David Thompson


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July 25, 2008



In the comments after the article:

"What we appear to be witnessing… is the indulging in a comfortable myth, the "glass ceiling," by an already comfortable –indeed, perhaps uniquely privileged- class who collectively bond through the celebration of their imagined victimhood."



Well, I’m not suggesting no argument can be made for the existence of unfair judgments based on gender that do affect the careers of women in contradiction of the law. But it seems to me that many of the arguments made, as seen here recently, are large on claims and short on evidence. Indeed, among some there’s a tendency to view the request for evidence as somehow improper. I’m not arguing that no forms of disagreeable bias exist; but the way the issue is framed – say, in terms of “underrepresentation” – often begs the question. And the fact this sleight-of-hand doesn’t seem to trouble those who make such claims is, I think, suspicious.


"large on claims and short on evidence"

The problem you have is that many in the academy believe that that non equal outcomes is prima facie evidence of bias.

eg. http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/533/1/equality_of_outcome.pdf

I see this as part of a larger trend that sees positive rights taking primacy over negative rights. The problem being that few of the advocates note that to assert a positive right is usually to negate a negative right. Thus equality of outcome can only occur if we ignore (at least temporarily) equality of opportunity.



“The problem you have is that many in the academy believe that that non equal outcomes is prima facie evidence of bias.”

I’m reminded of the reactions of Professor Maureen Stanton and her colleagues to the speech by Lawrence Summers. The censoriousness and gasps of impropriety suggest ideological zeal and an intolerance of enquiry:


Claims of systemic disadvantage are frequently overstated and under-supported - and the overstatement matters, especially if it’s widespread and routine. There are some very bad thinking habits at work, and, at times, a dogmatism that actually repels rational enquiry and fosters division and dishonesty. Thus, we have an “Equalities Secretary,” Harriet Harman, who regurgitates misleading claims of a “gender pay gap” and then happily admits that her proposed “equality bill” would allow employers to discriminate against men of equal ability and experience, supposedly in the name of “progress” and to redress an “injustice” that isn’t actually what it seems.


See also this, by Elaine McArdle, on gender differences in career choices:

“An important part of the explanation for the gender gap, they are finding, are the preferences of women themselves. When it comes to certain math- and science-related jobs, substantial numbers of women - highly qualified for the work - stay out of those careers because they would simply rather do something else. One study of information technology workers found that women’s own preferences are the single most important factor in that field’s dramatic gender imbalance. A certain amount of gender gap might be a natural artefact of a free society.”


Peter Risdon

The peripheral involvement of Simon Baron Cohen and Lubos Motl in the Summers affair is interesting, too. Baron Cohen has found male/female differences in brains and spoken about the possibilities of academic intolerance, yet he failed to support Summers, misrepresenting him in the process. Motl, an associate Professor of Physics at Harvard, resigned after a campaign against his support for Summers, though his habitual caustic language didn't help.

Coincidentally, both Summers and Motl are man-made global warming heretics.




My impression is that one of the worst places to discuss these issues sensibly, or try to, is academia. The level of anxiety and intolerance is striking. As the Stanton/Summers episode illustrates, at times it’s practically farce.


Women seem to be doing okay in some parts of academia. My own department (Linguistics) has made seven new appointments over the last five years and six were women. I hope no one thinks this is a bad thing.



“I hope no one thinks this is a bad thing.”

Assuming the appointees were appointed on merit, why would it be “a bad thing”?

R. Sherman

I have a seventeen year old daughter who's number one in her class with a perfect GPA. I'd dearly love her to pursue a career in the sciences, invent something, become rich and then, in her gratitude to her parents, buy them a condo in St. Barts.

Alas, she wants to study English and French because, "That's what I like."

Damn it all.


James Hamilton

"On what basis – besides ideology – can we determine that there “ought” to be a particular ratio of male and female chemists, or mathematicians, or engineers?" It's a valid question, and part of work of answering it must take into account that within living memory the assumption was that a chemist, a mathematician or an engineer would almost certainly be male. A 50:50 ratio might need SOME justification, but it requires a great deal LESS than e.g. 99:01 or 100:00.

In my opinion, any variation from 50:50 is going to be so slight as to be in the realm of the incalculable, so it remains the only ratio I can forsee feeling comfortable with.



“…part of work of answering it must take into account that within living memory the assumption was that a chemist, a mathematician or an engineer would almost certainly be male.”

But how does that establish what a default gender ratio “ought” to be in any given context? I have no idea what a “natural” ratio might be in maths or engineering or any other situation; I’m not even sure the notion is meaningful. But many academics and activists act as if they *do* know – when they don’t – and are framing the debate - and social policy - on that basis.


"In my opinion, any variation from 50:50 is going to be so slight as to be in the realm of the incalculable, so it remains the only ratio I can forsee feeling comfortable with."

Straw man.

Without comparing candidates to post holders, this objective is meaningless.

Let's assume we have 10 surgeon posts to fill. The best qualified 10 applicants are 9 male and 1 female. To achieve 50:50 we have to deliberately pass over better qualified men. How comfortable are you allowing 4 women who are worse candidates to be hired over the 4 capable men? How much worse than the men can they be before you start worrying more about ability and less about equal outcome?

Jim Callaghan

I've never worked in a school with anything approaching gender-equality levels, unless by "gender equality" is meant "whatever feminists and other leftists find acceptable". I've also heard lots of heads say they don't give a toss about such things, as long as they get the right candidate. Certainly they're not busting a gut to improve representation in the workplace. In this case, the system (along with the obvious -and important for primary schools - social acceptability of women touching children versus men doing the same)is well in favour of the other lot, and well against my lot. Though, to be fair, most heads are blokes, for reasons that I don't get and that probably undermine my points entirely. I'll get my coat (somewhat masculine, I'm afraid).



“In my opinion, any variation from 50:50 is going to be so slight as to be in the realm of the incalculable, so it remains the only ratio I can foresee feeling comfortable with.”

Let’s pick a fairly pronounced example for the sake of discussion. What about chess grandmasters? The criteria of elite performance are well-defined and the ratio of male to female grandmasters is about 100:1. This appears to be related to disposition and psychological variables as much as anything else. (And the great home of chess masters, Russia, has been quite big on gender equality.) This isn’t to say there are no social and cultural influences to consider, but male players seem to *want* to play more at elite levels and the role of aptitude, if not pure ability, is clearer than in many other examples that spring to mind. Are you comfortable with that? Or should we contemplate some kind of “affirmative action” to “correct” the situation?



"This appears to be related to disposition and psychological variables as much as anything else."

William Briggs has an interesting blog post up related to the difference in mathematical ability between boys and girls at http://wmbriggs.com/blog/2008/07/25/on-the-difference-between-mathematical-ability-between-boys-and-girls/. The gist of his article is that although both sexes show a normal distribution for mathematical ability the parameters of the distributions are slightly different. That for girls is bunched up more near the midpoint and that for the boys is lower and more spread out. The result is that there are far more boys at both the higher scoring and lower scoring ends of the distribution. If this reflects real and general differences in ability in technical subjects then it might be that the "natural ratio" in technical and scientific disciplines is actually weighted considerably in favour of males.

(Just to throw the cat amongst the pigeons, the graphs that Briggs uses are similar to some that I have seen for IQ differences between the sexes. Unfortunately I can't find the reference, but, as that author pointed out, if the distributions are generally accurate then we should expect to find in the general population both more very stupid men than very stupid women and also more very bright men than very bright women.)



The assumption of an ideal 1:1 gender ratio across vocations is problematic because it seems to presuppose that the male and female population “should” be pretty much symmetrical in interests, skills and dispositions. The implicit idea seems to be that men and women are, or “ought” to be, entirely interchangeable with no statistical inclinations that could be pertinent to a particular job. The idea that there may be small but influential statistical differences in abilities and psychology is, for some, anathema. Whatever the degree and nature of such differences turns out to be, the reaction to these possibilities - as somehow blasphemous - is revealing. And the Summers saga demonstrates just how irrational and vindictive those reactions can be.


As an engineer and a former supervisor of engineers, I can say thay I have hired a few women engineers, and I generally prefer them, because they have better communications skills. Male engineers are notorious for their lack of communication abilities (even, especially with their spouses). I realize that many will consider this a terrible generalization, and I have known a fair number of engineers who can write good reports, but there is also a skill to communicating in difficult situations (i.e., in public) where women seem to do better.

Unfortunately, few women seem to be attracted to engineering. My sister had two children, one boy and one girl, and she tried desparately to have interest her daughter in tehcnical subjects, so that she would be able to get a good job "like her brother(me)", but she was frustrated by continual preferences of her daughter for items colored pink, and frilly. The daughter eventually ended up with a degree in socialogy, or something like that.

I don't have any kids, and cannot therefore provide any personal insights. I did have one female engineer employee who raised three daughters to be engineers, so maybe there is some hope, but I have no idea how to make it happen.

And it is my observation that female engineers can use their status as "under-represented" to advance quite quickly, often beyond their experience level, due to affirmative action programs. These quota requirements (and they ARE quota requirements, because performance evaluations for managers include them as critical elements) tend to cause people to do all sorts of things to recruit women and minorities. The hardest quota for engineering managers to meet is the one for Native Americans - I have NEVER met a Native American engineer, of any discipline.


The one occupation where some positive discrimination is probably necessary is the police. You need the police to feel at least partly drawn from the communities they serve. Even then, obsessively aiming for an exact statistical mirror of the gender and ethnic makeup of the general population probably inhibits effectiveness.


If anything, the fact that women get tenure at similar rates despite publishing less shows bias in favor of women.


If Donna Shalala was involved you can bet it is a flawed and overehlmingly biased study.


David properly raises the example of chess, The vast preponderance of male grandmasters is undeniable. An even better example is that of bridge, a game with which I have considerable familiarity. This is a sociable game and there are almost certainly more female players than there are men. Indeed, I know many women who play daily for hours on end. There are many outstanding female bridge players, but, at the highest echelon, the very best are men. And, in fact, bridge world championships still operate in terms of gender. There are separate mens, women and mixed pairs titles.

Mary Jackson

I couldn't agree more on the general point. Nevertheless, I think there's a case for encouraging girls to take up "non-girly" subjects, play chess, etc, and perhaps challenging them if they say it isn't for them. Yes there may always be 100 male chess champions to every female, but this should be because they're the best rather than because the girls didn't try because they thought it wasn't "feminine" and they didn't want to be the odd one out.

I'm talking about persuasion and ecouragement, but certainly not quotas or positive discrimination, which are abhorrent.


You might find the following of interest:




Thanks, I saw. It’s remarkable just how impervious to evidence some commentators are. For some, the belief that human beings “ought” to be a certain way appears to override all else. What’s interesting is that the evidence for gender difference in ability wasn’t even engaged with; it was simply denied. Much as Maureen Stanton directed her energies to censorship and punishment rather than refutation. And I don’t think her reaction is particularly unusual, at least among her peers.

The idea that there may be statistical differences in aptitude and ability doesn’t trouble me. The idea that people in positions of influence are willing to deny such evidence on ideological grounds - and punish those who disagree - is a much more obvious concern.

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