The New York Times Magazine on Sunday featured a cover story by Hanna Rosin describing economic change in a small Alabama town and the differing manner in which an exceedingly small segment of men and women of the town have adjusted to those changes. This is a shorter version of the phenomenon described in Rosin's book, The End of Men and the Rise of Women which is due out this month. Rosin posits that women are now outstripping men in terms of educational and vocational achievement and that men are coping poorly with an economy in which manufacturing continues to employ a smaller fraction of the work force. (I will return to Rosin's broader point in a moment -- but first the Times article.)
The article focuses on a handful of middle-aged white couples in Alexander City, Alabama, a city of 15,000 whose economy was dominated until relatively recently by the Russell Corporation, makers of athletic apparel. Russell, like many clothing manufacturers, has cut back on its U.S. workforce, sending jobs overseas to places with cheaper wages. As a result, its workforce in Russell has shrunk from 7,000 to less than 1,000 over the last fifteen years.
The three men depicted in the article all lost their jobs with Russell and are struggling to find a new career path. Their wives have now surpassed them in earning power, something which seems to cause a degree of discomfort among these very traditional people. (Although there is no mention of politics in the article, it seems safe to assume that they are all Republicans and evangelicals.) It is interesting to hear these couples discuss their world views in the light of their changed circumstances, the men clinging to the idea that they must be providers, the women distinctly uncomfortable with any association with feminism.
However, I remain deeply skeptical that Rosin is describing some broader trend in this article. Indeed, she is beginning to remind me of the female Thomas Friedman -- all anecdotal data designed to bolster an already arrived at conclusion. (All she lacks is a wise cab driver.) When I look around at the world of politics, finance, big business, high tech, law, and elite medicine, I still see a world that is largely male-dominated. Women dominate certain middle class occupations like nursing and teaching and in some mid-level managerial areas like those depicted in her article, but none of these are what I would describe as positions of real power. Women are now making up about half of law school graduates -- the question is, will this translate into them running the nation's biggest law firms in 20 or 25 years? Or will women law graduates continue to gravitate toward government, academic, small firm and part-time positions as they often do today? Women still constitute only 15% of equiity partners at law firms. (I am not really extolling the virtues of life in large law firms, but merely reflecting the reality that this is where power resides in the legal and business worlds.) And women remain woefully underrepresented in elective government, accounting for only 17% of senators, 17.4% of House members, and 10% of governors. Only 4.25% of CEOs of the companies that make up the S&P 500 are women.
It may well be that women will prove to have more earning power than that segment of the male population left behind by the continued contraction of manufacturing and the ongoing erosion of traditional unions. But this is a far cry from showing women in anything close to a position of dominance in the economy. Indeed, I would say on the basis of the few facts that I have laid out here -- which took about ten minutes of googling -- that she is peddling nonsense, at least as of this date. Ultimately, Rosin, like Friedman, strikes me as a journalistic charlatan with a gift for self-promotion and little in the way of real social science chops.
Now it is quite possible that the generation of women currently in their twenties will in fact attain equity with men. One certainly hopes so. But it is going to require a real revolution in attitudes, particularly as it relates to child bearing and rearing, which currently continue to derail the careers of many women as the quest for "work-life balance" seems to be one in which women do all the balancing.
I suspect that Rosin's book will garner all manner of attention and far too little scrutiny.