Difference and indifference.

by waxbanks

The ‘Google guy’ was fired, which should worry anyone who cares about reasoned discourse (don’t worry, you are exempt), but since I can’t really affect Google hiring/training practices, I’ll stick to a small observation. The science about sex difference is settled, but not the way you probably think: meta-analyses of sex-difference studies going back decades suggest, unsurprisingly, that there are very large differences (link goes to Slate Star Codex) between physiological males and females in a host of areas relevant to the Google diversity discussion (e.g. people- vs thing-orientation), and very small differences in a host of areas where people might expect strong divergence.

In other words, the ‘Google guy’ wasn’t spouting pseudoscience in his ‘screed,’ he was spouting at least some actual science. If you used the word ‘pseudoscience’ to piss on him from your soapbox, consider the possibility that you have no idea what you’re talking about.

Now, I’m sticking with links to/via Scott here, because he’s good at finding/collecting the kind of analysis I’m interested in, and I’m not. Your mileage, as they say, may vary — but only if you actually hit the road.

Sidebar: Scott (SSC’s author) points out that ‘Big Five’ sex differences are magnified by increased economic prosperity. Funny. No, not actually funny.

Scott also links to a piece by Freddie deBoer (who blocked me on Twitter when I pointed out that he’d cut short his mental-health Twitter break after like a day) called ‘Why selection bias is the most powerful force in education’ and you should read it:

Tell me how your students are getting assigned to your school, and I can predict your outcomes – not perfectly, but well enough that it calls into question many of our core presumptions about how education works.

The SSC post closes with an aggressive attack on the prevailing narrative that the lack of women in Silicon Valley (or ‘tech’ writ large) is solely about entrenched sexism. Before he gets to the data, which is damning, Scott unspools a funny little rhetorical gambit:

In the year 1850, women were locked out of almost every major field, with a few exceptions like nursing and teaching. The average man of the day would have been equally confident that women were unfit for law, unfit for medicine, unfit for mathematics, unfit for linguistics, unfit for engineering, unfit for journalism, unfit for psychology, and unfit for biology. He would have had various sexist justifications – women shouldn’t be in law because it’s too competitive and high-pressure; women shouldn’t be in medicine because they’re fragile and will faint at the sight of blood; et cetera.

As the feminist movement gradually took hold, women conquered one of these fields after another. 51% of law students are now female. So are 49.8% of medical students, 45% of math majors, 60% of linguistics majors, 60% of journalism majors, 75% of psychology majors, and 60% of biology postdocs. Yet for some reason, engineering remains only about 20% female.

And everyone says “Aha! I bet it’s because of negative stereotypes!”

This makes no sense. There were negative stereotypes about everything! Somebody has to explain why the equal and greater negative stereotypes against women in law, medicine, etc were completely powerless, yet for some reason the negative stereotypes in engineering were the ones that took hold and prevented women from succeeding there…

Turns out the difficulty in getting women interested in programming kicks in by elementary school. Why is that? Hint: Scott links to the paper about prenatal androgen that you might’ve seen floating around this week.

(I’ll add a bit of handwavey, marginal speculation: it’s also worth looking specifically at differences in TV/videogame interest in very young kids; the videogame revolution does seem to correlate with the moment the undergrad CS enrollment starting tilting heavily toward boys…)

In the middle of talking about people/thing interest, Scott veers back to medicine, points out male/female variation between subfields, and offers these two graphs…



…which suggest that ludicrous people/things difference, y’know, the one some cultural-politics blogger told you was ‘pseudoscience.’

Reasoned discourse

The best thing about Scott’s post: it started out as a response to a piece by Wharton organizational psychologist Adam Grant (scare quotes only because I don’t know what precisely that job title means), and Professor Grant responded to the post — with Scott responding in turn. This is what actual grownup conversations look like, people.

One of Grant’s essential points — if sex/gender disparities in tech are about ‘interest, not ability,’ then we mustn’t forget that interests can be changed — is a very important one. Pushing back against dumb blankslateism isn’t the same thing as saying there’s no entrenched systemic sexism or just societal influence on development; that would be literally insane.

But what’s in our shared interest, culturewide? At the moment, one of the clear correlates of our elite/coastal push for equitable hiring everywhere is the literal suppression of basic scientific research (in popular discourse). Do you feel it’s worth it, on balance, to have twice as many female coders at Google, if one of the costs (not ‘effects’) is a marked increase in willful scientific illiteracy, which is already sky-high? Could we have it both ways? Yes — but that means letting go of ideologies which demand that we dismiss, or ‘merely’ aggressively cherrypick, basic science.

Scott’s last response to Grant (so far) closes like so:

If we continue to insist that, no, women really want to do tech, but stereotypes and sexists are pushing them out, we’ll end up with constantly increasing social engineering to prevent stereotypes, and constantly increasing purges to ferret out sexists (and “benevolent sexists”, and “unconscious sexists”, and people who are progressive but not progressive enough, and so on). Since these will never work (or even have paradoxical effects for the reasons mentioned above), we’ll just ramp these up more and more forever. I’m saying we don’t have to do this. We can fight any stereotypes and sexists we find, but understand we’re doing this in a context where even 100% success won’t achieve perfect gender balance.

We’re talking here about competing notions of freedom and of fulfillment, and I worry that the better, more sustainable such notions are being throttled. But don’t take my word for it.