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.



A Coup for America

Why the United States needs to work with Syrian government insiders to topple Bashar al-Assad.

As the unrest in Libya and Egypt over the past two weeks demonstrates, extremist forces can benefit from instability in the wake of political transitions. In that respect, the Obama administration's Syria policy risks the worst possible outcome -- prolonging the conflict, fomenting sectarian strife, empowering radicals, and collapsing the state institutions that will be needed to stabilize the country after the departure of President Bashar al-Assad. It is time to change course.

Instead, the United States and relevant allied and friendly countries should empower the moderates in the opposition -- including through the provision of arms and other lethal assistance -- and encourage a coup by officers willing to break with Assad. The United States should then assist in brokering a power-sharing arrangement between these forces that will marginalize extremists and attract the support of all of Syria's diverse communities.

America has important interests at stake in Syria, including the opportunity to transform this pivotal Middle Eastern country from an Iranian proxy that sponsors terrorism, pursues weapons of mass destruction, and brutalizes its own people, into a stakeholder of regional stability. American credibility is also on the line, in light of President Barack Obama's call for Assad to step down. If Syria descends into chaos, Iran and other adversarial actors are better adapted to prevailing in such environments. Tehran has already deployed elements of its elite Quds Force, both to bolster Assad and to prepare for a wider struggle for influence. Thus, U.S. interests can only be secured through a stable transition -- one in which the Syrian state remains intact and a more liberal government emerges with the capability and will to prevent an extremist takeover.

To date, the administration has been too passive, particularly in its refusal to provide arms and other lethal assistance to the opposition. I see four concerns driving this policy. First, the administration may fear that the provision of lethal assistance could put the United States on a slippery slope to military intervention. Yet, as the United States has shown in other cases -- as in its support for the resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s -- a strategy based on arming local allies does not necessarily lead to direct military involvement.

Second, the administration may worry that stronger action could lead Russia to be less cooperative, not only in Syria but also on other issues such as Iran's nuclear program, or could provoke Iran to retaliate against U.S. interests elsewhere in the region. However, the fact is that U.S. restraint has not won Russian cooperation for a diplomatic strategy at the U.N. Security Council to address the crisis in Syria or to restrain Iran. In fact, Tehran has been escalating its support for Assad and is already pursuing an aggressive policy to undermine the U.S. position in the region.

Third, the administration may fear that the United States would be blamed for any spillover of weapons into neighboring countries or would have to assume some responsibility if rebel groups used U.S. arms against civilians of a rival sect. Yet the current policy -- which outsources the provision of lethal aid to regional partners like Turkey and the Gulf states -- raises the greatest risk of spillover or rising sectarian violence given that our regional allies already are providing arms to sectarian or religious extremists. The best hope to avoid negative externalities is for the United States to lead the covert arms shipments and channel them to moderates who seek an inclusive and tolerant Syria.

Fourth, the administration may calculate that the status quo -- a protracted and mutually painful stalemate on the battlefield -- will likely produce conditions for a negotiated settlement. In this view, both sides will eventually tire of the fighting and accept the reality that outright victory is impossible. Pragmatists will become stronger, ultimately carrying the day, and thus create the circumstances for diplomacy leading to cease-fire talks and an interim authority acceptable to both sides.

There are serious problems with this approach. The belief that a settlement will spring forth amid continued fighting is fanciful. It might take a very long time for a mutually painful stalemate to come about. Further bloodshed and brutality are more likely to harden positions and lead to a fight to the death than to produce an opportunity for a negotiated settlement. A longer war favors the extremists and works to the disadvantage of moderates. The chaos of war could create opportunities for al Qaeda and outside Islamists to make inroads among the local population.

The longer the war goes on, the greater the likelihood that it leads to the disintegration of state institutions, jeopardizing prospects for a stable post-Assad transition. Dissolution of the Syrian national army would leave postwar Syria without a needed mechanism for curtailing warlordism -- a problem that has plagued Afghanistan since the post-Soviet period.

The administration's unwillingness to provide the opposition with arms and other lethal aid is damaging relations with allies and partners, such as Turkey, that are essential parts of the coalition to assist those opposed to Assad and to transform Syria. Already, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expressed disappointment with U.S. policy.

What kind of a strategy might be able to address the Obama administration's fears yet accelerate a stable transition in Syria? It should have three parts:

Organizing the opposition: The United States should elevate moderates in the opposition to be the core of a future Syrian leadership. While the opposition has proved resilient and capable of attracting substantial support, it is still divided and lacks a coherent political and military program. It has a strong base of support among Sunni Arabs but has failed to win the support of Alawites, Christians, and Kurds. The Free Syrian Army is divided and lacks adequate weapons. And extremist elements have secured outside support, while moderates have not.

We should use moderate forces as the principal channel for U.S. covert funding and arms transfers. We should work not just with expatriate groups but also with internal forces that are emerging organically in the conflict, particularly in local councils in areas vacated by the Baathist regime. This support should be scaled to marginalize the extremists by making the moderates the principal political-military actor driving the opposition. We should also work with these leaders to articulate a political program capable of attracting support from all of Syria's diverse communities and reassuring them that a post-Assad government will be broad-based, inclusive, and tolerant.

Washington should use the leverage of its potential assistance to ensure that the opposition sets forth a liberal political program. A danger exists that the collapse of Assad's government will lead to enduring war among Syria's communities. The prospect of our help should be used to induce rival groups to coalesce around a moderate platform. We should set forth political benchmarks that the opposition must meet as we prepare to escalate our support. It is vital that we get the politics right from the start.

Inducing a coup against Assad: While not a silver bullet, a coup would not only remove Assad from power but would ensure the preservation of state institutions in the course of a transition. The United States should reach out to those close to, but not part of, the inner circle of the Assad clique and his immediate family. If these elements lead to a coup, the United States could then broker a power-sharing arrangement with the moderates in the opposition.

That said, engineering a coup in a tightly control authoritarian regime is extremely difficult. Some Iraqi opposition leaders were counting on a coup to get rid of Saddam Hussein for years. It did not happen. No doubt a significant part of Assad's intelligence apparatus is focused on preventing a coup. Moreover, many of the officers who would be in a position to carry out a coup are members of Assad's Alawite sect. In an environment of rising sectarianism, these officers are likely to be reluctant to move against Assad.

To increase the likelihood that such officers will roll the dice, the balance of power on the ground has to start shifting against Assad and the opposition has to embrace a credible program for power-sharing among Syrian different sects and ethnic groups. This program has to provide credible assurances that those who defect will have a place in the new order.

Identifying officers who are potentially acceptable as partners for the opposition and who are sufficiently influential to form a rump regime will not be easy. However, if they can be found, each side will have a powerful incentive to strike a deal. For the opposition, a power-sharing arrangement can truncate a costly struggle. For the coup leaders, it provides a path to survival in the post-Assad era. For all Syrians, it promises to avoid the collapse of state institutions and the risk of anarchy.

Keeping the door open to Russia: As the administration pursues the first two legs of this strategy and as the balance on the ground changes in Syria, it must still be prepared to engage the Kremlin and give assurances that Russia's interests can be protected in a post-Assad regime, in exchange for its cooperation. The Syrian military will continue to be led by senior officers who have long worked with Moscow. Key strategic and economic interests, such as port access or commercial deals, can be carried over by the new government. While Russia is unlikely ever to support an undefined policy of destabilizing the current Syrian government, it might be persuaded to accept a stable transition that preserves Russian influence.

According to press reports, Russia has proposed a conference of the kind used to end the Lebanese civil war, which in 1989 brought all elements to the table in the city of Taif, Saudi Arabia. While the details should be scrutinized, the concept can be useful, and Washington should be agile and creative in engaging with Moscow. While a crucial issue will be whether Bashar al-Assad or his representatives could participate, the erosion of his position may lead Moscow to think past his regime. If Iran becomes convinced that Assad's time has passed, Tehran, too, may be interested in exploring a vehicle that could lead to a settlement, though it will also likely continue to operate against us on multiple covert tracks.

This combination of steps -- empowering the moderates in the opposition, shifting the balance of power through arms and other lethal assistance, encouraging a coup leading to a power-sharing arrangement, and accommodating Russia in exchange for its cooperation -- is the best available course to help fragment the regime. It will signal that Assad's toppling is likely and even inevitable and that the post-regime environment will not be controlled by extremists and will have a place for all of Syria's communities including traditional Assad loyalists.

However, we should not make the same mistake we made in arming the Afghan resistance in the 1980s without helping Afghans establish a stable post-Soviet order. The United States allowed arms to flow the worst extremists and walked away from Afghanistan after the Soviets departed, setting the stage for Afghanistan to fall into chaos and domination by extremists and terrorists. We should support the Syrian opposition to Assad, but we should also have a strategy for establishing order in a post-Assad Syria that informs our efforts to help the opposition and to fragment the regime.