For a case study assignment for my Writing and Reporting I class at NYU, I had the enormous pleasure of interviewing Hanna Rosin, a founder and editor of Slate.com's DoubleX blog, and the author of "The End of Men," a controversial reported essay that appeared in the July 2010 issue of the The Atlantic magazine. I had seen her debate the proposition "Men Are Finished" as part of the Intelligence Squared series at the Skirball Center; she wiped the floor so thoroughly and so entertainingly with the other side that I almost gave them a pity vote. She was just as humorous, quick and insightful over the phone, and graciously took the time to share the following with me:
The Story: “The End of Men,” by Hanna Rosin, ran on the cover of the July 2010 issue of the Atlantic magazine. The story poses the question: “What if modern, postindustrial society is simply better suited to women?” and, by way of an answer, details an economic, social and cultural shift underway in America and beyond. Equal parts research, reporting and argumentation, the story presents compelling evidence from a range of sources that, taken together, indicate a profound social change Rosin believes is irreversible.
The Writer: Hanna Rosin is a longtime journalist who has written for many, if not all, of America’s most respected titles, including The New Yorker, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, GQ, New York, and The New Republic, where, according to Professor Penenberg, she was all buddy-buddy with Stephen Glass. Much of her work focuses on issues of gender and sexuality, such as “A Boy’s Life,” a deeply-reported story on an 8-year-old transgender male-to-female boy. She is the author of the 2007 book God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America, and is currently at work on the book-length version of “The End of Men.” By day, she is an editor at Slate.com’s DoubleX site, and she is also a senior editor at the Atlantic.
The Germ: The story was born of an evolving thought process that Rosin traces back to Susan Faludi’s 2000 book “Stiffed,” which explored how cultural trends, changing economic structures and recurrent recessions are warping modern masculinity. “It’s not a new idea,” she admits readily, that men are on the decline. But with only more recessions since 2000, she thought, “Surely it’s gone a step beyond – have women started surpassing men? Could that possibly be true?”
Her editor at the Atlantic, Don Peck, pushed it along. Having just written a book himself, “Pinched,” about the squeezing of the middle class, he was familiar with much of the data on men’s job loss during the recession.
The Reporting: Once she had this question in mind, she said, it was a matter of building a case.
“I started looking in various corners where it might be true, and it turned out it was true, or surprisingly true, or true in various ways,” she said.
Her research and reporting meandered across disciplines: education, pop culture, labor economics, fertility, the men’s movement. She estimates that the reporting process took about two and a half months, during which time she was also editing DoubleX. Because of the breadth of the topic, she likened it to reporting six different stories.
“First you have to familiarize yourself withal the education research and talk to all those people, and then you have the fertility research, and you have to go talk to all those people, and that’s kind of unusual for a piece,” she said. “Usually you’re working in one universe, but here you’re working in several different universes.”
The bulk of the field reporting that made it into the piece was from a one-week trip she took to Kansas, where she sat in on several male-support group meetings and spent time on several universities there, including a community college and the University of Missouri at Kansas City, visiting the business school, the women’s studies center, and different sororities. She estimates she had individual conversations with about 30 students in all, both female and male.
“I knew I had to do some college reporting since that’s central to the argument, the idea that women have taken over higher education,” she said.
She had to drive to different fertility clinics to collect data in person about which sex offspring parents were requesting, information they were collecting for regulatory purposes but they could not give out over the phone. She also spent a lot of time at men’s support groups that did not make it into the story.
The process of reporting the story – building a case by amassing a truckload of data and anecdotes – was in some ways a departure for her.
“To be honest, this is not my favorite kind of reporting to do,” she said. “My favorite kind of reporting is writing about an offbeat topic that illustrates a particular larger phenomenon and you get to follow a particular person or family and report it deeply. In this case, you’re starting with the idea not w the person or family and have to figure out where to report that big idea, and I think that’s really, really hard.”
The Writing: As with the reporting, the writing was a change from the straightforward long-form narrative writing she preferred to do for the Atlantic. “It’s partly an act of rhetoric,” she said, “and trying to get people to think about something they think of as fairly impossible.” Initially, she planned to open with data on women’s dominance in higher education, since the data are clear on this [excerpt]:
We’ve all heard about the collegiate gender gap. But the implications of that gap have not yet been fully digested. Women now earn 60 percent of master’s degrees, about half of all law and medical degrees, and 42 percent of all M.B.A.s. Most important, women earn almost 60 percent of all bachelor’s degrees—the minimum requirement, in most cases, for an affluent life. In a stark reversal since the 1970s, men are now more likely than women to hold only a high-school diploma. “One would think that if men were acting in a rational way, they would be getting the education they need to get along out there,” says Tom Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. “But they are just failing to adapt.”
On the advice of her editor, she moved that information down. He reasoned that this was information most people already knew. Instead, she opened with an anecdote about a biologist who had developed a way to separate out female and male sperm in the 1970s, allowing parents to select the sex of their child. Back then, his experiments raised concerns among feminists about a “dystopia of mass-produced boys.” But by the 1990s, when Ericsson surveyed the clinics using his method, he found a clear and consistent preference for girls. [excerpt]
In some clinics, Ericsson has said, the ratio is now as high as 2 to 1. Polling data on American sex preference is sparse, and does not show a clear preference for girls. But the picture from the doctor’s office unambiguously does. A newer method for sperm selection, calledMicroSort, is currently completing Food and Drug Administration clinical trials. The girl requests for that method run at about 75 percent.
Ordinarily, Rosin, who used to be a columnist, might offer a fact or anecdote that illustrates a counterbalancing phenomenon. To fight that instinct, she recalled advice from her first boss, the columnist Andrew Sullivan.
“If you’re going to write this kind of essay, it’s one thing Andrew taught me,” she said. “If you’re going to argue it, argue it. Otherwise, it’s not interesting for anyone to read. I had to work against my bias, which is very ‘on the one hand, on the other hand.’”
An Atlantic piece like Rosin’s, which describes imminent “vast social consequences,” would usually contain some policy prescriptions towards the end, what I think of as the “So here’s what we can do” part. Rosin said she doesn’t know why she didn’t do that in this piece, but thought it could be due to how she and her editor framed the story: as a work of cultural anthropology, and not a policy piece. In the forthcoming book, there will be a larger focus on policy, she said.
The Fallout: Perhaps due to its provocative title, which Rosin said she had nothing to do with, the piece provoked considerable backlash. Everyone found something to pick apart; Nation columnist Katha Pollitt wrote that “One problem with Rosin's optimistic picture is that every fact she cites in support needs about a dozen asterisks after it.” Men’s rights groups and feminists pushed back in equal measure against her message.
But Rosin thinks the reaction is based on a misread of her thesis, again perhaps due to the provocative title, which makes it sound as though the battle is over. To her, the fact that women still suffer from wage discrimination, or are a tiny percentage of CEOs or political leaders, does not mean that what she is describing is not true.
“These are not answers to my argument,” she said. “It just means these are two realities that can coexist at the same time.”
By August of 2010, the Observer reported her book deal. She hadn’t sought one, she said, but her agent called and suggested it. In addition to more exploration of the policy implications of the end of men, she’s also expanding her research into sex and dating for the book. In the meantime, she’s hit the lecture circuit, giving a TEDx talk and appearing at an Intelligence Squared debate this past September in New York City, where she and her teammate Dan Abrams set a record for the debate series, demolishing opponents Christina Hoff Sommers and David Zinczenko with a 46% vote swing.