. While another said his wife had just given up work to stay at home full time: “And I’ve never seen her happier.”

This complex mesh of perspectives were offered up because I had been talking on the train back from the Liberal Democrat conference – obviously louder than I’d intended – about two new books which claim that Britain and America are in the grip of a power flip, where men are losing ground and women rule supreme. The tomes, one called The End of Men and the Rise of Women, by an editor on The Atlantic magazine, called Hanna Rosin and the other The Richer Sex, by author Liza Mundy – claim the future is female and it is men, not women, who are losing out and being left behind. The guts of their argument is that with girls out-achieving boys at every level of education, women studying in ever greater numbers than men at university (58.2% of UK students are female) and women increasingly entering the professions in greater numbers than men (60% of newly qualified solicitors are women, 56% of new doctors are female, half of trainee barristers etc) the Age of Aquarius is finally upon us and women, rather than men, will rule the world. We are now entering an era, they say, “where women, not men, will be the top earners in their households”.That economic shift, says Mundy, will lead to a fundamental change in the way men and women “date, mate, marry, plan, cook, clean, entertain, talk, retire, have sex, raise children and feel happy (or fail to do so).”

Rosin argues that while women are “plastic” – and can adapt easily to change, whether that’s taking on traditionally ‘male’ roles by going out to work, or adapting to new sexual mores (women used to have to be chaste and submissive, now on US campuses they are embracing the ‘hookup cuture’ of casual sex as a steady relationship would rob too much of their study time). Men, Rosin says, are “cardboard” – stiff, resistant to new ways of doing things, particularly if that means them taking on more of the roles traditionally played by women (domestic chores, looking after kids etc). The ‘Mancession’ in America (so-called because it is traditionally male sectors such as heavy industry – car making, steel production - and manufacturing that have been worst hit) has led millions of American men to the employment scrap heap. By contrast, women have forged ahead, their superior qualifications landing them jobs in expanding and more traditionally female sectors such as education, health care, nursing and customer services. Of the 30 job categories in the US which are expected to grow 20 of them are predominantly female professions; Rosin’s book ends with an unemployed man embracing the pink future by enrolling to study to become a nurse.

So is any of this applicable to the UK? Well, maybe. The  Resolution Foundation think tank reports a similar hollowing out of male blue collar jobs in the UK, and says that here, too, more households are being kept afloat by a working woman. But is this progress? Hardly. In one of the most striking passages of Rosin’s book, she describes a mother of three kids, who works on a checkout to feed her family and studies at a community college at night to try and improve her prospects. Unsurprisingly, the woman is so exhausted by her many roles – mum, worker, student - that she falls asleep in the lift riding between the ground and fourth floor at her college. Do such matriarchal households exist in the UK? Julia Margo author of two reports into how social and economic change has favoured female skills sets over traditional male ones, Access All areas (published by the think tank Demos) and Freedom's Orphans (for the IPPR think tank) says they not only exist but are on the rise. “Many traditional mens’ jobs in the UK are also being eviscerated by technology. Knowsley, near Liverpool, has the highest number of matriarchal households of any borough in the UK. There, heavy labour is disappearing, and a more female skill set suits the managerial or customer service jobs which are replacing them. In order to do well in the modern economy, Emotional intelligence and communication skills are more important than brawn. And from the very beginning of school it is clear that girls concentrate, apply themselves and work harder than boys do. By the time they leave education they are far more employable.”

That is a mixed blessing. At British universities now there are 400,000 more women than men. In a hair-raising chapter in Rosin’s book in which she describes the“hook-up” culture at Yale University (in which young women sleep around with multiple sexual partners - or hook-ups - rather than settling down with one boyfriend). She writes:“for an upwardly mobile, ambitious young woman, hook-ups were a way to dip into relationships without disrupting her self-devlopment or school work. Hookups functioned as a “delay tactic” because the immediate priority, for the privileged women at least, was setting themselves up for a career… many of the young women did not want a relationship to steal time away from their friendships or studying.” Hookup culture, Rosin argues, expands these women’s horizons: “she could study and work and date and live on temporary intimacy. She could find her way to professional success and then get married.”

This desire for a successful career above everything else is certainly mirrored in the UK. A brand new survey for Marie Claire Magazine (conducted in partnership with Everywoman, a female business network) just surveyed 1000 working women in their twenties and thirties. The findings reveal a new breed of determined driven young women, 75% of whom rank work as the “most important thing in their lives” – ahead of friends, family and relationships. Their heroines are such TV workaholics as Carrie Mathison in Homeland or Sarah Lund in The Killing.
Kathryn Parsons, 31, Co-Founder and Director of tech firm Decoded is part of this toiling sisterhood. “For the next three years I am married to my career. I am putting my life on hold to build the business. I am madly passionate about what I do, I need to be focussed but I love it, my work is my life.” This hardwork is paying off. Young women in their twenties in the UK and America now out-earn their male peers. Research from the Centre for Talent Innovation in New York on young British women, find their levels of ambition are ‘off the scale’.

Yet this extreme work ethic has a surprising cause. The young women entering the work force are in a hurry, because they are aware that time is short. One of the main findings of the Marie Claire survey, according to Trish Halpin, Editor in Chief who commissioned it, is that, “Their ambition is being driven by the pressure they feel to pay off student debts, save enough to buy a home and climb the career ladder before they have a baby.” Gemma Godfrey, a twentysomething former quantum physist and now Head of Investment Strategy at Brooks Macdonald (who also hosts her own TV business show) agrees with that diagnosis. “I believe that the very fact of being a woman, as opposed to acting like or trying to replace a man, has driven some women to overtake their male peers in their twenties. Women have to plan their career goals over a shorter time horizon than men; time pressure is driving them forward. They want to reach a senior position by the time they wish to start a family so they are able to return to a ‘dream job’rather than a slug to the top.”

Yet all this tough-minded ambition –and the dearth of male graduates (there are 400,000 fewer men at university in the UK than women) – makes finding a partner – or certainly one with the same academic qualifications - difficult. Rosin describes a terrifying American dating scene, where super-tough, sexually experienced career women trade pornographic insults with their male peers. At one point, one of her inteviewees says: the only thing a twenty-something girls isn’t allowed to be these days is be vulnerable. The emotional armour required to climb the greasy pole and deal with casual sex is hard to shed when the amazon warriors finally decide the time has come to get hitched. And with a smaller pool of suitably qualified male specimens, competition is intense and the men reluctant to commit. Recent studies have shown increasing numbers of professional women are “marrying down” – choosing men who will support them in their careers; 36% of the Marie Claire survey women “see it as a benefit to have a stay at home husband who would look after the kids”. Rosin describes how high-flying women graduates will soon be in a similar situation to women of colour, who have long been more educated than black males, and who often find the hunt for a suitable mate fruitless. Recent research into Generation X by the Centre for Talent Innovation in New York found that 40% of educated women born between 1965 and 1975 were childless and expected to remain that way, many cited creer ambition as their reasons for not having children saying they wanted “to do one thing well” – rather than being pulled int several directions at once.
Yet the urge to get on, up the ladder, marry and breed certainly chimes with the view of one of my fellow passengers on the train; 30, with long red hair, she had just returned to work from maternity leave. “It took us a while to get pregnant – during the time we were trying, I didn’t mention it to anyone at work, I knew if they were aware I was trying to get pregnant there was no way I would get my promotion. For my husband it just wasn’t an issue, he’s been telling everyone for ages.” She described a culture in which her female peers were scrabbling to get as far as they could up the ladder before they became mothers. This may be a generation of women born and educated to work, but they also know that when the children arrive, most of the care and organisation will fall to them; that they will take the hit. “It’s unfair but with mums getting the bulk of the legal maternity leave and being expected to take the time off when they baby comes, it is still women’s careers that suffer,” the new mum on the train fumed. “No one ever asked my hubby if he’d go back to work after the baby was born. I get asked that all the time.”

Inge Wusrata, who runs Mum and Career, an organisation representing 1000 women who attend her seminars and sign up for advice about how to make their lives work, says, “The women I talk to, even the younger ones, take it as a given that they will bear the burden for the home. I am Dutch, in Holland things are more equal, so I am surprised by how little they challenge that here.” She reports that there are gender flip couples where the man plays the dominant domestic role – perhaps he runs a business from home, works freelance, or runs the household - and the woman works full time, but in her experience that is still very rare - about 5% of the women she sees.

The figures on how many women really are The Richer Sex in a female breadwinner partnership are disputed. Liza Mundy cites research done by Aviva Insurance and Oxford University which found in 25% of couples women are the main breadwinner. Yet the ONS states that only 30% of families have two working parents – so something doesn’t add up. In the Marie Claire survey, 40% of those in a relationship say they earn more than their partner and 90% claim to be more ambitious than their man (though 16% say they lie about how successful they are so as to not put men off, a trend also found in the American books). Certainly the numbers of breadwinner wives are on the rise; though Mundy and Rosin see these families as the norm of the future – that seems like a bit claim for a trend that is still in its infancy.

Increasingly, though, real female high-fliers (like their male counterparts) tend to have a stay-at-home partner– famously Helena Morrissey, CEO of Newton Asset Management and chair of the Thirty Per Cent Club (which campaigns to get more women onto FTSE boards) has nine children and a bhuddist house husband (he’d need to be). Such uber alpha females are becoming more common at the very top. At a series of women leaders conferences I have spoken at I have made a point of asking the female audiences how many of those present are the main breadwinner – at least half raise their hands. But this is largely because for real high flyers these days, the hours are so long and the work so intense – work/life balance guru Sylvia Hewlett terms them Extreme Jobs - that it is only possible to fulfil such a role with a domestic CEO to keep the home fires burning. In the past, such a role was always played by a wife, these day  it can be husband. “We’re still the transition generation,” says Julia Margo, who works full time while her husband stays at home with their two children. “We’re doing it, but we are pioneers, we didn’t grow up with this kind of model. Lots of couples I know have been forced into this arrangement because the men were bankers or estate agents and have lost their jobs while their wives are still working.” There are some men who have broken the‘cardboard’ stereotype and are plastically morphing into being caring hands-on fathers. Indeed, the stripey jacketed woman on the train felt compelled to speak up in defence of such dads: “My husband has such a strong bond with the children, he had a very complicated childhood himself and was determined to be there for them, all the time.”  

Yet success does seem to look different for women. Many female high fliers now trade traditional status – the corner office, legions quivering at their command, salary etc – for time autonomy, being able to be in charge of their own schedules so that they can fit their work around their children. The new buzz word for this is work/life merge. Towards the end of her book, Rosin visits Silicon Valley and hails it as the model for the “ultimate flexible work place” – read female workplace - of the future. It is not for the faint-hearted. Rosin quotes Katie Stanton, head of international strategy for Twitter.  “I consider myself incredibly lucky” says Stanton, “because I can do this job really well and have a family. It’s great.” The rest of us might not think so. “Great” in Silicon Valley means leaving at 5pm to get the kids and tuck them into bed, but then logging back on, every night (this woman can’t remember the last time she went to the gym or out for dinner) often till past midnight. “These women work flexibly but they work all the time,”writes Rosin. “the merge means that work and play and kids and sleep are all jumbled up in the same 24 hour period…Silicon Valley is figuring out the single most vexing problem for ambitious working women,: how to let them spend time with their children without compromising their careers, it gives us a glimpse of the work culture of the future.”

Yet in some ways it is ironic that Rosin cites this Frat boy world (think Mark Zuckerberg and The Social Network) as some female paradise. For this is NOT a world where sexism is dead, no siree. “Women in Silicon Valley think of sexism in the same way people in London must think about bad weather: It’s an omnipresent and unpleasant fact of life, but it shouldn’t keep you from going about your business… dwelling on it is a ‘complete waste of time’.”Instead women there advocate “workshopping these situations one by one, like so many coding glitches, one de-gendered brain to another.” But at a women’s leadership summit organised by a new tech behemoth where I was invited to speak last week, one of their very senior women buttonholed me after my talk. She wanted to ask about work/life balance. Then, with tears in her eyes, she told me it was her son’s fifth birthday – but he was in California; her guilt and grief were etched all over her face. Later I saw her crying as she talked into her mobile.
Kathryn Parsons, a young, female tech entrepreneur is also dubious about hailing the End of Men. “The vast majority of the young entrepreneurs I meet are male. Indeed, too much of the technological future at the moment is being written by men. We need more women to learn to write computer code and be a part of it as everything in the future is about technology. I wouldn’t say this is a female space, though I would like it to be and women when they learn to code are really good.”

Across the engineering industries of the future this is a common refrain: Google runs a special mentoring programme to encourage young female engineers as there is such a dearth. At present the digital future is geeky and male; currently in the UK 92% of teenage girls rule themselves out of a future in the boom technology/engineering sector by not taking all three sciences at GCSE. If women are really going to rule the future, that has to change.

The trouble with the thesis about women taking over the world because they are doing better in education and in the first ten years of their careers, is it ignores much evidence to the contrary. Last year Lord Davies published a government commissioned report into why there aren’t more women at the top of Britain’s companies. In it is a memorable diagram, a pyramid which shows equal numbers of male and female graduate entrants to the work place at the bottom, but where the female half of the pyramid empties towards the top.  While women may be entering the work place as a mighty, enthusiastic, hardworking wave, as they hit middle management – and their mid thirties - they drop out in droves. Christina Ioannidis and Nicola Walther’s book Your Loss, How to Win Back Your Female Talent, describes how at entry level in many organisations there is a 50:50 gender split, but in middle management there are 75% men and only 25% women and by the time it gets to executive leadership level there are 5% or less women and 95% men. The pram in the hall, is usually cited as the culprit, but interestingly childless women don’t make it to the top either. Experts blame women’s lack of powerful sponsor/advocates and an overwhelmingly male, macho culture. Often the women who do make it that far have become men in skirts – think Margaret Thatcher, or Hilary Devey. In the last two years, of 87 FTSE 100 executive appointments, a paltry 2 were female. To put that back into the real world, the Marie Claire survey found that 70% of their respondents said there were “none” or “very few” women in senior roles at their firms. If it’s The End of Men, why, at the summit where real power lies, is the default leader still pale and male, forty years after the first female graduates started entering the work place in serious numbers? Rosin argues that it is just a matter of time before women take over and that the very few women there are at the top are “highly prized” and “better rewarded than men”. I’m not so sure that we will see meaningful change here any time soon.

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