Gender Bender

This is the ninth in a series of 12 posts expounding on the 2011 forecasts in the annual trends report from Salzman, president of Euro RSCG Worldwide PR and an internationally respected trendspotter.

"The dollies got restless." This line from an article in Newsweek in March 2010 remembering the landmark 1970 class-action suit that 46 female workers who were consigned to secretarial roles (dubbed "the dollies" by male co-workers) filed against Newsweek. As telegrams used to say: stop. This year's article, written by three women staff writers, discusses the gender bias conditions that ignited the legal and moral hot seat -- and how things look in the operation today (for doing so, the magazine won kudos from no less than Ms.).

The writers (among the women who make up 49 percent of the magazine's personnel now) are, in their own words, "post-Title IX women, taught that the fight for equality was history; that we could do, or be, anything." In their deeds -- on their new blog, for instance--they actualize the self-empowerment they describe as emanating from role models, such as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton answering a moderator in Kyrgyzstan inquiring into her fashion preferences with, "Would you ever ask a man that question?"

Even considering Clinton's position, the dizziest heights of political, corporate and academic power are still be occupied by men -- but for how much longer, and with what effects not only on classroom, boardroom and (Senate) cloakroom, but also on bedroom, children's rooms and laundry room?

Given that so many men cannot expect that the Y chromosome imparts a head start any longer, in 2011 many of them will be reeling (or, at least, seeking new equilibrium) on a seesaw weighted heavily by females. That is, it's Sadie Hawkins Day every day, and if the changing world means dancing to a new game of musical chairs, the world's men now will have to cope without whole rows of chairs being reserved exclusively for them.

To really plumb the questions that men and women both are having to face next year -- and to understand that two really different emo-coping styles will accompany the debate and the search for answers (a quest that we'll see play out even more) -- we must go fishing.

The expedition begins in the very real and very impressive gains that World Economic Forum has cited in a 334-page study of milestones in gender parity: "We are at a unique turning point in history. Never before has there been such momentum around the issue of gender parity on the global stage," begins the preface. The 134 countries covered, which represent more than 90 percent of the world's population, the report says, "have closed almost 96 percent of the gap on health outcomes between women and men and almost 93 percent of the gap on educational attainment." Case by case, it gets better: In 2018-19 in the U.S., doctoral candidates are expected to stack up like so: 40,800 men to 49,600 women. Already in the U.S., women earn 51 percent of doctorates (and 57 percent of bachelor's degrees; 61 percent of the master's). Women are the primary or co-breadwinner for two-thirds of American families today. But wage gaps linger. Even as women perform better educationally, U.S. Department of Education data show that a year out of school, despite having earned higher college GPAs in every subject, young women will take home, on average across all professions, just 80 percent of what their male colleagues do. Even at the top end, female M.B.A.s globally make $4,600 less per year in their first job out of business school.

A new definition of feminism might be key to the reality we all recognize -- whether we believe anymore in the phrase "the glass ceiling" (coined in 1986) or feel we could parse "separate but equal" in a new way. Questions persist: What is women's work worth? What is men's work worth? And we're talking more than just money.

As terrains that get glossed on the evening news, these are routes being trekked daily on the domestic homefront. There, everything from tasks around the house (including child care and elder care for the sandwich generation) to sexuality to coping styles are proving possible minefields--and points for exploration about the future.

A U.N. report shows women are, in general, still spending at least twice as much time on housework and child care as men in developed nations. And the overwhelm appears to go straight to fertility and childbearing. In countries where old-style male attitudes tend to prevail and men have been slow to do their fair share, fertility rates have fallen; the rate is now 1.20 children per woman in Japan and 1.32 in Italy. In South Korea, women are highly educated but earn far less than men and are less employed by local companies; the fertility rate there is a world low of 1.22 per woman. By contrast, in countries where men don't object to playing a more evolved domestic role, birth rates have held up and stand at 1.92 in the U.K., 1.66 in the Netherlands and 2.06 in the USA.

In "Boardwalk Empire" -- set during Prohibition (which started in 1920, the same year women won the right to vote) -- Enoch Thompson (Steve Buscemi) discovers he isn't the boss of his lover-suffragette Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), as he thinks he is of everybody else. Contemporary men also are no longer automatically the head of household, the sexual initiator, the protector and provider, the decision-maker. And in 2011, we'll see men decreasingly masters of all they survey. How will men take to being labeled a sex object? Or dowdy keeper of the hearth?

Surely, we are all going to need to learn a new language to conjugate contemporary sexual politics for new and deeper meaning. Gender has bent. It will keep on flexing. Commercials during prime-time football games for the new season of "V" keep depicting the boss-cyborg in a crewcut, the human woman wearing long tresses and writhing in passion. An interesting sign. Perhaps the new language we learn will need to be a wiki-language, where definitions can be edited by anybody else in the maze.

"Labryinth" is the word used by Harvard Business Review writers who call out "the complexity and variety of challenges" ahead for gender equity at work -- where, we can't doubt, women are rising up strong.

Myth has always been a good metaphor. With men objecting strenuously not just to women's advanced power but the reductionism of depictions for those left behind (sex object or frump?), it bears remembering the original labyrinth, for which Ariadne gave Theseus a ball of thread to find his way out after killing the Minotaur. Today, the thread will be carried by women, actively threading needles with the power of higher education and jobs, and held by men, finding pace in the rhythm that coming home is not always defeat.

"Who's in Control?"