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.
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.