Why the Media’s “Decline of Men” Narrative Doesn’t Hold Up

With women earning more graduate degrees than men for the first time ever, and taking up a full half of the educated workforce, the hurdles they face in the workplace might be harder to identify — but they are very much there.

In fact, Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett, Ph.D., argue in their book, The New Soft War on Women, the gains women have made in the workplace are actually being used rhetorically to keep equality from being fully realized. Rather than simply telling women to try harder, this book gives them grounding in the facts about discrimination and disparity. Here’s an excerpt from the paperback edition of the book, out this week. It addresses the media’s fixation on the “decline of men,” or the “end of men” — which the authors call a myth.

From The New Soft War on Women:

Are women really on track to become the richer sex and to replace men as the primary breadwinners in American families? Is the United States becoming a middle-class matriarchy? Are we seeing the end of men as women take over the reins of power in the nation and become the ascendant sex? Is it time for women to step back and let men catch up?

The highly successful woman wielding power over the hapless man is now a media staple. This woman is part of the middle-class matriarchy, outlearning her husband and marching to the top of the world order. She has torn down the barriers that kept her foremothers back, and now the sky is the limit.

This narrative is fast becoming the major news frame of the story of men and women, boys and girls. It’s all over newspapers, magazines and the web. Despite the fact that this narrative is totally at odds with our everyday experience and with a mountain of solid contradictory data, it is replayed so often and in so many venues that you can hardly blame women and men for believing it’s true.

Don’t be fooled. These straw men and straw women can blow your house down. If you take in this message, you may never fulfill your potential. Why? If you believe that all the barriers to your advancement have been knocked down, and that your heavy backpack has been emptied, only you are responsible if— despite all your hard work and effort— you don’t advance.

Nonsense. We need to put up some red flags before this runaway train gets too far down the track.

More men than women lost their jobs after the 2008 financial crisis, fueling the declineofmen narrative. But guess what happened next? In 2012 the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that, in fact, we’re in the middle of a “mancovery”—men are getting back on their feet while women are slipping backward. 1 Between June 2009 and June 2011, women lost close to 300,000 jobs, while men gained more than 800,000. “We’ve never seen a recovery like this,” the National Women’s Law Center’s Joan Entmacher told NPR, “where two years into the recovery, women are doing so much worse than men and are actually losing ground.”2 Still, the popular perception is that women are soaring.

Much is made of the “fact” that more than 40 percent of American women are their family’s breadwinner. In a 2012 Time magazine cover piece (adapted from her book The Richer Sex), journalist Liza Mundy cites 2009 Bureau of Labor Statistics data saying that one in four women outearn their spouses. 3 This claim was picked up by scores of media outlets.

But look a bit more closely at the numbers, and the picture isn’t so rosy for women. Which women are advancing? And which men are backsliding? The answers are important if you are going to talk about who’s getting “rich.”

In fact, the only segment of society in which a substantial percentage of wives significantly outearn their husbands is low-income workers, according to two respected scholars who looked at large national data sets. Economist Heather Boushey says that in 2010, among couples whose earnings were in the bottom 20 percent (averaging some $20,000 a year per household), 70 percent of women outearned their husbands. And Anne Winkler, a professor of economics and public policy administration at the University of Missouri, in her detailed 2005 analysis, has found that the wealthier the couple, the less likely that the wife will outearn her husband. 5 Indeed, as family income goes up, fewer and fewer women outearn their husbands, Winkler reports.

When you look at women who really are the breadwinners—who earn at least 60 percent of the family income— the figure drops to about 10 percent. So, when you talk about women who are making appreciably more than their husbands, it’s only one woman in ten. And since that is true primarily among couples earning the lowest salaries, the term “rich” doesn’t describe what’s really happening for most women.

Excerpted from the paperback edition of The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance Is Hurting Women, Men — and Our Economy by Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett, published September 1 by Tarcher, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015, Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett.