Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Gender, inequality, and IT

Posted by metaphorical on 28 February 2007

It’s hard to believe, but people are still debating whether diversity is a good thing and, even worse, arguing that there are innate gender differences when it comes to things like technology-related professions.

A good place to start looking at the current diversity debate is Hippo Dignity, here. I’m going to take up the innate differences question. As with the recent discussion of economic inequality, it begins with a mailing list post. Different list, different poster. Let’s call him K. Here’s his case:

If you could look at women and men and how they are “wired” with respect to technology at birth, you’d find a different midpoint for their respective Normal curves, where one sex has more innate “interest” in technology. But this means that a significant percent of members of the sex that has a lower innate technology interest has a greater technology interest than a significant percent of members of the other sex.

If then the society’s nurturing customs unnaturally prod each sex in a skewed manner, then we will have a situation where some people (of one sex) who innately have a greater technology interest do not develop that nature as much as some people (of the other sex) who actually have a lower innate technology interest.

This is the situation I think we have, which is very unfair to those of one sex who are innately technologically oriented, but whose development in that area was passively (by some loving people) or actively (by bigoted people) discouraged.

The National Academy of Sciences found otherwise in a report (payment required) that was issued back in September. According to the NY Times article about it,

If there are any cognitive differences, the report says, they are small and irrelevant. In any event, the much-studied gender gap in math performance has all but disappeared as more and more girls enroll in demanding classes. Even among very high achievers, the gap is narrowing, the panelists said.

The thing is, K. is probably a very nice guy, well-meaning, bending over backwards to express these thoughts in a way that’s sympathetic and even, it you could say, politically correct. And yet as far as I can see, he’s offering little more than a slightly more sophisticated version of the same old argument about genetic differences between the genders, in the way that intelligent-design is an “improvement” over earlier forms of creationism.

Let’s take a simpler case: basketball. Basketball is a game where there surely are genetic differences between the genders of the sort that K. is talking about. Very few women could play in the men’s game, though a couple probably could, but aren’t allowed to, which K. would sympathetically find “very unfair.”

But surely it won’t have escaped K.’s notice that the design of basketball is optimized for the very genetic differences in question, most especially height. Move the basket down 30 inches and you’d see a big change. Make the ball smaller, better suited to smaller hands, and you’d see more change.

Rock climbers would almost universally agree that for at least a few years in the mid-1990s, the best climber in the world, male or female, was Lynn Hill, and that her first free climb of The Nose route on Yosemite’s El Capitan was a high-water mark in climbing history. To this day, no one has exactly repeated her ascent (except herself, a couple of years later, when she did the same 3300-foot climb in a single 23-hour push) because no one can climb the Changing-Corners pitch. You climb a crack so thin that even Lynn’s fingertips can barely use it. Then you have to stem out so widely that only a short former gymnast with a low center of mass could possibly stay in balance.

The Changing-Corners pitch is optimized for a short, explosively powerful former gymnast. There just aren’t a lot of those people to be found among male climbers—in fact, there are none at the moment. Male climbers have freed The Nose, but by opting for a variation pitch, one that lends itself better to larger hands and a higher center of mass.

Climbing as a whole is fairly gender-neutral; there are climbs that are well-suited to physiologies that men have more often than women and there are climbs that are just the reverse. The same isn’t true of sports that use balls—from basketball and baseball to volleyball and lacrosse, they tend to favor male physiologies. That’s not surprising—mountains and sheer rock walls are designed by nature but ball games are designed by men.

Which brings us to IT and other technology “sports.” Were they designed by nature or by men? The National Academy of Sciences has an unequivocal answer to that question. To quote from the Times article again, the expert panel found that

Women in science and engineering are hindered not by lack of ability but by bias and “outmoded institutional structures” in academia.

7 Responses to “Gender, inequality, and IT”

  1. […] on the email list, which were used as an example of someone who just doesn’t get it in this blog post by another member of the email […]

  2. The point of the quoted “K” is that it is almost mathematically impossible that the mean point for the Normal distributions for “technology interest” (whatever that is) is identical for men and women.

    If there are differences, but they are “small and irrelevant”, it doesn’t seem that K’s point is contradicted by the National Academy of Sciences report.

    Furthermore, K states that whatever innate difference may exist, everything is skewed by society’s methods of nurture. If those methods are changing, through women being encouraged to take more math classes, then it would seem again that K’s statements are valid, since those statements describe a condition where women are discouraged from pursuing their interest in technology.


  3. What the hell are these women doing out of the kitchen????

  4. ClaireDePlume said

    a brain is a brain is a brain, no matter how you slice it.

    as for women being the mentally weaker sex? it’s for those who choose to be pandered to by a society which salivates over mammary glands but shies away in shock from synapses. some men like their women folk to be cute see, pert (in a strictly tactile way), and fluffy brained. and for every silly male, there is a silly female who buys into “the gender ghettos”.

    then there are those who work at life and do their brain aerobics – in spite of societal spitefulness.

    and from which work hell do i hail? a former boss at a british male dominated company predicted – after i wrote poison pen memos on the subject of workplace fairness – that i would go down in infamy. to test that some years later, while working for an american male dominated steel company, i asked my supervisor, “what do i do to get a raise around here? get a sewn on?” i got my raise. just like some men, i do have a brain. still waiting for the infamy part though.

  5. digglahhh said

    Is the mean point for technological interest even particularly relevant? I don’t know how the percentages correlate with one another, but even supposing all the stereotypes are true, (though they are not) and you would need a woman in the 65th percentile of the “interest curve” to seamlessly replace a 50th percentile man. That’s hardly an exclusive threshold. Presumably, you could replace the overwhelming majority of men in the field with women and see almost no notable different in output, even if you granted truth to the stereotypes.

    This reminds me of the arguments that attempt to denounce Babe Ruth as the greatest baseball player of all time because he didn’t face black and Latino competition. Well, MLB had its Ruths, Cobbs and Foxxes and the Negro Leagues had its Gibsons, Charelstons and Lloyds, but that’s not the issue. The overwhelming majority of the players in the Majors were in the general vicinity of “average.” Much of integration would have consisted of replacing roughly average white players with average major league level black and Latino players. You would have lopped off the bottom of the barrel white players (who basically sat on the bench and didn’t even play anyway) and then sprinkled in stars, superstars and immortals with the respective rarity that white players of such levels came along.

    Basically, the ceiling and floor don’t necessarily move at the same rate. Most importantly, they don’t move all that much at all when you jockey with the middle (the most sizable group).

    I could be misunderstanding this whole argument though.

  6. I think you understand the argument very well. I see it in the male/female case, but I’m not sure I get the MLB claim.

    Assume for the moment that MLB and the Negro leagues were the same size and the same talent base, both in height and depth (distribution), so to speak. Wouldn’t it then be the case that you basically double the quality of the game, because the whole bottom half of each would drop out (or become AAA ball more likely)? You’d have trouble seeing it in the stats, of course, because if pitching improved in line with hitting, the .280 hitters would still be the same percentile as before. A given .280 hitter from either side, pre-merger, though, would suddenly be hitting only .265 or whatever. That’s kind of weird, now that I think of it.

    I think my head is going to start hurting soon. Even if I had a math major, probability and stat was never my thing.

  7. digglahhh said

    Oh, Metaphorical, that ain’t even the beginning… Sabermetrics is the term given to applying hard scientific principles to evaluating the contribution of individual players to team success. Adjustments for league quality, home stadium disparities, relative offense normally contributed from different positions along the defensive value spectrum, linear weights for every possible offensive event as it correlates to run scoring (and run scarcity)… Actually, I think that you would find it fascinating.

    As far as the Negro League argument, the talent distribution was not the same. The organizational structure of the Negro Leagues, meaning scouting, coaching, player development and so forth was severely underdeveloped. Plus the Negro Leagues weren’t nearly as capable of paying living wages to its players as MLB so it was never even able to attract the same percentage of the best talent from its theoretical pool as the white Major Leagues was.

    If integration started at the beginning of Ruth’s career it would still take about the duration of Ruth’s entire career before we saw a result anywhere near what you are talking about, like what we saw in the 70’s (many feel the 50’s and 70’s) were the two peaks in the game’s quality. The 50’s saw well developed infrastructure and the only beginning of integration but it was pre-expansion so there were less spots to fill. The 70’s were post expansion but had finally benefited from full integration. Boston didn’t carry a black player until 12 years after Robinson broke the color barrier- passed on Mays to preserve their no black player policy.

    Today, blacks make up only 8% of the MLB players.

    One could posit the effects of integrating before Ruth so integration would be in full swing for his career. But the game before the live ball was introduced was a very different game. Ruth himself ushered in the integration of the power game, he did something nobody else had ever really even tried to do. The race of his competitors was irrelevant, he had mastered skills and approaches that weren’t yet a part of the game!

    Anyway, to draw some relevance from this digression, the women play the role of the Negro Leagues in the sense that they were given inferior resources to develop their talents, regardless of the scope thereof. Before the benefits of integration can fully manifest, the integrating group must be given sufficient resources to develop themselves the way the dominant group has been able to do.

    But either way, the majority of any body in question will still hover around the mean of the overall group.

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