FSG Blog
July 9, 2024

Examining the Matriarchy Scenario

Kevin McDermott
Principal

Women’s gains over recent decades makes a matriarchy scenario highly plausible if not inevitable.

The big risk in trend spotting is finding what we go looking for. We can become so convinced of our farsightedness that, probably unintentionally, we dig up the evidence to make our case and ignore everything else.

For example, let’s play with the idea of an emerging matriarchy in the United States.

We can find plenty of evidence to suggest that, in a generation, maybe two, women will unseat men as the dominant gender in American politics, culture and the economy. In U.S. politics, for example, women in the U.S. Senate have gone from zero in 1977 to 25 percent currently—still too few in the opinion of most Americans. (An interesting sentiment in itself.) Similar percentages obtain in the House of Representatives, state legislatures and governorships.

In that same 45 years the popular archetype of men has evolved to suggest a gender struggling to master life’s basics.

A survey shared by the American Family Institute earlier this year found that 40 percent of men self-reported symptoms of depression. Beginning in childhood, boys struggle to succeed in American schools compared to girls. When they grow up, men have persistently higher nonparticipation in the workforce compared to women. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor-force participation of men in their prime working years (25 to 54) has declined from a high of 98 percent in September 1954 to 89 percent in January 2024.  Research from the Bipartisan Policy Center found that 57 percent of prime-age men not in the labor force said their main reason was poor physical or mental health.

Ready for the 21st Century

Maybe the reason for the developing momentum of women in the labor force might be that they are better preparing themselves for a 21st Century economy.

In 1970, 8 percent of American women had a college degree compared to 14 percent of men. By 2021, 39 percent of U.S. women had a college degree compared to 36.6 percent of men. (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.) About 58 percent of college and graduate students are now female. (Source: National Center for Education Statistics.) In medical schools, women have been the majority of first-time applicants since 2016. They now make up 55.4 percent of first-year medical students. (Source: Women in Academia.)

U.S. corporate culture has been slow catching up to these changes.

Slow catching up

Currently, 94 percent of the CEOs in the S&P 500 are male. That is notwithstanding data from S&P Global demonstrating that companies with female CEOs delivered a 20 percent greater increase in stock-price momentum in their first two years on the job than their male counterparts.

With respect to personal wealth, McKinsey & Co. has concluded that by 2030—six years from now—American women will control much of the $30 trillion in financial assets that Baby Boomers now hold. Given that women tend to live longer than men this wealth may have enduring social and economic consequences—especially since women tend to be more patient investors than men and do better over time. One study from Fidelity in 2021, for instance, showed that its female clients outperformed its male clients by 40 basis points.

If these things are true, then why are women still only 30 percent of board member among publicly held US companies? Why has the number of female CEOs gone down among Fortune 500 companies in the past few years?

Cross impacts

Among the most compelling explanations for the absence of women from senior leadership roles is the “broken rung” theory. It is an idea first developed by McKinsey to describe the contextual barriers to entry-level management roles encountered by women in their childbearing years, years when by choice or otherwise women carry the heavier share of childcare.

If cultural factors play a part in social dynamics so do structural ones. It is crazy to remember now, for instance, but until the passage of the Women’s Business Ownership Act in 1988 women could be required to provide a male cosigner to secure business financing.

Such interrelationships between law and social norms are examples of what FSG scenario consultants call “cross impacts”—variables that affect each other despite occupying different categories.

One such cross impact is the Covid-powered acceleration to remote work, which on balance is seen as a benefit to women for the flexibility it allows in managing domestic obligations. According to a 2024 analysis from Moody’s Analytics, remote work is the engine behind women’s rebounding participation in the labor force post-pandemic. The participation percentage for men is yet to bounce back. (Incidentally, Moody’s finds the same trend across all the Western economies.)

One could argue that the post-Covid world also benefits men by freeing them up to do more childcare during the week. That in turn helps their partners do more to advance their own careers.

Matriarchy scenario caveats

We need to keep in mind the danger of piling up data to support the notion of one future versus another future, as if the numbers determine everything. They don’t.

Systems resist change. We could point, for example, to Neilsen ratings for the 2024 college basketball championships. Viewership of the women’s final surpassed that of the men’s for the first time—and not by a little bit. But the average salary in the WNBA is still $116,580. The minimum salary in the NBA is $1,119,563.

Here is an even bigger caveat: All the data cited in this essay show a significantly weaker picture for women of color compared to their White counterparts.

None of this makes the idea of an American matriarchy implausible. We remind ourselves that big change is arrhythmic, never steady.

Let’s check in again in 2035. In the meantime, we would all be smart to consider the possibilities.

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2 thoughts on “Examining the Matriarchy Scenario”

  1. I, for one, welcome the matriarchy. I remember the joy I felt when the Coast Guard accepted women into the Academy. From my background in psychology I knew that they would be much more likely to make decisions that considered the long term. They were (and are) more likely than men to identify and listen to all stakeholders in a decision outcome.

    Sadly, military academies aren’t built to appreciate that distinction. It didn’t take even three years for the young ladies to act more like men than men … in order to survive. A big disappointment for me.

    In other research, my team and I did a deep dive on the stay-leave decision process, specifically why women’s attrition was much higher than that of cohort men. The most important conclusions I could report to leadership were that women are less likely than men to put up with the same macho bullshit, believe it is important to have some control over their future, and overall are probably smarter than men.

    Yeah, I said it, and you can imagine top leadership’s reaction!

    Reply
  2. One possible reason for the low female participation rate on corporate boards and in C-suits may be the fact that these tend to be end of career positions. As a result they are still dominated by old white men whose careers began in the last quarter of the 20th Century. The lower/younger ranks of management may very well have more women and there may be more women in the top ranks of younger companies.

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