A while back in a conversation about sexism in advertising, Brandon Berg commented:

IMO, the value in pointing out stuff like this is not to advance the idea that men are oppressed and reviled, but to rebut the idea that misogyny pervades American culture. As Peter points out, women are a protected class, and ads that played to negative stereotypes about women would not be tolerated.

In retrospect, I was too dismissive in my response. There was an underlying point worthy of consideration. It was explored a little bit later when there was a meme going around regarding “female privilege”, a sort of rejoinder to the feminist notion of “male privilege” which allegedly pervades our entire culture with the effect of favoring men. The idea was that men would list out ways in which women have it better than men. Berg threw in twelve of his own. Here are the first couple:

1. If I marry, there is a very good chance that I will be given the option to quit my job and live off my husband’s* income without having my femininity questioned.
2. If I become pregnant, I and I alone choose whether to terminate the pregnancy or have the baby. As a result, I can be reasonably certain that I will never be held financially responsible for a child I didn’t want to have, and that I will never have my unborn child aborted without my consent.

I agree with some of them and don’t entirely agree with the premise of others, but given his list and others it really is undeniable that there are circumstances where it appears to men (even men that are not closet misogynistic pigs that secretly hate all women) that it is advantageous to be female. And these areas extend much further than having to smash bugs and mow lawns.

None of this negates the fact that male privilege does exist. There are ways in which we are advantaged merely because we are male. These things can be chalked up not just to biology, but also to social norms and traditions that have outlived the circumstances that originally spawned them.

What it does mean, I think, is that we should bear in mind that male privilege is not true as a broad statement that men are privileged in all ways or all ways deemed important. Such a thing would negate even the possibility of female privilege except as a canard to avoid the issue at hand which is men disadvantaging women and that doesn’t seem quite right. I think that there’s a lot more to it than that.

It seems to me that male privilege and female privilege can simultaneously exist because they pertain to different things. Ways that are surprisingly difficult to weigh against one another and come up with a universal statement that on the whole, men/women are actually the favored ones or that it pushes enough in both directions to even out.

I’ve commented before that as far as relationships go if you are socially charismatic but ugly it’s better to be male but if you are attractive and socially awkward it’s more advantageous to be female. This can lead to arguments about which is the harder cliff to climb. Men might say that women can at least make themselves look better with dieting while it’s much more difficult for a person to change their personality. Women can point out that there’s a lot about your appearance that you can’t change and it is quite possible to at least gain enough social skills to improve your station. At the end of the day I would say that whether it is better to be male or female in the dating market depends on what your baseline attributes are.

As it is with the dating market I think it is with life in general. Sort of. While the dating market has more to do with what you’re bringing to the table, I think that life in general has somewhat more to do with what you want to take from it. Whether it is advantageous to be male or female depends, I think, on what exactly one wants from life. This can apply to a whole lot of things, but for this post I am going to focus on work and family.

If you want a demanding career balanced with a family our social structure is far more beneficial to men than to women. A lot of men puncture holes in the whole “Women make 75% as much as men” by pointing out that if you control for various factors that it’s fair to control for that gap disappears. And that’s true. On the other hand, that’s only taking one step back while looking at the disparity. Take another step back and it becomes apparent that our social structures, by tradition and in some cases but not all biological necessity, make it so that women on the whole have to concede to the circumstances that justify the disparity or they will pay a price for it that men don’t.

The entire structure is set up to assume that between the ages of 18 and 50-something, a person is able to devote most of their uninterrupted energy towards school and the workplace and it extracts penalties if you deviate from this path. From an employer’s standpoint this makes a lot of sense. Skills are lost when people leave the workforce. Continuity is better if you can have one person working 40 hours a week than two people working 20.

That’s a lot of it, though some of it is simply because that’s the way it has always been and it’s always been that way because it could always be that way and it could always be that way because it primarily concerned men. In other words, there are things that could change without great efficiency costs but they don’t change out of inertia. While typing this, I think of the whole residency situation for doctors, which is twice as inhospitable for women as it is for men.

But whatever the cause, at the end of the day it leaves men at a competitive advantage in the workplace in ways that women didn’t choose. Or, if they did choose, they had to make choices that the men never really had to make. Men can have the career and leave the household to be run by their girlfriends/fiances/wives. That’s more difficult for women not only because they have to find a guy that will play a long for reasons other than crass laziness but also because out of biological necessity they have to take it easy during pregnancy and for a span afterwards which can put a strain on a household’s finances that the inverse couple never would because the man can just keep on working. It’s no coincidence that almost all of the male residents that Clancy worked with had wives and kids while that wasn’t true of a substantial portion of her female coworkers.

But if someone is not ambitious it forces men into situations that their female counterparts can much more easily sidestep. Ambitious men are more comfortable with unambitious (career-wise) women than vice-versa. Ambitious women are often suspicious of unambitious men. Some of it has to do with the social norms which say that a man should want to provide for the family and whatnot, though some of it also has to do with what I believe to be the fact that men that buck this norm are generally more likely to be moochers than their female counterparts. I say this because some men that want a breadwinning wife simultaneously object to having children and this only very rarely seems true of women (in fact, I’ve never seen it, though I’m sure it exists).

Slightly more simply put, if a woman’s primary social value is in her ability to bear and raise children, and it is much more likely to be the case than with a man (replacing “bear” with “sire”), then the less emphasis she places on her primary value the less valuable she ultimately is, on the whole, as far as the relationship market is concerned. Similarly, if a man’s primary social value is to be able to provide for the family, the less interested he is in that the less valuable he is in the social market on the whole.

I am oversimplifying by reducing it all to “staying at home with the kids” vs. “working long hours to provide for the kids”, but less extreme variations also ring true. Even if a woman doesn’t want kids or doesn’t want to stay at home with them, if she wants a career that wouldn’t bring home enough money to support the family but keeps her busy and satisfied that’s easier for her to do than it is for him. To pick an example, one of Clancy’s fellow residents in Deseret had a wife that had a little catering business that she took care of while the kids were in school. I think that it’s often harder for a man to pull off that kind of part-time arrangement. On the other hand, there is an easier place for women to do such things at least in part because it is more difficult for her to avoid having to take some time off work or with greatly reduced hours, so it cuts both ways though notably does so in ways that favor men and women that want traditionally male and female things and leaving those with non-traditional aspirations a tougher and less likely road with more sacrifice required.

Another way of looking at all of this is to say that generally speaking it is advantageous to want what other people like you want. Bucking norms comes at a cost. Hardly news, I know, but I think that it’s generally pertinent to the discussion. For women, I think more of them would like to become successes in the workplace than would men like to have less workplace success in favor of more time with the little ones and I think the fact that women want this in larger numbers (and it’s among the more vocal men that want it) that makes the discussion focus a lot more on what men can do more easily than women. On the other hand, for the fewer men that do buck the traditions they can have a much harder time of it at least in part because while a woman can succeed in the workplace without a man, a man cannot have a family without a woman.

Category: Coffeehouse

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One Response to Male vs Female Privilege

  1. Brandon Berg says:

    Whether it is advantageous to be male or female depends, I think, on what exactly one wants from life.

    To clarify for those who don’t click through and who didn’t read it the first time around, this was in fact the point of my post. I wasn’t arguing that men are a victim class.

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