Monday, May 19, 2008

Jack and Jill Went Up The Hill. Or the Stories We Tell About Gender and Science.

Elaine McArdle's recent piece in the Boston Globe about why women are so rare in physics and engineering and computing and mathematics and such other "hard" sciences offers a scrumptious example of gender politics in the guise of simply pretending to report on objective research. Just scrumptious. The article should be taught in all anti-feminist schools, because McArdle writes well, manages to ignore all evidence which doesn't support the thesis she is making, yet adds enough quiet muttering at the very end of the piece to come across as an impartial observer.

McArdle's main thesis is an old one, the second oldest in the "field" of trying to explain the scarcity of women in sciences as innocuous. The oldest argument is that female creatures can't do numbers. The second oldest is that they don't want to do numbers. That they don't want to do numbers makes it ok not to have them trying to do them. Thus, we can all relax. The world is not a sexist place at all and What Is Is For A Good Reason.

According to this story, and the story McArdle discusses, girls "self-select" themselves out of mathematics, physics and computer science, away from the inorganic fields towards the fertile, nurturing organic fields. It's not discrimination that causes the difference but pure sex-linked preference. That those hard and inorganic fields also happen to be the ones that pay the best, the ones that have most prestige, well, that is ignored, because then the Good Thing angle would be lost.

We don't mention money in these pieces, nope. Neither do we fret over what "preference" means when a girl deciding to study physics might be the only girl in a laboratory where the jokes that fly are about cunts. None of this matters when it's possible to say this:

Rosenbloom and his colleagues used a standard personality-inventory test to measure people's preferences for different kinds of work. In general, Rosenbloom's study found, men and women who enjoyed the explicit manipulation of tools or machines were more likely to choose IT careers - and it was mostly men who scored high in this area. Meanwhile, people who enjoyed working with others were less likely to choose IT careers. Women, on average, were more likely to score high in this arena.

Personal preference, Rosenbloom and his group concluded, was the single largest determinative factor in whether women went into IT. They calculated that preference accounted for about two-thirds of the gender imbalance in the field. The study was published in November in the Journal of Economic Psychology.

It may seem like a cliche - or rank sexism - to say women like to work with people, and men prefer to work with things. Rosenbloom acknowledges that, but says that whether due to socialization or "more basic differences," the genders on average demonstrate different vocational interests.

"It sounds like stereotypes," he said in an interview, "but these stereotypes have a germ of truth."

In the language of the social sciences, Rosenbloom found that the women were "self-selecting" out of IT careers.

Do you know what I love? I love reading the explanations how people like Rosenbloom are all for gender-equality to begin with, but how the studies they conduct come up with findings which suggest it's just not possible. Because everybody who carries out studies about gender has prior beliefs. It's not possible to be human and not to have those. Indeed, most people who study differences by gender believe that they exist and just want to justify them or believe that they don't exist and want to justify that.

To see what stinks in all this, let us take a step backwards, away from this particular article and into the wider field of science politics about gender. All comfortable now? Sit back and notice that the debate about women and numbers has its rough mirror image: the debate about boys' trouble at school. Do you notice anything different in those two big stories? Do you happen to notice, say, that we never read someone writing that maybe boys just self-select away from education? Maybe they are not just interested in staying at school or in going to college? I don't recall ever reading a single article like that. Nope, all the articles I've read about the topic have as their goal a greater success rate for boys. Boys must be educated! Nobody suggests that they might choose not be educated and that we should honor that free and democratic choice.

But when it comes to girls and science, the story immediately changes. Perhaps it's girls themselves who choose not to become scientists? Perhaps that's Just How Things Are?

The two big stories have other odd differences: The stories about boys-and-schools are mostly about what is wrong with schools that makes boys less than thrive. The stories about girls-and-science are more complicated, often focusing on what is wrong with girls rather than with the culture of science. Or that nothing is wrong at all, because girls just don't want to do science.

Mmm. Are you still sitting comfortably in that nice room called the politics of gender studies? Consider the basic argument of the McArdle piece: that women prefer working with people and men with tools and concepts. Let's take it at face value. What should we conclude about our societies if we know this argument but have otherwise arrived from outer space just an hour ago?

Perhaps that all politics should be run by women? Politics is all about people and how people relate to each other, is it not? The military should also be full of women, given that wars are all about interpersonal contact. The television. We should see nothing but female pundits, given women's love of words and people. Most of all, our leaders must be women. Leadership is all about human relationships and human psychology.

That we are not seeing any of this just might suggest to you that the research McArdle quotes is biased and has a hidden intention. What that intention is I leave for you to figure out.


Finally, consider that false dualism between "likes tools and machines" and "likes to work with people". Almost all work involves tools and machines and almost all work involves working with people. A dentist uses tools in the mouths of people. A physics professor works with people in the classroom or in the laboratory. There are extremely few jobs which are only about tools and machines or only about people. However, in some jobs the people you work with will approve of your presence in that field, whereas in other fields your presence in that field will cause you extra hardship and struggle. Studies like the ones McArdle highlights don't appear to address that issue at all.

But other studies do. For example:

BACK in the bad old days, the workplace was a battleground, where sexist jokes and assumptions were the norm.

Women were shut off from promotion by an old boys' network that favored its own. They went to meetings and were often the only women in the room.

All that has changed in the last three decades, except where it has not. In the worlds of science, engineering and technology, it seems, the past is still very much present.

"It's almost a time warp," said Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the founder of the Center for Work-Life Policy, a nonprofit organization that studies women and work. "All the predatory and demeaning and discriminatory stuff that went on in workplaces 20, 30 years ago is alive and well in these professions."

That is the conclusion of the center's latest study, which will be published in the Harvard Business Review in June.

Based on data from 2,493 workers (1,493 women and 1,000 men) polled from March 2006 through October 2007 and hundreds more interviewed in focus groups, the report paints a portrait of a macho culture where women are very much outsiders, and where those who do enter are likely to eventually leave.

The study was conceived in response to the highly criticized assertion three years ago, by the then-president of Harvard, that women were not well represented in the science because they lacked what it took to excel there.

The purpose of the work-life center's survey was to measure the size of the gender gap and to decipher why women leave the science, engineering and technology professions in disproportionate numbers.

The problem isn't that women aren't making strides in education in the hard sciences. According to a National Science Foundation report in 2006, 46 percent of Ph.D. degrees in the biological sciences are awarded to women (compared with 31 percent two decades ago); 31 percent of the Ph.D. degrees in chemistry go to women, compared with 18 percent 20 years ago.

And, women enter science engineering and technology (known as the SET professions) in sizable numbers. In fact, 41 percent of workers on the earliest rungs of SET career ladder are women, the study found, with the highest representation in scientific and medical research (66 percent) and the lowest in engineering (21 percent).

They also do well at the start, with 75 percent of women age 25 to 29 being described as "superb," "excellent" or "outstanding" on their performance reviews, words used for 61 percent of men in the same age group.

An exodus occurs around age 35 to 40. Fifty-two percent drop out, the report warned, with some leaving for "softer" jobs in the sciences human resources rather than lab bench work, for instance, and others for different work entirely. That is twice the rate of men in the SET industries, and higher than the attrition rate of women in law or investment banking.

The reasons pinpointed in the report are many, but they all have their roots in what the authors describe as a pervasive macho culture.

Engineers have their "hard hat culture," while biological and chemical scientists find themselves in the "lab coat" culture and computer experts inhabit a "geek culture." What they all have in common is that they are "at best unsupportive and at worst downright hostile to women," the study said.

So when women "self-select" out of careers in science and engineering, do they do that because they don't like tools and machines or because of the "unsupportive and at worst downright hostile" culture? Or both or neither?

Beats me. But nobody is making a "free choice" without considering what the job would be like, day after day, or without considering the culture of that job.
Do read the story about Finn and Josephine in the NYT article, by the way. Then wonder why this article appears under the heading "Fashion" on the pages of that august newspaper.