Author: 'Male Dominance Coming To An End'

An essay by Reihan Salam, titled "The Death of Macho," suggests that the next global conflict will be centered on gender, not race nor clashing civilizations. Salam explains why he thinks male dominance is nearing its end, and the rationale behind his new piece, as published in Foreign Policy magazine.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, taxing health care. We'll talk about proposals to tax employer sponsored health benefits. That conversation in a few minutes.

But first, is macho dead? We just heard from the president-elect of the National Organization For Women, Terry O'Neill. She talked about why she thinks advocacy groups for women like NOW are still needed. Now we have a different take on this question from a very different perspective. In the current issue of the magazine Foreign Policy, writer Reihan Salam writes that the era of male dominance is coming to an end - seriously. He says this is happening all over the world. It is painful and it is inevitable. Reihan Salam is a frequent guest on TELL ME MORE. And he is with us now from Cape Town, South Africa. Reihan, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. REIHAN SALAM (Fellow, New America Foundation, Co-author, "Grand New Party"): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, I don't know. I understand you're on a trip related to next year's World Cup. That sounds pretty macho to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SALAM: You know, it is, I guess. But it's interesting, because as I've met with all of these South African government officials, I've noticed that a lot of them are women who were involved in the anti-apartheid struggle, who are now in these very bread-and-butter bureaucratic jobs, who are there making sure the trains run on time. And it's really extraordinary to see, and I think it's one reason why I'm very optimistic about South Africa's future.

MARTIN: Well let's get into your piece, and I'm going to read the first paragraph of the piece. And we should sort of take the ideas one by one, because it's kind of a layered argument. You write: For years, the world has been witnessing a quiet but monumental shift of power from men to women. Today, the great recession has turned what was an evolutionary shift into a revolutionary one. The consequence will be not only a mortal blow to the macho men's club called finance capitalism that got the world into the current economic catastrophe, it will be a collective crisis for millions of working men around the globe.

So let's parse this sentence by sentence. First of all, how did you notice this idea? What got this idea into your head? And what's your evidence?

Mr. SALAM: I think that there are a lot of different pieces to it. And one thing you saw is Iceland, the total meltdown of this tiny little Northern European country in which you saw a very macho culture surrounding finance capitalism spark an economic boom, an economic boom that turned out to mostly be an illusion. And then you suddenly saw this male-dominated political elite thrown out of office by a really fiery feminist who took power as leader of the Socialist Green Alliance and who is very explicit in terms of bashing the men's club that had dominated Iceland's politics and its economy. And I thought, you know, Iceland is a tiny little country. But it seemed to prefigure broader trends throughout the rest of the world.

MARTIN: You think about, though, the dramatic gender disparities in parts of the world where women can't vote, can't run for office, in Saudi Arabia can't drive. And let me just play even just a short clip from the conversation we just had a few minutes ago with Terry O'Neill, who's newly elected as the new president of the National Organization for Women. When I asked her, you know, why do we still need an organization like NOW, in your opinion? This is what she said.

Ms. TERRY O'NEILL (President, National Organization For Women): Currently, we are over 50 percent of the voting population. And women comprise only 16 percent of the United States Congress. That's not political parity. That's not even close.

MARTIN: And that's just, of course, in the United States. Now, there are other countries in which women make up a much larger share of the legislative bodies, of course. But Terry's argument is that women around the world and in the United States still are lagging far behind in their ability to sort of exercise even basic rights. So how can it be possible that they're experiencing this big shift of power in their direction?

Mr. SALAM: She's absolutely right. I think it's an embarrassment how few women you have in positions of political influence in our country. But I also think that you need to look at this in terms of a time horizon. For example, veterinary medicine is an interesting example. As recently as about 40 years ago, the vast majority of veterinarians in the United States were men. And female veterinarians were almost unheard of. Today however, it's flipped, so that a large majority of veterinarians are now women.

And when you're looking at veterinary schools, it's something on the order of over 70-80 percent of the students are women. Now that seems like a minor thing. But the thing is that it tipped over very, very quickly. And I think that you're going to see a similar acceleration in the number of women in high profile roles, mainly because if you're looking at big capitalist institutions, they want to make profits. If you look at political parties, they want votes.

So even if you have individuals who have sexist inclinations, individuals who underestimate women consistently, in order to, you know, beat your competitors, you have to find the best people. And you're seeing in terms of educational attainment that women are increasingly demonstrating that they are the best.

MARTIN: One of the arguments you make in the piece is that the qualities we associate with macho - aggression, overconfidence, risk taking, sometimes needless risk taking, are increasingly being demonstrated to be unproductive and that people are going to kind of clue in to this and take corrective measures and that they're going to value the kinds of qualities that are more typically associated with women, which is kind of less of a tendency toward overconfidence, kind of negotiation, patience, conciliation, those kinds of qualities.

But given that each set of attributes has its own virtues, why has this not happened before now? We've long been in an economic framework where sort of raw physical strength is not the most important quality. So, why do you think that this evolutionary shift, as you put it, is happening now?

Mr. SALAM: That's a tough question to answer. I think a lot of it has to do with family life and the burdens of family life. People often talk about the second shift worked by women, that is even women who work outside the home have double duty as mothers, as caregivers. And I think that that's something that you're seeing change as men take on more of a role as caregivers within the home. So I think that that is going to give women something of an advantage when the expectation is not that they, you know, are obligated to do all of that work, but rather, you know, kind of do their fair share of that work.

Another thing is that I think that the gap in educational attainment between women and men is just getting wider and wider. Even as recently as 20 years ago, you didn't see the same tremendous gap in terms of college completion rates. But now that gap is getting so big that you have to acknowledge its existence. And you have to see to it that even a sexist society has to give women more leadership roles because there is no alternative.

MARTIN: But one of the points that you make is that even in societies where women have more leadership roles, they're in the labor force, like in the former Soviet Union for example, they still have the bulk of homemaking responsibilities, of childcare responsibilities and that hasn't changed at all. And, in fact, if we look at some of these professions - like investment banking or medicine, for example, that are very demanding - what you see is that women may have achieved parity in education, but they haven't achieved it in leadership in those professions because they get forced out. They get forced out by the demands of taking care of a home, even when they're highly educated and well compensated. They just can't keep up.

Mr. SALAM: You know, to some extent, the argument is speculative because my guess is that what you're already seeing, for example, upper middle class families in affluent Western countries. What you're seeing is men adapting to taking on more of that caregiving role. And I think that you're going to see that spread because that tends to be a more economically advantageous way of organizing your family life.

MARTIN: You say that we need not necessarily look to a society of metrosexuals. That's not necessarily going to happen. Why wouldn't it?

Mr. SALAM: It's complicated because there are lots of different models of masculinity. And I think that, you know, one model of masculinity is based on the idea of being the sole caregiver. It's a model in which, you know, women's economic success or political leadership is an affront and taken as such. And I think there's another model in which, you know, the role of being a father is as valued a role as being a breadwinner. So, you know, it's something that is hard for men to adjust to. But I think it's something that is going to happen increasingly.

MARTIN: Part of the evidence that you cite in your piece is the impact, which you call the almost unbelievably disproportionate impact that the current crisis is having on men. And you say so much of the recession is now known to some economists as a he-session. You say that more than 80 percent of job losses in the U.S. since November have fallen on men. And you say that that's really a global phenomenon. Why is that?

Mr. SALAM: It's because men have been heavily concentrated in sectors like manufacturing and construction that have been the hardest hit. And that's true in China, as well as in the United States.

MARTIN: But given that women tend to earn less than men, can we really say, even if the job losses have fallen disproportionately on men, can we really say that the impact on men has been disproportionate? Since women tend to earn less, one would think that they're more economically vulnerable?

Mr. SALAM: That's a really good point. I think part of the issue is that men were indeed paid more in sectors like housing construction. Yet, those were always illusory economic sectors that really were driven by credit bubbles. So I think that, you know, in a way this male dominance was an artifact of deliberate government policies designed to prop up the economic power of men.

MARTIN: Finally Reihan, I understand that you're reporting in this piece. But you're a conservative analyst, and you do often give your opinion. So, can I ask, how are you taking this end of macho?

Mr. SALAM: Ah, I think that part of being a conservative should be facing up to reality, and, you know, doing what you can rather than pretending that it doesn't exist. So I think that the decline of men in economic terms is a basic reality. And I think it gives us some insight into how we should think about tackling poverty. I think the problems faced by women are deep and real. But at the same time, women have proved a lot more resilient, a lot smarter in some respects about dealing with the new economy, new economic challenges, whereas men have been more likely to turn to crime and alcoholism, and I think that that represents a real danger to our society.

So those of us who want a more stable society have to focus to some degree on the most dispossessed and angry men.

MARTIN: Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation. His piece is titled "The Death of Macho." It appears in the current Foreign Policy magazine. It's available now. Reihan joined us from Cape Town, South Africa. Reihan, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. SALAM: Thanks for having me.

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