The Blog

The Phony 'Gender Wars'

Do families break apart and relationships falter because men are irrelevant and fail to recognize their own obsolescence? Do men and women really tussle over who is dominant economically?
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As if men and women don't already have enough to bicker about, the media is now gleefully stoking a made-up battle over who matters more: men or women?

In her new book The Richer Sex, for example, journalist Liza Mundy musters reams of data to show that women are becoming a more powerful economic force than men. Inside the covers, she points out that this trend could benefit men as well as women. Yet the provocative title suggests a winner-take-all competition between the two genders, an oversimplified meme that has set off plenty of hyperventilating in the media.

Marriage isn't cool any more, as sociologist Eric Klinenberg points out in his recent book, Going Solo. More women are forging careers and having children without a male partner, as if a dab of sperm is all they really need from men. Later this year, we'll get to debate anew whether we've really reached "the end of men," as Hanna Rosin will argue in a forthcoming book derived from a controversial 2010 story in The Atlantic. And of course Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will keep us on high gender alert with their ongoing battle over who's more hostile to women.

I'm not going to summon more mind-numbing data to refute the idea of a gender war, because on debates like this there's usually "expert" evidence supporting both sides, which leads precisely nowhere. Practically everybody ends up believing what they started out believing, because they find a factoid or a pundit to validate their view.

Instead of that, how about simply applying some common sense to the whole question. Are gender wars really a common family problem? Do families break apart and relationships falter because men are irrelevant and fail to recognize their own obsolescence? Do men and women really tussle over who is the dominant economic power?

Many of us can point to a personal anecdote or two about dropout Dads, breadwinner Moms or gender-bent household arrangements. But on the whole, what I seen happening among men and women -- Moms and Dads -- is a pragmatic and sensible effort to optimize opportunity, pool resources and achieve outcomes that are best for everybody. If there's a war, it's rather civil.

Women, for example, now earn the majority of bachelor's and advanced degrees. Plus, they tend to work in growing fields such as healthcare, whereas men are overrepresented in stagnant or shrinking fields like construction, manufacturing and middle management. That's why women are a growing economic force, as they have been for 20 years. But this is hardly a socially destructive trend. Instead, it gives many families an additional source of income and more options for getting ahead.

What happens in most families is a kind of negotiation among partners and spouses, who recognize the changing prospects of men and women in real time and make rational adjustments. If a woman can earn more than her husband, she's likely to work more than he does, while the man stays home and handles more of the household chores. It doesn't always work smoothly, but it does give a family more choices than they'd have in a rigid setup where only the man worked. In a business, that would be considered efficient allocation of resources. In a family, it's a gender revolution.

Single women these days seem to represent an even more emphatic rejection of the traditional role they once played. In the new TV series Girls, twentysomething women have depersonalized sex just like men, shucking the guilt of their forbears to the foot of the bed. These, presumably, are same women who will raise kids without even expecting a man to be involved, and perhaps make it all the way to old age without ever having to rely on a man.

You go girl! Just keep in mind that in real life, it can be kind of nice to have a man around every now and then. Anybody who knows a single Mom, especially one who works, knows that the power and the glory of depending on nobody evaporates as soon as a kid gets sick, there's a call from the authorities or it suddenly seems impossible to keep up with everything that goes wrong with kids. The same goes for single Dads, who don't generate as many book titles but still represent a meaningful sliver of our fragmenting society. Everybody needs help and companionship. Sometimes, a lot.

The bottom line is that people need people. There are fewer social rules than there were a generation or two ago, which has given men and women both more freedom to find flexible arrangements that work for them. What's really going on is a lot of trial and error, as men and women experiment with new roles. Unlike a war, however, this sometimes-messy experiment is heading toward a new equilibrium that may just make everybody better off. But don't tell the pundits. It will ruin their storyline.