Sunday, March 30, 2014

Retaining Honour--Post 9

The Bible says men and women are different, but secular sources have a hard time making up their minds on the question.

In 2005, The Guardian reported:

The president of Harvard University has provoked a furore by arguing that men outperform women in maths and sciences because of biological difference, and discrimination is no longer a career barrier for female academics.

In reality, the comments were much more nuanced than that, and full of disclaimers.

why is the representation even lower and more problematic in science and engineering than it is in other fields. And here, you can get a fair distance, it seems to me, looking at a relatively simple hypothesis. It does appear that on many, many different human attributes—height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability—there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means—which can be debated—there is a difference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population. And that is true with respect to attributes that are and are not plausibly, culturally determined. If one supposes, as I think is reasonable, that if one is talking about physicists at a top twenty-five research university, one is not talking about people who are two standard deviations above the mean. And perhaps it's not even talking about somebody who is three standard deviations above the mean. But it's talking about people who are three and a half, four standard deviations above the mean in the one in 5,000, one in 10,000 class. Even small differences in the standard deviation will translate into very large differences in the available pool substantially out.

And so on.  You can read his comments here.

From the reaction, it was obvious that in his circles it was not ok to suggest that men’s and women’s brains are different in any way that would affect math and science skills.  However, in similar demographic circles it's ok to say that men's and women's brains are very different in structure.

A transgender male-turning-female was in the news the other day, and the article cited two studies indicating that the brains of transgender people are more like the brains of the gender they identify with than the one they were born with.

And here.

Wait, they're actually saying that male and female brains are inherently different?  Yes.  So maybe it’s not so farfetched to say we have different abilities.  In general.

This is a bell curve.

You’ll notice that in the center we have the highest numbers for this trait, with the high and low extremes off to the sides.

I am guessing that if you graphed stereotypically male traits in men, such as strategy, aggression, seeing the big picture, taking risks, and tossing into the air and hopefully catching any object that isn’t nailed down, it would look like a typical bell curve.  Extremes on the ends, most people in the middle.

If you graphed the same for women, you would actually have some overlap, with a few women showing more aggression and big-picture analytical skills than some men.

Those would be the Deborahs, Jaels, and Margaret Thatchers among us.

And the graphs would be reversed if you graphed traits like intuition, collaboration, sensing double meanings, noticing details, and knowing if a child is about to throw up.

Most women would be high in these traits, most men would be low, but some men would rank higher than some women.

There seems to be an awful lot of hand-wringing in the media about the under-representation of women in politics, STEM jobs, and the top echelons of business.

If it’s because of deliberate exclusion and injustice and laziness, that isn’t right and ought to be rectified.

But there seem to be a lot of opportunities open to women, with anti-discrimination laws and with women earning more college degrees than men.  My engineering-program sons report that the higher you go in college math and science, the fewer women there are, despite the fact that women are as free to take these classes as any other, and they are not ridiculed by the guys.

When I was in high school and college, I took quite a few math and science classes, and did well in my spot on the narrow end of the curve.  Thankfully no one ever gushed at how well I did "for a girl." I was encouraged but not pushed. If I hadn't gotten married I might have pursued a career in medicine or teaching math, but I knew I didn't have the energy for making both a home and a career, and what I did "extra" I wanted to do from home.

With the inquisitive children I was given, I was grateful later for all the math and science courses I had taken. I never considered them wasted.

But back to genders and brains.  Maybe we are actually wired differently, and we ought to work with our inborn gifts.  Maybe it’s a bit silly to get all frantic and to try to artificially inflate the female numbers at the top of these fields.  Maybe we ought to assign a little more honor to the compassionate CNA passing the meds to your grandma in the nursing home and a bit less to Sheryl Sandberg heading things up at Facebook and trying to whip up a frenzy of “leadership skills” in girls and telling us not to use the word “bossy” for fear of damaging assertive girls.

The assertive girls I’ve known, over on the narrow end of their bell curve, would not be stopped by someone calling them “bossy.”

Tomorrow: being and doing


  1. Have you looked into the differences between men and women in DNA? Males are easier to track using DNA than females because the DNA of females is more variable. Males pass on their exact DNA to their sons. What does this tell us? Women are hard to figure out and men never change!

  2. It's difficult to determine whether the "fact" that fewer women pursue higher mathematics or science educations has more to do with how women are "wired" or with how our patriarchal society influences their college/career choices.

    It's easy to say there are plenty of opportunities out there of which women can take advantage, but in 21st-century America, a woman still has to be not just good, but better in a field, or at a task, in order to be accepted by the male-dominated culture surrounding it.

    I don't disrespect women who choose to focus on marriage, child-rearing and "domestic engineering" as their life's work. Theirs is a challenging career that requires an overwhelming skillset. But I also believe that any woman pursuing a career outside of that should be respected for her choices and the challenges she faces, rather than looked upon as "less-than" by women who make different choices.

    I guess what I'm really saying is that, as women, we need to show a little solidarity,. We waste time and emotional energy condemning and defending individual life choices. We should invest that energy in efforts that will benefit all women.