In a world where a man who talks openly about kissing and grabbing women without consent can be taken seriously as a candidate for leader of the “free” world, you may wonder how toxic masculinity has spun out of control. As an antidote to all the bully posturing, perhaps the wisdom of a famous cross-dressing artist can help explain how we got here and how we can move forward, so it is time to pick up Grayson Perry’s TheDescent of Man and begin to unravel the mystery of toxic masculinity.
If you have already spent some time pondering feminism, masculinity, and gender, you really have two choices as you read Perry’s screed: You can quietly applaud from the choir loft or utter a mild rebuke that it doesn’t go far enough to liberate us all from the shackles of rigid gender roles. On the other hand, if you have not really examined assumptions about gender and how they affect the world, prepare yourself for a brief but fairly inclusive overview of entertaining and insightful musings on gender, violence, fashion, and injustice.
If you aren’t already familiar with Grayson Perry, he is a celebrated artist, cross-dresser (he refers to himself as a transvestite and sometimes “tranny,” something I decline to do), and host of a television program titled All Man, which was also an exploration of masculinity. At the outset of the book, Perry says that some may think his cross-dressing gives him a better understanding of women, but he insists that it instead gives him a better understanding of men. Though he mentions cross-dressing a number of times in the book, it plays a relatively minor role in this overall thesis, with the exception of his emphasis on fashion.
For a man of a certain means and status, wardrobe options are limited. When doing any kind of business, a fairly bland suit with a fabric “penis,” as Perry says, wrapped around his neck is the default choice for what Perry describes as the Default Man. The Default Man represents all the power and privilege of being male, but Perry acknowledges that not all men share the power and privilege of maleness equally. Still, the Default Man is the assumed cultural archetype for Western society. His clothing is bland, Perry avers, because the Default Man is in a position to observe and objectify others, not to be observed and evaluated himself.
To care about fashion is decidedly unmanly, and, indeed, men who fuss about their appearance are often assumed to be gay by homophobes and self-appointed gender police. Men from other social classes may not be condemned to the prison of the gray suit, but are still considered effeminate in the event that they spend too much time worrying over hairstyles and clothing choices. This is why, of course, cross-dressing is so emotionally and, for some, erotically charged.
While noting that men are responsible for most of the violence in the world, Perry claims that aggressive masculine behavior is entirely, or almost entirely, the result of conditioning that begins even before birth as parents, family, and friends begin choosing clothing, toys, and decorations that “match” the gender of an expected child. Infants and children are treated differently according to their gender, so it would be surprising if boys and girls did not behave differently. Boys learn early to suppress their emotions, be fiercely independent, and solve problems with violence.
Perry gives many compelling and interesting examples of how boys and men experience violence and emotional isolation, but I wish he had spent a little more time talking to the men who seem immune from this conditioning and to people of all genders who fail to fill the role of stereotypical male. For example, if gender is all conditioning, why is it that at least some gay (and some straight) men fail to follow the dictates of the gender binary? What disruptions alter the course of the conditioning? If we are hoping to modify gender roles for future generations, we need to explore alternative paths to non-binary or, at least, non-destructive masculinity.
Though he gives some a passing mention, Perry mostly ignores the experiences of nurturing men such as at-home dads, male carers, transgender men, transgender women, and intersex people. Perry claims gender is a matter of performance in that we all perform behaviors, dress, and emotions that indicate our gender. In other words, we perform masculinity or femininity by taking on the attributes of either gender. In this sense it would seem that anyone would be free to change the mode of performance at any given time.
The use of the word “performance” in this sense recalls the work of Judith Butler, who distinguishes between “performance” and “performativity.” Butler explains here that performativity is about the effects our behavior as related to gender has while performance is a choice to take on a role. If gender were merely a performance, bullying and other forms of gender policing would probably not be such a problem. The shame people feel when they are unable to conform to gender expectations is related to what they are, not what they do. Perry is probably wise to avoid the treacherous philosophical waters of gender identity and deep linguistic analysis, but the question of how deep our inclinations run and can be modified haunts the discussion like the baggage of an old relationship.
In chapter four, he begins by declaring, “I think we like the idea that gender is in our genes because it is convenient, it lets us off the hook.” If he is correct and gender is not in our genes, is not biologically determined, then we have a much better chance at making changes. We can expand the emotional lexicon of boys and men. We can increase male capacity for empathy. We can end war and violence and finally bring peace on earth.
After declaring that we are free to change our gender expression, he paradoxically says this: “Men, bless ‘em, are tethered to a monster, a demon conjoined twin, a one-man ‘wrong crowd’ who will often drag then into bad behaviour. The penis is at once us and not of us.” He says a boy’s sex drive keeps him from understanding the importance of platonic relationships and forming adequate social support networks. Here, near the end of the book, he seems to be speaking of a kind of gender essentialism, which contradicts most of what comes before.
He says, “Men, particularly when young, view the world through a heads-up display of sexual desire.” I’ve never been a young girl or woman, but I have a suspicion that sexual desire also occasionally clouds female judgment and causes them to behave less rationally than they may otherwise hope. And some boys, I am certain, are not so driven by their sexual desires. Regarding biological determinism, Perry clarifies, “We may be genetically predisposed to be straight or gay, identify as male or female or in between, but I think the attitudes, cues, contexts, power relationships, props and costumes are supplied by conditioning.” This clarification is crucial.
While some men “perform” masculinity well and succeed throughout their lives, other boys and men (or people assigned male) find it impossible to “act like a man” and, further, have no desire to join the fraternity. Removing the toxic part of masculinity can make more room for varied forms of gender expression.
In the end, Perry seeks to liberate men from the confines of narrow gender conformity. Once men are freed from shame around weakness and vulnerability, perhaps they can have more compassion for themselves and for those around them. Perhaps, finally, boys who like My Little Pony can say so without fear of bullying. Perhaps, finally, men in the throes of grief can cry openly without being told they need to pull themselves together.
First, I should clarify that I do not think it is acceptable for boys to hit girls, but the admonishment to “never hit a girl” has two problems. 1. It gives tacit permission to hit other boys. 2. It tells boys they have no right to complain when someone hits them. Under this one maxim, boys are certified as aggressors and negated as victims of violence.
If parents and teachers simply told boys not to hit, it would go against everything masculinity represents, unfortunately, in our culture. Fathers would worry that their sons would never toughen up, “grow a pair,” or be able to attract mates. Surely, they say, if boys don’t enter the rough and tumble world of male aggression they will all grow up to be homosexual. Rather, they really mean they will grow up to be “feminine” (I use the quotation marks to show that I do not believe any particular traits are feminine or masculine, but these words are used in stereotypical fashion), which is the real fear. Misogynists assume feminine boys are gay without understanding the difference between orientation and identity or the simple human spectrum of personality traits. It is misogyny that drives the rage against non-conforming boys. It is hatred of who they are more that what they do.
To avoid recriminations, boys with take and give punches and other forms of violence on a regular basis as practice for adulthood. The boy who grows up in this environment isn’t shamed for being violent. Rather, he is shamed when he is passive. If you are a boy who has been told he must never hit girls, when someone hits you, the aggressor has done nothing wrong. In fact, if you don’t hit back, you have done something wrong. You are lacking. Violence is an obligation of masculinity.
If you fail to stand your ground, you will be reprimanded for letting some bully push you around. You will likely be put in self-defense classes. You will likely be told you must toughen up and learn to take care of yourself. While a girl in your position might be given the opportunity to learn self-defense, her status as victim protects her from similar shaming. Violence may be an option of femininity, but it is not an obligation. Boys are denied the status of victim. Boys are told they can only be bullied if they don’t stand up for themselves.
And if a girl hits a boy, the boy is in a double bind. The shame of being hurt by a girl is far greater than the shame of being hurt by a boy, but the opportunity of self-defense or retaliation is taken away. The boy will face shaming such as: “How could you let that happen? She’s just a girl. Don’t hit her! She’s just a girl. Be a man! Just walk it off!” We wonder how adult men become victims of domestic violence, but this pattern is carried into adulthood. The man who is physically assaulted by a woman is rarely recognized as the victim he is. A woman half his size (of course, not every man is married to a woman half his size) couldn’t possibly hurt him. Surely, a grown man can take care of himself? If he strikes back, he earns the label of abuser for himself. His explanations are unlikely to be believed.
In addition to teaching boys that they are acceptable victims of male-on-male violence and that aggression against other boys is expected, it does little to protect the physical integrity of girls and women. Some time back, a video PSA against domestic violence went viral. The video shows boys standing in front of a passive girl as a man off-camera tells them to touch her and caress her. The boys do not hesitate to touch her until the man tells them to to hit her. All the boys refuse, inspiring tears and celebrations around the world. At the end of the video, a boy is told to kiss her. He asks only, “On the mouth or the cheek?” The message, it would seem, is that girls, passive and beautiful beings that they are, should never be hit but should also never have agency over their bodies. They boys say they are against violence, but they appear to have no concept of consent. They are willing to touch her body without her invitation but with the approval of an adult male. Before venturing a kiss, the boy asks the man, not the girl, how to proceed. I find the message of the PSA disturbing.
We could instead teach boys and girls to respect the bodies of all others. Sure, teach the children self-defense techniques but teach them also that aggression is an assault on the bodily integrity of another. Furthermore, this aggression can come in the form of a slap, a kick, or a kiss. We can teach children to respect all bodies and that touching others requires consent, and we can begin by showing respect for the bodies of children. It is not all right to hit girls because it is not all right to hit people. And, as the video below shows, it is not all right to hit animals, either.
It is predictable. A woman or a gay person or a person of color tries to describe their own experience, and along comes a straight, white male to explain why their experience is all wrong and how the world really works. This egregious “mansplaining,” as it has come to be known is decried, and the perpetrator is publicly pilloried. Or something like that.
In one sense, I’m all for public shaming of people who are shameless. I like for people who are smug and self-satisfied to be provoked and put under the lens of public scrutiny. I agree that “mansplainers” need to learn to listen for change instead of lecturing constantly. However, I think a little caution is needed. No, I think we should all just stop and try to have respectful conversations. I think this for one simple reason: It is impossible to tell what a person’s experiences are without engaging them in conversation. Yes, being male gives a person some privileges. Yes, being white gives a person certain privileges. Yes, being heterosexual gives a person some privileges. The problem is that it is impossible to look at someone and even tell whether they are white, male, or heterosexual or whatever.
Yes, I suppose it is a privilege to be able to “pass” as someone with privilege, but many people find their own privilege limited or restricted by factors that may be invisible to you. Such as:
Race: You may also think of race as a biological fact, though there is no biological determinant for race, it is not always possible to tell someone’s race by looking as evidenced by an exchange between Jay Smooth and Nancy Giles of CBS Sunday Morning. Giles accused Jay Smooth of “talking black” to attract a black audience. Smooth let her know that he is “actually” black.
Atypical gender: You may have the idea that gender is a biological fact, and you may think you know what transgender men and women look like, but there is really no way to tell what someone’s biology is, much less what someone’s identity is. The person you are seeing may be a transgender man, a transgender woman, or a person who simply does not fit gender binaries. Some people say that people who grew us “as boys” were socialized to accept male privilege. If you believe that transgender girls, forced to live as boys, accept and benefit from male privilege, you should read accounts of what life is like for these children.
Sexual minorities: You may think your “gaydar” is excellent, but it isn’t really possible to identify sexual minorities by looking at them. Many victims of anti-gay attacks and bullying are not gay, and many people you assume to be straight may not be. Some married people are bisexual, and some people consider their sexuality to be fluid.
Religious minorities: We know that many Americans hate and fear anyone they suspect may be Muslim, regardless of what religion the person may actually practice, but all religious minorities are subject to scorn and harassment. More Americans say they would vote for a gay candidate than an atheist, and 40 percent of self-identified atheists and agnostics say they have experienced some from of prejudice or discrimination. As a result, many members of religious minorities live with secrets and not as their authentic selves. This doesn’t rob them of the privileges they have, but it does give them an understanding of oppression.
Sexual assault survivors: I once had a conversation with a therapist who said that women needed to speak up about their experiences of sexual abuse because we need to hear from the actual victims, not men. I was astonished that she actually believed that almost no sexual abuse victims are men. This was a few years ago, and I think there is more awareness of male survivors now (thanks to articles like this, but the prejudice against them remains. While talking to a man, it is not safe to assume he is not a survivor of sexual abuse or assault. It is further not safe to assume that his abuser, if he had one, was male. When you blithely declare that men have the privilege of not worrying about being raped, you may be speaking to a rape victim, and you should keep that in mind.
Victims of domestic abuse and violence: Male victims of domestic abuse and violence are put in an almost impossible position. If they speak up, people will say they are big enough to defend themselves against a woman (despite the fact that not all men are stronger or bigger than their partners). If they do defend themselves, they are perceived as the attacker, and when violence occurs, it is usually men who are arrested. They may seek allies among female victims, but they are rarely welcomed or offered services that are available to women. Further, much domestic abuse is in the form of economic abuse, emotional abuse, and verbal abuse. Given that such abuse of men is comedic fodder in television and movies, it is next to impossible for men to gain support. One of the most difficult challenges for male victims is the denial of victimhood that results from perceived privilege that is not there.
Disease/Disability: To become ill or disabled is to lose a degree of autonomy. Loss of autonomy makes anyone susceptible to oppression. Disease and disability may be visible but may also be invisible. It is impossible to tell by looking who is suffering from either, and it is equally impossible to tell who is being oppressed as a result. When we are injured or ill, we are at greater risk for manipulation, emotional abuse, financial abuse, sexual abuse, and assault.
Poverty: Poverty is the great equalizer. I understand that poor men may have a different experience from poor women and that certain races experience poverty somewhat differently from other races, but poverty is oppression, and those who have experienced oppression have a shared vernacular and an expanded empathy.
I realize that certain kinds of privilege carry over into all aspects of life. For example, a white male victim of domestic abuse may have advantages over a non-white victim. I do not want to deny privilege in any setting or argue that it doesn’t exist. What I know, however, is that those who experience oppression have a common experience that can lead to better understanding. Rather than shutting someone down when he speaks, it may pay to assume that many men have experienced oppression and do, indeed, know something of its harmful effects. It also pays to remember that people you assume to be men may not be men (either by biology or identity) and that people you assume to be white may not consider themselves white.
One final note: Sometimes people say that people with hidden identities should disclose them upfront. People have a right to decide for themselves when, where, and how often they want to disclose personal information. You have no right to make assumptions about them or to demand disclosure. No one is required to speak as “a person with cancer” or “a transgender woman” or “victim of domestic abuse.” These facts about a person need not be that persons complete identity or defining feature. We are part of the same human community. Can we just acknowledge that?
My wife and I recently led a discussion on the ethics of grief with a group of psychotherapists. Wishing to challenge the claim that there is no wrong way to grieve, I asked the group to consider boundaries they would place on proper and improper grieving. For the most part, they were a cooperative group, but they were certainly reluctant to declare any way of grieving to be unethical or wrong. Sometimes our conditioning is strong. When the workshop was over, one of the participants asked me what sorts of grieving I think are unethical or inappropriate.
My answer is really simple. I think you are clearly grieving unethically if you let your personal pain compel you to hurt others. I also think you are grieving unethically if you let your personal pain compel you to hurt yourself, but I don’t think that claim is so obvious as the first one.
Homicidal rage—I’m not saying this happens often, but someone overcome with grief who goes on a killing spree is acting unethically for sure. After Ivan López opened fire at Ft. Hood military base, killing three and wounding 16 others before killing himself, friends speculated that it was a reaction to grief over his mother’s death.
Lying and cheating—In her book, Wild, Cheryl Strayed described the emotional turmoil she experienced in the wake of her mother’s death. In her agony, she turned to casual sexual relationships and substance abuse for comfort, tearing apart her marriage and leading her to lie to her husband and other family members. She eventually found better means of coping, of course, but she still regrets the pain and harm she caused those who loved her.
Alcohol and other drugs— The philosopher, Bertrand Russell, took a fairly standard Stoic response to grief, saying it is acceptable to grieve so long as it is not to excess. He says we should distract ourselves from our grief with other pursuits, so long as they are not harmful to us. In his words: “I do not of course deny that a man may be broken by sorrow, but I do say that every man should do his utmost to escape this fate, and should seek any distraction, however trivial, provided it is not in itself harmful or degrading. Among those that I regard as harmful and degrading I include such things as drunkenness and drugs, of which the purpose is to destroy thought, at least for the time being.” Self-harm is harm, and we do have ethical obligations to care for ourselves.
Demanding but not offering emotional support—Many people repeat an unsubstantiated claim that most parents who lose a child will divorce within a year of the child’s death. This claim is not substantiated by any sort of study and seems to be more intuition than anything else. Nonetheless, it is true that some people who are overcome by grief are unable to provide emotional support to others even though they are receiving and expecting emotional support from those same family members or friends. It is a special kind of cruelty to ask someone in the vice-grip of unimaginable grief to provide emotional comfort and support while being left to drown in sorrow alone and adrift. If you find yourself overwhelmed by grief and unable to provide support to the rest of your family, please help them or at least permit them to find other sources of support. If you can’t provide what they need, at least do not become an obstacle to their mental health and comfort.
Anyone who has grieved has probably felt judged for his or her style of grief. As a result, we rush to say that there is no wrong way to grieve, but this bold (and wrong) assertion prevents us from having discussions about the correct ways to grieve. When our grieving causes harm to others or ourselves, it is not merely unhealthy—it is unethical.
A conversation about ethical grieving is worth having, and we can have it without shaming those who are suffering from grief. We can improve our own grieving and our reactions to grief if we can establish an ethics of grief that seeks a path to greater collaboration, greater care, and greater health. Grief will never be easy, and it will always come with risks, but an open conversation can help us avoid its worst effects.
Last year, I wrote a short essay on why I hate “Steak and BJ Day,” which is that it is built around sexist stereotypes and highlights relationships as transactions, consisting men giving gifts in exchange for red meat and sexual favors from women. Indeed, the idea of Steak and BJ Day (March 14) was to repay men for their generosity to women on Valentine’s Day. After being so kind to women with flowers, chocolate, and diamonds (or whatever), men deserved a day devoted to the kinds of things they like (ugh!).
Valentine’s Day is less crude and less obvious, but it still reinforces and exploits gender stereotypes. You might object that Valentine’s Day is a day for couples to express their love for one another equally, and I’m sure some see it that way, but men spend, and are expected to spend, far more money on Valentine’s Day than women. The implication is that men who buy lavish gifts will receive rewards of affection and sex. Satirist Andy Borowitz succinctly captured this relationship when he posted this:
I really object to the gender stereotypes that say women just want chocolate and flowers from men and will reward men with sex when they receive what they really want. I’ve heard of some mythological women who actually want sex for themselves, but men aren’t expected to hold their genitals for a ransom before providing sex.
I also have some suspicion that some men want more from women than a hot meal and a sexual favor, but women aren’t expected to show men affection and care just as a means to get in their pants.
Nonetheless, I do celebrate Valentine’s Day, and I think I always have. Perhaps I am just a victim of social programming, or maybe I’ve tried, with limited success, to create a holiday for a genuine and equal sharing of love, affection, and small gifts. I’m not sure whether it is possible to rise above the reductionistic stereotypes that infuse us from birth, but Valentine’s Day gives us a little more wiggle room than Steak and BJ Day. It is impossible to say the name of Steak and BJ Day without invoking crude masculine stereotypes. However, we can create our own Valentine’s Day, or at least pretend to, so let’s share equally, love equally, and make a better world.
When I was fifteen years old, my 25-year-old uncle died in a fire
While some older adults had feared for his well being for some time, his death was sudden, unexpected, and extremely traumatic for me. In times of grief, we all experience mixed emotions, but I was overwhelmed by feelings of confusion and isolation.
In the days following his death, my time was spent among both close and distant relatives in the home of my grandparents. When people interacted with me at all, it was generally to tell me to give comfort to someone else (“Go hug your grandfather.” “Hold your grandmother’s hand.”). I did my best, and I got through it. I had been to funerals before, but this was the first time I was so close to the deceased and so aware of the judgments of the people attending the funeral and receptions at the home later. Someone, usually a woman, didn’t cry enough or dared to wear pants to a funeral. Someone else, usually a man, fell to pieces and couldn’t keep it together. Certain friends should not have dared to show their faces, and others had no excuse for not coming. Or so it was stated by the chorus of judgment and scorn.
I tried my best to assimilate funeral normativity, but it really didn’t make sense to me. Years later, I cried at my grandfather’s funeral. This seemed a reasonable to me, and I didn’t predict being judged for it. After the funeral, one of my relatives asked me what I did for a living. I told her I was a writer. She said, “I knew you must be some kind of sensitive artist or something.” So much for the freedom to openly grieve for a close relative at his funeral. Do women face this kind of judgment?
But men who do not express emotions openly aren’t free from judgment or consequences, either. Kenneth Doka, an expert of grief counseling, said in an interview, ‘We do a strange thing with grieving styles. I always say we disenfranchise instrumental grievers early in the process. “What’s wrong with this person? Why isn’t he crying?”’ The man who manages his grief by working through it with projects, helping others, and so on is ignored. The man who emotes openly is criticized. Doka points out that more emotive grievers are penalized later (Why isn’t she over it yet?).
My uncle’s funeral may be when I first developed my revulsion at smug hypocrisy and self-righteous pity. I can remember one aunt declaring, loudly, “Well, if his death had anything to do with drugs, I just don’t want to know about it. That is not what is important now.” And this may also be when I first became aware of paradox. If she believed what she said, she would not have said it, and if she said it, she obviously didn’t believe it. (And a lifelong love of philosophy is born.) Anyway, I also developed my own sense of righteous indignation toward people who couldn’t offer condolences without poking people with daggers in the process.
In my first experience with traumatic grief, the people I would normally turn to for emotional support were all overwhelmed emotionally and intellectually. I don’t blame or resent anyone for it, but I was alone with my grief and my first experiences with this kind of loss. Shortly thereafter, an acquaintance was killed in a motorcycle accident, and I just never took the continued existence of anyone for granted again. I also accepted grieving as a solitary activity.
The next traumatic loss I experienced was described in an earlier post. My niece and nephew drowned on Mother’s Day (May 10) in 1992. The single most striking feature of this grief experience for me is the memory of many friends, coworkers, and family members coming to me to express their condolences and sincere concern for the suffering and recovery of my ex-wife. People lamented that it must be extremely hard on my wife, and I was admonished to take good care of her, as her suffering must be immense. I tried to do those things, of course, as I tried to manage my own emotions and continue to care for my children (I was an at-home dad at the time) and maintain a functioning household.
During this time, I had thoughts that terrified me and flooded me with shame. I began daydreaming, almost longing, for the death of someone who would be important to no one but me. A death that would bring me the kind of comfort and concern that had been reserved for my ex-wife during what was certainly the most challenging and traumatic event of my life to that point. I was horrified to think that I could wish anyone dead. Of course, no one in the world is important only to me. Everyone I love is loved by others as well. Further, I wouldn’t trade any of my loved ones for “good grieving.” (I will add that one friend in particular stood by me and cared for me throughout.)
The true fantasy, of course, was that someone would step in to help me through my current grief, not that I wanted anyone to die. Still, these thoughts became pervasive and persistent enough to plague me with guilt and interfere even more with my recovery. What I really wanted was to receive the same support I was expected to give. I don’t really want to be the only person in the world being cared for; I just want a reciprocal arrangement. I don’t know whether every man feels the same way, but I know I’m not the only one.
Why is it that being a man is to be sentenced to a life bereft of emotional support? When women say they want to meet a sensitive man, they generally mean they want to meet a man who attends to their emotional needs, not a man who openly expresses his own emotional needs let alone a man openly expresses his emotional frailty.
I dream of a world where grief is not gendered and where masculinity is not marked by solitary sorrow.
Before I start, let me say that I support any effort to address wage inequality and I believe strongly in the right to equal pay for equal work. If the Paycheck Fairness Act helps to bring more equity to the workplace, I’m all for it, but it will not eliminate wage disparities between men and women on its own.
Republicans are wont to point out that women make less than men not because of discrimination but because of lifestyle choices. (Read a fuller discussion of this in The Guardian.) Their argument centers on the fact that it is possible to pay every woman in any given job the same wage as every man in a similar job and still end up with wage disparity because more women are in lower-paying jobs. To Republicans, this means sexual discrimination is not a problem (everyone should just choose to be a petroleum engineer or investment banker, right?), but for the rest of us it means that sexism is a pernicious problem that will not easily be solved with a piece of legislation.
First, we might ask why the jobs more women choose pay less than the jobs more men choose. One proposed answer is that men choose jobs that are riskier and require a more “masculine” personality. Women, it is assumed, will choose safer and less demanding jobs. Another answer is that women gravitate toward jobs that require fewer hours (they need to get home to the kids, you know?). And another is that women choose jobs that require less training.
According to the 2013 Physician Compensation Report, male doctors earn 30 percent more than female doctors. The report explains the disparity thus: “There are fewer women in some of the higher-paying specialties. For example, in orthopedics, only 9 percent of the survey respondents were women, whereas in pediatrics, 53 percent of survey respondents were women.”
Interestingly, the lowest paid specialty in medicine is now HIV/Infectious Diseases, which also happens to be the specialty with the second highest rate of overall satisfaction (just behind dermatology). The other low-paying specialties are family medicine, diabetes/endocrinology, and internal medicine. Other high-paying specialties, after orthopedics, are cardiology, radiology, gastroenterology, and urology.
While I can’t see that the risk of treating infectious diseases is lower than the risk of practicing urology, I do see that the lower-paid specialties focus more on care and concern and require human interaction. (It still may be true that women are more risk-averse, which may be why they are safer doctors.) It seems to me that we value technical expertise over human and care and concern in most fields. At least we are more willing to pay for technical expertise and less willing to pay for the care and concern that we will all need.
Teachers work hard and take many risks but will never earn as much as petroleum engineers. Ah, but petroleum engineers fatten the bottom line for their employers, you say. Let them try to survive without teachers to get them there. Let all the hard-working risk takers make it through life without the people who cared for them and helped them become successful. And men have always said this, haven’t they? We have clichés such as “Behind every successful man is a woman.” And women have done their work, largely, for free—because they had no other choice. So the work women have done is devalued (though prized in way) and undercompensated. If fewer people were willing to do “women’s work,” the price of such work may indeed rise, but I don’t see this happening any time soon.
And men sometimes choose work that may be seen as “feminized.” When they do, men also earn less because their work is undervalued, too. If the work were not undervalued, I aver that more men would choose different careers. After successful careers in industry, some men choose to leave their jobs for more “meaningful” work after middle age. The work people describe as “meaningful” or “rewarding” is almost always related to either caring relationships or creative enterprises; these are the activities that make life seem worthwhile.
Because these activities bring so much personal satisfaction, people are willing to do them for less pay. If petroleum engineering did not pay so well, I’m sure some people would still choose it as a profession, but many people choose it now only because it pays well and not because it enriches their lives in any other way. Many men are starting to reject the idea that they must choose careers based on how well they pay. Some men in the men’s movement reject being treated as “success objects.” Nonetheless, I think women are more likely than men to feel free to choose careers based on satisfaction rather than remuneration, and men are more likely than women to feel they must choose a career that pays well. There are many, many exceptions, of course, but not enough to close the pay gap between men and women.
So, what should we do to address the problem of wage disparity? First, stop devaluing “feminine” work. Recognize the true value of education and care. Second, stop treating men as “success objects.” Remove the stigma from rejecting a high-powered career for a more rewarding and meaningful life. Finally, make it possible to find a balance between a career that pays well and a meaningful life. Some women may pass up high-paying professions because they do not want to neglect their family relationships or similar concerns. At the same time, some men neglect relationships and personally rewarding work because they feel obligated to earn as much as possible. Men and women would both behave differently if it were possible to enter any career without having to sacrifice family relationships, volunteer opportunities, and creative outlets. Another world truly is possible.