The Gender Connection: A Conversation About the Future of Boys

This post originally appeared in The Good Men Project on The Gender Connection: A Conversation About the Future of Boys

Between Mark Sherman and Lisa Levey, 10 of the people they love the most are boys and men. The issues of men and boys is critically important to them. They are starting a conversation to try to bridge the gender gap.

Mark Sherman, PhD, is an emeritus professor of psychology at SUNY, New Paltz, where his main interest has long been gender issues. He has published, taught, read, and researched in this area for more than 35 years. For the last two decades, his focus has been the gender gap in young people, where boys and young men are lagging well behind their sisters from kindergarten through graduate school. He freely admits that a major impetus for his concern is the fact that he has three sons and four grandsons.

Lisa Levey is a veteran consultant, having worked for nearly two decades with many of the most admired companies in the world to assist them in the creation of work environments where women (and men) can thrive. In 2012 Lisa published The Libra Solution: Shedding Excess and Redefining Success at Work and at Home profiling a highly-shared and gender-flexible career and family management model for dual career couples. Lisa and her husband Bryan have been featured in Fast Company magazine and on ABC News with Charlie Gibson in stories about this partnership approach to parenting and professional work.

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Mark: Lisa, I am so glad you’re willing to have this conversation with me about gender issues, with special attention to boys and young men. In the Good Men Project conference calls, you immediately struck me as someone who really wanted to understand men, and I think the future of American boys depends on women like you—feminists with sons. That’s because for years now, in this country, when you talk about the left and you talk about gender, you are inevitably talking about women and girls. Boys and men are not even part of the discussion. I’m not so worried about men; I guess you could say that they still hold a great deal of power. But if you look at Americans below the age of, say, 22, it’s an entirely different story. And for school-age boys and girls, there is no comparison these days.

Lisa: Mark, I am very excited that you reached out to me about having this “gender conversation.” You are correct that as a feminist, I care deeply about supporting women and girls—in fact my professional work over many years has been consulting with large corporations to support women in business. BUT I also care deeply about boys and men and the struggles they face. In my research and consulting, I’ve seen up close that many men feel caught between a work world that demands so much and a desire to be more involved with their kids. I’ve seen the pressure many men feel to be the breadwinner and provide their wives the choice about working while they feel they have no choice.

But when was the last time you heard a liberal talk about the “boy problem”? And I say this as a liberal!

Mark: But when was the last time you heard a liberal talk about the “boy problem”? And I say this as a liberal! I’m a liberal because we’re the ones who change things, who try to make things fair. And one of the things that has to change today is how boys are doing, which is, I believe, at least partly a result of the relative (to girls) lack of attention they have gotten for at least the last 20 years.But let me get back to the boy problem you described as a starting point for our conversation. I am very grateful that my sons—now ages 13 and 16—are thriving, but there have certainly been bumps along the way. My older son was a particularly wiggly kid. He couldn’t sit still for five minutes. He didn’t have ADHD; he was just a typical healthy active little boy. Luckily he attended a Waldorf School during his elementary years where his boundless energy was not a bad thing. His art teacher taught the children to knit—good for hand-eye coordination—and she described my son’s approach as “extreme knitting,” wiggling this way and that while keeping his hands moving. My younger son attended our public school and as a second or third grader, he would get very stressed about those open-ended writing assignments. He would stare in dismay at the blank page and say, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to write.”

I’ll admit I’m obsessed by this issue, and I’ll certainly acknowledge that a major motivator for my obsession is that I have three sons and four grandsons. I strongly believe that it is parents and grandparents like us—who have sons and grandsons—who have to be the major force on behalf of our children and grandchildren.

Lisa: I have learned so much about gender issues through raising my sons (in close partnership with my husband). Having witnessed my sons in various school systems through the years; I do believe that early public education is better suited for girls than boys. So much of public education today is focused on early intellectual development. The problem is our current approach—forcing heavy literacy even at the pre-K stage—does not reflect what we know about child development. Little kids need to move, especially little boys. That is how they learn.

Mark: Whatever it is, the data overwhelmingly shows that it is boys more than girls who are having problems in school today. And outside of schools boys, on the whole, are not doing well either. There’s plenty of data on this, some of which you may be well aware of. But to me the most important thing is that, to this very day, boys have not had a strong lobby, while girls have. I hope you are willing unreservedly to address this, and to encourage other mothers of sons to do the same. Today, women continue to get strong support from other women (e.g., NOW), and much of this carries over to support for girls. But men are seen as not needing any special attention and, sadly, this carries over to boys.

I don’t think anyone has ever presented the situation better than journalist Michelle Conlin did in a 2003 Business Week cover story titled “The New Gender Gap.” Conlin wrote, “It may still be a man’s world. But it is no longer, in any ways, a boy’s.” And that was more than seven years before Hanna Rosin, a mother of two boys (as well as a daughter)—wrote an article in The Atlantic titled “The End of Men,” which later became a book, with the subtitle “And the Rise of Women”. Are those of us with sons and grandsons supposed to look upon this with equanimity?

Lisa: I don’t believe we should look upon the decline of boys—or the end of men—as a good thing. What I see is that so much of the coverage surrounding gender issues pits women against men. It keeps us mired in conflict, defending our side, and distracts us rather than helping us to work together. That’s not my approach. I deeply believe we are far stronger as partners than as adversaries.

You said earlier that liberals don’t talk about the “boy problem”. Have you had a particular experience that makes you think that?

Mark: One day last year, at a local coffee shop, I was reading Rosin’s book “The End of Men”, and happened to run into an old friend, an ardent feminist, who was talking to another woman. She asked what I was reading, and I told her. I added, “This book makes me very worried for boys.”

She responded, with an acerbic laugh, “Well, when half of Congress is female, then I’ll worry about boys.” She is someone I’ve known for more than 30 years, and I like her very much.

She has been involved in women’s issues for her whole adult life. So I do understand her passion—even though it distresses me that she seems so unsympathetic to boys. On top of this, she has one child, a daughter. So I don’t expect her to necessarily fight for boys and their needs. But, Lisa, I hope you and every other mother of boys will do so. After all, who do we love and care about more than our children and grandchildren?

The goal is to help dismantle “the shackles of gender”—all those assumptions and beliefs about gender roles that keep us separate and limit us all.

I suspect many feminists are unaware of the challenges that boys today are facing. And it can be difficult to fully sympathize with the struggles that boys and young men encounter when women are still fighting so mightily for a place at the table. Heck there isn’t even a law to ensure that women get equal pay for equal work. It seems so basic. I wonder if men realize that it is their wives and sisters and daughters that suffer the loss.Lisa: Surely having sons has made me far more attuned to gender issues but, to my mind, it’s not just about my sons. It’s about my husband, my brothers, my nephews, my friends—many males that I care about in my life. I suspect the seeming lack of concern for boys that you witnessed with your friend in the coffee shop was a case of her touching one part of the elephant. For someone like myself working to create greater gender equality in the leadership of our organizations, I’m constantly faced with the stark statistics. Even though women have made great strides professionally, the face of top leadership remains overwhelmingly male in every profession and industry that you look at—healthcare, technology, consumer products, law, medicine, academia. I know because I’ve consulted to all of them and seen the numbers. Progress has been glacial for women in leadership over the last 15 plus years.

You’ve said, “I think the future of American boys depends on women like you – feminists with sons.” My goal both in the work I do professionally—and in raising my sons—is to help dismantle “the shackles of gender”—all those assumptions and beliefs about gender roles that I believe keep us separate and limit us all.

I’m very excited to be starting this conversation about gender issues. I hope it will provide a provocative forum for discussing gender in a new way, one deeply committed to gender equality and to deepening our shared understanding. My goal is to find common ground and for women and men to work together to create the world we want for ourselves, our children and our neighbors.

Note: This article originally appeared in The Good Men Project.

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