April, 23rd 2012

WSJ must-read on women, men and ambition

– Liz Mair

For the past couple of years, I've been banging on a bit about how changes in women's role in society potentially have impacted, and stand to impact, our economy, culture, and so on (and the impact they're having on the relevance of certain political debates involving what we have traditionally come to refer to as "women's issues"-- something that, by the way, increasingly strikes me as a rather outdated, outmoded and not particularly meaningful term).

In this Atlantic piece, some of these changes are discussed rather extensively, pushing the question alluded to in the title-- are we facing the "end of men" in some or any respect(s), or will we be?

This piece from the WSJ last week is a must-read, and similarly begs some questions about what our society-- and gender roles-- might look like in 20 years.  

Young women, who have already passed young men in education, are now more career-driven as well, according to a survey released Thursday.Young women, who have already passed young men in education, are now more career-driven as well, according to a survey released Thursday.

About two-thirds of women between ages 18 and 34 cited a high-paying career among their top life priorities, compared with just 59% of young men, the Pew Research Center in Washington said. That was a reversal from 1997, when 56% of women rated a high-paying career high on their list of priorities, less than the 58% of men surveyed back then, according to Pew. The research is based on phone surveys of 1,181 women and 1,308 men.

The Pew survey suggests women's growing economic power is upending long-standing perceptions of work, marriage and family—though not at the expense of raising children. Indeed, while young women now put a higher value than men on their career, roughly six in 10 women ages 18 to 34 said being a good parent was one of the most important things in their life. That was up 17 percentage points from 1997.

Women "are not saying they want career success at the expense of these other things," said Kim Parker, associate director of Pew Social and Demographic Trends.

Women may also be responding to the reality that in many cases they will be bigger contributors to their family income than their mothers were. Though men still make more than women, their median earnings have been stagnant since the 1970s, adjusted for inflation, putting an increasing share of families' financial burden on women.


Women have long been accumulating economic heft, accounting for 47% of the nation's overall labor force, up from about a third in 1960. Young women first eclipsed men in college attainment in the early 1990s, and the gap has grown wider. About 44% of women 18 to 24 were enrolled in college or a graduate program in October 2010, compared with 38% of men the same age.

According to the Pew survey, a much smaller share of women between ages 35 and 64 say having a prosperous career is among the most important things to them.

I don't have a particular conclusion to reach here except to say that goodness, things certainly have changed over the past 30 years, and this trend is probably another reason why, when in a political context I discuss so-called "women's issues" with my mother and others of her generation, I feel like we're operating distinctly not on the same wavelength. It is also one thing that likely explains why I continue to be deeply uncomfortable with political discourse that focuses on fixing our economy or our society or our culture (or insert another appropriate ill here) by resuscitating policies that worked 20 or 30 or 40 years ago. Not only are policies like that likely to already be rather outdated, how much more outdated could they appear to be in five or ten years' time? I fear the inevitable answer there is "quite a bit."

It would be nice to believe that the economic challenges we've been facing over the past few years are purely cyclical (we have ideas that have been tested for dealing with those). But I suspect they are in many cases structural, and I think changes like those that we're seeing where gender roles and characteristics-- like relative levels of ambition, educational pursuits, and entrepreneurship levels-- are concerned add an extra layer of complexity when we're thinking about the nature of the problem(s) we face and how (or perhaps even whether) we attempt to fix (all of) them. 

No real conclusions; just a bit of food for thought, and a general note that the times they are a'changin... [intro]



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