The latest issue of the Atlantic features a provocative article by Hanna Rosin on the rise of women in the business world and higher education. In the article Rosin posits that the “modern, postindustrial economy” may be more congenial for women than for men. She cites recent studies pointing to young women’s success in the college classroom (above that of men) and reports the anecdotes of a number of collegiate females who are becoming increasingly convinced that they will be the “providers” for the family, while their husbands stay at home (if they decide to marry at all). Make no mistake–I consider myself a feminist. Yet I find the overarching claims of Rosin’s article to be somewhat troubling.
Rosin displays an odd mix of second-wave feminism and postmodern tendencies. In the paragraph where she questions whether the modern economy is better suited for women, she also appeals to a view of gender-roles as socially constructed: “But what if men and women were fulfilling not biological imperatives but social roles, based on what was more efficient throughout a long era of human history? What if that era has now come to an end? More to the point, what if the economics of the new era are better suited to women?” This last sentence betrays her ultimate position–there are certain traits that are ultimately gender specific, and traits possessed by women are more suitable to our current economic milieu.
While I am quite pleased that Rosin reports on women’s excelling in many areas of the economic, political, and educational arenas, I don’t think arguments that rely on gender essentialism will prove terribly helpful in addressing the reasons for such success. In fact, aren’t these the very same essentialist categories that enabled sexism to exist and persist in the first place?
Rather than relying on these same old gender stereotypes to simply turn the tables, wouldn’t a better approach be to dismantle the stereotypes that maintained women’s role as second-class citizens for so many years? Another blogger [onehandclapping] wisely commented on Rosin’s discussion of the decline of men in education and business:
“If we keep defining men according to what put them on top in ages past, there is going to come a point where men are going to fail (which according to the article is happening now). Men don’t have to fail for women to succeed, but they will if they keep being fed lies about what it means to be a man. There are two ways we can respond what this article reveals. We can value the character traits that work in a postindustrial age – which are neither masculine nor feminine – and encourage people to develop those skills (social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus according to Rosen). Or we can keep banging the drum that our cultural stereotypes are universal and in fact God-given and freak-out about the end of the world.”
She is right to say that the character traits that seem best-suited to the modern economy are neither masculine nor feminine. They are merely character traits that can and should be developed by all. This anti-essentialist approach leads to valuing both men and women without constructing gender-types according to age-old views that simply aren’t true.