The case for getting boys and men into HEAL jobs (review of Richard Reeves’ Of Boys and Men)

Turns out there are two gaps we need to mind.

There’s the earnings gap between women and men. For every $100 earned by men, women earn just $82. The gap’s closing but not fast enough.

There’s also a gap in higher education. That gap gets less attention but is just as troubling. For every 100 bachelor’s degrees awarded to women, only 74 are awarded to men. And the gap’s growing. “The gender gap in college degrees awarded is wider today than it was in the early 1970s but in the opposite direction,” says Of Boys and Men author Richard Reeves.

In all 38 member countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Reeves says there are now more young women than young men with bachelor’s degrees. Forty percent of 18-year-old women in Britain head off to college, compared to 29 per cent of their male peers.

That gap is one of many warning signs of a male malaise, especially for boys and men on the lower rungs on the economic and social ladders. “Things are worse than I thought,” says Reeves, a senior fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution. “I knew some of the headlines about boys struggling at school and on campus, men losing ground in the labour market and fathers losing touch with their children. I thought that perhaps some of these were exaggerations. But the closer I looked, the bleaker the picture became.”

How bleak? Deaths of despair from drug overdoses, suicides and alcohol-related illnesses are nearly three times higher among men than women.

Here’s one solution proposed by Reeves to help ease the struggles of boys and men. Just as there’s been a concerted and successful effort to get more girls and women into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs and occupations, we should do the same to encourage more boys and men to train for, and work in, health, education, administration and literacy (HEAL) jobs.

“HEAL sectors are where the jobs are coming from,” says Reeves. “To improve men’s employment prospects, we need to get more of them into these kinds of jobs. By my calculations, for every new STEM job created by 2030, there will be more than three new HEAL jobs.”

To accomplish that, Reeves says we need to build a pipeline in the education system, provide financial incentives and reduce the social stigma faced by men working in fields like nursing and early childhood education.

Reeves says friends and colleagues advised him not to write this book. “In the current political climate, highlighting the problems of boys and men is seen as a perilous undertaking. Progressives refuse to accept that important gender inequalities can run in both directions and quickly label male problems as symptoms of ‘toxic masculinity’. Conservatives appear more sensitive to the struggles of boys and men, but only as a justification for turning back the clock and restoring traditional gender roles.

“The Left tells men ‘be more like your sister.’ The Right says ‘be more like your father.’ Neither invocation is helpful.”

It’s not an either/or proposition. “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.”

If you’re worried about your underemployed, unemployed, bored, listless and seemingly lost son, boyfriend or husband, Reeves will confirm your fears but also let you know you’re not alone and these are systemic problems that require collective action to solve. “The problem with men is typically framed as a problem of men. It is men who must be fixed, one man or boy at a time. This individualist approach is wrong.”

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.