Friday, August 23, 2013

The Bunny Rabbit Theory of Male Advantage And Other Wild Stories

This has been a fun week in the sorta-essentialist camp of gender stories. 

Sit back and relax, because you are going to be fed lots of very serious theory about why women have the roles they do and why men have the roles they do, at least traditionally speaking.  Very Serious Theory, Coming After Decades of Study.

First, here's the reason why most programmers are men in the US:

Now, I'm sure there is sexism, probably a lot of sexism. But I also think there's something about programming that makes many women not want to do it. Here's a theory why that might be. 
Programming is a very modal activity. To be any good at it you have to focus. And be very patient. I imagine it's a lot like sitting in a blind waiting for a rabbit to show up so you can grab it and bring it home for dinner. 
There is specialization in our species. It seems pretty clear that programming as it exists today is a mostly male thing. Which also raises the obvious question that perhaps we can make it so that it can better-use the abilities of the other half of our species?
To give the author, Dave Winer, credit, he decided to strike out that theory part.  But I still like that "theory!"  It's a lot like the theories I might get about, say,  opera (on which I know nothing) after a mug or two of divine mead, while chatting to my demon opera friends.  It shares with them the lack of information, the lack of any deep thinking and a certain lack of respect towards the possibly-more-knowledgeable audience.


It's also based on evolutionary psychology, the idea that squatting silently, waiting for the bunny to put its shy head out of the hole, is what prehistoric guys did, all day long, most days.  Or at least long enough to develop an advantage over the kinds of guys who did other stuff, so that the programmer guys passed their genes on more than the non-programmer guys.  And the programmer genes were passed on only in the male line and so on.

It's a possible theory, naturally, given our inability to learn anything about the life of ancient bunny rabbits or their enemies.

But it skips merrily over various other more proximal causes, including the fact that computers, in general, have become coded more male fairly recently.  It also skips over the fact that things such as sitting silently knitting etc. have some similarities to programming, too.

And it does the usual thing where something like a connection between hunting and being male can be used in any which way, depending on what one wishes to support.  So that usually hunting is assumed to be more vigorous, more ranging, more amenable to teach guys map-reading and three-dimensional mental rotation etc.  But it can also be turned upside down like in this example, to explain why guys are better able to concentrate and sit quietly.

That's why I call this beautiful.  Though it makes me wonder why I bother studying any of this crap at all.

A second pretty story just came out at SlateIt's  an answer offered  to this question:

Why Did Almost All Societies Believe that Women Were Inferior to Men?

The answer argues:
All modern societies evolved out of agrarian societies. Before the Industrial Revolution, the male endurance value and physical strength translated directly to political power. Men fought in wars, hunted beasts, erected buildings, and plowed fields PRECISELY because they possessed the physical stamina to do so at a far greater degree than females.
I'm a HUGE fan of saying, "History does not occur in a vacuum." Which is a fancy way of saying, "S*** throughout human history happens for VERY good reasons." Back before the Industrial Revolution, human fertility was the highest premium factor in existence. People lived to have babies, and babies were the most important thing men and women brought into the world. The female role in reproduction—shall we say—involves a lot more time, effort, and pain (and before recently, a hell of a lot of death). Every moment women spent pregnant (which was a LOT of time) was time that she would have been taken away from power-playing.

Bolds are mine, to point out the obvious contradiction between the question and the answer.

In any case, that the article doesn't really answer the question.  It's perfectly possible to imagine an early society where the ability of women to make babies (what with human fertility being the "highest premium factor") would have been worshipped to such an extent that they would have been given a lot of power in the society.  In short, it's not the presumed gender roles that explain why women would be regarded as inferior.

Those presumed gender roles in the article are probably also incorrect, because they simplify women's role into just some sort of queen-bee-egg-laying-activity. 

Women not only cooked, wove and made pottery but also  farmed, cultivated gardens, probably domesticated some animals and so on.  Or at least there's a good case to argue that this was the case.  And pregnancy doesn't turn a woman comatose in such a way that she cannot play power games.  Neither does breast-feeding or any of the other stuff related to bringing up children.

It's also hard to state how common pregnancy was in the prehistoric world.  The author of the piece I discuss, Dan Holliday, assumes that women were pregnant essentially most of their reproductive lives.  But some studies of more recent nomadic tribes suggest that the number of children born per woman isn't that high, given prolonged breast-feeding, say.

It could be that the calculus changed with agriculture, but that's an assumption, not actual evidence.  One study from the medieval Paris found that the average number of children among lower class families wasn't that high then, mostly because the poorer people got married at older ages. -- I'm not arguing that data so old can be used for evidence.  But the point I wish to make is that we can't just assume some meta-trends in history without questioning their veracity.

My guess is that the piece is really about pointing out that it's not current men's fault what happened in the past and, in any case, women then liked it well enough. Or at least those who didn't like it didn't get their voices heard very easily (with the possible exception of a few rare examples such as the Wife of Bath in Canterbury Tales).  And of course it isn't current men's fault what happened in the distant past, just as it isn't my fault, either.  Or yours.

But that's no excuse for off-the-cuff stories about the meta-history of gender.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Speed Blogging Thursday, August 22 20013. On Heroism, Internet Hate, What I Don't Write About And Why.

This is a great story about a woman who prevented a massacre.  I think that took real courage and skill, all without a gun.

More on the question of hate on the Internets:  Huffington Post is to stop anonymous commenting because of the trolling.  Not sure how that can be guaranteed, but in any case my problems with comments are not their anonymity but the emotional use of comments to express nothing but hate.

A somewhat different take on Internet hate, when it comes to hating on women, is given by this article.

It talks about the possible extra fee on women who would participate and also hints at one possible desire behind some of the trolling:  To get certain types of women to shut up, pretty much.

In my opinion the scarcity of women editors on Wikipedia may be linked to something similar, by the way, because the system allows for concentrated attacks on any posts, and groups of editors may pick posts put up by female editors for those attacks.  So women need to not only edit but also defend their work  more stringently.  That would be an extra user fee.   But that's speculation right now, based on some anecdotal stories I've heard.

In Massachusetts, a rapist is playing games in the family court.


There are many extremely important stories I don't write about at all.  My silence doesn't mean that the stories are of no interest to me, just that I have nothing worthwhile to say about them that others wouldn't cover much better.

Sadly, many of those stories, such as climate change and the nuclear catastrophe in Japan appear not to be amenable to political and/or technical solutions.  Or at least the will to do something decisive enough is not there, even if the knowledge of what to do might be.  And often that knowledge is absent, too.  The same applies to some extent to Syria and Egypt and what is going on in those countries.  I can't think of any short-term solutions to the pain and suffering, given the history and current power structures.

Then there are stories like this one *(warning:  the link in the linked story leads to  sick stuff on prison sexual abuse).  Mostly I avoid linking to stories which seem to be created as click-magnets: the more extreme the arguments, the better.  But in this case many of the arguments sound similar to arguments made about women and rape and noting the similarities can be useful.

*Note added later:  The Daily Beast is doing post-publication editing on this piece, so it's no longer the same as what I read.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Speed Blogging 8/21/2013. Or How We Work: The Death of the Forty-Hour Workweek, Flex-Time not for Single Women and the Gender Wage Gap Among Kids

This sad story deserves much more than a note in a speed list.  I've written a little before about the slow death of the forty-hour week, the way working much, much longer is regarded as ethical and important and AOK, the way we ignore the fall of productivity with fatigue and the fact that nobody working like that really can be said to have a family. 

That all this is "voluntary" (though perhaps the Roman gladiators also volunteered) and trickling down from the top income classes makes the analysis trickier but not impossible.  An odd sort of capitalist work ethic. 

Two studies (neither of which I have read) suggest that women are less likely to be given flex-time at work than men, and that this applies especially to young single women.  Why that might be the case (if the studies are done well) is worth thinking about.  The linked article suggests a few reasons.

On the gender wage gap among little children.  Once again, I have not checked the studies the article mentions, but the results seem intuitive:  Traditional boys' jobs pay more than traditional girls' jobs (and that is a bit surprising, given that babysitting might be the most important of these jobs in some deeper sense and it's a traditional girls' job).   I think market analysis breaks down here (as it mostly does, outside real marketplaces).

Soraya points out that girls' traditional jobs are hidden inside the house, boys' traditional jobs are outside.  To that I'd like to add that the girls' traditional jobs actually take many more weekly hours, because dusting, folding, doing the dishes, sweeping etc. must be done quite frequently, at least when compared to cutting the grass and taking the trash out (among the traditional boys' jobs).

If I had to make a guess about what's going on I'd add to the obvious reasons (gender roles, duh) the fact that the jobs were much more equal on a traditional farm with animals and many outside chores, only some of which (such as feeding the chickens?) were allocated to girls.  The shift from farms to other occupations meant that the boys' jobs shrunk but the girls' jobs didn't, at least not to the same extent.

And just for fun:  On being an introvert.


Added later:  This post should not be interpreted as an overall review of "how we work."  It doesn't cover what's happening in the lowest-paid jobs in this country or the lack of proper vacations or the increasing shift towards more and more employer rights and fewer and fewer worker rights.  The title is just a short-hand cover for some of the things that caught my eye in the last day or so.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Oh Boy! This Is Fun. The Catch-22 Of Being Janet Yellen.

This new WaPo article on why Janet Yellen is probably not the president's choice for the next chair of the Federal Reserve is fantastic!  It's hilarious!  It's a perfect example of the Catch-22 that Yellen must struggle under.

Take the argument that Yellen is not a team player and what's needed for the chair of the Federal Reserve is a team player:

Yellen has a perfectly solid relationship with Bernanke, as best as I can tell, but she’s more of her own thinker within the institution. She has spent her time as vice chairwoman urging Bernanke and her other fellow policymakers to shift policy to try to do more to combat unemployment, and thinking through ways to do just that. She even had one economist who functioned for a time as something of a de facto chief of staff, Andrew Levin. And people dealing with her within the Fed have viewed her not so much as Bernanke’s emissary but as her own intellectual force within the organization.

So what does that have to do with how Obama’s advisers might view her? They are big on the team player concept, people diving in together to sort through the hard and messy challenges they face.

Mmm.  By inference, then, Larry Summers, the apparent candidate for the chair, IS a team player.  But if you dig back in the murky archives of time, you come across comments like these:

What has all this to do with Larry Summers as a potential Secretary of the Treasury in the Obama administration? It depends on how much of the job involves what are usually called “people skills,” the skills that bring men and women of diverse views together in a spirit of optimism and co-operation (two words Obama has often invoked). A cabinet secretary must interact with other secretaries, with the White House staff, with the vice president, with congressional committees, with leaders of industry, with the representatives of other sovereign states and with the media.
It is not a question of intelligence and competence -– everyone agrees that Summers is very smart and very accomplished as an economist; it is a question of tact, patience, poise, self-restraint, deference, courtesy and other interpersonal virtues. Little that he did as president of Harvard suggests that Summers possesses these virtues.

And like these:

In the first world, you're going to read a lot of stories about how Larry Summers was a meanie who rendered the economic team dysfunctional and impeded the Obama administration's efforts to revive the economy. In the other, you're going to read a lot of stories about how the famously prickly Larry Summers managed to keep his ego in check and leverage his considerable brilliance to help the Obama administration save the American economy. 

So Janet Yellen is looking in from the outside, as the WaPo article states, while Summers is inside, manically participating in everything!  Which reminds me of the role of the outsider in all sorts of groups.

But never mind, what the situation truly needs is a person who doesn't prepare, who isn't meticulous but who just jumps in:

A second, and related, reason that Yellen’s leadership style isn’t a great mesh with the Obamaites is also one of her strengths. She is always meticulously prepared, a careful and systematic thinker who chooses her words carefully. In a Fed policy committee meeting or a gathering of international central bankers, she typically scripts herself in advance and reads those prepared comments.
She is methodical, not manic. And the prevailing style of the White House insiders advising on the decision leans a bit more toward manic. Geithner, for example, jumps from meeting to meeting, from hearing to phone call, without so much as a set of talking points to work from. The question is how Yellin’s cautious approach would work when she is dealing with the full panoply of issues that a Fed chair must grapple with.

But if Yellen was manic, unprepared and willing to jump about like a rabbit, what would her flaws be then?

That's why I see all this as a Catch-22 case for poor Janet.  She is damned if she does, damned if she doesn't, and that's because both of these arguments can be built to be whatever they need to be afterwards, once the choice already is for Larry Summers. 

Just find whatever he has and she does not,  as the thing that is needed!  Hence we come up with the argument that it's bad to be prepared and meticulous, while running the Federal Reserve!  Or that it's bad to be independent, in a position for which independence is usually a desired characteristic.

Atrios titles his post on this topic as "Bros B4 Hoes," and that's one possible take on the topic.  It's not the only possible one, because a similar outcome could be reached when one camp defends its homeboy against the homeboy of the other camp.  Still, given the general reputation of Summers, defending him against Yellen also produces a kind of Catch-22 when it comes to questions of gender.

A general note:  This post is not about which candidate actually might be better at the job.  It's about the conversations we have about them.

What To Read Today

This post on Harriet Tubman and what happened recently about her memory.

This article on building a new racial justice movement.

The ghost rapes of Bolivia.  On sexual abuse among a Mennonite community in Bolivia.  For me the crucial point of this is that when the system of justice is based on the rule of the fathers it will not serve the victims.

For more on the impact of justice systems, in Malawi.

Does lead in gasoline affect violent crime rates?  It's a hypothesis worth studying in more detail.

Head Start programs as the proverbial sacrifice of sequestration-mandated cuts.

And a story about a woman inventor.

Monday, August 19, 2013

What Did You Read On The Beach?

Or what are you planning to read if you haven't had your vacation yet?  Perhaps I should ask some of you what you would read if you ever had time off for it.  Sigh.

This is supposed to be a jolly and light-footed post.  That could describe most of my summer reading, except that it doesn't.  For instance, I read the Detective Novel With The Most Miserable Atmosphere Evah, which is Henning Manckell's  The Troubled Man.  If your most fervent desire in life is to get terminally depressed over looming  old age (and it will loom for all of us lucky enough), have a nice long wallow in that book.

While still on the Nordic gloomy side, Camilla L√§ckberg's The Stonecutter is a little less depressive.  It's also a good mystery.

I also re-read Martial's Epigrams.  It's hard to tell if his thinking was advanced for 80 C.E. or so.  That was an era when Romans had slaves and had the right to treat them as they wished.  Women's rights were severely limited and social class differences were huge.

But there are aspects of his writings which sound utterly modern to me.  That's not the case with the somewhat later New Testament, for instance.  I'm not sure what that might mean if anything.

At places Martial's more obscene epigrams sound like lot of the stuff on today's  Internet, by the way.

I also read a few history books, including a book about women during Renaissance and stuff about World War II.

The hotchpotch aspect of this list is because I didn't choose these books or buy them but read whatever happened to be available wherever I happened to be at some particular need-to-read time.

The stilted writing is because I seem to have aimed at the proverbial what-I-did-during-my-summer-vacation children's essay.


Crushed By the Costs of Daycare. And Who Is To Pay Them?

The title of a post on the New York Times Opinionator blog.  It's a good post, pointing out the great difficulty of finding and affording good-quality daycare.  It even talks about how this is a greater problem for poorer families.

But as Joan Walsh points out on the twitter, the story screws up by viewing daycare costs as something that one must deduct from the mother's salary in two-parent households.

Well, it's not really the story which screws that one up, it's us, the society, when we view the dilemma as having two solutions which are 1)  a stay-at-home-mother or 2) daycare.  Because these are the only visible options, the costs of daycare obviously should be compared to the mother's potential salary.

That makes some narrow logical sense if the mother earns less than the father.  But in at least one of the cases in the post the father earns less.  Yet even there the focus is on the mother:

Child care is a towering expense for parents like Carla Bellamy, a professor of anthropology at Baruch College in Manhattan who holds a Ph.D. from Columbia, earns $74,000 a year and lives with her husband and their two children, a newborn and a 4-year-old. Her husband is a composer and the executive director of a music organization. Only 9 percent of women in the work force make $75,000 or more, so Professor Bellamy is relatively privileged.
But even with a combined household income of $110,000, she and her husband struggle to afford day care. (It was a story I heard echoed when I spoke with other female professors, who sometimes took sick days even when they were healthy so they could stay home and not have to pay for baby sitters.) “Our entire disposable income goes to child care,” Professor Bellamy, 41, says. “It’s not a tragic story, but is tiring and tiresome. I have a career, I work really hard, and yet I get no break.”

Note that Mr. Bellamy's husband seems to earn about half of what she does, based on these figures.

And no, I'm not suggesting that Mr. Bellamy should clearly become a stay-at-home-father or anything of the sort, just pointing out that as long as we see daycare as one of the many so-called women's problems the solutions are going to be sought in that same narrow field.

Incidentally, even in the case where the lower-earning spouse is considering staying at home as the option to daycare, its costs should not just be deducted from her or his hypothetical paycheck when the financial consequences are judged.

This is because the decision to take time off from the labor force will have further financial repercussions.  The partner who takes the time off will earn less later and will end up with a smaller retirement income.  Thus, even in such narrow calculations the costs of daycare should be assessed within those lifetime consequences.