The Grass is Always Greener

Given the inexorable female drive toward the top of the professional world (whether successful or not), it's curious that so many men do not see going to work as all that glamorous. For many, life in the public sphere means 8 hours a day in an office, plus the hours of commuting to and fro, for 50 weeks in a year, from age 20 to 60.

As one woman remarked to me, "that which is beyond the glass ceiling might not be worth having in many respects".

Exactly! What is so wonderful about going off to work? Power, influence, wealth, status? Well, yes, if you happen to be in the top echelons. Being a global leader may be an aspiration for many, but it is achieved by very few, men or women.

Even assuming that you make it to the top of the heap, is power and money the ultimate goal? Does the person with the most toys win?

It is said that no-one ever died wishing they had worked another day. So what is it that they did die wishing for? Mostly for time with friends, and above all, with family.

What some men (and others who engage fully in the public sphere) learn, mostly late, and some too late, is that the opportunity cost of engagement with the public sphere is their relationship with their own family, their parents, siblings, spouse, and above all, their children. In sum, it is more engagement with the private sphere – and specifically children – that is most precious to many.

Literary works over the last two centuries and popular songs over the last two decades are rife with the theme that women have a particularly tough time. In "Just a Girl" by the band No Doubt, the lead singer Gwen Stefani laments
"I'm just a girl, living in captivity
Your rule of thumb
Makes me worrisome
I'm just a girl, what's my destiny?
What I've succumbed to is making me numb
I'm just a girl, my apologies
What I've become is so burdensome"
Sounds grim Gwen.

Of course, men who have gone off to war only to have their limbs blown off, suffer unspeakable psychological trauma or simply not return might not agree that only women suffer.

The problem is that no single individual can compare what it's like to be a man with what it's like to be a woman. Males simply don't know what it's like to be females and vice versa. We can't switch back and forth between sexes.

Or can we?

The animal kingdom offers a glimpse of an answer. Several hermaphrodite species can reproduce as females or males, and at least some apparently "choose" to be females whenever possible.

Humans, of course, can't perform the old switcheroo when it comes to sex, but they can approximate changing sex in a number of ways. Reliable data on sex change operations (now known as "gender reassignment surgery") is only now becoming available and preliminary evidence suggests that men are 3 – 4 times more likely to change into women than vice versa.

When it comes to the ultimate decision as to whether the grass is greener on the other side of the gender fence, men opt for the switch far more often than women.

Admittedly, this is not a great measure of whether women have it easier than men. For one thing, the surgery to change a man into a woman is much easier than vice versa, so we would expect a result like this simply on the basis of the severity or invasiveness of the surgery itself.

While gender reassignment surgery is perhaps the ultimate step in switching genders, there are less severe measures. The incidence of male transsexuals is, once again, roughly 3 – 4 times that for female transsexuals. And what about gender switching among children in play acting games? Once again, available evidence suggests that boys are far more likely to play act female roles than vice versa.

Of course, the behavior of hermaphrodites, and statistics on gender reassignment surgery, transexualism, and gender identity disorder of childhood are hardly perfect indications of which gender has it better. In my own research, I have simply posed the question, "If you could be reincarnated and experience 10 lives after this one, how many times would you prefer to come back as a women and how many as a man?" Overwhelmingly, people choose to stick with their current gender.


  1. A couple years back I read in the newspaper about a project in which a woman disguised herself as a man, with the intent of documenting the various ways in which men have it better than women. She ended up coming to the exact opposite conclusion, declaring that she had experienced many more pressures and limitations, and far less freedom, as a man than she'd enjoyed as a woman. She said it was a real "eye-opener" for her, an experience she never wanted to try again.

  2. Tom, sounds great, can you offer any leads on the article?