Press "Enter" to skip to content

The twilight of testosterone

Something truly extraordinary is happening in the US labour market. At the beginning of 2010, it was revealed, that for the first time in the country’s history, women held a majority of the nation’s jobs. The dramatic rise of women within the ranks of the gainfully employed shouldn’t be seen as solely an American phenomenon. In fact, similar processes are evident throughout the developing world, including in France, Korea, India, China, Iceland and the UK. In modern, post-industrial economies and societies, women are not merely playing catch-up, but in many ways would seem to be actually forging steadily ahead.

In part, the gender employment shift in the US came about because around three out of four of some eight million who lost their jobs during the 2008 recession were men. This in turn was due to the most hard-hit sectors being those of manufacturing and construction, which remain very much male-dominated. Even so, the recession did no more than speed up a process that has been underway for a long time. America, like much of the developed world, has been steadily becoming a post-industrial society, in which service industries and the professions have come to eclipse traditional production-centred economies.

In the growing “nurturing professions”, including nursing, home health assistance and child care, women are, as one would expect, dominant. What one would not expect is the extent to which they are beginning to dominate middle management and even a widening array of the professions. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows women to now be holding just under 52% of managerial and professional jobs (more than double the percentage in 1980), including 54% of accountants and around half of banking and insurance jobs. Major gains have also been made in law and medicine as well, professions that were once almost completely male dominated. About one in three physicians and just under half of associates in law firms are now women, and those percentages are continuing to rise fast.

Whereas women are becoming ever more adept at doing what was once considered to be “men’s work”, the opposite is not true. Theoretically, there is no reason why more men should in turn start moving more into traditional areas of female dominance like nursing, school teaching, home maintenance, secretarial work, child care and the like. In practice, though, this is not happening. Men have been noticeably slow to adapt to the changing dynamics of the workplace. In Jessica Grose’s phrase, they seem “fixed in cultural aspic” (see her “Omega Males and the Women Who Hate Them” — the subtitle reads: “They’re unemployed, romantically challenged, and they’re everywhere”, Slate magazine).

A key reason why women are doing so well is because they are now doing so much better in the higher education fields. Today, the proportion of women to men in the US obtaining bachelor and master’s degrees is close to 60:40. This makes a crucial difference in an economy where those with only a high school diploma are at a significant disadvantage when competing for positions. In addition, their grades are significantly higher. As the title of a 2006 New York Times article put it, “at colleges, women are leaving men in the dust”. Again, this is not just happening in the US. For example, women now make up 58% of admissions in the UK, over 60% in Canada and, amazingly enough, about 60% in Iran. In India, women are learning English much faster than men to meet the demands of new global call centres.

Thus far, all I’ve done is present a bare summary of what I’ve been reading on this subject (an article I particularly recommend is Hanna Rosin’s “The End of Men” in the July-August 2010 issue of Atlantic magazine). It is certainly not an area in which I have any expertise, so please forgive me this somewhat breathless rehashing of contemporary statistics. I do believe, though, that what we are seeing here is a momentous revolution that has in many ways caught the majority of us unawares.

No doubt many of you will be familiar with the TV period drama Mad Men, which centres on the goings on in an upmarket New York advertising agency at the start of the 1960s. What is perhaps the most striking feature of the series is how stark the divide is between the male and the female employees. The men hold all the senior positions, earn large salaries, make all the strategic and creative decisions and are driven and competitive. The women are all in junior clerical positions, earn very little, are consistently deferential and submissive and have no professional aspirations of their own. Their only competitiveness involves trying to snare a husband. Sexist behaviour is naturally rampant, with predatory males pretty much insulting and exploiting the females at will. So far removed is the whole set-up from today’s workplace conditions that Mad Men sometimes looks less like a period drama than like a futuristic sci-fi fantasy scenario. Could such grotesque gender imbalances really have existed?

I have more questions than insights into all of this. Is this time of feminine resurgence unique in history? It would certainly seem so. Even more interestingly, what is the reason for this evident demoralisation of the male of the species? All that predatory, confident male drive seems to be withering away. I also wonder how many, if any, feminist activists of bygone times really believed that one day women would attain not merely equality but would in many ways start to actually forge ahead.

One final issue is what impact this rapid rise of women in the job market is having, and will have, on marriage and child-rearing. Perhaps inevitably, both areas are suffering significant attrition. In a Jane Austen novel, marriage for a woman is an economic necessity, given the almost total lack of bread-winning opportunities available to them.

Today, women are as able as men to support themselves, and are even to a growing extent coming to regard a husband as a proverbial ball and chain, since he often will be earning less or even be unemployed. As for children, these are inevitably regarded as an obstacle to advancement, especially in the crucial early years of building a career. The result is that women are marrying much later, when they marry at all, have fewer children, if they choose to have any at all and even if they do have them quite late in life.

As for men, dispirited and intimidated by the female career surge and deprived of their traditional ego-boosting roles as the main breadwinners, there is even less of an incentive to subject themselves to the rigors of marriage and child-raising. The long-term consequences of this alone on modern Western society are as unpredictable as they are likely to be colossal.

For more insightful insights on all of this, I recommend for a start having a look through back issues of the excellent Atlantic magazine, in which American women grapple with the multiple implications of what their sex has been so spectacularly achieving in recent years.


  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.


  1. Rich Brauer Rich Brauer 8 December 2011

    Interesting post. One area that you didn’t touch on — although Western societies have become far more welcoming for women in traditionally male-dominated workplaces, they haven’t been as forthcoming with men in traditionally female-dominated spaces.

    The “male nurse” comes to mind — it’s still a common sitcom gag. There was a recent Sandra Bullock movie that exploited Ryan Reynolds as her male secretary (it was all good; it turned out they loved each other — switch the gender roles and see how’d that would play).

    That’s not to denigrate the great strides women have made — they deserve it. Women *should* be treated as equals everywhere.

    But we have yet to grapple with the issue of men who choose, or are forced into, careers which are traditionally feminine, and traditionally lower paying, as a result. Many women, even those who are professionally successful and self-sufficient, expect their male partners to be at least at the same level, money-wise. That’s a problem.

  2. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 9 December 2011

    It has nothing to do with gender equality, and everything to do with economics and industrialisation.

    Women might do the same jobs as men, but they can be paid less, which suits employers. The process stared after the Second World War.

    And labour savings devices mean that it does not take all day for anyone to feed and clothe a family like in Jane Austen’s day.

    In Cape Town I watched the process from white women getting “men’s jobs” because they were cheaper, to coloured women getting white women’s jobs because they were even cheaper.

    The result has become that double incomes are needed to bring up a family, and both man and woman must get a job.

    It has also given rise to the DINKS (double income, no kids).

  3. Benny Benny 9 December 2011

    Matriarchies have popped up through history here and there. If the rich, (or rather the formerly rich but still relatively advanced) West turns into some kind of super matriarchy it might be the first one in a long while that doesn’t get exterminated by it’s patriarchal rivals.

    Could be interesting. I wonder if the bombing and invading will taper down in such an event?

  4. Siobhan Siobhan 9 December 2011

    @Lyndall Spot on!

    I am of the generation that made some headway in previously male professions but the vast majority of women still perform menial jobs and the proliferation of offshore “call centres” has literally en-gendered the increase in under-paid employment in repetitive, non-productive tasks – more commonly known as the ‘service economy’: dead end jobs in which everyone is replaceable at a keystroke.

    The goal of my boomer generation was not to get women out of the home and into the workplace; it was to ensure that those women who had the ability and the interest would be able to get the education and training they needed for whatever vocation they chose. When I was matriculating, the majority of girls were on the secretary track, the nursing track or the marriage track. Now their daughters want lives as different as possible from their mothers’ but opportunities for meaningful work are decreasing faster than ever before. Don’t be fooled by statistics; women are still being exploited in the workplace despite the conspicuous exceptions to the rule.

  5. Interesting Interesting 9 December 2011

    I think you are right in much of what you say, but I would also like to believe that one of the reasons women are making such strides is because they have had to work from a foundation in which there were no “dues” or “rights” conferred on them purely by virtue of their gender. They know what hard work means and what it takes to grow and develop professionaly despite having little by means of the support structures that most men take for granted. Subjugation has been and to a large extent, still is, their lot irrespective of their natural talents and abilities. I remember a time of being forced to resign and lose all of my benefits, when I left work to have my children – it was the law. When I went back to work, the ‘boys” who I had taught had become my bosses, but I still did the work, got paid less and shouldered the responsibility. What I have achieved to day today is despite men. It has entailed a lot of personal sacrifice, a choice that I had to make because of gender bias towards women. There are however real gems amongst the men out there, who treat women with great dignity. I am blessed to have a few in my life and they have made it immeasurably more tolerable as a result.

  6. peter peter 9 December 2011

    The world would be better off if women were in control. They usually demonstrate more common sense, compassion and considerable restraint compared to men who are too arrogant, inconsiderate and have little to commend them in the sphere of taking care of this world, unless one considers demolition and degradation coupled with gross immorality, carelessness, arrogance, unbridled greed and total lack of respect for anyone except themselves a recommendation. The old view that women belong in the kitchen and the bedroom is disconcerting at the least. What a waste.

  7. benzo benzo 9 December 2011

    A little controversional take on the matter: men might just have discovered the joy of staying at home, make the beds and cook a meal in the evening for lovey, when she comes home.
    Afternoon tea with some friends at times to highlight the new won freedom from the corporate slavery.

  8. Kristi Maria Kristi Maria 10 December 2011

    How have communities of human beings, for thousands of years, found it more successful or more stable to have women in secondary, supportive roles?

    Could it be that women had their job cut out for them already, raising the young’uns, and that any other contribution to the success of the species, and the community, was therefore secondary to this first calling?

    With modern, affluent women rejecting their maternal instinct, what we are seeing is the gradual dying out of the more “sophisticated” races of the human species, with Western Europe and Scandinavian populations rapidly declining, while the unemployed and poor continue to breed unchecked.

    We are not seeing the return of the matriarchal society. This is a genderless, lost and confused society that has lost all instinct to protect the community.

  9. MLH MLH 10 December 2011

    I have worked in several jobs throughout a 40-year career, where there were far more women than men, by virtue of the career I chose and the liberal attitude within that sector. While I understand that areas like construction and science may still be short on women, the female gender has been flying the flag for many years.
    Women expect more of each other and often inspire each other. They also often work harder than men. Many will say that’s because they are force to, to compete with men, but the same happens when there are no, or few men around. They are also extremely good at building rapport in the workplace.
    I would be interested to know the split between men and women in SA’s teaching profession these days…particularly over the pupil/student age groups.

  10. OneFlew OneFlew 10 December 2011

    Just one comment, on a matter that your blog, but not all your sources, is innocent of.. I’m not persuaded by the snide ‘cultural aspic’ reference in the article you cite. It is certainly a common part of the narrative and one I’ve observed with some disquiet – that of the unreconstructed male going the way of the dinosaur -but it is really just a form of bigotry like any other. And it should be resisted like any other.

    There are of course reasons which underpin the dynamic which are not purely rooted in the inherent stupidity, inferiority, inflexibility or general musclebound oafishness of men.

    Those in the vanguard of the liberation (or the chroniclers of it) themselves often fall foul of the traps they reject. So they switch socialists for capitalists, blacks for whites, or in the slightly elaborated forms, bankers for politicians, muslims for bombers or Polish labourers for disaffected Glaswegian youths in their binary moral narrative.

    And it easily all gets slightly hysterical. And even dangerous. Remember (if you are old enough) how easy it was to be called an Impimpi back in the day. The wrong shirt or hairstyle could set one on the path. And it could easily end very badly.

  11. Charlotte Charlotte 10 December 2011

    Very, very interesting and thought-provoking.

    There is a huge difference between women in the labour market in developing countries such as the ones you mentioned (the US, France, Korea, India, China, Iceland and the UK) and many others where women are still denigrated and discriminated against, exploited and abused.

    There are still certain cultures and extremist religions where backward and patriachal thinking and behaviour is built in … women are denied education, are forbidden to drive and, from what has been written, it is deemed fit and customary to be hit by a husband when a woman ‘doesn’t listen ‘ or ‘needs to be chastised.’

    Other races and nationalities procreate at an alarming rate when they have neither the income or wherewithal to look after a wife – let alone children.
    This results in mass poverty, overburdening of the country’s resources and the country’s eventual collapse.

    At least, in developing countries, women are being able to show what they don’t have to still ‘work twice as hard as any man to earn half his salary”.

    A sign in a local office reads:
    “They found something that will do the work of ten men –
    One woman.”

  12. benzo benzo 11 December 2011


    …….and then they found things that are reducing or doing the work of thousands of women: water reticulation systems, computers, stoves and ovens with timers, kitchen machines, sowing machines, vacuum cleaners, washing machines……

    We might call ourselves the “developed” world but we are still developing.

  13. chantelle chantelle 12 December 2011

    Benzo, in answer to your little conversational take on the matter, I believe I speak for thousands of women when I say I went back to work after spending a few months at home with my children to get a break. The afternoon tea sessions with friends are reserved for the Victoria Beckhams of the world, not for ordinary women.

  14. Andrew Andrew 12 December 2011

    The most interesting and for me, the most exciting consequence, may be a dramatic decrease in the human growth rate, maybe even into negative numbers.

  15. benzo benzo 13 December 2011

    @Chantelle: I cannot claim to speak for thousands of men. What I have observed over time is that women have been driving the movement for acceptance into the big wide world. The main article suggests that they are well on their way to achieve this. Sofar no problem for me.

    Having said that, I do not like to hear the complaints about some form of “victimisation”. It is a war out there and they do not take prisoners. Women wanted it, many got it and some have joined the war. Good for them.

    Most men have been there at the bottom of the ladder and suffered, some climbed higher up, many never did. Men taking a break to be with their children?? Me??Never in the 50 years of my working life.!

    Enjoy the freedom of making choices while you have.

  16. April April 20 March 2012

    I have worked for 30 years – in both the corporate world and then my own business. My husband is a landscaper, and brilliant with his hands. He is the most practical person you can imagine. Although we don’t have kids, I have always thought how much more sensible it would be if I was the income generator (I love my work, and I am paid well for it), and he was the caregiver. He can fix a washing machine, plane the door that sticks and replace windows. He is strong enough to carry bikes, lift wet curtains, and could vacuum carpets and do other heavy housework all day and still go to gym afterwards.

    Running a home requires a man’s practical skills and strength (although perhaps less than 100 years ago). Raising children of either sex is much better handled by a strong, confident male who gives kids independence and allows them to take a few risks. The world of work requires co-operation, the ability to please a client/boss and a lot of multi-tasking and talking.

    I don’t know why the traditional gender role ever worked for anyone? Perhaps that is why the world go into the current mess.

Leave a Reply