Are men fast becoming obsolete?
Are women seizing the reins of power in the nation, becoming the major breadwinners and decision-makers? Are women naturally suited for the new economy while old-fashioned males thrash about, clueless?
Today, the idea that men are fading and women rising frames the latest scary story of the sexes in newspapers, magazines, on the Web and in bestselling books.
Hanna Rosin writes in "The End of Men" that the United States is fast becoming a "middle-class matriarchy" as women become the major breadwinners. In "The Richer Sex," author Liza Mundy claims that one in four women out-earn their spouses.
A subtext of this narrative is that men lack the communications skills, flexibility and social intelligence that are the key ingredients for success in the new economy.
Men are allegedly as sensitive as bricks. Rosin refers to "cardboard" men and "plastic" women. In "The Female Brain," author Louann Brizendine claims that women "know what people are feeling, while a man can't spot an emotion unless somebody cries or threatens bodily harm." She says this female ability comes from a larger corpus callosum - the band of fibers that connect the halves of the brain - in women than in men. Anthropologist Helen Fisher claims in "The First Sex" that women's brains can integrate many sides of an argument while men are stuck with plodding linear thinking. "The future belongs to women," she argues.
After reading this, men might be tempted to just give up and leave the field to all these flexible, sensitive, wonderful, high-achieving women. The arguments seem very convincing - until you examine the facts.
In broad terms, women have indeed made enormous strides over the last 40 years, but those gains appear to be slowing. Catalyst, a nonprofit research group that seeks to further women's roles in business, has studied the gender gap at the top ranks in the U.S. and found that it's no closer to closing than it was six years ago.
In no area of the 13 industrial sectors studied did women earn more than men. At no educational level did women earn more than men. And in none of the 22 countries studied did women earn more than men.
Rosin's "The End of Men" argues that because women outnumber men in college classrooms, they will replace men in the "broad striving middle class" that "defines society and provides leaders." But numbers alone aren't decisive; there is a real question whether women will ever attain leadership positions in the areas for which they have been trained.
A report from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation found that so far, women's earnings have not kept up with their gains in educational attainment. Even though women earn more advanced degrees than men, their wages still trail far behind. Catalyst reports that female MBAs earn, on average, $4,600 less than male MBAs in their first job out of business school. Female physicians earn, on average, 39 percent less than male physicians. Women financial analysts take in 35 percent less, and female chief executives one-quarter less. Salary gains that female managers acquired in the 1980s and 1990s have dropped off, and men's salaries are pulling far ahead once again. Women start behind and never catch up.
As for Mundy's claim that 40 percent of women out-earn their husbands, a close look at the numbers tells a different story. The only segment of society in which a substantial percentage of wives makes significantly more money than their husbands is low-income workers. In 2010, among couples in the bottom 20 percent of earners, 70 percent of women out-earned their husbands. But Anne Winkler of the University of Missouri points out that when you look at women who really are the primary breadwinners - who earn 60 percent of family income or more - the figure drops to about 10 percent.
It's true that men got hit hard in 2008 when manufacturing and construction took a nose dive, giving rise to the term "Mancession." But in the last two years, as a recovery slowly moved ahead, men fared much better than women - the so-called Mancovery.
Now, the 2008 situation has reversed. Women are fast becoming big losers due to the heavy toll of the weak economy on public sector workers. According to a National Women's Law Center report published in September, recent jobs data show that public sector layoffs wiped away 45 percent of job gains for women over the course of the recovery.
As for women's supposed superior sensitivity and communication skills due to their larger corpus callosa, science disagrees. Recent studies show no difference in the size of the corpus callosum between men and women. Researchers at Purdue University and the University of Pennsylvania find that men and women react in a very similar way to their colleagues in the workplace, with men being just as sensitive and understanding as women to the problems of others.
Today, the most effective manager, it's believed, is the "transformational" leader, who gains the trust and confidence of followers, mentoring and empowering them to reach their full potential. Psychologist Alice Eagly of Northwestern University and her colleagues found that female managers were more "transformational" than men. But the difference was small: 52.5 percent of females and 47.5 percent of males were judged to fit the category. Both sexes, it seems, are capable of leadership that enables employees to reach their full potential.
With end-of-men scare stories, the media routinely exaggerate women's success and present the worst possible scenarios for men. The implicit message for women is "step back, you've gone too far. You're hurting men." But women still have miles to go to achieve gender equality. And we know from prior research that when men feel threatened, they tend to energetically protect their status. If men believe that women are passing them by, they may be less likely to hire women, mentor them or value them as colleagues.
There's a real scary story.
Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Barnett are at work on a book, "The New Soft War Against Women." They wrote this for the Los Angeles Times. Distributed by MCT Information Services