The audience laughed, but Abrams was engaged in a serious debate. He and three other panelists faced the spotlights onstage at New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. The event was hosted by Intelligence Squared, sponsored by Slate Magazine and attended by over 800 ticketholders. Abrams and his debate partner, journalist Hanna Rosin, argued in support of a controversial motion: “men are finished.” Arguing the counterpoint were feminist scholar Christina Hoff Sommers and David Zinczenko, editor-in-chief of Men’s Health.
“The idea that men are finished is crazy,” said Hoff Sommers. “Men and women complement each other.”
“It’s preposterous,” insisted Zinczenko, who urged the audience to vote against the motion several times during the two-hour event.
Zinczenko’s repeated exhortations didn’t work. His opponents did more than win—they broke the Intelligence Squared record for changed minds. By the end of the evening, 66 percent of attendees were convinced that the era of male dominance was coming to an end.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report in June of 2010 called “Highlights of Women’s Earnings in 2009.” The study confirms what most of us already know: females in the United States earn less than men. Specifically, “women who were full-time wage and salary workers had median weekly earnings of $657, or about 80 percent of the $819 median for their male counterparts.”
So how is it that Rosin and Abrams were able to convince an initially skeptical audience that “men are finished”? Rosin defined her terms early on, insisting she did not believe men were about to be rendered obsolete, nor that women were already in the lead. “Think of this as the writing on the wall,” she said. “What we will prove is that the world where men dominate the public sphere, and where male traits are the ones that lead to success, is the world that we are currently saying goodbye to.”
Rosin went on to note that in 2010, for the first time in history, women became the majority of the workforce. They are still behind in terms of leadership, but that may be changing too. The latest U.S. Census reports that women owned 7.8 million nonfarm American businesses in 2007, amounting to little more than half of the 13.9 million businesses owned by men. But a closer look at the trends in ownership over time reveals quite a difference in pace: since 2002, the number of women-owned nonfarm business grew by 20.1 percent. The total number of businesses owned by men, on the other hand, grew by just 5.5 percent. Women, it seems, are catching up fast.
Are females better suited to thrive in the changing economy? Yes, said Rosin—in fact, women enjoy an advantage even before they enter the workforce. “Most economists agree that what you need to get ahead these days is pretty simple; it’s just a college degree,” she said. “But women, for some reason, are much better these days at getting college degrees than men. For every two men who get a college degree, three women will do the same.”
Hoff Sommers agreed, calling it “a matter of grave concern” and proposing that we change the educational system in order to make school more engaging for boys. “The reasons for girls’ educational success [are] complicated, and surely have something to do with a complex combination of innate and cultural differences,” she said.
Those differences also help women outside of the classroom, especially in today’s economic climate. The American recession has hit men particularly hard, and a 2010 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York highlights the alarming trends. Authors Ayşegül Şahin, Joseph Song and Bart Hobij note that “a breakdown of employment figures shows that men have been affected more adversely than women during the economic downturn.” Men’s unemployment rate in August of 2009 hit 11 percent, compared to just 8.3 percent for women. This is the largest gender gap since the postwar era—and the first time women are coming out on top.
Why are men more vulnerable in tough times? According to the report, “this disparity can be traced in large part to… the fact that job losses have been highly concentrated in the goods-producing industries of manufacturing and construction, which generally employ a higher proportion of male workers.” In other words, the types of jobs men have traditionally performed are increasingly outsourced, automated or obsolete.
Even outside of the manufacturing sector, women have certain traits that help them succeed in business. The Suit spoke with Patricia Werhane, executive director of the Institute for Business and Professional Ethics at DePaul University and a co-author of “Women in Business: The Changing Face of Leadership.” To write the book, Werhane and her colleagues spoke with 22 of the most successful women in the United States.
“We wanted to see if there were some characteristics of these women that were not the standard characteristics of leaders,” she said. “And we discovered that most of them are very collaborative. Most of them work in teams rather than as individuals. They try to flatten the hierarchy in their organizations, they encourage others and they hire people who are smarter than they are.”
This kind of behavior is essential for success during a recession, and Werhane pointed out numerous studies confirming that collaboration yields profit. One 2010 report published in Science Magazine, for instance, found that business performance tends to depend heavily on “a general collective intelligence.” Authors Anita Williams Woolley, Christopher F. Chabris, Alex Pentland, Nada Hashmi and Thomas W. Malone posit that this collective intelligence is “not strongly correlated with average or maximum individual intelligence of group members, but is correlated with the average social sensitivity of group members, the equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking, and the proportion of females in the group.” If it’s true that women are less individualistic and more open to input from others, they have a big leg up on profitable decision-making.
A look at the track record of American enterprise over the last few years reveals the proof in the pudding. By example, Abrams shared some illuminating statistics on the male-dominated finance industry during the debate. “Female hedge fund managers outperformed their male counterparts from 2000 to 2009…by a whopping three percent. Business Week reported that when the downturn began, funds run by women lost 9.6 percent, compared to 19 percent for men,” he said, attributing this to men’s tendency to take more risks based on less information and with less input from others. “All other things equal, anyone who wants to make money ought to go with a woman.”
Still, there are some important industries where women still lag considerably: math, science, engineering and technology. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports that women hold less than 25 percent of jobs in these areas, noting that “this has been the case throughout the past decade, even as college-educated women have increased their share of the overall workforce.”
But to hear Rosin and Abrams tell it, women are still on the verge of flipping the scenario across the board—math and science may simply be the toughest nuts to crack. “Men have been at this for 40,000 years, and women have been at this for 40,” quipped Rosin. “So of course the world does not flip upside-down overnight.”
Abrams concluded with his own thoughts on why women aren’t quite there yet. “Three reasons,” he said. “One: married or unmarried, they’re still primarily responsible for childcare. Two: they often lack the overconfidence of men. And three: sexism. Number one may not ever change for certain. Numbers two and three will. They must. And then us men are in big trouble.”
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