A young boy in Harlem, 1972. (Anthony Barboza via Getty Images)

The Boys Feminism Left Behind

You don’t upend a 12,000-year-old social order without experiencing cultural side effects.

In the span of just a few decades, an astonishing, epochal revolution in human relations has occurred. Since the widespread adoption of agriculture, patriarchy has been the norm in human societies. No longer. Patriarchy has been effectively demolished in advanced economies. 

Women are no longer dependent on men for material resources. By tearing down barriers to education and the labor market, feminism has achieved a central goal of securing for women economic independence and power. 

In 1970, when these changes began gaining steam, women were locked out of many educational and professional opportunities. On American campuses males dominated. In undergraduate enrollment they were 58 percent of students to females’ 42 percent. Men got more than 85 percent of PhDs. In law schools, about 90 percent of students were men. 

Today, undergraduate enrollment has flipped—female enrollment is at 58 percent. Women are awarded 53 percent of PhDs, and they make up the majority of law students. Whole professions, like psychology and veterinary medicine, are becoming overwhelmingly female. Forty percent of American women now earn more than the average man, up from just 13 percent in 1979.

This rise of women has been accompanied by male decline. The statistics here are equally startling. There is the bad economic news: most American men earn less today (adjusted for inflation) than most men did in 1979. This is not because of the mass entry of women in the workplace, but because of the hollowing out of traditional male jobs—factory worker, steelworker, coal miner—as a result of free trade and automation. 

But male troubles are not just economic. Almost one in four school boys are diagnosed as having a “developmental disability.” One in five fathers is not living with his children. Men are at three times greater risk than women from the epidemic of “deaths of despair,” from suicide, alcohol, and drugs. 

There are now more young women than men with university degrees in every advanced economy. Male wage growth has been sluggish in these countries; and men’s employment rates have been dropping around the world

Some hear all of this and come to the conclusion that the women's movement has been a mistake and the solution is to wind back the clock. I disagree. The movement to liberate women has unleashed the power and talent of half of the global population—to the benefit of us all. But like all revolutions, it has generated real challenges, too. You don’t upend a 12,000-year-old social order without experiencing cultural side effects. In this case, it is the dislocation of many of our boys and men. 

It is past time we recognized and started to address these problems. Doing so does not signal a retreat from feminism—or a belief that all misogyny and sexism have been eradicated. It is a recognition of our collective responsibility to deal with the downsides of radical change, as well as celebrate the upsides. For the longest time—pretty much all of history—the cause of gender equality has been synonymous with the cause of girls and women. No longer. It is now necessary to consider gender inequalities in both directions. 

Doing this is in women’s economic self-interest. A world of floundering men is unlikely to be a world of flourishing women. If men struggle to find work or decent wages, that puts more pressure on women as breadwinners. Except in the richest U.S. families (i.e., the top fifth), all of the growth in household income since 1979 has resulted from the increased working hours and earnings of women. Since women also continue to take most responsibility for childcare, they often also end up working what the sociologist Arlie Hochshild labeled a “second shift” of domestic labor on top of their job. The double shift is most acute, of course, for those who are raising children alone. All those disconnected fathers mean that one in four children under 18 are being raised by a single adult—82 percent of whom are mothers. 

If feminism is a social movement motivated by justice and equality of opportunity, then feminists concerned about racial inequality must also care about men. Among those suffering most from the social trends I have described are those from less advantaged backgrounds, especially black men. Black women are seizing educational opportunities long denied to them. Black women aged 25 to 29 hold more graduate degrees, for example, than white men of the same age. Meanwhile, the gender gap in education between black women and black men is widest of all. Two black women for every black man get a college degree.  And black mothers are most likely to return to work fastest after having a child; given that they are more likely than black men to be the main earner, many simply have no choice. 

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If feminists paid more attention to the education of boys, they could help stop the trend to pathologize typically boy behavior. This means opposing the application of the label “toxic masculinity” for any behavior that the user disapproves of. It also means recognizing that there are some differences between males and females that are not just socially determined, but biologically based. 

Schools are increasingly structured in ways that frustrate boys. We expect young children to sit still and be quiet—which is harder on boys. We cut back on physical activity and push academics to ever earlier grades, meaning that slower maturing boys start failing in school early. We have eliminated much of the hands-on learning opportunities, such as shop, that used to be standard. 

Given the rate boys are diagnosed with various behavioral disorders, it’s fair to wonder if it’s the educational institutions, rather than the boys, that are not functioning properly. Feminism has succeeded without destroying the idea that there are inherent female traits. The same courtesy should be extended to males.

So, how could feminists support educational reform designed to help boys? There would be less discussion of patriarchy and more practical solutions. Education is an overwhelmingly female profession, and becoming more so. It would be great to see women champion an effort to get more male teachers in our classrooms. This would provide healthy role models for struggling boys, and disrupt stereotypes about who does what kind of jobs. Today, women account for a higher share of STEM jobs (27 percent, up from 13 percent in 1980) than men do in K-12 teaching positions (24 percent now, down from 33 percent in 1980). As Gloria Steinem said in 1995, “The way we get divided into our false notions of masculine and feminine is what we see as children.”

There are many initiatives to get girls and women into STEM—and girls are constantly told they can do anything they set their mind to. But boys also need encouragement, and more choices. We should create more vocational training, including technical high schools and apprenticeships. We should find ways to persuade boys and men to enter female-dominated professions such as psychology, social work, and nursing. The healing professions have so far proved mostly impervious to automation or being sent abroad. 

Feminists should also be concerned that alienated men are the voters most likely to veer towards the populist right. Donald Trump secured the presidency of the United States in 2016 with a 24-point lead among men, the widest gender gap in the half-century history of exit polling. It’s not just the U.S. Male voters Brexited the United Kingdom out of the European Union. In Germany, especially in the east, men have swung sharply to the political right. In South Korea, young men are swinging hard right, and they helped propel to the presidency conservative Yoon Suk-yeol, who explicitly appealed to young men’s feeling they are being left behind. The failure of the left to tackle, or even to acknowledge, the real problems of boys and men has created a dangerous political vacuum. 

Even if the populist moment passes, a profound cultural challenge will remain. The economic rise of women represents a seismic shift in gender relations. It has broken the chains of dependency that held women down—but also held the nuclear family together. The traditional institution of fatherhood, based on a provider and protector role, has been almost completely deconstructed. Millions of men are being benched as a result. 

A new model of mature masculinity and fatherhood is desperately needed. Marriage provides structure, and legal protection, for the partners, but the reality is that large numbers of Americans are having children outside of marriage. We need decent fathers, no matter their marital status, to be deeply involved in their children’s lives. This means expanding the rights of unmarried fathers to spend time with their children. Paid parental leave for both mothers and fathers would also benefit the entire family. 

The idea that helping boys and men runs counter to continued efforts to lift up girls and women is not just wrong, it is the opposite of the truth. Men and women can, and should, rise together. 

Richard V. Reeves is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of ‘Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It’ which you can buy here.

Listen to his episode of Honestly, with Mary Katharine Ham:

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