Sunday, February 13, 2005

Something to Prove

UPDATE: Several of my favorite bloggers have, not surprisingly, said things that I agree with on this subject.

Physicist Michael Nielsen points out that even if women were on average "worse" (a poorly defined concept) at math and science, it wouldn't preclude the possibility of there being more highly qualified women than men -- and vice versa, of course. His point is that we all have lousy statistical models in mind.

Historian Tim Burke makes the related point that Harvard, in particular, could easily achieve gender balance without compromising standards at all. It needs only a few brilliant women to do so, and they surely exist, and Harvard could surely recruit them. If it wanted to.

Physicist Chad Orzel comments that most of the advice given to women about career success applies to men too, and as a veteran of many seminars, I can confirm it. This includes the advice about blending career and family, which is never easy for anyone.

And artist/physics student "Pyracantha" has two somewhat sad posts about her own reaction to comments like this (last month and this month) which is mostly a deeply rooted fear that they are true, and she is doomed to failure. And that in itself accounts in large part for the shortage of female physicists.


I never know exactly what to say about the whole issue of women in physics. Usually when I do say something, I regret it later. But now I have a couple of links I really want to publicize.

So as long as I'm blogging about it, let me just summarize a couple of thoughts briefly.

1) I admit part of me fears it's true, that women really do suck at math and science and computers.

2) But I've mostly been able to convince myself that's crap by getting this far.

3) Lawrence Summers is not courageous for saying that women may be bad at math, and it is not censorship or thought policing to disagree with him. What he says is what most people seem to believe, and have believed for a long, long time, including many women. And someone says it to the press every couple of years. So the best description isn't "courage," it's "conventional wisdom."

(And lots of things that people believed for a long, long time aren't true.)

4) My main theory about why there are so few women in my discipline is that women have more to lose from being nerdy and antisocial than men. This is more the fault of their mothers and their magazines and their female friends than of men. I blame the feminine subculture, and the fact that women mostly believe they can't do it, so why try?

5) Which is not to say that there's no discrimination of any kind. For the most part nowadays, it's just male physicists being condescending. (Historically, it was more about forbidding women access to education outright.)

I really don't believe in any theories of biological inferiority. First of all, because I believe that math and science and logic really are universal. I think aliens would have to discover the same laws we do. If aliens can understand, then women, with really insignificant biological differences, certainly ought to be able to. And secondly because I don't believe biology is destiny anyway. I think hormones influence moods, but I think moods are irrelevant to math. And finally, see above re: "getting this far." I can understand math, and I'm female, so it's not biological. QED, as far as I'm concerned. (Although I've heard everyone's favorite response to this, about statistical outliers. It so happens I know I am not exceptional. I remember what it felt like to hate math and fail at it.)

Now, the links:

Why aren't there more women in physics? For most of the same, complex reasons that there aren't more women in computer science.

If it were really biological, wouldn't it be the same in other countries? (That graph seems hard to argue with, to me.)

But then how can we account for the difference in test scores? Easily. This month's Scientific American shows that stereotypes are almost always self-fulfilling prophesies. (Which is just another reason standardized tests are meaningless, in my opinion.)

Links like that really cheer me up, some days.


Fred the Waiter said...

Darling, I agree with you that the main thing seems to be women's unwillingness to pay the price that comes as a by-product of their involvement in physics....
(being "antisocial" or "nerdy")

Besides, they're much better at cooking, sewing, and childrearing...

Anonymous said...

I just happened upon your blog randomly, and thought I'd include my two cents.

I think it has a lot more to do with societal factors than biological. I've (as a man) known a lot of smart women, and I tend to find women just as talented in math and science as the men.

It's the expectations of a woman's role in a family setting that seems to force women to choose between a fulfilling career or a fulfilling family life. That is not to say both cannot be acheived, but the "opportunity cost" (to use the language of economists) is much higher for women than for men.

The way to break this down is to encourage men to participate more in an equal family partnership -- so that both husband and wife evenly distribute their responsibilities to career and family. Far easier said than done, because of the social stigmas attached to men choosing family over career.

I could make a glib remark about waiters and their roles in society, but that's too easy.

Simon W said...

I would normally reply to this kind of post largely by just pointing to my article on gender on my website... but that is down at present, so it prompts me to go into more depth :-)

Let's take this bit by bit...

1. It's fairly undeniable that less women do well at maths, science, etc.. This doesn't tell us much without information in whether more or less women do badly. In other words, is it a difference in ability or of whether the people in question go into physics? Certainly there isn't a 1:1 gender ratio at secondary school level, but IIRC the inbalance becomes greater throughout a potential physicist's career. Which simply shows us that women leave the profession more easily. I don't know whether this is down to ability, or other reasons. The relevant figures are probably out there, I just haven't seen them...
I'm quite prepared, in principle, to accept that there are tangible differences that make women more or less good at science. But I haven't yet seen the evidence. Even then it still leaves open the question of nature or nurture.

2. Irrelevant, as I'm sure you know. Women being better or worse will only ever be true as an average. Obviously there will be some brilliant female physicists, just as there are plenty of men who can't add up. See a later point.

3. Maybe things are very different across the pond... In the UK I'd say that saying something like that in such a public forum would carry a significant risk of costing him his career, whether true or not. That counts as corageous in my book... It's rather like politicians here speaking on education... nobody (I hope) can really believe that everybody is equally capable of achieving exactly the same level as everybody else, but any politician who suggests that some people are inherently more capable will be branded as "elitest" and may as well say goodbye to his/her future.
In this case, perhaps what he's saying isn't particularly daring, but where he's saying it is.

4. Is this true? Why do men have more to loose? This might have been true in an age when women had to be accepted and/or married to survive, but is it still the case?

5. Agreed.

The fact that maths and logic are universal (fact? assumption? I'll leave that to philosophers for the moment) does not have any bearing on individuals' ability to understand them.
Maybe the aliens don't understand? Certainly some humans are better at understanding such things than others, whether or not there is any correlation with gender.

Are moods irrelevant for maths? Do you find it equally easy to think clearly and logically regardless of the state of mind you are in? If so, I envy you.

Re statistical outliers: You are exceptional. You should recognise this without feelign guilty (?). You are a woman studying physics. This makes you exceptional. This makes you a statistical outlier, simply because not many women study physics at your level. This may or may not be anything to do with innate differences in biology, but it demonstrates the irrelevance of the fact that you have succeeded. (Irrelevance to this argument, that is :-))

Other countries: That graph is interesting. As are some of the theories from the people who have commented on it. If we assume that the gender ratio of people working in physics is similar to teh gender ratio of people who are successful in physics (which is reasonable, I think...), then it would tend to point to nurture rather than nature. Except.... in that case I'm a little surprised that there is nowhere in the world where more than 50% of the physicists are female. This makes me go back to what I've always assumed - it's probably nature and nurture together. (am I stating the obvious here? hmm...)

That was a very long post to edit in a very small text box (Blogger: grrr.). I hope it is at least moderately coherent, and if not then I hope that there are some useful points which can be extracted from the mess :-)


Mary said...

All I'm gonna say is, I've heard these arguments before and remain unconvinced.

Simon W said...

Can you at least explain why you think that women have more to loose from being nerdy and antisocial?

Anonymous said...

I hope it took the last comment i left. At any rate, I want to make another comment based on that country graph now:

That's not meaningful either, there are obviously extraneous factors such as when a strong science program was developed. In the U.S., the was a big scientific boom say 30 years ago, and THOSE scientists got tenure - thus there'll be a disproportionally large number of male faculty in the U.S. In Thailand and the Philippines, I'm willing to bet they had more university expansion later than here. And in China there's some of that as well as an academic culture that discourages older professors (or so I've been told) and that thus they won't have as many of the same people as there would be in the US.


Anonymous said...

Okay, it looks like it didn't take my first comment:P

Briefly: I'm with Simon- what makes you say that? I think that while women were considered more against the grain (in this society when I was growing) if they went nerdy, I don't think they actually SUFFERED as much as a man did. I think men who went nerdy when I was growing up were far more ostracized - while being free from being considered agains the grain. But I think the social ridicule for men in this culture is much much worse, so I don't buy "suffering" from societal stigmas as an excuse.

The other thing, which is related to one of the topics here is: I'm upset by these studies in the last couple of years who say studies show men and women's brains are on average different. That's bullshit. They don't know that. All they know is that the men's and women's brains who they studied (who came from oh say, a sexist society's country maybe?) had different brains (on average). I'm sure if we were able to study the brains of blacks and whites in the 1860's they'd have different brains too (on average). Gee wow, big surprise. They had completely different external stimuli from the same society. In my books that's the same as a different environment. So it means nothing.


Eric said...

A few things from a UK perspective and a bit of a gratuitous rant.

In the UK girls do BETTER than boys at maths and science most of the way through school. There's only a bias towards boys when it comes to selecting which subjects they will specialise in. That's fairly conclusive, in my view, that social pressures are more of a factor than anything innate.

Furthermore, whilst there is evidence that male and female brains are wired up differently (for whatever reasons), there is no evidence of better of worse overall just differences in what comes easiest. There's more than one way to skin a cat. It may be easier for men to tackle a scientific or engineering problem in a particular way, but that doesn't preclude it being easier for women to tackle it in another way. Since most engineering and science is done by teamwork that means it pays to have both men and women working on a project. I'm a big fan of diversity. There's hardly anything in the world that isn't improved by it.

If it is the case that there are barriers to tackling science and engineering problems in anything but a naturaly male way, then the problem there is not that women are leass capable of operating that way. The problem is that men are excluding a number of alternative approaches that might be, in some cases, more successful. It's certainly something bound to limit the options available and that's always a bad thing.

Now the rant. I'm heartily sick of a conservative and regressive majority cheering anyone who "dares" to agree with their conventional wisdon as if it is some sort of heroic act. Especially when it isn't approval based on how thoroughly they prove a case or how effectively they argue for it.

The simple fact is that attitudes have been going backwards in the USA and the UK for nearly a decade. Simply because any attempt to move forawrds is generally attacked as being "PC gone mad". Just look at what's ACTUALLY in the media. Ignore right wingers complaining about a media bias and look at what is actually reported. When it comes to the practicalities there is a steady dedcrease in sexism, racism and homophobia. That's because the bottom line is that selecting through prejudiice and bigotry is not efficient. Meanwhile there are lots of loud voices complaining that every attempt to roll back entrenched privileges is an example of bias.

In the UK we are about to have a general election in which the two main political parties are competing to see who can most effectively appeal to racists without actually being called on it. In the USA you've just elected a President seemingly on the strength of his appeal to homophobes and religious fundamentalism (as well as his attacks on religious fundamentalism when it comes to the "wrong" religion. There are numerous examples of supposedly intelligent people grasping at straws to try to "prove" some genetic basis to back up racism or sexism.

It's an atmosphere in which it takes no courage to promote prejudice, bigotry, and the old entrenched privileges, Say something progressive and nobody will have the guts to attack you publicly, but it won't become part of the debate. It isn't on the news agenda. It doesn't fit the genertal perception so it can't have happened. the current perception is that conventional common sense is under attack by the liuberal consensus of an elite. That's because the bottom line is that equality has to improve. Most of the developed world needs large scale immigration from the developing world simply due to the need to support an aging population. So xenophobia notwithstanding more black people will get more and better jobs. It's also not possible any more to waste the talents of women and gay or disabled people. We need the work force and we need to use the talents and skills that people have regardless of who they are.

That leads to a perception of ever morethings being done for "minorities" and all of it seemingly without debate. It may well make some people feel that their certainties and assumptions are under some sort of attack. Unfortunately for them it's simply that reality is beginning to bite and there's ever less room for prejudice in the developed world. So all the wailing and gnashing of teeth won't make the slightest difference. The future of the USA and Europe is men and women in equal partnership in a multiracial and multicultural society where people with the skills and talents to earn the money to pay to support the old will thrive no matter who they are.

So we have a situation where equality must improve if we are to survive, where bigotry and prejudice have to be circumvented on a practical level, and yet simultaneously we have an atmosphere in which it is again becoming acceptable to defend prejudice (though usually in terms of "I'm not sexist but...") and unacceptable to attack bigotry publicly. We also have a dearth of politicians with the slightest vestige of moral courage and news media that are obessessed with making the world look far simpler than it actually is, all of whom are petrified of being held responsible for saying anything that might "scare the horses".

Mary said...

Simon said: Can you at least explain why you think that women have more to loose from being nerdy and antisocial? Ashi said: I think that while women were considered more against the grain (in this society when I was growing) if they went nerdy, I don't think they actually SUFFERED as much as a man did. [...] so I don't buy "suffering" from societal stigmas as an excuse.Okay, I won't try to use "suffering" as an excuse.

But woman earn "status" differently than men, among their peers. A high-status woman is a beautiful and popular woman (if you don't believe it, look at the women high-status men marry) whereas status, for a man, is wealth and career achievement. For a man, "scientist" is a fairly high-status position. Not so, usually, for a woman, either among other women, or among men. However successful your career, other women are likely to look down on you if you are overweight, unattached, can't wear make-up well, and don't socialize in the kitchen during the holidays. Men can get away with a lot more ugliness and social awkwardness, and still be admired, so long as they succeed in their chosen field.

And in high school and junior high, when people make their decisions about what to study, is when girls are most at the mercy of social stigma. I think if you figure out why girls don't read as much science fiction when they're thirteen, you'll know why they're less likely to become scientists.

More examples here

Anonymous said...

1) Well, there's a trend for rich women going after young hot guys now that's increasing, so at least that playing field is starting to even out. (Just a sidenote that I enjoy:P)

2) SOME women CHOOSE to earn "status" differently than men. SOME women DON'T buy that and play starcraft with the big boys, or another of my friends who'd go rockclimbing and canoeing.

3)"...among their peers." I don't define my peers by sex, do you? I have little compassion for anyone who does that. And even if they would've felt isolated:

Either a) If the men could handle being ostracized, then the women could have too.
or b) the ostracized men with similar interests formed their own little subcommunity (like in my highschool) which _EMBRACED_ (not excluded!) any female so inclined to join them. Which would mean they would have a new set of peers to be accepted by.

At the same time, I agree that what you point to is a very real problem (even if it only affects stupid/weak people), and I feel like slapping the people who encourage the "girls should be pretty" attitude - even if it's not their fault they feel that way.

4) Well, fortunately society is shifting towards being proud of a girl if she goes into science etc., and shifting towards encouraging men to be more physically fit and social (instead of trying to teach them to hide their feelings).

5)If someone would like to read something but doesn't, that sounds like they're a moron. Though admittedly it's a result of their past conditioning, and perhaps they've just never been exposed to it. (I had never seen the Fantasy section of the library until I followed my friend there when I was 12, then I was like OH MY GOD, THIS IS AMAZING!). But I don't believe for a second that it's for social stigmas that they don't read it. Though I do believe that maybe they're too busy doing other things and not exposed to it.

HOWEVER... As I've said before, it's hard for me to find anyone in my department who reads that kind of stuff etc. And among the people I've known/met who've gone into science or related fields at top universities, there are TONS of people who don't want to read that stuff. But sure, it's very likely the same set of factors that cause both gender disparities (career & reading choice).

Hmm... sorry if I got a little heated up there. I'm passionate when it comes to issues gender disparities and fairness.


Anonymous said...

Face it: people who don't do well in math and science find it BORING and TEDIOUS and NO FUN. How hard is that to get? Also, people who DO want a family and DON'T WANT or CAN'T AFFORD the education to get a "career" don't go there. So math and science careers have three strikes against it: (1) the boring factor eliminates many people of both genders (2) it costs big-bucks to go to school (3)those few women who might actually like to work in a math/science career are like all other women who winnow themselves out of "careerism" in every field, for a very practical, normal reason -- they want to put their marriage and children ahead of the demands of careerism. If, in their marriage, the husband also has a professional career, the combination of two careers plus children in the same marriage is in most cases logistically, physically and emotionally impossible, it becomes unrewarding to all concerned, and it's delusional to tell students, female or male, that they can have it all without a price.

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