The Death of Who?

Discussions about the decline (or outright demise) of the male-dominated workplace have been a side effect of the current recession. Just take a look at the July/August 2009 issue of Foreign Policy. In it you’ll find a feature by Reihan Salam titled—cue the orchestra—“The Death of Macho.” Salam, a writer with a penchant for the dramatic, begins with, “The era of male dominance is coming to an end.” Apparently, the recent failures of finance capitalism are only harbingers of something more ominous. Sure, the economy will eventually recover; housing bubbles will once again emerge and grow. But the modern male? He has no such luck:

What will not survive is macho. And the choice men will have to make, whether to accept or fight this new fact of history, will have seismic effects for all of humanity—women as well as men.

If you sift through these grand pronouncements (seriously, where is the line separating ‘grabbing a reader’s attention’ from ‘argument-killing hyperbole’?), Salam indirectly makes a great point about the static nature of masculinity. In the age of late capitalism (translation: the modern, post-Industrial Revolution economy we all know and love), a man’s role in society—what Salam calls “macho”—has not changed much or at all. I’ll spare you the laundry list of examples that prove this point (stuff like men’s roles as primary income earner; men making up the vast majority of power positions, government and corporate; etc.). Suffice it to say, it’s a fact that men have dragged their feet or outright fought to stop efforts towards sexual and racial equality in the workplace, even when it is an ultimate detriment to success.

Contrast this against the fluid nature of feminism. Over the last century or so, one of the most impressive features of feminism has been and continues to be its adaptability. When a newbie glances at the history of Western feminism, the first things they’ll likely notice are terms like ‘first wave,’ ‘second wave,’ and ‘third wave.’ These waves each revolve around different set of concerns (e.g. voting rights, workplace equality, gender identity). Feminism, in other words, evolves; it’s principal concerns shift to match the major issues of the era. Rather than fight change, feminism embraces and thrives on it.

Feminism’s fluidity presents a great lesson to men and masculinity in general. Returning to Salam, he has no problem pinning the current economic crisis on men and their “macho” ways. But rather than announce that these men are now in their “death throes,” I’d rather ask the old guard to take a look at feminism, and not just its messages but its method. “Macho” does not have to die. Men can still be men. To invoke the cliché, “macho” men just need to evolve. As feminism proves, especially in comparison to the masculine ways that killed the economy, this sort evolution is not only realistic and possible in theory; it is vital and effective in practice.

Switching gears for a second, I want to point out that while there’s a lot of truth in Salam’s article, his doomsday scenario for men drowns out the very important fact that men and women are already working across job sectors in more equal ways. Across industries (even the “macho” world of finance capitalism) women hold positions of all levels. All Salam’s article, as well as a companion piece by Valerie Hudson (which pretty much only buttresses Salam’s main points), does is state the obvious: that women’s influence in the workplace is growing in size and scope.

This workplace co-existence, and the meritocracy that is emerging, highlights for me one of the key emotions involved in any sort of male approach to feminism: empathy. Things—emotions, facts, food, whatever—are much easier to appreciate and understand not when they are simply pointed out to you but, rather, when they are experienced. Empathy provides the most effective bridge to understanding for those moments when we cannot experience something directly. It is easier for guys to warm up to and engage with feminism once they can identify something that allows them to relate to the struggles women face. The workplace is a common ground we both share. We share the same offices, the same positions; we share the same nagging bosses and the same paths of advancement.

In the American workplace today, men must understand that their sex does not guarantee them the same lifetime career security it may once have just as women must accept the fruits of the labor of nearly a century of feminists. Granted, the sexual politics of the American economy are still not completely level for women. Still, the possibilities, realities and responsibilities of high-level positions do exist for and are already being met by talented women across America. The expectations for modern women extend beyond merely getting the job and into how far they take the job. On-the-job expectations, in other words, are as equal as they’ve ever been; and they represent a shared experience that is so easy to overlook yet, at the moment, is so helpful. By recognizing that there is a common ground on which we both deal with the same shit, guys gain a degree of understanding with women and the struggles they face that may have otherwise remained invisible.

Note: this article originally appeared in the author's blog, The Guy's Guide to Feminism