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This old thing again?

I’ve come to dread someone in the media or the wide blogosphere talking about women (or the lack thereof) in science and engineering, particularly in the “hard” sciences and computer programming. Inevitably, someone will make a comment like the first one on this relatively bland essay about being a woman programmer:

it is actually only partly because of our culture. genetics found out many years ago that male and female brains are sort of preprogrammed trough evolution. man are stronger therefore they were more likely to survive risky endevors like hunting and in general experimenting. females in return had to cover the more manual, monotone and mostly repeating tasks without taking risks (collecting berries).
through this evolutional behavior men just have no fear “breaking” things and women are rather scared of breaking things and try to handle situations on the emotional level instead of putting in risk. a good example is that women are prefered in factories doind repeating work. our brains are just wired like that.

Just as inevitably, someone will reply to that guy like so:

Wow. And the fact that this sort of gender-essentialist, ev-psych nonsense is the VERY FIRST RESPONSE to an extremely thoughtful post? Oh, yeah, the constant messages that women should go back to their “natural” work (read: taking care of men and children) definitely have nothing to do with women’s challenges in technology. Nuh-uh, it’s all about our genetic adaptations to pick up berries. Go check the research, because you’re quoting a bunch of debunked bullshit.

This fight just won’t go away, and the reason it persistently avoids resolution is because the two sides of the argument represented above — I couldn’t have found a better archetype of it if I’d made it from whole cloth — are just talking past each other. Or maybe, to the members of their respective choirs. I’ll paraphrase these two sides, reducing them to absurdity.

Guy: There exists evidence that men and women are different when it comes to logical reasoning and mathematics. I have misplaced my references on this evidence. Women are inferior and nothing will ever change that.
Girl: Your evidence must be “bad science” because its conclusions contradict my very pleasant, egalitarian beliefs. You are obviously a sexist. [To be fair, the dude often is a sexist]

What really bothers me about this repeating argument isn’t so much the often blatant sexism expressed, but that it’s always immediately derailed by emotional rhetoric into a conversation that’s no longer about evidence. After all: it’s a scientific question. Without evidence, it’s just a particularly nasty sort of philosophy. I said as much when I wrote about the Larry Summers debacle back in 2005:

What is really at stake here is academic freedom. The job of a scientist is to discover and present facts, not to dictate which facts should and should not be presented. When the president of a prestigious university suggests a venue of research and is silenced and forced into retreat by ideologues, there is cause for concern.

I was taking poetic liberties in that opinion piece — Summers didn’t so much “suggest a venue of research” so much as talk off the cuff about his own personal beliefs, which include the probability that innate differences between the sexes plays some role in gender imbalances in various occupations. As evidence, he cited the much wider distribution of SAT math scores among men relative to women, despite a similar mean. In other words, many more men than women score very high or very low on the math SAT, although the average scores for each gender are relatively close. For scores above 700, it’s a ratio of 2:1.

What happened to Summers was a case study for everything people hate about the Political Correctness movement — the privileging and presupposition of certain thoughts over others. A torrent of media voices, his peers, and fellow academics called for his censure or resignation. A blog kind enough to link to my opinion piece paraphrases their outbursts:

The speech of Lawrence Summers was outrageous – everyone who has heard it should either black out or throw up. He has no right to speak in this way. Women are discriminated. You can see that they have a smaller representation in various professions – and most people (both men and women) believe that men are more likely to be successful in these professions. This proves that discrimination is everywhere around us because everyone with the right opinions about the world knows that the women are identical to the men, perhaps except for one organ. Note that this is not a circular argument because it is not a circular argument.

Several commentators at the time pointed out the irony of feminists shutting down a debate about the rational abilities of women with an emotional outburst, such as this lady.

I can think of few things more discouraging to any woman who lives by her intellect than the sight of some of the nation’s most highly credentialed female scholars attempting to use their emotions to cut off argument, rather than focusing on winning the debate. Political correctness is the opposite of thought. It proceeds by moral condemnation and emotional outrage: Anyone who can imagine such a thought must be a bad person, or a crazy one.

Because here’s the thing: when you disagree with someone about a potentially falsifiable thing they said, you’re supposed to disprove them with contradictory evidence, not angry rhetoric. That people agree to do so is the only reason the scientific community can function.

It saddens me to see people scorning evolutionary psychology because some of its findings reinforce gender stereotypes from the fifties. Evolution is the guiding light of biology, which is the root of psychology and behavior. Just as I didn’t really understand the unifying principles of life on earth until I understood evolution, I didn’t really get the unifying principles of the people around me until I understood evolutionary psychology and cognitive science. It probably says a lot about my own propensity for engineer-thought that I needed a formal, math-based framework to understand other people’s motivations, but there it is.

Of course, that’s not to say that out culture isn’t responsible for some part of the gender imbalance in science and engineering (but not all of it). The driving force behind these social pressures is illustrated nicely by the aforementioned bland essay, and is something I’ll call Male Privilege.

Most of my classmates were not that extreme, and from my experience, most mean well but are just socially awkward. They can say something so simple as “Oh don’t you know that command?” but in an inadvertently condescending voice that makes you feel like you’re the only person who doesn’t know it. As someone just testing out the CS waters, that type of experience in every class can be very daunting. I think women are more susceptible to these feelings of inadequacy, and it can deter some potential CS concentrators from the department. From my limited experience, the ones that stayed with it were pretty strong-willed and generally kept to themselves.

White Privilege means never having to worry that your apparent race is the cause of your inadequacy in the eyes of others. Male privilege is never having to worry your gender is the cause. Anxiety caused by such worries is a measurable demotivator and performance killer in academic contexts, so we know objectively (at least in the case of race) that it’s a real problem that we should try to correct. Note that I have absolutely no idea how to do so short of quotas in CS schools and corporate jobs, and good luck getting that one past the Fourteenth Amendment. Still, plenty of people want to fix the problem by doing exactly that, applying Title IX to the sciences. Yes, they are serious.

I think a large part of putting this fistfight to bed, or at least making it marginally more civil, is for the proponents of innate gender differences to stop referring to “ability” and start referring to “preference,” turning the argument from one about superiority into one about empowerment and choice. It’s not a misrepresentation — the data are entirely sensible in this light — and it reframes the debate to not sound so confrontational. Susan Pinker does so very eloquently in the same Times article about Title IX:

Ms. Pinker, a clinical psychologist and columnist for The Globe and Mail in Canada (and sister of Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist), argues that the campaign for gender parity infantilizes women by assuming they don’t know what they want. She interviewed women who abandoned successful careers in science and engineering to work in fields like architecture, law and education — and not because they had faced discrimination in science.

“Creating equal opportunities for women does not mean that they’ll choose what men choose in equal numbers,” Ms. Pinker says. “The freedom to act on one’s preferences can create a more exaggerated gender split in some fields.”

I don’t think the argument will get anywhere close to settled anytime soon, and sadly I see it getting worse in the face of more empirical evidence, but I do wish people would quit saying it was all my fault.

Posted in Coding, Musings, Politics, Science.

One Response

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  1. Matthew Blancarte says

    I just recently completed the Seattle TechStars program last year (a three-month startup incubator here in Seattle), and we had a total of zero female founders (out of about 25 total) participating. It would be no surprise to me if less than 3-5% of applicants out of over 1000 were female.

    Arrington was spot on, and I think you’ve solidly stated that it is purely an issue of preference.

    You don’t see many women in tech for the same reason you don’t see many men working behind makeup counters at Nordstrom. 🙂

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