Monday, June 14, 2010

The Atlantic on Men - WTF?

Three articles in the new issue of The Atlantic look at men, fathers, and gender roles. Seems they might be buying into the propaganda that men are becoming obsolete - like a piece of computer hardware or a machine that no longer has a purpose.

Here is the most noted one so far (I'll get to the other two - I was out of town for the weekend and I am playing catch-up), on "The End of Men."

There is some validity to what they are arguing here. The technological revolution was spurred by men who were not the "jocks" and "studs" in high school - they were "geeks." And they have now created a world that has little need for big, strong, old-school masculine men.

Now, it's all about brains - and even more, as things are changing, it's becoming a world that favors right-brain skills (see A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future by Daniel H. Pink) more than the traditionally masculine left brain skills. In fact, here is bit of his interview with Oprah:

Winfrey: Let's talk about a right-brain ability you think we should all develop.

Pink: I'd say "design." Design is the ability to create something that has significance as well as usefulness. Even hospitals are bringing in designers to redo waiting rooms.

A young designer in New York re-created the prescription bottle because she noticed that her grandparents were getting their medications confused. She put the medicine's name in large type at the top instead of the doctor's name, and Grandpa gets a green band on his medicine bottle and Grandma gets a yellow band so they can see the difference more clearly. That's an example of how design can literally save lives.

Winfrey: How do we begin to create more design in our lives?

Pink: Carry a notebook and write down examples of good and poor design. After a week, you'll begin to realize that nearly everything is the product of a design decision. The type of lid you put on the cup of coffee you bought this morning was a design decision. So were the shoes you're wearing.

Winfrey: Another right-brained skill you talk about is "story."

Pink: We live in a world where facts are everywhere. If we wanted to know the gross domestic product of Ecuador, my kids could find that online in 15 seconds.

What matters more now is the ability to put facts into context and deliver them with emotional impact. And that's what a story does. We have in our head something called story grammar.

We see the world as a series of episodes rather than logical propositions; when your spouse asks, "How was your day?" you don't whip out a PowerPoint presentation and a pie chart. Instead, you narrate: "First, this happened, and you'll never believe what happened after that...," and so on.

In our serious society, storytelling is seen as being soft. But people process the world through story. Companies are now using a product's backstory as a way to differentiate items in a crowded marketplace.

Even the article in The Atlantic recognizes this point about the change in the work environment I mentioned above (this is from further down from what I posted here):
The postindustrial economy is indifferent to men’s size and strength. The attributes that are most valuable today—social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus—are, at a minimum, not predominantly male. In fact, the opposite may be true. Women in poor parts of India are learning English faster than men to meet the demands of new global call centers. Women own more than 40 percent of private businesses in China, where a red Ferrari is the new status symbol for female entrepreneurs. Last year, Iceland elected Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir, the world’s first openly lesbian head of state, who campaigned explicitly against the male elite she claimed had destroyed the nation’s banking system, and who vowed to end the “age of testosterone.”
The reality, however, is that men have all the brain matter they need to adapt to these changes. But as long as so many men want to blame all of this on feminism, rather than accept that we need to change as the culture changes, then YES, those men will become obsolete for all but the most basic physical jobs.

Here is the beginning of the article.

The End of Men

Earlier this year, women became the majority of the workforce for the first time in U.S. history. Most managers are now women too. And for every two men who get a college degree this year, three women will do the same. For years, women’s progress has been cast as a struggle for equality. But what if equality isn’t the end point? What if modern, postindustrial society is simply better suited to women? A report on the unprecedented role reversal now under way— and its vast cultural consequences.

By Hanna Rosin
mage credit: John Ritter

In the 1970s the biologist Ronald Ericsson came up with a way to separate sperm carrying the male-producing Y chromosome from those carrying the X. He sent the two kinds of sperm swimming down a glass tube through ever-thicker albumin barriers. The sperm with the X chromosome had a larger head and a longer tail, and so, he figured, they would get bogged down in the viscous liquid. The sperm with the Y chromosome were leaner and faster and could swim down to the bottom of the tube more efficiently. Ericsson had grown up on a ranch in South Dakota, where he’d developed an Old West, cowboy swagger. The process, he said, was like “cutting out cattle at the gate.” The cattle left flailing behind the gate were of course the X’s, which seemed to please him. He would sometimes demonstrate the process using cartilage from a bull’s penis as a pointer.

In the late 1970s, Ericsson leased the method to clinics around the U.S., calling it the first scientifically proven method for choosing the sex of a child. Instead of a lab coat, he wore cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, and doled out his version of cowboy poetry. (People magazine once suggested a TV miniseries based on his life called Cowboy in the Lab.) The right prescription for life, he would say, was “breakfast at five-thirty, on the saddle by six, no room for Mr. Limp Wrist.” In 1979, he loaned out his ranch as the backdrop for the iconic “Marlboro Country” ads because he believed in the campaign’s central image—“a guy riding on his horse along the river, no bureaucrats, no lawyers,” he recalled when I spoke to him this spring. “He’s the boss.” (The photographers took some 6,500 pictures, a pictorial record of the frontier that Ericsson still takes great pride in.)

Video: In this family feud, Hanna Rosin and her daughter, Noa, debate the superiority of women with Rosin’s son, Jacob, and husband, Slate editor David Plotz

Feminists of the era did not take kindly to Ericsson and his Marlboro Man veneer. To them, the lab cowboy and his sperminator portended a dystopia of mass-produced boys. “You have to be concerned about the future of all women,” Roberta Steinbacher, a nun-turned-social-psychologist, said in a 1984 People profile of Ericsson. “There’s no question that there exists a universal preference for sons.” Steinbacher went on to complain about women becoming locked in as “second-class citizens” while men continued to dominate positions of control and influence. “I think women have to ask themselves, ‘Where does this stop?’” she said. “A lot of us wouldn’t be here right now if these practices had been in effect years ago.”

Ericsson, now 74, laughed when I read him these quotes from his old antagonist. Seldom has it been so easy to prove a dire prediction wrong. In the ’90s, when Ericsson looked into the numbers for the two dozen or so clinics that use his process, he discovered, to his surprise, that couples were requesting more girls than boys, a gap that has persisted, even though Ericsson advertises the method as more effective for producing boys. In some clinics, Ericsson has said, the ratio is now as high as 2 to 1. Polling data on American sex preference is sparse, and does not show a clear preference for girls. But the picture from the doctor’s office unambiguously does. A newer method for sperm selection, called MicroSort, is currently completing Food and Drug Administration clinical trials. The girl requests for that method run at about 75 percent.

Even more unsettling for Ericsson, it has become clear that in choosing the sex of the next generation, he is no longer the boss. “It’s the women who are driving all the decisions,” he says—a change the MicroSort spokespeople I met with also mentioned. At first, Ericsson says, women who called his clinics would apologize and shyly explain that they already had two boys. “Now they just call and [say] outright, ‘I want a girl.’ These mothers look at their lives and think their daughters will have a bright future their mother and grandmother didn’t have, brighter than their sons, even, so why wouldn’t you choose a girl?”

Why wouldn’t you choose a girl? That such a statement should be so casually uttered by an old cowboy like Ericsson—or by anyone, for that matter—is monumental. For nearly as long as civilization has existed, patriarchy—enforced through the rights of the firstborn son—has been the organizing principle, with few exceptions. Men in ancient Greece tied off their left testicle in an effort to produce male heirs; women have killed themselves (or been killed) for failing to bear sons. In her iconic 1949 book, The Second Sex, the French feminist Simone de Beauvoir suggested that women so detested their own “feminine condition” that they regarded their newborn daughters with irritation and disgust. Now the centuries-old preference for sons is eroding—or even reversing. “Women of our generation want daughters precisely because we like who we are,” breezes one woman in Cookie magazine. Even Ericsson, the stubborn old goat, can sigh and mark the passing of an era. “Did male dominance exist? Of course it existed. But it seems to be gone now. And the era of the firstborn son is totally gone.”

Ericsson’s extended family is as good an illustration of the rapidly shifting landscape as any other. His 26-year-old granddaughter—“tall, slender, brighter than hell, with a take-no-prisoners personality”—is a biochemist and works on genetic sequencing. His niece studied civil engineering at the University of Southern California. His grandsons, he says, are bright and handsome, but in school “their eyes glaze over. I have to tell ’em: ‘Just don’t screw up and crash your pickup truck and get some girl pregnant and ruin your life.’” Recently Ericsson joked with the old boys at his elementary-school reunion that he was going to have a sex-change operation. “Women live longer than men. They do better in this economy. More of ’em graduate from college. They go into space and do everything men do, and sometimes they do it a whole lot better. I mean, hell, get out of the way—these females are going to leave us males in the dust.”

Man has been the dominant sex since, well, the dawn of mankind. But for the first time in human history, that is changing—and with shocking speed. Cultural and economic changes always reinforce each other. And the global economy is evolving in a way that is eroding the historical preference for male children, worldwide. Over several centuries, South Korea, for instance, constructed one of the most rigid patriarchal societies in the world. Many wives who failed to produce male heirs were abused and treated as domestic servants; some families prayed to spirits to kill off girl children. Then, in the 1970s and ’80s, the government embraced an industrial revolution and encouraged women to enter the labor force. Women moved to the city and went to college. They advanced rapidly, from industrial jobs to clerical jobs to professional work. The traditional order began to crumble soon after. In 1990, the country’s laws were revised so that women could keep custody of their children after a divorce and inherit property. In 2005, the court ruled that women could register children under their own names. As recently as 1985, about half of all women in a national survey said they “must have a son.” That percentage fell slowly until 1991 and then plummeted to just over 15 percent by 2003. Male preference in South Korea “is over,” says Monica Das Gupta, a demographer and Asia expert at the World Bank. “It happened so fast. It’s hard to believe it, but it is.” The same shift is now beginning in other rapidly industrializing countries such as India and China.

Up to a point, the reasons behind this shift are obvious. As thinking and communicating have come to eclipse physical strength and stamina as the keys to economic success, those societies that take advantage of the talents of all their adults, not just half of them, have pulled away from the rest. And because geopolitics and global culture are, ultimately, Darwinian, other societies either follow suit or end up marginalized. In 2006, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development devised the Gender, Institutions and Development Database, which measures the economic and political power of women in 162 countries. With few exceptions, the greater the power of women, the greater the country’s economic success. Aid agencies have started to recognize this relationship and have pushed to institute political quotas in about 100 countries, essentially forcing women into power in an effort to improve those countries’ fortunes. In some war-torn states, women are stepping in as a sort of maternal rescue team. Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, portrayed her country as a sick child in need of her care during her campaign five years ago. Postgenocide Rwanda elected to heal itself by becoming the first country with a majority of women in parliament.

In feminist circles, these social, political, and economic changes are always cast as a slow, arduous form of catch-up in a continuing struggle for female equality. But in the U.S., the world’s most advanced economy, something much more remarkable seems to be happening. American parents are beginning to choose to have girls over boys. As they imagine the pride of watching a child grow and develop and succeed as an adult, it is more often a girl that they see in their mind’s eye.

What if the modern, postindustrial economy is simply more congenial to women than to men?
Read the whole article.

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