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Girl Power and Boys’ Struggles

As we approach the new year – today on the winter solstice – 2022 seems incalculably long and complicated.

Can this be the same year in which Putin opened his savage land grab in Ukraine? The news industry in which I work is calibrated to promote myriad headlines at once. So many narratives have competed for our attention this year, among them midterm elections; the Supreme Court’s overturn of abortion rights; book bannings; intensifying climate conditions; royal ascent and dissent; inflation and rate hikes; select committee hearings and subpoenas; World Cup controversies; the still-ongoing pandemic; Trump’s travails; Musk’s management; a renewed NASA; a reinvigorated NATO; and a House of the Dragon that’s not the Chinese restaurant on Main Street in Denison, Iowa.


Richard V. Reeves

Amid all that and more, Richard V. Reeves‘ new book, released in late September, has punched through the distractions for many of us. It brings into the sharpest focus yet a deepening crisis. For years, one iteration of that crisis has been responded to handsomely by publishing. But as yet, the flip side is getting far less traction in the book business.

Reeves’ Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What To Do About It is published by the Brookings Institution Press in the States (September 27) and by Swift Press in England (September 29).

David Brooks at The New York Times called Reeves’ book, “a landmark, one of the most important books of the year.” Many similar accolades have poured in. I agree with them. And yet the book may have flown below your radar because its focus is uncomfortable for many of us to face. Its mission may feel politically incorrect. It is, in fact, exactly the opposite.


US cover: Brookings Institution Press

Reeves goes to the mat to stress his support for the progress that women and girls have made with remarkable speed. “The gender reversal in education has been astonishingly swift,” he writes. “It is like the needles on a magnetic compass reversing their polarity. Suddenly, north is south. Suddenly, working for gender equality means focusing on boys rather than girls. Disorienting, to say the least. Small wonder our laws, institutions, even our attitudes, have not yet caught up. But catch up they must.”

And publishing is one of those institutions. So generously has book publishing worked to lift up and serve its fine women’s consumer base that I’ve written before here about my concerns for men’s unmet interests and needs in literature. From a purely commercial standpoint, I see this as leaving male money on the table. But there are pressures here more crucial than revenue.

One of the things that industry players can feel best about is the robust role the book business has played in creating and providing literature for girls and women. Think of the last few years’ accelerating rollout of uplifting guidance, powerful self-esteem literature, and incisive introductions of formidable women in history and contemporary life. Women authors are among the most acclaimed and rewarded. In the week ending December 10, Michelle Obama and Colleen Hoover held NPD BookScan’s No. 1 and No. 2 spots on its Top 10 titles for the United States’ market.


UK cover: Swift Press

Too many executive suites remain out of reach for women, no question, but even that is changing when major leadership appointments go to deserving and decisive women. As I wrote last week, Bodour Al Qasimi, the outgoing president of the International Publishers Association – only the second woman in that 125-year-old organization’s history – is calling now “not for equality with men but for equal opportunities, because women clearly can achieve the status they deserve when give the chances they’ve been denied too long. Al Qasimi will be succeeded in January by another woman, Karine Pansa of São Paulo, in the IPA’s top role. And Pansa will in two years be succeeded by Gvantsa Jobava of Tbilisi as IPA’s president, yet another woman. This is a breakthrough in the helm at the world body, which brings together the publishing associations of at least 73 nations.

What Reeves wants us to know is that, “Doing more for boys and men does not require an abandonment of the ideal of gender equality. In fact, it is a natural extension of it. The problem with feminism, as a liberation movement, is not that it has ‘gone too far.’ It is that it has not gone far enough. Women’s lives have been recast. Men’s lives have not.”

And his book is among the most accomplished, best-researched, and compelling revelations of the “the other crisis” of boys and men yet produced.

The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos (Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury, Macmillan/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) writes that Reeves “has the rare combination of writerly flair, analytical skill, and unflinching focus on problems that partisans would rather dismiss. Just as Reeves’ Dream Hoarders [Brookings, 2017) forced Americans to question our mantras about social mobility, his work on men and boys is provocative, timely, and rich with real-world solutions.”

Unconscious Bias in the Cause


Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

In encountering Reeves’ work, I’ve realized that I’ve carried an unconscious gender bias of my own about gender bias. The unforgivable oppression of women over time has been so clear that many men, including myself, have bought into a myth that guys always find ways to succeed, that we operate with centuries of assurance and wins in our back pockets, that we need no recognition of our difficulties. We’ll just walk it off, right?

From Reeves’ many statistics on how guys are doing compared to women, I’d like to offer you several points, and then hand over to you for your thoughts. These are quotes from Reeves’ book:

  • “In elementary and secondary schools across the world, girls are leaving boys behind. Girls are about a year ahead of boys in terms of reading ability in OECD nations, in contrast to a wafer-thin and shrinking advantage for boys in math. Boys are 50 percent more likely than girls to fail at all three key school subjects: math, reading, and science.”
  • “In the United States, 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees are now awarded to women, and not just in stereotypically ‘female’ subjects: women now account for almost half (47 percent) of undergraduate business degrees, for example, compared to fewer than one in 10 in 1970. Women also receive the majority of law degrees, up from about one in 20 in 1970.”
  • “The wages of most men are lower today than they were in 1979, while women’s wages have risen across the board. … Women are now the main breadwinners in 41 percent of US households.  … Many men are left feeling dislocated. Their fathers and grandfathers had a pretty clear path to follow: work, wife, kids. But what now?”
  • One of Reeves’ key suggestions is that while many women are moving smartly into STEM careers, men need to be engaged in “HEAL” occupations–health, education, administration, literacy. This includes publishing, of course. “Despite the fact that women have overtaken men in post-secondary education,” Reeves writes, “there are almost no scholarships for men, and virtually none aimed at encouraging them into HEAL” professions.
  • “Men account for almost three out of four ‘deaths of despair,’ either from a suicide or an overdose. Suicide is now the biggest killer of British men under the age of 45.”

I’ve chosen those five highlights in order to touch on the educational, social, economic, labor, and emotional components of the “male malaise” Reeves examines. “What is required here” he writes, “is a simple change in mindset, recognizing that gender inequalities can go in both directions. I said simple, not easy. The fight for gender equality has historically been synonymous with the fight for and by girls and women, and for good reason. But we have reached a point where gender inequalities affecting boys and men have to be treated seriously.

“Many people on the political Left seem to fear that even acknowledging the problems of boys and men will somehow weaken efforts for women and girls. This is the progressive version of zero-sum thinking. Anything extra for boys and men must mean less for girls and women. This is entirely false as a matter of practice, and creates a dangerous political dynamic.”

Do some of these points ring true for you? Have you, like me, felt that these were trends you were seeing but had little or no way to quantify? I’ve worried that publishing’s output seemed imbalanced in favor of (perfectly deserving) women and girls. As Reeves writes, “We can hold two thoughts in our heads at once. We can be passionate about women’s rights and compassionate toward vulnerable boys and men.” In 2023, can you see book publishing being open to more purposefully serving male readers?

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