It's still a "man's world", but this seems to be slowly falling apart

Credit: Kaboompics

Credit: Kaboompics

I'm excited to write about a topic that has been floating around my mind for months now, always bugging me for permission to leave my subconscious but also patiently waiting for the right moment to do so. That moment is now.

We all know that, for better or for worse, we live in what is very much a man's world. Men dominate the workplace, media, movie set, and more. But I don't want this to be yet another (teen movie) women's rights or feminism blog post; there is already an oversupply such articles on the Internet. No, dear reader, I'm far more interested in one particular trend in the data that seems to be rarely discussed in this spirited debate of men versus women: educational achievement.

Specifically, I'm utterly fascinated by the effects that the educational achievements of women over the last few decades (and moving into the future) has had on this thing we call masculinity. It's a multifaceted topic which is again why I would love to see it discussed more in the mainstream sphere so this is going to be a very long post filled with quotes and statistics. Let's get to it!

Sidenote: Due to availability of data, the statistics are mostly for the American market. Also, I focus on post-secondary education because I think that this is where the more interesting story is told.

Act 1: Enrollment

Historically, women were generally excluded from post-secondary education due to stereotypical gender roles. You know, the ol' "women are supposed to stay at home and men are supposed to work" stuff. However, it seems like these stereotypes broke down in the 20th century, particularly towards the end of it, as women enrolled en masse into post-secondary education. Now, they comfortably outnumber men on American college campuses and are projected to continue this dominance in the future:

Data from 1899-1989 was obtained from the 1993 report by the National Center for Education Statistics. Data for 1999-2024 was obtained from the equivalent report in 2016. For the second link, you can also look from page 24 onwards (page 38 of the actual PDF file). And yes, I made this extraordinary masterpiece of a chart myself. God bless Microsoft Excel.

Data from 1899-1989 was obtained from the 1993 report by the National Center for Education Statistics. Data for 1999-2024 was obtained from the equivalent report in 2016For the second link, you can also look from page 24 onwards (page 38 of the actual PDF file). And yes, I made this extraordinary masterpiece of a chart myself. God bless Microsoft Excel.

I don't want to overstep my academic boundaries and draw wild conclusions from this data, but one has to wonder what happened from the 1970s onwards that caused the remarkable increase in post-secondary enrollment for women. Not only that, but what also really stands out to me is the stagnation in male enrollment in that same period. Nevertheless, I'll allow you to speculate as I move swiftly forward to the next act: educational achievements.

 

Act 2: Achievements

The fact that women outnumber men on college campuses is merely the first act of this magic trick. For the second act, let's look at differences in achievements in post-secondary education between men and women. Who is obtaining more degrees? Spoiler: women.

If you take a look at Section 6 of the 2016 report (starts at page 44 of the PDF file*), you'll see how by both genders performed at the Associate, Bachelor, Master, and Doctorate levels. At almost every level women comfortably outperform men in terms of obtaining degrees and are projected to continue to do so in the future. The only level where it is almost exactly equal is at the Doctorate level.

*It drives me mad when the pages of a PDF file and an actual document aren't in sync. I never know which one to cite for page numbers.

Since these numbers are only for America, I was curious about how this story was unfolding elsewhere in the world. If we take a cruise across the ocean to the beautiful country of Portugal, we find this study by Teresa Bago d'Uva that reports the following:

Of Portuguese women born between 1970 and 1985, 45% were doing higher level jobs than their parents, compared to only 27% of men. This is partly explained by the greater progress in education of women: 48% of those born in this cohort achieved a higher level of education than their parents, compared to only 33% of men.

A fascinating article by the Economist seems to further back up this trend in educational achievements for women, this time in OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries:

But the real money is in brain work, and here many men are lagging behind. Women outnumber them on university campuses in every region bar South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In the OECD men earn only 42% of degrees. Teenage boys in rich countries are 50% more likely than girls to flunk all three basic subjects in school: maths, reading and science.

I've thrown so many numbers and percentages at you that you're probably already bored to death by now. Let's move towards the final act, which is the most fascinating or worrying one depending on your point of view: the shortage of "marriagable" men.

 

Act 3: A shortage of "Marriagable" Men

Before I continue, I suppose I should write a disclaimer. This act is going to be less data and statistics and more personal opinion/interpretation. In other words, I very much understand if you completely disagree with what I'm about to say and I do welcome the criticism. Just keep it friendly and respectful, would ya?

Anyway, I believe that the combination of more women than men enrolling into post-secondary education and obtaining more degrees than their opposite gender leads to the decline in what the sociologist William Julius Johnson defined as the marriagable man.

There is no sugar-coating this: many blue-collar men no longer have the sort of earnings or prospects that will make women want to marry them.
— Article: "Manhood" from The Economist

The concept is exactly what it sounds like: there is a decline in the number of men that are suitable for marriage. From what I gather  and the reason that this relates to what I've written so far  suitability for marriage is defined in terms of the educational attainments and financial prospects of the men in question. So yes, it is far more sophisticated than a bunch of single women in their late twenties complaining about how hard it is to find a great catch on Tinder. The point of this concept is not the personality or character traits in men. Rather, it is their credentials "on paper."

Some attribute it to the dramatic demise of the manufacturing industry in America, which is one of the most traditionally masculine industries around. The most cynical blame it on videogames (which probably a bit harsh). Again others, including yours truly, look at it more from the perspective of women catching up with and eventually outperforming men.

Women couldn’t be very choosy in the past — they had to be married for both social and economic reasons,” she said. “They’d be stigmatized if they weren’t and they might not be able to make it on their own. Now the social context has shifted. They can raise the bar.
— Isabell Sawhill (from article "Women just aren’t that into the ‘marriageable male’ anymore, economists say")

Based on the data presented earlier about enrollment and degrees, this is the way I interpret the situation. Given that women were less educated back in the days, the defining factor of the marriagable man was probably only "can he put a roof above our family's head?" However, given that women are now more successful in educational terms than men and are able to provide for themselves just fine, they have shifted the goalposts and upped their demands for marriage (for any labor economists out there, I think this has something to do with the term 'separating equilibrium'). Making a reasonable amount of money as a guy just isn't enough anymore because most women (are educated enough to) do that by themselves anyway. 

Just like how athletes increase the standards they hold themselves to as they become increasingly successful, so too I believe that the educational successes of women have made them up their demands for who they tie the knot with, leading to less men being/seeming suitable for marriage. It wouldn't be so much of an issue if simply more women were studying and graduating while the guys were keeping up with them and doing the same. However, us fine gentlemen aren't keeping up, which that makes for an intriguing narrative.

 

Masculinity

I guess the million-dollar question then, after all of this, is "so what?" Well, there are two things that are on my mind as a result of this discussion.

First of all, and as I said before, it's clear that for guys it's no longer enough to just have a reasonable job. The stakes have risen because women have caught up. To borrow some economics jargon, it has become more difficult (and "expensive") to signal to women that you're a suitable mate. In normal language, you simply have to show more than merely a half-decent job.

Yet another sidenote: the question that government officials should/probably are concerned about is whether all of this affects the rate of marriage. Not only that but does this mean that fewer children are going to be born due to the (possible) decline in marriages or will this rate stay the same but are children then going to be born to unmarried couples and/or single parents?

Secondly, how do men respond to and feel about seeing more women being educationally more successful than they are (if you're the cynical type, you could substitute this with "women being smarter than men")? To clarify, I think this is mainly relevant to men with "below average" educational credentials given that this is where they suffer the double-whammy of a lack of employment. Nevertheless, in most other traditionally male-dominated realms of society, women have made great strides but not quite been able to surpass men. Is education  another area of society that was once largely inaccessible for women  the one arena where this spell could be broken? Will this make men feel "not enough" to women? Does this even matter? Will I ever stop asking questions? Tune in next time for the next thrilling episo... Alright I'll stop.

In all seriousness though, as we move towards a future where having a degree becomes the absolute minimum in order to be able to survive in society, what will become of those men that fall behind if this trend continues? Having a job is, and has always been, such a defining figure of a guy's masculinity that there might be a real threat to this masculinity if less guys have the necessary education for employment. I also fear for the identity crisis and crisis in manhood that they will have as the rest of society (particularly the women) moves forward without them. We all know that many have already turned to drugs/opioids, but others may also turn to crime:

Among black Americans, thanks to mass incarceration, it does not come close. For every 100 African-American women aged 25-54 who are not behind bars, there are only 83 men of the same age at liberty. In some American inner cities there are only 50 black men with jobs for every 100 black women, calculates William Julius Wilson of Harvard University.
— Article: "Manhood" from the Economist

On the other hand, maybe I've been far too dramatic in my assessments. US census data from 2015 shows that things weren't as alarming as I make it sound in this post, meaning that you just wasted 10 minutes of your life reading my unfounded gibberish. As the French would say: Merde.

All in all though, men are facing a curious future. The costs of falling behind have never been greater but, at the same time, the benefits to being marginally ahead of our "average" male peers have technically increased as well. Half full or half empty, right?

 

The Prestige

Perhaps it is appropriately poetic to end this post with the following lines from one of my favorite ever movies, The Prestige:

The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret... but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part.

The part we call The Prestige
— Cutter from the movie "The Prestige"

Let's see what the future holds for The Prestige of our little magic trick.

If it even has one, that is.


Further reading

Ok maybe that wasn't quite the end. If you're as fascinated by this topic as I am, I highly recommend reading not only the articles that I linked in this post, but also the following material:

See you, Space Cowboy.