Is Women’s Empowerment Really the Problem?

Women’s empowerment has become a problem. Again. According to Katrin Bennhold of The New York Times and its global edition, the International Herald Tribune, women’s empowerment may be killing romance.

Bennhold writes:

Sexual attraction in the 21st century, it seems, still feeds on 20th-century stereotypes. Now, as more women match or overtake men in education and the labor market, they are also turning traditional gender roles on their head, with some profound consequences for relationship dynamics.

Profound consequences sounds scary. Will fewer people marry? Will more marriages end in divorce? Will more children be raised by single mothers? Will the world’s moral fabric be irreparably rent? All of these supposed horrors, regularly articulated by conservatives, can be neatly pinned on women who are “matching” and “overtaking” men. But is women’s empowerment really the problem?

First of all, I highly doubt that economic gains for women hinder men’s sexual attraction. If that were true, there wouldn’t be high-paid prostitutes. Bennhold problematically conflates, romance, sexual attraction and relationships, when she’s really just interested in relationships.

But let’s talk about those relationships. How much more money are women really making compared to their men? Perhaps, it’s not polite to ask, but I wonder if the women executives in her story earn more than their male colleagues. Earlier this month, the United States Senate blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act from moving to the floor. In our country, women still earn approximately 77 cents to every dollar that men earn, and yet our senators decided that a bill preventing pay discrimination was not even worth debating.

Additionally, claims about wives outearning their husbands are wildly overstated. According to the recent Pew Center report The New Economics of Marriage: The Rise of Wives, in 2007 only 28 percent of wives had more education than their husbands, and a mere 22 percent outearned their husbands. These numbers are improvements, but not impressive landmarks of equity. For couples who have similar education levels, husbands are still likely outearn their wives because of gendered pay discrimination. There’s little to celebrate when it comes to women’s economic empowerment.

The women in the article are anomalies and so are their partners. The lonely, single women whose stories are featured learned the hard way that “success is not sexy,” but they are patterned after Sex in the City women and Bridget Jones—white, middle-class women who eventually compromised for a Mr. Almost Right.

Media are notorious for reflecting our desires, not our reality. Apparently, there is a global desire for women to follow traditional gender roles. Seeking out a few exceptions to the rule provides opportunities to punish successful women and warn aspiring women about the pending doom of spinsterhood. The real problem is this persistent desire to keep women in their “proper” place.

Furthermore, these depictions of men are unflattering. Bennhold quotes executive Sasha Havlicek as saying, “It is amazing how even many liberal-minded men end up having sexual and emotional difficulties being with more obviously successful women.” Perhaps she meant small-minded men.

Besides, research is consistently showing the economic advances for men who marry a breadwinner. There are plenty of men who wholeheartedly support their partners no matter how much they earn.

Women’s empowerment is not the problem. It is not a threat to healthy relationships where partners love and support each other. The real problem is women’s persistent disempowerment in the workforce, in relationships and in media, where women are consistently treated as if they are worth less than they truly are.

Photo via Flickr user Rob Lee under Creative Commons 3.0.


  1. This seems wrong to me: "I highly doubt that economic gains for women hinder men’s sexual attraction. If that were true, there wouldn’t be high-paid prostitutes". Men pay a lot for sex because they think it gives them more status, not the prostitute; just like buying an expensive meal or car. She has no intrinsic value, only her perceived exclusivity.

    The problem continues to be that, while women have been expected to adapt our lives and behaviors to achieve what we want and maintain some semblance of family, men have not been expected to significantly alter their lives or behaviors for the same. Men have been "socially promoted" in most cultures. Virtually every environment: education, business, government, and family structures; the very structure of the work day – all designed to suit the needs and ambitions of men. The world is changing while the majority power, men, continues to cling to their traditional thinking and behaviors. Being on the football team isn't enough to get you into medical school anymore, even if dad went there. Social promotion is waning.

    • Actually, this seems wrong to me: “Men pay a lot for sex because they think it gives them more status, not the prostitute; just like buying an expensive meal or car. She has no intrinsic value, only her perceived exclusivity.”

      Men who can afford to pay a lot for sex do so not because they want to spend big bucks, but because that’s what the sex worker is charging. If johns felt that being with a high-paid sex worker gave them more status, then they would be bragging about it openly, not trying to cover it up, feeling embarrassed, ashamed or fearful of arrest in the wake of discovery (see: fomer NY governor Eliot Spitzer).

      An expensive meal is indeed bought and typically unshared by the consumer. An expensive car, likewise. But a sex worker? What john doesn’t know that she is not exclusive but has other clients? Sex workers are not purchased but rented – it is the sexual service that is purchased, not the person (just as with other service workers).

    • Pam Redela says:

      Good job describing "male privilege" in the world! As men become more active partners in family life, they too are seeing that what the workforce really wants is an employee with NO family obligations. This used to be the main resistance to giving women high-profile positions or promotions – their home responsibilities mean they will call in sick or leave early for doctor's appointments and soccer games – but many involved fathers are also feeling this discrimination. Given our male focused society, maybe (frustratingly) when MEN start to belabor the issue something will actually be done. Depressing…

      • I read in a number of scientific reports somewhere that men are actually happier if they can devote at least part of their lives to being some sort of "stay at home dad."

        I find this fascinating and wish that there would be a noticeable social movement like this in my lifetime.

  2. Serena Freewomyn says:

    Two thumbs up – if men don't find successful women sexy, let them spend their lives alone . . . or let them convert to homosexuality. It's not women's fault if men can't keep up.

  3. Thank you, Ebony, for separating the wheat from the chaff. Media has a way of obfuscating the realities of women's lives, and they need to be called on it by smart feminists — among others.

  4. My wife makes more than me and she is very sexy! That's all I have to say about that.

  5. Thanks ebony for giving a perspective on the male dominance in the society. I truly agree with the question that “is women’s empowerment really the problem?” Many men, even today, experience a tough time accepting the fact that their wives earn more than them, which eventually engender a lot of conflict amongst themselves. However, the world today is changing, the gender differences are universalized and thus, women are encouraged to come forward to contribute equally to the country’s progression. Vineet Nayar, the CEO of HCLT, likewise, has identified the importance of gender egalitarianism and therefore, has started to encourage women candidates to join his organization.

  6. Oh yeah – men's privilege is still around. But I was wondering about one of your statistics:

    "in 2007 only 28 percent of wives had more education than their husbands, and a mere 22 percent outearned their husbands…"

    How many wives had an education equal to that of their husbands? I mean – that's a wonderful thing – to have husband and wive with equal levels of education. Both of my parent's have master's degrees, I intend on eventually getting a master's degree and once that happens, I'm going to be more inclined to consider a man as my potential husband if, at the very least, he has a master's degree.

    I'm all about direct equality, lol. =)

  7. A. Risque says:

    Men are happier if they devote some part of their lives to being stay at home dads? Good. And since we don't believe in differences between men and women, then it also follows that women are happier when they are stay at home moms for at least part of their lives right? So can I assume you are encouraging the women you know who have never been and don't want to be stay at home moms, that they should rethink their opposition?

  8. I read a study (I can’t remember the exact name of it, but they made reference to it in a Cracked article about feminism) that said men who have girlfriends who describe themselves as feminist have happier sex lives and relationships than others.

    My feminist boyfriend and I are happily proving that study true.


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