Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

A Crisis of Male Ambition? Part I

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This article in the New York Times caught my eye.  Shrinking unemployment numbers—now at 8.3% nationally—are a product of improved private sector hiring, but also of young people dropping out of the workforce in droves, some of them seeking refuge in graduate school.  Yet, women find themselves more likely to enroll in graduate school and certificate/training programs than are their male counterparts.  Are women more ambitious than their male counterparts of today? There exist now—for the first time in three decades—more young women in school than in the work force.  The article summarizes the trend as follows: “Though young women in their late teens and early 20’s view today’s economic lull as an opportunity to upgrade their skills, their male counterparts are more likely to take whatever job they can find.” 

Economic analysts say this trend could portend a phenomenon akin to the G.I. Bill, when returning World War II veterans attended college in droves, and then returned to a recovering postwar economy with newfangled skills and ambition.  Further, like the G.I. Bill, one sex is the primary beneficiary; thus, “the next generation of women may have a significant advantage over their male counterparts, whose career options are already becoming constrained.”  What is more, “The education gap aside, in some ways young women will already have an advantage over men in the coming decade. Many of the occupations expected to have the most growth, like home health aides and dental hygienists, have traditionally been filled by women.”  This is not to say that men cannot fill these positions, but they may not want to, for various personal or cultural reasons.  Something seems to be off track in the young male community—and in more areas than this article treats.

This article raises a passel of interesting issues—e.g., student loan debt and the value of graduate degrees such as “strategic communications” (in which course the article’s main interviewee is enrolled), as opposed to engineering, nursing, computer science, or, done rigorously, humanities and social science fields.  However, I would like to highlight another topic implicitly underlying the entire article and its argument: the potential lack of male ambition vis-à-vis females.  First, we must ask whether we should read the situation as such.  I contend that the article demonstrates a marked disparity between men and women in vocational and educational ambition—at the mean level.  This qualification obviously brings forth several caveats that I will elaborate later.  Second, we must inquire as to the reasons for this lack of male ambition, although I must admit, I am somewhat unsatisfied with my answers.

I would like to preface my argument with several comments.  First, I do not want to leave the reader with the impression that I am somehow invidious toward women or the feminist movement for this development.  On some levels, we ought to celebrate this reality—and what it may portend for improvements in women’s equality in the years to come.  Second, I do not want to leave the reader with the impression that I am somehow out of touch with the host of issues with which women deal in the workplace on a daily basis—to wit, stereotyping, sexism, and of course, lower median salaries than their male counterparts for equal work.  Further, since the start of the economic downturn, men aged 16-24 gained 178,000 jobs while their female counterparts of the same cohort lost 255,000, according to the Department of Labor (but as the article shows, many of these males may be employed or under-employed in dead-end jobs).

What leads males to take any job they can find, while their female counterparts are fussier with their employment prospects? What explains lack of male ambition?

For one thing, it does not seem that a disparity in ambition exists at all levels of society.  Fascinating data collected at Princeton University by the Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership in the interest of gender equality highlighted what I suspect some readers’ anecdotal experience may have told them already: at the very top levels, men tend to be more ambitious and, frequently, more accomplished than women, as manifested in student leadership on college campuses.  The committee measured “leadership” as presidents of influential and visible student groups, winners of prestigious scholarships or undergraduate fellowships, valedictorians, salutatorians, and the top 10% of a graduating class.  Of course, we can point to any number of talented and ambitious women, but why this disparity exists at the top levels is an ongoing and important discussion.

I, for one, do not have many clear ideas on why this is the case.  However, some of my anecdotal experience from both college and graduate school indicate that talented and ambitious women often obsess over the idea that their career advancement is a giant step forward, much to the detriment and great neglect of other aspects of their lives, i.e., extracurricular leadership and romantic relationships—although this criticism holds generally for many students of both sexes at top universities.  So, I throw this preliminary idea out with great caution: could it be, paradoxically, identity and gender studies programs, focused on implanting in women the absolute necessity of becoming a trailblazer, failed to make women more ambitious than their top male counterparts?

Regardless of whether this intuition is true (and it is only an intuition), or whether one could measure it in any significant way, the data show not just a discomfiting disparity of ambition at the very top levels, but also a disparity in mean ambition, too.  I think we should model ambition, like many other attributes, on a normal bell curve, with most of the population fitting within one standard deviation of mean ambition.  With the information brought forth by the Princeton Committee, we know that men tend to disproportionately occupy the spots two, three, or four standard deviations away from mean ambition in the positive direction (rightward on the bell curve).  Likewise, as I contend the New York Times article shows, they also disproportionately occupy the spots two, three, or four standard deviations away from the mean in the negative direction (leftward on the bell curve).  This is the biggest of the aforementioned caveats, and it makes the idea of gender ambition more complex than simply saying, “men are less ambitious.”  On the whole, this may be true, but such a statement glosses over the complexities of the situation.

I will post part two, which explicates a narrative of the unambitious male, tomorrow.


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