Saturday, November 03, 2018

Recent News About Women's Issues. Or From Google Via Nobels To Ethiopia And Back

1.  Thousands of Google employees walked out on Thursday, to protest sexual harassment which the protesters said the leadership has not taken seriously.

The impetus for the protests was this:

Protestors were galvanized by a recent New York Times report that chronicled three top company executives who have received massive payouts over the past decade despite being credibly accused of sexual misconduct.

Google denies the claim that one of those executives received $90 million as an exit package.

The protesters' demands include an end to forced arbitration in cases of harassment and discrimination.  Microsoft ended forced arbitration in 2017, but most tech firms use it.  Why is it bad? Because of this:

Arbitration is a private, quasi-legal procedure originally designed to expedite disputes between corporations. But over time, it has evolved into a system where individuals are compelled for a variety of reasons to agree to arbitration decisions versus seeking a court decision. The net result is that disputes that normally would have been adjudicated via the public court process are often processed via private arbitration, which generally favors corporations over individuals.
Worse still, in the world of arbitration, there is no possibility of class-action claims. Arbitration proceedings are additionally often shrouded from public view, meaning it is traditionally difficult to find out about sexual harassment or misconduct claims at corporations.

2.  A fairly recent survey of the opinions of American teenagers (and children) between the ages of ten and nineteen shows that they, and especially boys, still hold some fairly retrograde views:

For instance, when asked about traditional gender roles, as opposed to women having equality in public life, 21st-century kids had surprisingly 20th-century views. Nearly two-thirds of teen girls agreed that there should be "equal numbers of men and women who are leaders in work, politics, and life," but only 51 percent of boys were willing to agree. On the home front, boys got even more traditional, with 59 percent saying they were "more comfortable" with women having the responsibility for home and family, while 54 percent of girls envisioned more egalitarian roles in the home.

The teens and children in this study held more retrograde views than the adults in another similar recent survey.  This may be because adults are better at disguising their true beliefs or because young people still living at home take their cues from the actual division of labor between men and women, and that division of labor is more traditional at home than at work.

The survey also found that sexism was linked to race and ethnicity:

Seventy percent of black respondents and 65 percent of Latino kids said they wanted equality in the public sphere, but only 53 percent of white kids agreed.
It's possible that this is because white people are much more likely to be Republicans, and  respondents with Republican parents were more likely to hold sexist views.  It's also interesting that having sexist (or traditional, to be nice) views was more likely for those boys who admitted to having watched pornography.

The saddest of the findings is probably the fact that boys and girls differ quite a bit on how they see sexism as a societal problem:

One in five girls believed girls had equal opportunities now, but 44 percent of boys assured the survey that was so. Slightly over half of girls ages 14 to 19 said that sexism is a serious problem, but only 19 percent of boys agreed.

The full report can be read here.  I have not put it to careful scrutiny in terms of methodology and so on, but it's worth pointing out that this survey cannot answer the most interesting question I have about today's teens:  Are they less sexist than their forebears?

For that we need to repeat a study like this every ten years, say, and then compare the results.  If I had to guess I would predict that sexism shows an overall trend downwards, though perhaps there's a Trump blip in it in the most recent years.

Still, there's much more work to be done, even in the countries where women's status has improved (1), as this statement by Wanda Pratt,  a professor who teaches computer science demonstrates.  She asked her students why they think women are so scarce in the STEM fields, and

I received horrifying responses, such as “Tasks in tech seem too heavy for women to complete,” “Women are usually not that good at math and computer science,” “Women’s main task is to raise kids,” “Men are better at logical thinking than women,” etc. I was dumbfounded that students would put their names on such statements and submit them to me — a woman grading their responses. I know these misconceptions and problems will continue until more people are brave enough to speak out about them. 

3.   Speaking of the STEM fields, Donna Strickland won the 2018 Nobel prize in physics with Arthur Ashkin and Gerard Mourou.  She is only the third woman to have won the physics prize (2).

Frances Arnold also won this year:  Her prize is in chemistry and is shared with George Smith and Gregory Winter.  Arnold is only the fifth woman to have earned the chemistry prize.

Scarcer than hen's teeth, women are in the STEM fields, eh (3)?  This must prove that women just don't have what it takes, as one physicist has recently argued in a speech which drew on studies and other evidence from the same biased sub-sector of research as those in James Damore's Google memo about how women just don't have it or don't want it.  The sub-sector where Jordan Peterson rummages for truth and which excludes any studies which have results not supporting the conservative anti-feminist takes.

But wait a second!  Did you know that there was no page for Donna Strickland in Wikipedia until after the announcement that she had won the prize?  And did you know that she was made a full professor only after the announcement that she had won the prize?

And this is utterly hilarious:

Strickland is an associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Waterloo and former president of the Optical Society, but when a Wikipedia user attempted to create a profile for her in March, the page was denied by a moderator.
“This submission’s references do not show that the subject qualifies for a Wikipedia article,” said the moderator.

Eighty-four percent of Wikipedia's volunteer editors are men.  There are all sorts of reasons for that tremendous imbalance (such as unequal division of tasks at home or women's trained modesty) (4), but I know from my own experience that at least some of those editors are themselves pretty sexist, and so becoming a volunteer editor who has to work with those assholes puts an extra cost on female editors.

If nothing else, the above examples show the circular nature of some beliefs:

If we believe that women are not good at STEM or are not interested in STEM, we end up not seeing the women who are good at it and who would be interested in it if the playing field were more level.  And what's worse, we tell young girls and boys that the former will not be any good at STEM (5).  Now that's the kind of incentive which will guarantee that fewer girls than boys will enter the field.

4.  Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege were awarded the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.

Nadia Murad is a Yazidi and one of the girls, women and boys whom ISIS captured to be used as sex slaves.  She has turned her own suffering and the suffering of her people into something good and powerful.  For more on the fate of the Yazidis and the sex slavery practiced by ISIS, see my earlier post on the topic.

5.  Ethiopia is not a country I would have predicted to give us good news about women's empowerment.  But the current prime minister there believes in gender equality.  Half of his cabinet posts have gone to women, and he has also appointed the first female Supreme Court chief in the country's history.  The Ethiopian parliament elected a woman to the largely ceremonial role of the president, too.

It is difficult for me to know how much support this reform-minded prime minister has, and that is crucial for any lasting changes.  The New York Times writes:

Ethiopia, Africa’s second most-populous country and one that 30 years ago was a byword for famine, is more organized, ambitious and centrally controlled than many other governments on the continent — the ruling coalition intends to transform it into a middle-income country by 2025.

Despite the staggering pace of progress, it is still a deeply authoritarian state — though Mr. Mosley said that was precisely what has allowed Mr. Abiy to change things so quickly.
It is also a very patriarchal country, where feminist changes are desperately needed but might also be adamantly resisted:

Ethiopia has made remarkable progress, in just a single generation, to increase the enrollment of girls in primary schools. But it still suffers from large gender disparities, according to a United Nations study.
Women are more prone to disease than men, the study said, and although half of the country’s labor force is made up of women, a majority of them are unpaid because most work as farm laborers. Female genital cutting and child marriages are still prevalent, particularly in rural areas, which make up about 80 percent of the country.

I wish Ethiopia a lot of luck and success in its current goals.

6.  Ntozake Shange died on October 27 at the age of seventy.  She was a poet and a playwright, best known for her 1976 play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf.”

7.  Brian Schaffner, a political scientist, has a working paper (I don't think the paper is published yet) which looks at the levels of sexism people feel comfortable expressing before and after Trump came into power.  This Nation article gives a good summary of his findings. 

Schaffner conducted several different sub-studies.  The most interesting uses data from a panel study where the same people are questioned repeatedly over time. 

In this case the first wave of the survey took place right before the 2016 elections, the next in March 2017 and the third in July 2017.  In each of those waves, the respondents were asked how much they agree with the following statements:

-Many women are actually seeking special favors, such as hiring policies that favor them over men, under the guise of asking for “equality.”

-Women are too easily offended.

-Women seek to gain power by getting control over men.

-When women lose to men in a fair competition, they typically complain about being discriminated against.

The answers were then turned into a quantitative index which measures "hostile sexism." (6)

What Schaffner found is fascinating:  Republicans (both men and women, though men somewhat more than women) were the most sexist of the three groups even in the very first survey wave (which took place before the 2016 elections), but they became considerably more sexist in the second wave (7).  Their level of expressed sexism then seemed to stabilize in the third survey wave.

In contrast, the expressed hostile sexism levels of Democrats did not change very much and the increase among Independents (based on my eyeballing Schaffner's working paper graph) was at most very slight.

Schaffner notes that the change among Republicans seems to have come about because those who in the past gave neutral answers changed their answers in the Trump era toward greater sexism. 

He interprets this as a "permission to speak," i.e. those who were earlier suppressing their prejudices (perhaps because they didn't think others approved of them) felt less need to engage in such suppression after Trump's victory.  Let's grab bussy!  It's okay to say that, because our Dear Leader says it!

Schaffner worries about the consequences of a political world where race- and gender-based prejudice is linked to political partisanship.  That's because (as he writes in the working paper):

Norms are most powerful when they are clear and universal (Zitek and Hebl, 2007). Yet, if perceptions about norms regarding expressions of prejudice become increasingly tied to partisanship, then those norms become contingent and ambivalent, and individuals therefore find it easier to express their own prejudices in either word or deed (Cialdini and Trost, 1998).
This is frightening to contemplate in the Trump Reich era.



(1)  The work to be done on global level is enormous, but the interest in doing it is not.  Besides,  the recent rise of the fascist and religious right in so many countries means that there isn't much governmental support for women's rights.  Think of Trump's views on women and our proper place (under him, mostly).

(2)  Even Marie Curie was only nominated for the prize after her husband insisted.

(3)  Note that those absolute numbers about female winners of the Nobel prize shouldn't be directly compared to the absolute numbers of male winners of the same prizes, because women were almost completely absent from physics and chemistry when the prizes were first awarded, and even to this day women are a small minority, especially in physics.

In other words, if we wanted to make some sort of gendered comparisons, we should relate the winning numbers to total numbers of men and women in the relevant fields.  But even that wouldn't really work, given that gendered stereotypes may have stopped women from rising in the ranks, from getting research funding and fame, and given that the difficulties of working in a male-dominated field may have made many women decide to leave it early in their careers.

None of that means that exactly the same number of women and men would be interested in, say, physics.  But what it does mean is that we are nowhere near standardizing the environmental and cultural factors which have coded those fields as male. 

To give you one example of such factors, computer programming is a field which was not originally coded male, but became that way fairly recently.  Note also the African-American women who were called "computers" at NASA in the early 1960s.

(4)   The job of being an editor is not coded male in the United States, so that cannot explain the dearth of women among Wikipedia's editors.

(5)   Note that this is different from telling one particular child that her abilities might lie elsewhere.  The sexist generalizations are much more harmful than that, because they mean that the mere fact of being a girl will make succeeding in a particular field not only almost impossible but also undesirable.

(6)  The reason why that list produces a measure of sexism is because the assertions make sweeping statements about practically all women in this country, and those statements are clearly not true on such a general level.

(7)  The Republican men had the highest levels of expressed hostile sexism in all three waves and the Republican women the second-highest levels.  Democratic men scored higher than Democratic women but far below Republican women.