Thursday, December 01, 2005

Women And Math

For our first real post, let's start out with something nice and non-controversial.

This train of thought originated at Protein Wisdom, where Jeff wrote a lengthy post about identity politics, ripping on my old friend Amp from Alas, among other sacred cows. The discussion mutated, as discussions always do, and one commenter came up with a logical construct that I hadn't seen before regarding women and math. My version of her construct, greatly expanded because of the beauty my words have when put on a screen:

When social and legal barriers to the full participation of women were dismantled, largely resulting from the work of feminists, women began excelling in a wide variety of fields that had been previously closed or provided only limited access. Law, medicine, politics, post-secondary teaching, administration, business management - women swarmed into these fields and generally advanced with rapidity and professionalism.

In other fields, however, women did not begin to participate with nearly the same success. Engineering faculties continue to be dominated by men, even as the law schools fill up with brilliant women. Scratch a computer engineer and you're likely to find a penis - one that's attached to a coder who wouldn't be surprised to find himself working for a woman. Woman math majors are three or four in a hundred. The phenomenon is very well known; in fields involving language, communication, social involvement, the humanities, and so forth, women have made huge strides; in mathematically-oriented fields, women have not made much improvement over the old days, when the occasional genius would fight past the sexist gatekeepers of the profession and become major contributors to the field.

Feminists will explain this discrepancy by attributing it to sexism. However, sexism cannot be the explanation, at least not without special pleading that seems difficult to substantiate. Sexism certainly explained why there were few women engineers in 1930, and it also explained why there were few women law professors. But there are now lots of women law professors, even if not as many as feminists would like - where are the engineers? Feminists can plead a special case here, that for some reason men who work in mathematically-oriented fields are irredeemably sexist and have conspired together to keep women out. However, that answer simply opens up new questions. In a legal environment that is no longer hostile to discrimination claims (and one where discrimination claims can still provide huge payouts) where are the legions of unhired chemical engineers suing DuPont for running a boy's club? There does not appear to be any differential between mathematically-oriented and humanities-oriented jobs in terms of the level of anti-discrimination lawsuits.

Pure libertarians will argue that women make different choices than men; women don't teach engineering because women don't study engineering, and so on. There's probably something to this theory; there is no reason to think that every profession or field of study is equally attractive to each sex. However, this too leads to more questions - specifically, why aren't women choosing these fields?

I believe the answer is that, broadly, it's because they aren't very good at them. More to the point, for most women there are (individually) better choices available than pursuing a mathematically-oriented career. Extensive research has demonstrated that, broadly speaking, women perform worse than men at tasks involving many kinds of mathematical and scientific reasoning. The differences are not large but they are measurable, real, and consistently observed. Most analysts looking at this information focus on the gender differentiation, but that differentiation doesn't explain much individual behavior. I am not as good a golfer as Tiger Woods, but that doesn't stop me from hitting the course.

What is more material about this finding is that it indicates that for the typical woman of a certain intellectual level, the odds are high that her innate verbal abilities are superior to her innate mathematical abilities. In a professional context, it is most logical (and often, most satisfying) for most people to reinforce strengths rather than attempt to remedy weaknesses. I have outstanding verbal skills, and very good mathematical skills. I have worked both as a nonfiction editor, and as a computer programmer. I perform either job at a level of professional competence, but I am a better editor than I am a programmer. I am happier while I am editing than while I am coding, overall.

Women engage in this calculus. I recall any number of girls in junior high, high school and college, mumbledy-mumble years ago, who were really smart. I recall one girl whose mathematical performance was truly outstanding, and greater than her verbal performance; we sat together in Geometry class and bounced proofs back and forth, annoying the teacher, for whom the idea that mathematics could lead to joy was apparently anathema. But for the most part, the girls were better at the language stuff than the math stuff. To exaggerate slightly, if you can be Sandra Day O'Connor if you go to law school, or a talented and competent civil engineer building parking structures in Topeka if you go to engineering school, doesn't it make a lot more sense to go to law school? (Cf. Ricardo's Law of Comparative Advantage.)

The libertarian-economic theory seems to explain the observed facts considerably better than the feminist theory.

1 comment:

enobarbus said...

Well said. My wife has done some work on this (engineering, specifically) from a communications/marketing perspective for a fairly big-name engineering school. For all their recruitment efforts they cannot successfully attract and retain a significant female enrollment.

Naturally, she and I both know why. Just as naturally, the provost of the university is not interested in that answer. See Larry Summers on this subject.

As an aside, I have to mention that I clicked over from the remarkably vapid discussion of John Derbyshire's rather obvious comments on what, in another context, might be called "the trivialities of sexual selection," but were, in this context, called "an endorsement of pedophilia," or some such garbage. At any rate, I like your comments, and I am doubly pleased to see your latest blog on it's inaugural day. Cheers.