Nobody Told Asia About The End of Men

Mara Hvistendahl takes on Hanna Rosin.


If the age of men has ended, nobody told Asia. True, across the continent women are obtaining degrees at higher rates — in some cases outpacing men — and bucking traditional gender roles. Yet the past few decades have brought significant setbacks as well as breakthroughs. Men’s wages are now growing faster than women’s wages in China. Japan and South Korea have famously thick glass ceilings. Men dominate demographically as well: China has an estimated 20 million to 30 million surplus men, and India is not far behind. In 2020s China and northwest India, men of marriageable age will outnumber their female counterparts by some 15 to 20 percent. Together with Albania, the two countries rank dead last in the World Economic Forum’s 2011 Global Gender Gap report’s health and survival index. The very continent on which women are pushing boundaries and excelling at higher education is also a place plagued by workplace discrimination, child brides, and sex-selective abortion.

So what to make of The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, Hanna Rosin’s provocative new book proclaiming a global shift in gender dynamics? Rosin charts a fascinating trend in the United States — and then stretches to make the case that in Asia, too, patriarchy is on the verge of being upended. As University of Maryland, College Park, sociologist Philip N. Cohen is chronicling in a series of blog posts, The End of Men is riddled with misleading statistics and analysis. (Because only about half of the book’s figures are sourced in the endnotes, a full fact check will be a serious undertaking.) Many of those statistics concern women in the United States, where a rise in single-mother households, believe it or not, has not made women any richer — and where the proportion of married couples in which the wife outearns the husband is not nearly as high as Rosin suggests. But it’s in Asia where the "end of men" meme — as well as the data backing it up — is particularly problematic.

Early in The End of Men, we learn that the average age of marriage for women in Asia is 32 — a fact, Rosin writes, that shows that women are delaying marriage at unprecedented rates. Later in the book, 32 resurfaces as the average age of first marriage for women in South Korea in 2010. Neither is correct.

Women in India typically marry at 18 — and perhaps I should say girls, because half get hitched before then. In Indonesia, the average age of first marriage for women was 20 in 2008, according to the World Health Organization. In China, demographers estimate it at 24 — and many rural women might tie the knot earlier if not for a high government-mandated minimum marriage age. In Malaysia, it is 26. The actual average age of first marriage for women in South Korea in 2010? Twenty-nine, according to a report by the government agency Statistics Korea. Thirty-two was, in fact, the corresponding figure that year for South Korean men.

That botched statistic — which immediately jumps out to anyone who has spent a bit of time in Asia — might be a metaphor for The End of Men. Rosin takes an interesting phenomenon, one that is reshaping our ideas about love and career in radical ways, and pushes it too far. In doing so, she makes a politically dangerous argument about the status of women in Asia and beyond. A partial leveling of the playing field in some spheres does not equal total and complete takeover. One might as well write a book titled The End of White People.

I’m sure Rosin knows this. She acknowledges that a gender wage gap persists, in the United States and abroad; that women are still burdened with the bulk of child care; and that "the upper reaches of power are still dominated by men." But such occurrences are, she contends, "the last artifacts of a vanishing age." That argument misses just how bad the situation is for many women around the world.

If one leaves aside statements like "shrinks are unheard of" in South Korea and "61 percent of single Japanese men between ages eighteen to thirty-four said in a government survey they have no girlfriend" (it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that many single men don’t have girlfriends), The End of Men overlooks the complexity, the start-and-stop progress, of gender relations in Asia. The entrance of women into higher education and the labor market, for example, has not been entirely smooth. South Korea, Rosin’s most extensive foreign case study, may have a new breed of "über-competitive" female undergrads, as one English professor tells her. But it ranked only 97 out of 135 countries in educational attainment in the Global Gender Gap report — behind Algeria, Peru, and Tunisia. Many Korean women who earn degrees, moreover, do not find jobs afterward. Rosin concedes that only 60 percent of college-educated women in South Korea work — fewer than in any other OECD country. (In Japan, meanwhile, women account for almost half of graduate school students but occupy only 9 percent of senior leadership positions.)

When Korean corporations do hire women, they do so in part, Rosin writes, because women will work for lower salaries. A measly 1.9 percent of boardroom seats on Korean boards are occupied by women. This is not exactly "advancing through the labor force with uncanny speed."

Then there’s China, where rapid economic progress has coincided with a resurgence of traditional gender roles: mistress, hostess, stay-at-home mom. Some companies openly consider age and appearance in hiring — or, worse still, virginity and cup size. After decades in which men and women worked in relatively equal numbers, the housewife — an anomaly under Mao — is becoming chic in cities like Beijing and Shanghai. (One recent article on the trend actually quotes an elderly woman lamenting her daughter’s decision to stay home.)

This is not to say that there have been few improvements. Across Asia, women are challenging norms by marrying later (if not quite as late as Rosin claims). Buzz in China surrounds sheng nu, or "leftover women" — educated, working urban women who remain unmarried past their supposed sell-by date. Yet to some extent, the hype over China’s single women is the concoction of a patriarchal state worried about a burgeoning cohort of surplus men. When sociology Ph.D. candidate Leta Hong Fincher hunted down the origin of the term sheng nu, she found it had surfaced in 2007 in the official lexicon of the Chinese Education Ministry and then reappeared in state media reports in the years that followed. The notion that women are doomed for spinsterhood if they don’t marry by 27, Fincher writes, is "a sexist media campaign by a government facing a severe demographic crisis."

Perhaps the most curious omission in The End of Men, though, is a copious description of sex-selection techniques that neglects to mention that sex selection has resulted in an imbalance of over 100 million more men than women worldwide. In describing the Ericsson method, a sperm-sorting technique developed by rancher Ronald Ericsson, Rosin ribs a 1984 People article that, she writes, predicted "a dystopia of mass-produced boys that would lock women in to second-class status while men continued to dominate positions of control and influence." Ericsson laughs when she brings the article up, assuring her that male dominance "seems to be gone now.… The era of the firstborn son is totally gone." As evidence, Rosin reports that the Ericsson method is more often used to select for girls.

Actually, the jury’s still out on that one. The method, which is not entirely accurate, never really took off, and the only information we have today about how it is used is that provided by Ericsson. But what about the more popular practice of sex selection during in vitro fertilization — a technique pioneered in California that is now spreading to fertility clinics throughout the developing world? What about sex-selective abortion, which is by far the most prevalent method globally? In South Korea, Rosin recounts that some 10 percent of marriages involve rural men wedding foreign women from countries like Vietnam and the Philippines, "largely because there are so few women left in category D" — meaning local women have moved up the socioeconomic scale.

Well, no. Korean-Vietnamese marriages may well embody the pathos of the modern rural man in Asia, but they do not prove the success of women. After decades of a wildly skewed sex ratio at birth, there are fewer women left in South Korea, period. Some women missing from category D undoubtedly did climb the social ladder. But another portion of the missing did not graduate from college and go on to earn Ph.D.s and take high-powered jobs and leave their male counterparts in the dust. Here is a fact no statistic can conceal: They were never born.

Mara Hvistendahl is a Shanghai-based correspondent for Science and the author of Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men. Twitter: @MaraHvistendahl

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