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Rebalancing the Gender Narrative

Richard Reeves’s new book is a valuable contribution to a gender debate stuck on outdated axioms.

· 6 min read
Rebalancing the Gender Narrative
Photo by Blake Connally on Unsplash

A review of Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It by Richard V. Reeves, 256 pages, Brookings Institution Press (September 2022)

Writing a book is hard enough, but the Brookings Institution’s Richard Reeves had to deal with people discouraging him before he even embarked on his latest project. “I have lost count of the number of people who advised against it,” he writes in the preface to Of Boys and Men. “In the current political climate, highlighting the problems of boys and men is seen as a perilous undertaking.” Thankfully, Reeves didn’t heed their advice. In fewer than 200 pages, he makes a compelling case that boys and men are struggling with the challenges of modern life, and that politicians across the political spectrum have failed to respond to this crisis.

The statistics within his book remain frustratingly unfamiliar to the general public. The gender gap in college degrees is wider today than it was in the 1970s, but in favor of women; 20 percent of fathers live apart from their children; men comprise three-quarters of “deaths of despair” from suicide or overdose; the weekly wage of an average American man with a high school degree is 14 percent lower today than it was in 1979. These problems are not the result of feminist advances in recent decades or of “mass psychological breakdown,” Reeves argues, “but of deep structural changes.” The offshoring of blue-collar jobs has played a significant role as has the changing future of work.

Reeves argues that men must learn to adapt to churning labor demands, and identifies rapidly growing employment sectors in health, education, administration, and literacy that he calls “HEAL” jobs. But establishing a male foothold in these traditionally female-dominated professions has been difficult. One of the reasons boys and men are having trouble making inroads across HEAL is that public perceptions remain ignorant of or indifferent to the problems faced by boys and men. “Some argue that it is a distraction from the challenges still faced by girls and women,” Reeves writes. “I think this is a false choice. As an advocate for gender equality, we can hold two thoughts in our head at once. We can be passionate about women’s rights and compassionate toward vulnerable boys and men.”

Unfortunately, much of the contemporary discourse about sex and gender is mired in a mentality of zero-sum inter-sexual competition. Activist academics and billion-dollar philanthropic organizations continue to promote what has become the prevailing view of gender politics—that a hegemonic Western patriarchy is oppressing women. Accordingly, despite massive labor demands across HEAL sectors, initiatives designed to bring men into the fold remain virtually non-existent. Women still comprise 82 percent of social workers, 78 percent of psychologists, 76 percent of substance-abuse counselors, and 84 percent of special-education teachers. Support for institutional and governmental efforts to draw males into these sectors (particularly when they represent the majority of special-education students and substance abusers) should be an uncontroversial and bipartisan issue.

However, prevailing beliefs about the need to prioritize female disadvantage has made such flexibility politically difficult. The numbers are staggering. In 2019 alone, the Melinda French Gates foundation pledged $1 billion to promote women’s opportunities across America, while Congress passed a $160 million annual funding bill for promoting STEM education for girls from kindergarten through grade 12. This is in addition to $29 million in National Science Foundation grant funding for “Gender Equity” and Marie Curie scholarships designed to encourage women to study STEM at a small Nebraska college.

The educational and employment funding allotted for boys and men is pitiful by comparison. The American Association for Men in Nursing, Reeves reports, “offers five scholarships, with a combined value of just over $10,000.” The organization “has no employees, $40,000 in assets, and an annual income of $183,000.” Compare that to one of the gender equity organizations referred to by Reeves: the Society of Women Engineers has three dozen staffers, roughly $19 million in assets, and $12 million in annual expenditures.

Society has turned a blind eye to the problems faced by boys and men, but it should not attempt to course-correct by diverting funds from initiatives designed to encourage women to enter STEM. “As a nation, we should set the twin goals of reaching 30% female representation in STEM jobs, and 30% male representation in HEAL ones by 2030,” Reeves recommends. Nor does he make the mistake of demanding that all professions should be perfectly balanced between men and women. A chapter of the book is devoted to discussing the biological differences between men and women—the overlapping bell curves of capabilities do not require us to deny sex differences in proclivities and interests.

Perhaps mindful of the need to appeal to a progressive audience of activists, think-tankers and policy wonks, Reeves occasionally concedes too much to the politics of identity that often animates these groups. He provides an eloquent account of a black man who wears glasses to defuse racist fears, but then finds it necessary to offer this disclaimer:

At times like this, I realize that I do not have the faintest idea what it is like to be Black in America … so, an advisory warning: as a British-born white guy, my perspective on American racism will need to be discounted appropriately.

This is a gratuitous gesture from a first-rate researcher, but the book is littered with such progressive caveats and bromides. “The overwhelming majority of people, at least 99%, are cis,” he writes at one point. Elsewhere, he approvingly cites Ibram X. Kendi without mentioning Kendi’s advocacy of modern-day discrimination to offset prior injustices. In any event, Reeves does a good job of spotlighting the unique challenges confronting black boys and men, and more liberal and progressive researchers and journalists could usefully turn their attention to this problem.

Although Reeves’s language throughout the book seems to be intended for a left-leaning readership, he is nonetheless willing to chastise left- and right-wing commentators for their approach to men’s issues. He devotes several pages to condemning the Left’s uncritical embrace and promiscuous misuse of the term “toxic masculinity,” which is almost always left undefined by those who employ it:

Lacking any coherent or consistent definition, the phrase now refers to any male behavior that the user disapproves of, from the tragic to the trivial. It has been blamed, among other things, for mass shootings, gang violence, rape, online trolling, climate change, the financial crisis, Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and an unwillingness to wear a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Reeves is equally unimpressed by conservatives like Missouri senator Josh Hawley and Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson who, he says, advocate a recovery of the kind of masculinity that might return American gender politics to the halcyon days of the 1950s. In the book’s preface, Reeves writes that, “Conservatives appear more sensitive to the struggles of boys and men, but only as a justification for turning back the clock and restoring traditional gender roles.” This is a dubious claim, apparently designed to discredit the contribution his political opponents are making to his cause. For the time being, at least, conservative institutions like National Review, the Wall Street Journal, and the Institute for Family Studies remain far more willing to air and discuss men’s issues in a good-faith manner than their liberal and progressive counterparts.

Gender Equity When It Suits
Organisations should apply the principle evenhandedly.

But these flaws are perhaps inevitable in a polarized political climate when a liberal writer from a liberal think-tank writes a book for a liberal audience that attempts to win support for a traditionally conservative cause. For the most part, Reeves makes his unfashionable case with clarity and care, and he closes by offering three constructive policy recommendations. One of these—delaying boys’ entry into school (what Reeves calls Redshirting)—has already been tentatively adopted in well-heeled circles of America. But his most promising suggestions focus on suggested institutional and governmental initiatives designed to help men gain entry into HEAL professions and expand paternity care. These proposals are ambitious in nature but, if successful, could help to drive wage and social equality.

If these policy prescriptions are to become a reality, the whole debate about gender politics will need to be reconsidered and reframed, and Reeves’s book is a valuable contribution to a discussion stuck on outdated axioms. There is no reason that the wellbeing of boys and men should be an exclusively conservative cause. And if the terms of debate do indeed shift in the coming years, we will look back at this book and acknowledge that Richard Reeves was one of the first liberals with the courage to say so.

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