Today, men are slightly more likely to be unemployed than women, while women are 6% more likely to be in management positions than men. Women dominate many of the professions poised to grow the most in the next decade, while several male-dominated industries -- notably manufacturing -- are losing jobs. And, in an economy where a college education is increasingly important, women are 46% more likely to have a bachelor's degree by the time they turn 24.
To some observers, the writing is on the wall: Women are on their way up and men are on their way out. But a more nuanced look at the evidence suggests that the gender battle may be little more than a sideshow, drawing our attention away from a massive, long-term decline for all workers -- and that what looks like good news for women might actually be bad news for everybody.
'The Beginning of a New Era,' You Say?
Atlantic editor Hanna Rosin is one of the most outspoken voices in the "males are history" chorus. Her recent bestseller, "The End of Men," argues that:
The story was no longer about the depths men had sunk to ... The new story was that women, for the first time in history, had in many ways surpassed them. [We have] reached the end of two hundred thousand years of human history, and the beginning of a new era.
According to Rosin, women are fundamentally more adaptable than men. Physical strength, she claims, was the key to male success from ancient times up until the industrial era, but "the postindustrial economy is indifferent to brawn."
Today's world, Rosin argues, requires a more nuanced skill set: "A service and information economy rewards precisely the opposite qualities ... These attributes -- social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus ... seem to come more easily to women."
To make things worse, she continues, men cannot adapt to changing economic circumstances. While women are able to perform "superhuman feats of flexibility ... simultaneously [handling] the old male and female responsibilities without missing a beat," she argues, men "hardly [change] at all. A century can go by and [their] lifestyle and ambitions remain largely the same."
Rosin's notion that men are caught in cultural amber, unwilling or unable to change, partly explains a society that increasingly seems skewed towards women. However, her thesis ignores a larger problem -- an economy that has slowly eroded the position of all workers. Several factors have shielded women from the most painful symptoms of this process, but a growing body of evidence suggests that the ill effects of the job market are, increasingly, affecting both sexes.
Sheltered From the Deluge
The combination of forces that has been protecting women from the worst of those economic downdrafts may begin as early as elementary school, where a steady increase in learning disability diagnoses has been separating men from women -- and cultural winners from losers -- before the game has even officially begun. Between 2000 and 2012, the number of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder diagnoses rose by 66%, a trend that has educators and parents up in arms. The reasons for the sharp increase are disputed: Some blame video games; others suggest it may have something to do with the increased funding for schools with learning disabled students. But one fact isn't in dispute: Boys are five times more likely to be diagnosed with autism and four times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD.
Other researchers have gone even further: Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, an expert in educational psychopathology, theorizes that the low empathy and high organization that characterizes autism sufferers may actually be a case of what he calls "extreme male brain."
Regardless of the causes, an ADHD diagnosis can have a permanent effect on a child's future: A 2010 study found that one-third of children diagnosed with ADHD either dropped out or graduated late from high school. By comparison, children without an ADHD diagnosis were twice as likely to graduate on time. And learning disabled boys' problems don't stop when they get to college: Students diagnosed with learning disabilities have a 40% chance of finishing their degree program, as compared with 52% of the general population.
Teaching to a Skewed System
That ADHD diagnosis isn't the only educational roadblock standing between boys and college. Kevin Ladd, vice president of Scholarships.com, noted that, among scholarships with gender restrictions, there are 3.5 available to women for every scholarship available to men.
"When it comes to scholarships, there's this feeling that we should use them to help the people who need the most help," Ladd explains. "The idea is that, by creating opportunities, we may level the playing field." He cautions, however, that "this can lead to what might be seen as a sort of an over-correction."
In light of the rising -- and often crushing -- cost of college, this unlevel field can have a big impact, especially on a group that already faces problems in the classroom. As Ladd puts it, "Right now, if we're trying to make college accessible for everybody, male and female, maybe we need to go back in the other direction."
The over-correction issue also applies to specific majors, where some educators worry that the search for gender balance may be leaving boys out in the cold. Earlier this year, the White House announced plans to analyze "gender and minority gaps" in the sciences, as a preliminary step to creating new guidelines "to help institutions comply with Title IX rules in the science, technology, engineering and math fields." Some analysts worry that this may translate into gender-based quotas in traditionally male-dominated majors like engineering. But there don't seem to be any plans to bring balance to female-dominated majors like biology, where 60% of students are women, or psychology, where 70% of Ph.D.s are women.
Thumbs on the Scale ... or Life Jackets?
From one angle, gender-based scholarships, learning disability diagnoses and Title IX decisions seem to be thumbs on the scale, tilting the playing field in favor of women. From another angle, however, they can be viewed as life jackets, giving women a little bit of buoyancy in an economy that is swamping all workers. As several analysts have noted, women are still woefully underrepresented in Congress, and in America's boardrooms. For that matter, the labor participation rate for men (basically, the percentage who are working) is still almost 13% higher than the labor participation rate for women -- a gap that has remained fairly consistent for much of the last 20 years.
In fact, the situation for women in the workforce may actually be getting worse: The female labor participation rate is at its lowest level since 1991. As for pay, the female-to-male earnings ratio is holding steady at 77% -- roughly where it has been for the last 15 years. Given that, it isn't hard to see why many businesses are eager to hire women: Even those who make it into the fancy offices are still getting paid significantly less than the men they are joining.
A Falling Tide That Sinks All Ships
At the same time, men's incomes haven't shown the impressive gains that were once taken for granted. While female earnings steadily rose from the 1970s to the early 2000s, men's earnings largely stagnated. And middle-class household incomes have remained almost flat since 1978. To put it another way, while women's earnings have been rising for the last 40 years, men's income and household income have barely moved at all. On the surface, this appears to be great progress for women.
A deeper look, however, reveals a far less cheery pattern: The gains went almost entirely to wealthy households. While middle-class household incomes have remained almost flat, incomes among the top 20% of households have increased by 44%, and in the top 5% rose by 65%.
So, the actual level of wealth enjoyed by middle-class families has barely changed in 30 years, and their share of the nation's wealth has fallen off a cliff. Today, it takes two paychecks to equal the buying power that most families used to get from one. Thus, instead of accelerating past men, women are finding themselves chained to the same yoke as their male counterparts: Working long hours at relatively low pay, with little hope of ever getting ahead.
Rosin's book indicates that the economy may have a silver lining: an increase in women's economic achievement, relative to men. The trouble is, that lining is attached to a very large cloud of economic malaise -- and it's raining hard on both genders.
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.