Thus Spake Zuska

UPDATE: Apparently it was not clear to some people that the second “quote” below is a parody written by me, of the first quote written by someone else. I hope this clears it up.

You may want to advocate for gender equity in science and engineering. But you are just wasting your energy. Pat O’Hurley tells us so.

I’m simply saying that it is [foolish] to expect female engineering enrollment to be equal to men’s enrollment, if engineering is a field which is, statistically speaking, more attractive to men than to women.

This would be an insight gained from the following sort of deeply objective and scientific analysis:

There aren’t a lot of women in engineering. I personally believe this is because women just don’t like Teh Engineering. They don’t like engineering because engineering is for Teh Men. Engineering is for men because it is what men do. It is not for women because it is not what women do. There is Boy Stuff, and there is Girl Stuff. Engineering is Boy Stuff.

Maybe there are a few freakazoid women who like engineering, and possibly they may experience some minor amounts of discrimination AFTER they enter the field. But we don’t want to turn all nice nurturing women into freakazoids. Otherwise civilization would collapse. All the freakazoid women who might be interested in engineering are already in engineering. You can’t find any more of them.

These conclusions are reached through the sophisticated method of pulling numbers out of my ass. Women just don’t like engineering and there’s no need to think about why that might be, or to suspect that it has anything to do with the culture of engineering itself, or institutionalized sexism, or gender role socialization. It’s just part of women’s biology. You can’t fight nature.

And there you have it. I guess we can all relax and go out for a beer now, because Pat has figured out that women’s innate womanly natures prevent them from being interested in Boy Stuff.

Comments

  1. #1 Pat O'Hurley
    April 30, 2008

    Well, since it is clear that you are either unable or unwilling to fairly and rationally discuss the point I actually made, rather than the silly paranoid statement you fabricated, you could have at least had the decency and ethical consideration to not that the second “quote” in this post consisted of your words.

  2. #2 iltc
    April 30, 2008

    Pat, your problem is that you said “statistically speaking, more attractive to men than to women” as opposed to say, “statistically speaking, has more men than women”. Because I don’t think that you know, “statistically”, exactly how many women find engineering attractive. Because a lot more women find it attractive than necessarily end up working in it, the reasons why being, like, one of the main topics of this blog.

  3. #3 Pat O'Hurley
    April 30, 2008

    iltc,

    I was making a conditional statement: if it is true that engineering is more attractive to men than it is to women, then expecting, in enrollment, the same number of men as women is an unattainable goal.

    I never claimed to know this for a fact, but merely accepted that it is possible, given that men and woman seem to have (as a group or on the whole) different interests. I’m not saying that either is better or worse, just different.

    If it is true that women are as attracted to engineering as men are, then I think it would be wonderful if the engineering enrollment statistics mirrored those of law schools and medical schools in this regard.

    There was no reason to mischaracterize my statement. I did not say that women are wrong to like engineering or anything about “freakazoids” or any of that garbage. As far as I’m concerned, every woman (or man for that matter) should pursue whatever career she wants and success or failure should be not be based on her sex, but on the merits of her work. I never said otherwise.

  4. #4 WaterMoose
    April 30, 2008

    Why aren’t more men in human ecology (home economics)? That is a social evil that must be rectified. Surely it’s some form of discrimination, not choice.

  5. #5 Karen
    April 30, 2008

    I was a successful engineer, technical leader, and finally engineering manager for two decades. In lean years I got one of the few raises; in layoffs, I was always the last to go, when the entire project was shut down. I usually found ways to deal with the (mostly unconscious) sexism that afflicted my male colleagues, though that was a major source of irritation. But ultimately working my ass off on projects with a 6-month shelf life, seeing engineers hold up their end only to have the project shut down by mismanagement and bad marketing, got to be too difficult to continue.

    I took some time off to tend to ailing parents, and with them gone I’m retraining for another field. My husband, also an engineer, is still coping, but the situation is getting to him, too. He survives by being able to focus on the engineering tasks and screen out the rest of the environment for large chunks of time. Perhaps that is a trait that favors males, for whatever reason.

  6. #6 iltc
    April 30, 2008

    @Pat,

    The thing is, the readership of this blog is largely women who are working professionals in science and engineering. Then, probably without realizing that you are perpetuating an age-old stereotype, you say you “merely accepted that it is possible, given that men and woman seem to have (as a group or on the whole) different interests.” Ok the thing is here that most of the female readership of this blog, myself included, have the ‘same interests’ as men when it comes to sci / tech / eng. And we hear comments like yours about several times a week. It gets old. Would you tell black people that you accept that it’s “possible” that maybe they just have different interests from white people and that they like singing and dancing and sports more? Do you know how many of us women get regularly criticized for having ‘non-female’ interests? And then you innocently buy into the societal party line that we do have ‘different interests’ and regurgitate it back to us, and wonder why people are getting upset.

    I liked cross stitching when I was kid because that’s what I was exposed to as a girl. Later I started building computers despite being told it was ‘too hard’ and I never cross stitched again. How much is societal exposure vs actual interest? Again, maybe reading more posts on this blog might be helpful.

    @WaterMoose: Actually, men are discriminated against when they try to enter female disciplines like nursing, and nobody here is ever going to say that’s ok, because it’s not. The difference is that men are not barred from high status / high pay disciplines in the way that women are.

  7. #7 Red Panda
    April 30, 2008

    Zuska,

    I love your blog and your posts, but this seems a bit extreme. Pat’s original post didn’t say, or even imply, what you said it did. You even made it seem like you were directly quoting Pat’s post, when those were in fact your words. Pat’s post brings up some interesting points (such as why engineering is slower to welcome women than other fields), and whether there might be gender differences in interest in engineering. Do we know that there aren’t? I’ll fight alongside you to the bitter end on most of your posts, but this one is out of line.

    -Fellow shoe-puking female scientist

  8. #8 Noumena
    April 30, 2008

    Anyone who thinks `the best that you could hope for, even if you were able to eliminate sexism and every other compulsion completely, is a 70:30 enrollment ratio between men and women in engineering’ is a reasonable assumption is arguing from flat ignorance of what happens when you make a serious and sustained effort to eliminate sexism from, for example, one of the most prestigious undergraduate schools for computer science and engineering in the country.

  9. #9 WaterMoose
    April 30, 2008

    @iltc,

    Actually my wife is a nurse and we’ve spoken many times about how the male nurses seem to get the prime schedules, the great shift diffs, etc. It totally blows me away. They (Men) also tend to get promoted faster. Men are not discriminated against in nursing. Maybe academic nursing, but not in the real world.

    Of course, this is here in the Deep South. Male teachers seem to get put on the fast track to principal-ships too, even if they are dumb-as-a-post football coaches.

  10. #10 Pat O'Hurley
    April 30, 2008

    iitc,
    I appreciate your comments, but I do not believe I was perpetuating stereotypes, as much as I would questioning whether the premise that there is no gender difference in the interest in engineering is, in fact, correct and discussing the ramifications if it was not. It was certainly never my intent to do otherwise.

    ***
    Red Panda,
    Thank you.

    ***
    Noumena,
    I made up those numbers to illustrate the point. Again, I don’t know if there is a gender difference in interest in engineering, but was simply exploring the ramification of that question. As I said in my previous post, if that gender difference does not exist, then I believe that there should be no difference in gender in enrollment.

  11. #11 Carlie
    April 30, 2008

    You even made it seem like you were directly quoting Pat’s post, when those were in fact your words.

    I’ve only been reading this blog for two weeks and I thought it was perfectly clear that the second quote was her summary version of Pat’s points.

    if that gender difference does not exist, then I believe that there should be no difference in gender in enrollment.

    Only if both genders are treated equally with regard to that field from birth. When girls get the message “science is icky and for boys” their whole lives, then sure, a lot of them won’t be interested in it. Because they’ve been told not to be interested in it. Because they got zero to negative attention when they showed interest in it, and got positive attention when they turned to other things. It doesn’t take place in a vacuum.

  12. #12 Cherish
    April 30, 2008

    It’s pretty well-known sociological phenomena that men in predominantly female (i.e. undervalued) career tracks tend to rise to the top levels of those careers. They can and do experience sexism from society, but they fare none-the-worse career-wise. (This would be why most of the principals at public schools tend to be male.)

    It’s also pretty well known that young women (falsely) believe themselves to not be competant in math and science related topics when they are in high school. I haven’t seen much research on the whys of this phenomena (probably due to my lack of looking, not due to there being a dearth of research), but I would hedge my bets that most women don’t go into these careers because of this lack of belief in their own abilities as well as the fact that it’s not socially accepted. It’s not terribly easy being a freakazoid.

  13. #13 decrepitoldfool
    April 30, 2008

    If you’re taking a poll, I thought at first it was a continuation of quotes from Pat, but before finishing the second sentence figured out that it was satire of what he said. But he did make it very clear in his original comment that the numbers he used were rhetorical rather than factual.

    It might in fact be true that engineering is not attractive to women. I don’t know any female engineers but I do know a few in the sciences and one in mathematics, and they all report being treated like an infant by men in their field. That would take a lot of the reward out of a career right there.

  14. #14 absinthe
    April 30, 2008

    Cherish,

    Your comment reminds me of a conversation I had with my dad several years ago. He simply refused to admit that it was hard for women to make it up to the top echelons of business because he said he thought that there were probably more business women than business men (just like Pat, he came to this conclusion by picking numbers out of his ass). I randomly picked up one of my step-mother’s magazines off of the coffee table(I think it was Better Homes and Gardens) and I said, well, let’s just look at who is on the staff of this women’s magazine. Sure enough, the editor, associated editor, assistant editor, assistant to the assistant editor, etc were all male (every single freaking one of them). Much more lowly positions like the marketing director, public relations director, etc etc were pretty much all female. I actually surprised even myself because I wasn’t expecting it to be that stilted.

    My dad shut up after that. And he isn’t easy to shut up.

  15. #15 Heather
    April 30, 2008

    One of the reasons I always thought that women got into medicine and law so quickly compared to science and engineering is that they’re much more visible professions. Everyone sees doctors and dentists. Everyone sees teachers, policemen, firemen, people working in service fields. They know what lawyers and politicians do.

    Engineering is almost completely transparent (particularly if the engineering is done well), and is only ever really noticed when there’s a catastrophic failure (airplane crash, structural collapse, space shuttle disaster). Science is held at arm’s length by the media– few journalists seem to truly understand it and be able to convey it accurately and interestingly to the public, and it’s generally only delved into to scare the living hell out of people or push a political agenda, not to fascinate and inspire them.

    Engineers don’t get standing ovations on television. We don’t have a lot of our own shows like lawyers and doctors do. Engineers are portrayed largely as unapproachable and socially inept super-geniuses, if they’re even mentioned at all. No one knows what they really do or how they go about doing it. No mention is made of the different types of engineering. I didn’t know that engineering was even a career option until I was a junior in high school. That’s pretty sad, especially since my father even majored in aerospace engineering in college (he went on to become a career pilot after graduation, which is why it was seldom if ever mentioned). I had to do a bunch of research before I figured out which type of engineering interested me, whereas I had a bunch of friends who knew when they were 10 that they loved arguing, so they were going to be lawyers, or they loved bossing people around, so they were going to be business managers, or they wanted to fix people, so they were going to be doctors. If you liked playing with Erector sets, you were going to be a mechanic, not a mechanical engineer.

    Even when I was in college, the response I got most often to idle inquiries about what my major was from students in one of the other colleges was “Wow, you must be really smart.” Well, I am, but you can’t assume that just based on my major (and it leaves me wondering what kind of students they let into the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences these days). Most people that I knew in high school could have majored in engineering and passed with flying colors if they wanted to– but a lot of them insisted that (despite good grades in the classes) they were bad at math/science. But that’s another discussion. Engineering is seen (by a lot of men as well as women) as only for the Mensa members of the world– and that can be intimidating if you don’t already believe that this is something that is well within your abilities and really interesting to you. I was lucky enough to have always been told, and thus believed, that I was intelligent and good at math (and that my mother was too!) and could do anything I wanted. While I enjoy the status it gives me, I’d be happy to see the stereotype go away if it helped attract more diversity and got rid of the stodgy attitudes towards having any interests outside of your career in engineering.

    Even if neither of your parents are doctors or lawyers, you know what they are and what they do. Most engineering majors that I knew (including the women) had at least one parent that was an engineer– that’s how we found out about it. A lot of the organizations that I worked with in college were trying to fix that by volunteering at science and engineering events for kids like the Science Olympiad, FIRST Lego League competitions, and Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day activities, but those only go so far with limited advertising and production budgets. It’s also the university town kids generally getting the benefits of a lot of these programs, and that’s not always where the encouragement needs to be sown.

    I know this is almost completely anecdotal, and if you want some figures I can go look some up for you. I’ve still got almost all of my textbooks from the Women in Engineering class I took in college. I think, though, that we’ve got a crappy marketing board that’s to blame, not a bunch of bum women.

  16. #16 ExperimentAndFindOut
    April 30, 2008

    There’s a simple experiment that would sort out this whole “aptitude vs attitude” question: for the next 800 years, say, prevent men from enrolling in higher (or any) education, burn them if they are “different”, don’t let them express opinions in public, keep them at home taking care of the kids, rewrite the family laws to treat them like property, and force them to beg at the side of the road if their wife dies. Then very gradually ease up on those restrictions. See whether folks then tend to think the aptitudes have reversed. Somehow, no one ever wants to perform this experiment.

  17. #17 bicycle Hussein paladin
    April 30, 2008

    I took the last paragraph of the original post, e.g. “You can’t fight nature,” as sarcastic; maybe I misread that?

    When girls get the message “science is icky and for boys” their whole lives, then sure, a lot of them won’t be interested in it. Because they’ve been told not to be interested in it. Because they got zero to negative attention when they showed interest in it, and got positive attention when they turned to other things. It doesn’t take place in a vacuum.

    This is definitely sexist, but it’s not a matter of male engineers themselves driving women away from engineering. Some engineers being neanderthals could be (and is, I’m sure) turning some women away from engineering at, say, ages 15-21, but I don’t think it has a lot to do with whether girls develop an interest before they start meeting said neanderthal would-be engineers, or with their being confident about their ability to do math & science, etc. at, say, age 14. I bet the stereotype of engineers being geeks/antisocial does a lot more of that work (and, perhaps, disproportionately on girls).

    Looking at it from another angle, if boys who show too much interest in science & academic stuff (or for that matter certain hobbies, especially ones that resemble science or academic stuff) are stigmatized (and we are), and part of that stigma is that science is icky, it’s for geeks, and that if you play D&D you will never “get a girl”, I think it’s safe to say that this plays a role in engineers being intimidated by women in their profession.

    Not only will some of these men be intimidated by women in general, because they’ve been led to expect that women will consider them undesirable, but a woman in their ‘geeky’ profession could be seen by them to be having their cake and eating it too, having an ‘in’ on engineering and also an ‘in’ on a whole range of social interaction they feel excluded from. And that’s not fair. Maybe in part because they don’t understand that whole dynamic, or because they realize it only subconsciously, they will invent all kinds of other (unfair!) privileges that women are supposed to be benefiting from (they get special treatment! affirmative action! they’re not really here because they’re good at engineering! …)

    So, sure, women aren’t not going into engineering just because they’re inherently, biologically uninterested, but it’s not the fault of male engineers either; in fact it’s partly the fault of women non-engineers who help propagate harmful stereotypes about engineers and other species of geeks.

  18. #18 steppen wolf
    April 30, 2008

    There’s a simple experiment that would sort out this whole “aptitude vs attitude” question: for the next 800 years, say, prevent men from enrolling in higher (or any) education, burn them if they are “different”, don’t let them express opinions in public, keep them at home taking care of the kids, rewrite the family laws to treat them like property, and force them to beg at the side of the road if their wife dies. Then very gradually ease up on those restrictions. See whether folks then tend to think the aptitudes have reversed. Somehow, no one ever wants to perform this experiment.

    And that really says it all. Thank you for pointing this out.

  19. #19 WaterMoose
    April 30, 2008

    There’s a simple experiment that would sort out this whole “aptitude vs attitude” question: for the next 800 years, say, prevent men from enrolling in higher (or any) education, burn them if they are “different”, don’t let them express opinions in public, keep them at home taking care of the kids, rewrite the family laws to treat them like property, and force them to beg at the side of the road if their wife dies. Then very gradually ease up on those restrictions. See whether folks then tend to think the aptitudes have reversed. Somehow, no one ever wants to perform this experiment.

    Quite possibly the dumbest thing ever written on ScienceBlogs.

    Let’s move on to the reality based community…

  20. #20 NotEvenAsAThoughtExperiment
    May 1, 2008

    That experiment was performed, very much in reality, on women.
    Yet you are unwilling to consider it even as a thought experiment, on men?

  21. #21 vileseagulls
    May 1, 2008

    We can’t go out for a beer! Beer is Boy Stuff!

  22. #22 Karen
    May 1, 2008

    @vileseagulls:
    We can’t go out for a beer! Beer is Boy Stuff!

    ‘sokay, ladies. We’ll get together for a beer instead, and toast each other. How many cases should I get? And what kind? My personal favorite is a local craft brew. Who’s got chips and salsa duty?

  23. #23 daedalus2u
    May 1, 2008

    The citation for the research that showed that women exposed to the wrong idea that mathematical ability is linked to possessing a Y chromosome then do worse at math is here:

    http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/314/5798/435

    It isn’t a close call. Telling people they suck at something actually makes them suck at it.

  24. #24 bsci
    May 1, 2008

    Pat,
    I think you are missing the point here. Let’s say you are right that more men than women are innately more interested than engineering. In engineering fields and schools that are more welcoming to women, the male:female ratio is between 60:40 and 52:48.
    Most fields and departments have male:female ratios between 95:5 and 70:30. I’ve seem entire engineering departments with 80:20 ratios at the undergraduate level.
    What makes up the difference? Even if you truly feel some of this difference is innate, do you really doubt that sexism and other social factors are also a major issue? Doesn’t it make sense to identify and correct this even if the eventual result will only be 55:45 in some fields.

  25. #25 Katharine
    May 1, 2008

    Attitude does not equal aptitude, nor can you say no woman likes engineering or is good at it. Nor do I like the sexism expressed in your post. In addition, it is full of spectacularly bad logic.

    And there are plenty of women interested in various fields of engineering. After I get my PhD in neuroscience, I’m planning to get an MS in biomedical engineering and do work in neuroengineering in addition to what I want to do in cognitive neuroscience. One of my good female friends is a mechanical engineering major.

    For the most part, science is not stigmatized, but among the people who stigmatize it, we really have to unstigmatize it – and it wouldn’t hurt if we slightly stigmatized the professions that require less brains, such as the entertainment industry and business. I mean, seriously, every theater major and business major I’ve ever met has been a complete moron.

  26. #26 Steve
    May 1, 2008

    Zuska –

    As others have stated, I generally enjoy reading your posts here. However, I think that the second “quote” should have been clearly attributed as your personal impression of what Pat thought, not presented identically to the prior, actual, quote. It doesn’t take any effort to be fair to people you agree with, and it is a lot of work to be fair to people you don’t – don’t take the easy way out.

    Why is it so offensive to so many people to suggest that there might be statistical differences in cognition between races, sexes, etc? Pat’s statement was conditional (paraphrasing): “IF, in fact, engineering is more interesting to men on some biological level, it would be a bad idea to force the ratio to equal numbers.” Do you disagree with that statement as expressed? No one seems to be offended by standard observations like “girls develop linguistically much earlier than boys, statistically speaking”. Why would Pat’s observation be more offensive?

    The research that comes to mind was based on frequency of certain types of autism – when you take an engineering/math geek/physics/computer chick and they have a kid with a partner that’s also a math/engineering/physics/computer geek, you have a ridiculously high instance of these particular autistic traits. Often, the people that are really whiz-bang (as in, “they just get it”) at these things demonstrate some small degree of these same autistic spectrum symptoms. As it turns out, boys are more likely to exhibit these symptoms than girls. Some brave souls suggested that there might be MORE boys that are exceptional at these things than girls. Careful statisticians will note that this does not mean “boys are better at x than girls”, only that “more boys are good at x than girls”. I’m not saying I think the conclusions are warranted, I’m just saying that rejecting those conclusions without fair consideration is not intellectually honest or scientifically beneficial.

    As to all of the professional engineering females that frequent this blog, I have one question: Is the plural of ‘anecdote’ data?

  27. #27 Noumena
    May 1, 2008

    Pat –
    I don’t know if there is a gender difference in interest in engineering

    Exactly. You don’t know if there is a gender difference. You haven’t bothered to do any research on whether there is a difference, what happens when you work on increasing female enrollment in SME programmes, etc. You decided that you didn’t have to do the hard work of reading up on the topic before pontificating.

    Steve –
    I’m not saying I think the conclusions are warranted, I’m just saying that rejecting those conclusions without fair consideration is not intellectually honest or scientifically beneficial.

    I can’t speak for Zuska. But, the thing is, the hypotheses you consider in your comment have been considered, and rejected, for decades now. (Baron-Cohen’s `male brain’ theory, applied to SME disciplines, only makes sense on the silly assumptions that everyone uses the same cognitive strategies to solve math problems and that cognitive strategies cannot be taught.) People like you, Pat, Steven Pinker, and Larry Summers like to trot them out as hypotheses that we should consider — and, in doing so, demonstrate a profound lack of intellectual honesty and respect for the people who have already considered them. Like Pat, you’re simply deciding that you don’t have to do the hard work of reading up on the topic before pontificating.

    Is there any scientific subject besides the interests of women where you’d feel qualified to share your opinion without reading up on the literature first? If not, why the difference here?

  28. #28 Flora
    May 1, 2008

    Oh great. Now I’m a freakazoid for wanting to go back to school for… engineering. Thanks a lot.

  29. #29 Mecha
    May 1, 2008

    Pat, you are making an argument line which is roundly rejected because its basis, ‘women are clearly so very different from men’ always implies, ‘based on how they are born, not how they are socialized’, which is why Zuska very clearly got at the core of your argument with her sarcasm. From your FIRST post in that thread:

    “since men and women are different, they may not have an equal interest in pursuing engineering as a career.”

    This is a very common argument among scientific-minded people (usually men) who just want to ‘consider the possibility’ that women just don’t want to do science/engineering/vote/speak (depending on their degree of sexism and what era they existed in) so the inequalities are probably okay, _except that you said since men and women are different, not if_. And sex organs, chest size, and muscle mass do not a big difference in scientific interest make. You know what does? Being told you can’t do it, or you shouldn’t do it, or being shocked whenever a woman shows up doing something scientific that wouldn’t make you blink twice if a guy were doing it.

    Your hypothesis is furthermore not particularly testable, because the world is sexist and thereby makes it impossible to measure how many women would do X and Y if people didn’t push them around. However, it IS dismissive of womens’ opinions, especially women engineers and scientists, and it is dismissive in a space which is supposed to be _for_ women engineers and scientists to feel relatively safe discussing this issue, which other people think is ‘too narrow’ or ‘a relic of the past’ or ‘so much better than it was before, quit whining’, or ‘but women just don’t want to do engineering/science as much.’

    While you saw it as conditional, the basis that you could even consider it, as your first post in that topic thread makes clear, your ‘condition’ relies on an assumption which basically makes it clear that while you believe in sexism, you also believe that women on average just don’t want to do engineering anyway. And the next step after that for MANY (although not necessarily you) is, ‘So I don’t have to worry about it. Whew!’ If you want to be an ally, don’t legitimize that viewpoint.

    You know the best (only?) way to test your hypothesis? Eliminate sexism. So let’s get to work.

    -Mecha

  30. #30 Mecha
    May 1, 2008

    I forgot to mention in my post that my point about it being a scientific excuse in general dovetailed well with Noumena’s excellent comments towards both Steve and Pat. I don’t wanna take over their voice on the topic. ^^; Just hopefully adding a bit more explicitness to how Pat managed to step in it.

    -Mecha

  31. #31 Steve
    May 1, 2008

    Noumena -
    I can’t speak for Zuska. But, the thing is, the hypotheses you consider in your comment have been considered, and rejected, for decades now. (Baron-Cohen’s `male brain’ theory, applied to SME disciplines, only makes sense on the silly assumptions that everyone uses the same cognitive strategies to solve math problems and that cognitive strategies cannot be taught.)

    Muzzatti and Agnola’s work is certainly relevant, but only replicates what other studies have demonstrated generically (that a person’s preconception of their comparative status with competitors affects the outcome of the competition), but in a gender-difference role.

    I’m not sure what research you’re talking about, but it sounds like you’re claiming that research exists that demonstrates clearly that there is no difference in male and female cognition… yet it’s not difficult at all to find research that illustrates such differences in many ways. A few minutes with a search engine or two turn up quite a few studies relating cognition and hormones. Also, many cognitive differences that are sex-linked show up early enough in development that it’s problematic to demonstrate how social pressure could influence them.

    “… and that cognitive strategies cannot be taught.” I didn’t get that from the light reading of Baron-Cohen that I’ve done. I think it’s a given that anyone of moderate intelligence can be taught a considerable swath of maths, and even to become proficient, regardless of race, gender, etc. If in fact SBC makes that claim, I would absolutely agree that the conclusion was silly, but he didn’t. As he said: “It’s true that scientists have documented psychological and physiological differences between male and female brains. But Mr. Summers was wrong to imply that these differences render any individual woman less capable than any individual man of becoming a top-level scientist.” I think your dismissal of his work is a little premature, and seemingly, under-informed ( I’ve been unable to find a reference supporting your assertion that he believes – or requires for his theories – that everyone use the same cognitive strategies, and it’s obvious from the provided quote that he has not asserted that cognitive strategies cannot be taught). I would be glad to revise that view if you can provide references where he makes those claims, or even illustrate how it would be a requirement of his work.

  32. #32 Steve
    May 1, 2008

    Mecha -

    Let me clarify something. I’m not particularly invested in this debate; I have no emotional attachment to either conclusion, and I completely agree with your goal of eliminating sexism. I don’t believe for one moment that any statistical analysis applies conclusively to any individual. I’m raising my daughter to believe that she can do anything she sets her mind to, and I will encourage her to study maths, and science, and art, and music – just as I would a son. I will also teach her that there are people who will tell her she can’t do something because she’s a girl, and that she should ignore those people without reservation.

    “..However, it IS dismissive of womens’ opinions, especially women engineers and scientists,…” Here, I have to disagree. I will once again point out that statistical generalities can be accurate without telling you ANYTHING about a specific individual. Not only that, but we were talking about interest, not ability. So feel free to break out the numbers or the references, and I’ll give you exactly the same consideration I would anyone else on the ‘net – that is, I’ll read your references and check your math (provided I understand it enough to do so) and consider your opinion carefully. I won’t even consider your sex in that equation, if for no other reason than I cannot know it – you’re a name on the internet, no more.

    And for my own anecdotal contribution… I don’t hear any great lamenting when some random study turns up a tidbit like “Women perform statistically better than men as therapists when self-reported patient recovery rates are measured”. Everybody just shrugs and says “Of course. Men don’t listen.” And when I hang out with my female ‘geek’ friends, and they bitch about their boyfriends or spouses, all of them demonstrate significant preconceptions – “Men don’t listen. Men are slobs. Men …. (fill in the blank from your own late night discussions)”. (Don’t get me wrong, men do the same kind of thing – this is no indictment of women, just an observation)

    “Your hypothesis is furthermore not particularly testable, because the world is sexist and thereby makes it impossible to measure how many women would do X and Y if people didn’t push them around.” – I would have to take exception to this assertion. I think people every day think of clever ways to test bits and pieces of hypotheses in spite of the kind of constraints you mention here. If any field of science I can think of required that testing covered 100% of the population sampled, we wouldn’t get very far.

  33. #33 iltc
    May 1, 2008

    @Steve,

    I don’t talk trash about men so I don’t approve of women who do.

    As for the rest of your points, the problem is that by discussing ‘women’s interests’ or ‘black intelligence’ or any of this stuff, we are wading into very vague, very dangerous, and most often unscientific territory. I welcome honest scientific investigation into differences in female and male cognition… the problem is that it’s not what we generally get. We get single, narrow studies, that then get hijacked for political or social purposes.

    Basically it’s a short road indeed between “considering differences in female interests” and things like “teaching the controversy on evolution”. Part of the problem is the very way that the question is posited or framed: “why are women different?” “what’s wrong with evolution and why is it debatable?” Leading questions, all of them. And again, you are not the first and not the last man to ask why we can’t talk about ‘female differences’ scientifically, just as many people like James Watson also feel compelled to ‘innocently’ ask why we can’t talk about racial differences.

    The devil is all in the details.

  34. #34 Noumena
    May 1, 2008

    Steve –

    Notice that you’ve just dramatically changed the subject. I, following Pat, was talking about sex-linked differences in interests, of the sort that are relevant to deciding what field to go into (or stay in, or leave). Research on sex-linked differences in cognition are only relevant here if you make the sorts of assumptions I called silly — that the cognitive strategies SBC bundles into his model male brain (`systematizing’ strategies) are necessary for solving math problems (and other kinds of problems that show up in SME), and that these cognitive strategies are innate (ie, can’t be taught), for example. If SBC rejects one or both of these assumptions (NB the quotation you give has nothing to do with either assumption), then fine, for the sake of the argument here, I’ll grant him his model. But that also makes it irrelevant to understanding underrepresentation.

  35. #35 Steve
    May 1, 2008

    iltc -

    Oh, I absolutely agree that one must still apply careful analytical consideration to such assertions and consider them on the grounds of the evidence, not personal bias. I agree that such things frequently get hijacked by the ‘general public’ for political or social reasons, absolutely. I would never start the discussion with “Why are women different?” I would expect a much more narrow and sex-neutral question, like, “why is there a statistical difference in patient survival rates between male and female surgeons?” or “if a group of children believe that girls are smarter than boys, will more girls pursue science?”. Or even better, “When we select children for a study who believe that girls are smarter than boys, and provide them with the opportunity to pursue maths and sciences unrewarded, what percentage of each will choose such pursuits?”.

    I’m also completely willing to accept the results of such research as information. Right now I see quite a few of conflicting conclusions drawn from research. For instance, I see quite a bit of research showing high correlation between hormone balance and certain cognitive propensities that show a clear gender correlation. Then I see psychological experiments that show certain preconceptions can impact future outcomes. The methodologies are such that both could be exactly accurate, yet they’re often held up as a refutation of the other, as though they represent opposing political views.

    I think that every person, male or female, that wants to pursue any technical field, should be encouraged to do so. It’s not like we have too many people that understand algebra or statistics. But I think that’s true no matter what the statistics say.

  36. #36 JimV
    May 1, 2008

    Off-topic response to Karen @ #5: that sounds very familiar to me, so I can at least pluralize your anecdote. I gave up full-time engineering at age 57 after a similar career, at a time when my experience and product knowledge (in a long-lifed product, power turbines) ought to have made my work reach a peak of value and personal satisfaction. Instead, I felt less listened-to than ever in my career. One big difference over my time was that I had two, highly technically-proficient managers (one a woman and one a man, coincidentally) in my first 18 years, and 12 managers (11 men, one woman) in my last 17 years. Some of the latter were proficient technically and some were bean-counters who couldn’t integrate a polynomial, but few lasted long enough to get much practical experience with our product before moving on to something else (in my large, congomerate corporation, GE). By the time I left, my company’s engineering HR organization was bigger than its research and development engineering organization (although the HR people for my business were located in another city in another state, and I never met my last couple HR reps – nor would they return my emails when I was thinking about quiting) (but don’t get me started on that). Anyway, good luck to you and your husband in your own careers.

    Looking back, I didn’t work with a lot of women, but those I did work with averaged out as at least as good engineers as the men. The biggest jerks or slackers were among the men, and the shiniest stars also, no doubt because there was a bigger population to categorize. I can tell you that a jerk male co-worker or boss makes life hard on male engineers too, but I can’t quantify that relative to a female’s experience. Just sayin’.

    (/off-topic nostalgia)

  37. #37 Steve
    May 1, 2008

    Noumena -

    I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to go too far offtopic.

    Honestly, I was under the impression that SBC’s research was in fact statistical, and that his assertion wasn’t that `systematizing’ strategies were necessary for solving math problems, only that they were better strategies for solving math problems. While I’ve only read three of his works (one paper, two articles), I don’t get the impression that he’s asserting that those things can’t be taught, only that they aren’t, currently. Obviously you’re more familiar with his work than I am; can you provide a reference for that assertion, or is it just your impression?

    I think that how easily math comes to a person could affect their interests. There are plenty of careers that have a significant mathematical component that have a full component of women, but math is a facet of their position, not the entire career. We’re talking about interest in fields with a primary task of performing complex mathematics, not simply using a set of complex formulas to spit out information about your ‘real’ interest, be it biology, sociology, or oceanography.

    Do you think that the ease with which you obtain the tools of a field has an impact on how interesting you would find that field as a vocation?

  38. #38 iltc
    May 1, 2008

    “Do you think that the ease with which you obtain the tools of a field has an impact on how interesting you would find that field as a vocation?”

    Absolutely.

    I would argue that your points about math are part of a larger problem right now for both genders. We need to demystify math in general. We introduce numeracy at a dangerously late age in school, and kids never get the sense of comfort. However, later on if/when kids want to catch up, there is more of a sense that this is somethign ‘easier’ for boys even though some studies have shown that teenage girls actually have the same or better ability.

    You mentioned you’re a dad, of a young girl. Have you taught her how to use tools? Have you built stuff with her, like a basic radio, or a model car or airplane? Do you take her to museums, especially technical ones?

    My dad did, and it made a huge difference. It’s not enough to just tell girls they are ‘good enough’, one has to show them with actions. For me there is no doubt that my comfort level with mechanical things comes from my father’s efforts. Tools have never been strange to me like to a lot of women. My dad also gave me real tools, not stupid crappy tools meant for girls or women. He also told me that I was good enough to learn things and do them properly and that he expected that from me.

    I started out with ‘girl interests’ because those were the easiest accessible from other women including my mom, as well as from other girls my age. Later, through my father’s influence as well as intellectual boredom and a reasonably progressive school, I took on ‘boy interests’ and found many of them much more interesting. I went on to get a PhD in chemistry. I had a variety of men try to block me in various ways, at every point. Luckily I also had several male mentors who’s belief in me reinforced the idea that I could just ignore the idiots.

    I can tell the difference, among women I’ve worked with, who had supportive male role models especially at a young age and who didn’t. There is a level of confidence there that is really different.

  39. #39 Mecha
    May 1, 2008

    Steve: Your quote about ‘And for my own anecdotal contribution… I don’t hear any great lamenting when some random study turns up a tidbit like “Women perform statistically better than men as therapists when self-reported patient recovery rates are measured”. Everybody just shrugs and says “Of course. Men don’t listen.”‘ and acting like I (and others) think that’s okay is a bit of a strawperson.

    1) I don’t think it’s okay. It’s a lot like the evopsych ‘just so’ stories that say, ‘Well, clearly men have want have sex with every woman. It was the best evolutionary strategy. They can’t help it!’ It’s an easy cognitive shortcut. But the fact that I had to say that it’s not okay just to continue engaging in the conversation is quite a digression.

    2) Saying ‘men don’t listen’ is unfortunately not the same class of thing, in my mind, as saying ‘men are generally genetically wired to have sex with every woman’ and ‘women are generally genetically wired to not want to do things like engineering.’ They are similarly essentialist, but the first one isn’t used to put men down, or keep them out of jobs, or reduce their wages, even though I do not like the stereotype. (It is, however, not wholly a sex-based stereotype, but a GENDERED stereotype, wherein ‘effeminate men’ listen, but ‘masculine men’ don’t listen. Where going, ‘Eh, I wasn’t listening to her anyway’ is something you tell your buddies to get a laugh on behalf of the male gender. As a side note.) The other two are used to justify all sorts of crap, from using gayness as an insult to keeping women out of science and more. This is a digression, but I felt like it was important to mention why it didn’t even deal with the topic at hand. In the general case, such a statement is more likely to have people (as happened above) have to defend themselves and say, ‘But I don’t believe in that!’ or else you’d just get to dismiss them.

    And as to you disagreeing with it being dismissive of women… What happens if someone goes around and tells you, “You know what? You and people like you just aren’t gonna _want to_ be an engineer. It’s just statistics. You have to believe it. Can’t argue with that. If you wanna be an engineer, you’re just abnormal, you know.” Is that honest discussion? Not really. Especially when you’re talking to women who are, in fact, wanting to be engineers, and many of them are damn good at it. I bet that you could, right now, find a lower number of, say, black scientists than white. Does that mean that black people just don’t wanna be engineers? That’s about all the evidence one has got for women: using current discrepancies and just-so stories about intelligence and brain wiring and whatever other assumptions you wanna make as justification for them ‘just not wanting to do it.’ And if you look back enough years, you’ll find the same arguments being made quite explicitly.

    When things along those lines are said in most cases, it treats women who are and want to be engineers like freaks, tells women who want to be engineers but aren’t that they’re gonna be freaks (so turn away now!), and tells women who don’t want to be engineers that they’re the norm, and gives them a patriarchy cookie if they want it or not (society likes handing out patriarchy cookies whenever you stay in the lines.) It’s dismissing the opinions of the minority and reinforcing the norm, so as to perpetuate a world in which women aren’t scientists, in a way that isn’t even particularly illuminating or helpful to the discussion (‘Look, all these women didn’t even think about the possibility that women just don’t want to do science! How silly of them.’) So yes, the initial opinion given by Pat is dismissive. As iltc mentioned: It’s a very short road to being dismissive, and walking up to someone discussing the topic and going, ‘But women don’t WANNA be scientists! That explains the discrepancy!’ is pretty much already there. Which is why I called it dismissive.

    And I said particularly testable (as opposed to completely untestable) for a reason. I’m sure you can grasp at pieces, but by all means, prove a significant component of the assertion Pat actually made, which that in a world devoid of gender constructs and that embraces equality, men and women wouldn’t be equally interested in engineering, but that there would be a significant enough difference in interest that that difference is as relevant (or MORE) to the discussion of why women aren’t in science than the far more obvious, omnipresent, and better proven existence of sexism.

    I mean, really. There’s an Occam’s razor situation here. What’s easier to believe, that the known fact that people tell women a thousand times that they can’t be X, punishing them for trying, treating women as lesser, etc, is the vast primary reason for women not being X, … or some unproven gender essentialist viewpoint which currently relies on data gathered in a world where women are, in fact, told that they can’t be X. One of those is a lot more likely, relevant, and ultimately better to deal with than the other.

    If we were in a world with almost no sexism, the tenor of any such discussion about ratios of women in engineering would be very different, for the sole fact that even if there were a disparity, the statements ‘But they’re discouraging us!’ OR ‘But you’re not cut out for it as a gender!’ would be thrown out as minor to nonexistent factors. Nor would it be something that people changed in any way other than trying to make the profession more appealing in general. So why do you, Steve, feel it’s acceptable, appropriate, and helpful now?

    -Mecha

  40. #40 Zuska
    May 1, 2008

    Here’s another problem with saying things like “you’ll never have parity because most women just aren’t interested in engineering” and assuming guys ARE “naturally” interested in engineering, and basing that by looking at who’s currently doing engineering. If you pull back and take a broader view, you could just as easily say “most men aren’t interested in engineering” because, in fact, most men do not do engineering. The percentage of all men who are engineers is small. U.S. population is about 300 million, so let’s say there are 150 million men in the U.S. There are only about 22 million scientists and engineers, total, in the U.S. NSF data I couldn’t find data on just engineers. For the sake of argument, say half the total are engineers, and assume as an upper limit that all of them are men. So even at the upper limit we have about 10 million engineers. So at most only 7% of men in the U.S. are engineers. The real percentage is certainly smaller, since not all engineers are men, and engineers do not comprise 50% of the science and engineering workforce. “Doing engineering” is not even close to a universal male trait. Engineering is not “man stuff” that all males are genetically predisposed to.

  41. #41 Steve
    May 1, 2008

    iltc -

    “We need to demystify math in general. We introduce numeracy at a dangerously late age in school, and kids never get the sense of comfort.”

    Absolutely agree, without regard to gender.

    “However, later on if/when kids want to catch up, there is more of a sense that this is somethign ‘easier’ for boys even though some studies have shown that teenage girls actually have the same or better ability.”

    Again, ability != interest *necessarily*, although it does speak to my question, and is a good point.

    “You mentioned you’re a dad, of a young girl. Have you taught her how to use tools? Have you built stuff with her, like a basic radio, or a model car or airplane? Do you take her to museums, especially technical ones?”

    Well, sort of. She has her own computer, she enjoys math and I work with her on it. We’ve taken stuff apart with screwdrivers and pliers, and put them back together. (my tools, from my computer tool case, so real tools, not toys) She’s seven, so no, I don’t let her use the drill or radial arm saw, but as soon as she’s physically strong enough and mature enough, I will hook her up, absolutely. We’re building a fence right now, and she helps me plumb and set the posts with a level and braces. We also go on photo-walks together, we’re working on perspective in drawing, and she spontaneously creates wonderful 3d artwork of cut-outs. I’ve not located any good museums of the sort you mention here in the midwest, but I would LOVE to take her to the Smithsonian and places similar. We’re certainly going to build a generating windmill together this summer, and put it up on the north peak of our house to see what kind of average wattage it will deliver. She asks plenty of questions, and I answer them until she gets tired of listening – lots of it she doesn’t understand yet, but I operate on the theory that she’ll remember a lot of the words, and later they’ll make sense – we’ve never talked down to her and most people are astonished by her vocabulary and comprehension of language.

    (sorry to be so long winded)

    I think EVERY PERSON – no joke – should be supported in their rational aspirations. Someone wants to be a scientist, an engineer, a chemist – by all means. Go for it. If you can hack it, you can drive it.

  42. #42 M.Z.
    May 1, 2008

    Steve – While we don’t have the Smithsonian around, there are several respectable museums in the region. The Field Museum and Adler Planetarium in Chicago are the best, in my opinion. There are also quite nice science museums in Minneapolis and Milwaukee. Also worth checking out are smaller gems, like the museum of surgical equipment in Chicago and the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

    Not so long ago I was a ten year old dragging my parents to the science museum in every city in the Upper Midwest. Come to think of it, tomorrow I’ll be a twenty year old dragging my parents to the science museums in Chicago. :-)

  43. #43 Steve
    May 1, 2008

    Zuska -

    “Doing engineering” is not even close to a universal male trait. Engineering is not “man stuff” that all males are genetically predisposed to.”

    I see nothing about your reply to disagree with. I don’t think that anything I have posted would lead inescapably to disagreement with your view there. We’re discussing the propensity for being interested in pursuing engineering/physics/mathematics as a career. I’ve made no claims, only expressed the view that there might be a gender-loaded difference in that propensity. Objections notwithstanding, I’ve not seen anything that would convince me that the offhand dismissal of SBC’s theories is any more than an appeal to consequences. Even then, the only claim is that we can expect a smaller number of women to be interested in those fields than men. There is no claim advanced that “boys are better at math” or anything else so torrid or eye catching; only that *more* boys should be good at math.

    It’s a rational response to say that you believe sociological conditions have far more influence over the results than any inherent gender bias, and I would be happy to see the research. But I can hit any database that collects scholarly papers that address this sort of thing and find many studies that show correlation between behaviors and gender, and between behaviors and hormone balance – one of the clearest differences between the sexes, so simple assertions that they are irrelevant or products of Desmond Morris’ fevered imagination are just that, assertions, not arguments.

    Regardless of the way you might interpret either outcome, the way I see it, it doesn’t change anything. Either you have what it takes to do the job, or you don’t; if you want to give it a shot, please do. We should encourage everyone who wants to pursue such a career regardless of their ancillary characteristics.

  44. #44 Noumena
    May 1, 2008

    Steve –

    I’ll try to make the point one more time. Maybe I left out a crucial word that’s causing the confusion. Without additional assumptions, SBC’s model is irrelevant to sex-linked differences in interest in SME. I’m not claiming that he himself makes these assumptions, or denies them. I have no idea what he himself thinks of these assumptions.

    You ask, `Do you think that the ease with which you obtain the tools of a field has an impact on how interesting you would find that field as a vocation?’ Yes. But I claim that it’s silly to appeal to SBC’s male brain model to then go on to hypothesise that it’s in some sense easier for men to obtain these tools, and this explains (a significant part of) underrepresentation. This appeal is silly because you have to make the additional assumption that a brain can easily learn how to solve SME problems if and only if it is what SBC calls systemising. So my particular claim is that this biconditional is at best implausible, and as a periodic math teacher I consider it simply risible.

    The impression I got was that you were trying to make such an appeal. Maybe this impression was false. But in that case, I have to wonder why you brought SBC’s work up in the first place.

  45. #45 Cherish
    May 1, 2008

    I don’t hear any great lamenting when some random study turns up a tidbit like “Women perform statistically better than men as therapists when self-reported patient recovery rates are measured”.

    I will quite happily be the counter-example to that argument. I abhor when studies come out about women are supposedly good at…usually because 1) they are things that I personally am not good at and 2) people assume since I am a woman, I must be good at those things.

    The whole “women are good at multi-tasking” BS…I’m always getting hit with it. Maybe on average they are, but I am not an “average woman” and really hate to be interrupted because I really need my concentration to be the least bit productive (which is what I’m saying as I’m closing my office door).

    The problem with saying “women are good at…” or “men are good at…” is that all of these studies are based on statistics. The general population sucks at statistics and doesn’t realize that these things are averages and will strongly vary from person to person.

    As an example, I had to take a course on family and child-rearing to fulfill a gen ed requirement in college. I remember the prof stating something like half of all divorces occur within the first year after marriage. Then he said that the average length of a marriage is seven years. Despite stating those two facts side by side, he assumed that *most* people who divorce do so after seven years…not that most marriages end in divorce either last one year or 13ish years.

    If the general population understood than norms don’t imply anything about an individual, I’d be okay with this. But they don’t…and I hate having assumptions made about me as an individual because others are bad at math. Unfortunately, it happens way too often.

  46. #46 Steve
    May 1, 2008

    Noumena -

    Honestly, I’m not trying to frustrate you. I’m just a simple systems engineer :D. I mentioned his work because he addresses underrepresentation specifically in context, while decrying Mr. Summers’ misconceptions about it. As to how he [SBC] got involved – let me quote myself:

    “Why is it so offensive to so many people to suggest that there might be statistical differences in cognition between races, sexes, etc? Pat’s statement was conditional (paraphrasing): “IF, in fact, engineering is more interesting to men on some biological level, it would be a bad idea to force the ratio to equal numbers.” Do you disagree with that statement as expressed? No one seems to be offended by standard observations like “girls develop linguistically much earlier than boys, statistically speaking”. Why would Pat’s observation be more offensive?” [ No one answered those questions, by the way. }

    "The research that comes to mind was based on frequency of certain types of autism.." [that's where SBC came in, as an example of some research that supports the idea of gender based statistical variance in cognition. ]

    You replied:

    “But, the thing is, the hypotheses you consider in your comment have been considered, and rejected, for decades now. (Baron-Cohen’s `male brain’ theory, applied to SME disciplines, only makes sense on the silly assumptions that everyone uses the same cognitive strategies to solve math problems and that cognitive strategies cannot be taught.)”

    Again, you never provided references for research supporting the rejection of “my comment”, only asserted that it exists. I would be honestly interested in seeing that research, if only for my own edification. And AGAIN, I don’t see the necessity that you assert: “only makes sense on the silly assumptions that everyone uses the same cognitive strategies to solve math problems and that cognitive strategies cannot be taught.” – I don’t see how those are necessary conditions of his theses in re SME. If you can illustrate to me why you think they are, I might agree with your assertion that it’s silly.

  47. #47 Noumena
    May 2, 2008

    Because the male brain model says nothing about what people are interested in. It hypothesises that different brains are good at learning and using different cognitive strategies. Cognitive strategies != interests.

    So you reply by saying `I think that how easily math comes to a person could affect their interests.’ And I agree. But being good at using systemising strategies != being good at math, and having trouble using systemising strategies != having trouble with math.

  48. #48 Lisa
    May 2, 2008

    “I’ve made no claims, only expressed the view that there might be a gender-loaded difference in that propensity.”
    “It’s a rational response to say that you believe sociological conditions have far more influence over the results than any inherent gender bias, and I would be happy to see the research. But I can hit any database that collects scholarly papers that address this sort of thing and find many studies that show correlation between behaviors and gender, and between behaviors and hormone balance . . .”

    Have you ever been stuck on a problem, so you ask a coworker B for some help, and after discussing for awhile, coworker C comes in and suggests some completely obvious solution which has already been discussed? Now, C can either do this in a nice way, like “hey did you remember to turn on the power?” (sort of like Steve) or do it in a way that assumes you and B have certainly not even thought about the obvious solution at all, which implicitly means that you and B are complete morons (sort of like Pat). Of course, we are discussing more than one very complex problem here so this is only a partial analogy.

    Steve seems like a great guy, but I don’t know of any studies that suggest a difference in somehow-related-to-interest-in-engineering behavior based on hormone balance or other biological factors. There are lots of studies showing discrimination exists in engineering; the idea is not to make women to be some arbitrary percent of engineers but to remove that discrimination. Because this is a large field, it would be hard to jump in just by reading a few individual studies; a good place to start is to read a book or review (that beyond bias and barriers report had lots of specific numbers, but I imagine there is also a review of behavioral gender differences somewhere or a book on the topic). BTW, I do not claim to be an expert or even especially well-read in this area, but I think Zuska and Mecha are.

    Obviously, women who have already chosen engineering as a field are interested in engineering. So, for example, if an award is given to an unrepresentative sample of the application pool, based on the fact that we know discrimination occurs often in these situations, we can rightly be suspicious (not 100% confident) that discrimination was a problem, and thus be motivated to discuss and look into the issue further. Maybe the total representation of women in engineering that would occur without discrimination is 45/55, but I haven’t seen anything which would lead me to believe that 45/55 is more likely than 55/45, and I think it would be very hard to determine what that number would be without removing the existing problems, in which case nobody would care anymore.

  49. #49 PhysioProf
    May 2, 2008

    Whenever I hear a privileged asshole explain that the reason why the non-privileged aren’t equally represented in some endeavor is due to “genetics” or “lack of interest” or some other cockamamie essentialist bullshit he pulled right the fuck out of his ass, I tend to be pretty fucking skeptical!

    The hilarious thing is that the same fucking asshole douchemonkeys bitch and moan out of one side of their mouths about how detailed exhaustive quantitative analyses like Towers’s are “not well-supported by statistics” or “incomplete” or “insufficient to establish discrimination”, while spewing ridiculous buffoonery like dumbfuck O’Hurley’s “conditional statement” designed to “raise the possibility” that women might not be interested in engineering (i.e., a load of wholesale bullshit pulled right the fuck out of his ass). Fucking hypocritical scumbags.

  50. #50 Steve
    May 3, 2008

    Noumena, Zuska, Lisa, et al -

    Thanks for being so patient and reasonable (mostly) :D . No matter what conclusions we draw, I’m certain we can agree on one thing. EVERYONE should work to eliminate discrimination, period. I certainly believe that would be the best experiment of all, regardless of the (45/55, 55/45, whatever) ‘final ratio’.

    Noumena – I’ve thought about your response and I see what you mean. It seems to me that SBC characterizes ‘systematizing’ in such a way that it appears to correlate with the autistic propensity to have “mathematical” capabilities beyond their apparent general capabilities. Further consideration reminded me that those “mathematical capabilities” are usually just “arithmetic” or “categorical”.

    I think I’m also mixing in a generous helping of information from the book “Shadow Syndromes”, where they discussed the autism/math connection, and pointed out that most people that are exceptional at maths/physics/computers exhibit some symptoms of autism. The most significant correlation was in the delay between the expression of an emotion on a person’s and the math/physics/computer geek’s recognition of what that expression means. If I remember correctly, the person’s ability in their field (I’m not sure what criteria they used) was directly correlated with that delay. Of course, that’s not the same as correlating that delay with mathematical ability, but the did find a much higher portion of people with those symptoms in the fields in question. Also, if you make a couple from these fields and they have children, they’re MUCH more likely to be autistic than people from the general population.

    So I think *I* made the leap that, if the above is true, then autism and mathematical ability might be connected, and if that is so, then it might explain some of the apparent difference in gender interest in those fields (since males are several times more likely to be autistic or display autistic spectrum symptoms than females).

    To be clear, I don’t “think this is the truth”; I “think it’s possible that it might be the case”. Regardless, as many have pointed out (and I completely agree), we know what the *best* experiment is – eliminate discrimination and see. And I’m perfectly willing to take advice from women like you who are obviously more equipped to discuss that discrimination than I am, and I appreciate the advice offered in re my daughter.

    Thanks again for your patience.

  51. #51 Zuska
    May 5, 2008

    What does it mean, to say there is an autism/math connection? Surely not all people with autism are math geniuses. Surely everyone who is good at math is not autistic. Some people who are good at math got that way the same way you get to Carnegie Hall – practice, practice, practice. All this hand-waving about the mystical creature called “math ability” is just that. What, exactly, is math ability? How do you measure it? It’s an amorphous non-quantifiable concept that gets called on to support all sorts of folk beliefs about math. Why don’t we every talk about “English ability” or “history ability?” And speak in awed tones about those geniuses born with history ability? Because we seem able to recognize that those are abilities that are developed and nurtured. Math is the same. We just don’t develop or nurture it very well in most of the population. Math is given a privileged status (in part, because of the connotations of masculinity we’ve culturally attached to it). You don’t see people rushing to make essentialist arguments about less desirable, less privileged sorts of knowledge.

  52. #52 Grimalkin
    May 7, 2008

    Most of the women in my family are in math-related fields and most of the men are in more linguistic fields. Go figure…

    But even with that kind of influence, I turned away from math really early on. I remember the exact day. I was in second grade and we were learning how to do fractions. I was struggling with it, so I asked the teacher to explain. He gave me a quick explanation and moved on – I still didn’t get it. I asked him again and he gave me an exasperated look and gave me the same quick explanation and moved on. The way he looked at me embarrassed me into being quiet for the rest of the day.

    When the bell rang and everyone was packing up, I went to the teacher and I asked him if he could go over the material again for me because I was having trouble. He looked me straight in the eyes and said “I’m not going to waste the class’s time. It’s not your fault, girls just don’t do well with math. Don’t worry, though, you’re composition work is really good!” Then he gave me a big friendly smile and patted me on the back.

    That was that. From then on, I self-identified as “bad at math.” And, like most self-labelling, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. I stopped trying to understand (knowing it to be helpless) so I fell further and further behind. Without understanding key concepts, I never caught up again.

    It wasn’t until nearly two decades later, with my gender-normative English degree in hand, that I got a job that required me to do some accounting (well, actually, I prepare all the figures for the accountant). Suddenly, I discovered that I love math. I enjoy it and, perhaps more importantly, I’m good at it. I regret that the opportunity to discover this interest was quite literally stolen away from me.

    And that’s why I get really angry when people even so much as suggest that there are inherent gender differences. Even if they are (which, I admit, the evidence seems to point to), people always seem to forget that statistics rarely apply to individuals and so they try to shoe-horn children into what “the latest research” tells them they will have an interested and aptitude for. I would rather we just drop the whole discussion, stop speculating about what women’s interests are based on their biology, and just let people do whatever they like. When they show an interest in something, encourage it. When they show an aptitude for something, provide them with the resources to develop it. And when they struggle with something, take the time to help them threw it. But more importantly than anything else, please don’t ever tell me that the reason I am not in a math-related field is just because I’m a girl and “girls just don’t like math as much as boys do.”

  53. #53 bdowKU
    May 7, 2008

    Different fields of work shouldn’t be categorized by gender preference. Change is the only constant; and it seems to me that more and more often GIRLS are becoming more prevalent in disciplines like Medicine and Engineering, even politics. Yes, there is no doubt in my mind that men still have a considerably larger number enrolling, however, if you look at how many women were involved in those professions 50 years ago compared to men you’ll see it was far less. So while women might not have the majority enrolling in Engineering for the year 2008 just wait and see what the enrollment is in 2058 before you might be surprised at how many of us have an inner ‘freakazoid’ just dying to get out.

  54. #54 vileseagulls
    May 8, 2008

    Even if they are (which, I admit, the evidence seems to point to)

    How so? I would think that if you were put off and therefore didn’t try to understand and therefore turned out bad at maths, I’ll bet anything you like that you aren’t the only one. And the more girls who are told they are bad at maths (or anything else, for that matter) the more won’t do it, and the more the statistics will show that girls are bad at maths.

    - a girl who is good at maths

  55. #55 TruePath
    May 8, 2008

    Let’s try some simple logic.

    The statement you qute DOESN’T REQUIRE EVIDENCE because it is a CONDITONAL CLAIM. if I said, “If I could bicycle to the moon it would take me …” the statement would not require any evidence about my ability to bicycle through space to be justified. Similarly you can’t rebut this hypothetical by saying no evidence is provided for the assumption. Maybe there is somewhere else in her post where she makes claims without justification but this isn’t it.

    If you are going to object by saying this hypothetical suggests that it’s a reasonable possibility and it’s unreasonable to even suggest a possible conculsion about this matter without reference to the evidence then you should take your own post down for violating your own standard. To the extent the quote you attack is suggesting this is a reasonable possibility your own post implies that it is not. Yet despite the massive literature on the relation of young boys and girls to technology I don’t see you quoting this at all. Either it’s reasonable to imply possibile explanations or it’s not.

    Anyway, having actually read through a pretty large amount of the surveys on male/female performance and the behavior of young children it’s pretty clear that interest cannot be dismissed as part of the explanation. Now certainly part of these differences in interest are caused by social factors (the way boys and girls socialize at young grades seem to encourage girls to be studious but discourage independant brilliance in science/math yes I have read real studies backing this up but whether stereotypes play a role in this is still unclear). However, other studies have shown that even as preschoolers/kindergarteners boys and girls interacted with technology significantly differently with boys being more inclined to want to take it apart and see how it worked.

    Sure it’s still a valid question as to what causes this difference in attitude and interests between boys and girls but the data seem pretty clear to me that there is a statistical difference at a fairly young age. Even assuming that this is entierly the result of cultural bias and stereotypes it does tell us that even a perfectly fair schooling system shouldn’t expect to get equal male and female enrollment in engineering because the difference is introduced at extremely young ages (and as I mentioned above likely reinforced by peer groups).

    As to whether it really is the result of nature or nuture this is largely an incoherent distinction since they interact in such complicated fashions. However, it should be noted that there is some compelling evidence that one can’t simply point to either in isolation. The result about women performing worse on exams when reminded they are female are suggestive of some level of internalized belief about women being worse at math/science having some effect. On the other hand the (admittedly still fairly weak) evidence about the effects of testosterone and other hormones in utereo suggest that these effects can’t be denied.

    At the very least however, like in any area of science, we have a responsibility to take the hypothesis that women might be underrepresented partially because they are (for whatever reason) less likely to want to pursue these disciplines seriously until compelling evidence is presented to refute it

  56. #56 Brandon
    May 8, 2008

    Grimalkin, I agree with most of what you say. Even if there are inherent biological statistical differences between men and women in science (and that’s a big if), it does not justify judging somebody by any criteria besides his or her own merits.

    However, I disagree with the statement,

    I would rather we just drop the whole discussion, stop speculating about what women’s interests are based on their biology, and just let people do whatever they like.

    Scientists should never stop investigating just because the conclusions might be unpleasant. Knowledge isn’t good or bad – what people do with that knowledge is. We need to get people to judge others as individuals, and we need to encourage women not to succumb to social norms. However, we should never say, “Stop doing research because what we find out might be icky.”

  57. #57 chemniste
    May 9, 2008

    Truepath, I think you need to remember that we’re not just talking about logic here, this is the real world and sometimes people will take conditional statements seriously, since they often imply something about what the poster considers plausible.

    For comparisons sake imagine if the original commentator had spoken about ability instead if interest and said something along the lines of- ‘Well, men and women are different so if it turned out that men were naturally better at engineering you would expect to see more men in engineering jobs.’

    Now, since that is a conditional statement it is logically correct, but I would expect a lot of people to exception at it because it does imply something about the beliefs of the original poster. Now, although talking about interest rather than ability is not as directly insulting, a lot of people may find it offensive and belittling since it does imply that women in science and engineering jobs are biologically unusual or something of an oddity.

    What’s more is that the statement reinforces negetive stereotypes, and might enable other people to descriminate against women because statistically they’re less likely to be interested in science or engineering.

    If think you touched on the central issue with your last paragraph when you said-

    “we have a responsibility to take the hypothesis that women might be underrepresented partially because they are (for whatever reason) less likely to want to pursue these disciplines seriously until compelling evidence is presented to refute it”

    Why should we take the idea that women are naturally less interested in engineering as a null hypothesis that must be disproven when we already know that there are definately strong societal influences at work? I think if we’re going to take that idea seriously then we should first be shown positive evidence that there might be some inherent difference.

  58. #58 Cassie
    May 9, 2008

    Is it wrong to want to bat TruePath over the head with an ion laser? ok, then how about do quantum mechanics derivations until he (very sure it’s a he) begs for mercy?

    This: “At the very least however, like in any area of science, we have a responsibility to take the hypothesis that women might be underrepresented partially because they are (for whatever reason) less likely to want to pursue these disciplines seriously until compelling evidence is presented to refute it”

    is the most stupid sentence ever written. Have you ever heard of the idea of a null hypothesis? This is what you would do in this case, both as a decent scientist and a decent human being:
    Assume there is no innate difference between the genders. The burden of proof is on the OTHER side. Once women are treated fairly and openly, they flock to science and enjoy being nerds as much as anyone else. We just need to get you and your ilk out of the way: you are keeping women out of science.

  59. #59 Anita
    May 9, 2008

    I was pointed in by Shakes and find this fascinating.

    Years I worked with a professor who showed gender bias in elementary school mathematics teachers. No one was as surprised at the proof it existed in favor of the boys and how much it affected performance more than the teachers themselves! A blindness still perpetuated by good people, with assumptions not unlike TruePath’s.

  60. #60 PhysioProf
    May 9, 2008

    At the very least however, like in any area of science, we have a responsibility to take the hypothesis that women might be underrepresented partially because they are (for whatever reason) less likely to want to pursue these disciplines seriously until compelling evidence is presented to refute it.

    Is this some kind of stupid fucking joke? Are you really that completely clueless about how science works that you think any old hypothesis you pull right the fuck out of your ass needs to be taken seriously until compelling evidence is presented to refute it?

    If it’s not just a feeble attempt at a joke, then it’s some serious wackaloon dumbassery!

  61. #61 HelenaHandbasket666
    May 10, 2008

    I graduated from college (with a math degree) in the mid-90′s. At my honors program’s graduation ceremony, they announced each graduate’s name and his/her degree. I have no idea what the actual break down of gender-degree pairings was, but after it was over my great aunt gasped, “All them girls getting engineering degrees! That seems like something a FELLA would do!” I still giggle whenever I think of it.

  62. #62 Cherish
    May 12, 2008

    If you want to look strictly at IQ as an indicator of ability and assume ability=interest, you would see that in the top 2% of the population, there are twice as many men as women in that range. However, that’s TWICE as many and not NINE TIMES as many. Therefore, I find it hard to conclude that raw ability (and potential interest due to that ability) explains the huge discrepancies in many scientific fields. Based on this reasoning, I should see about 20 women in a class of 60 engineering students. Instead, I see 2, maybe 3.

  63. #63 Interrobang
    May 15, 2008

    If you want to look strictly at IQ as an indicator of ability and assume ability=interest, you would see that in the top 2% of the population, there are twice as many men as women in that range.

    Speaking as a woman who falls into that range (and get a load of my “history ability”!), those statistics kind of also make me want to check to make sure the tests being administered aren’t skewing the scores male. Given how culturally-biased I found the tests I was given, even before the terminology “culture bias” was in my vocabulary, I’d say that’s a distinct possibility.

    Didn’t even John Stuart Mill recognise that the world has never seen what a woman raised in the absence of patriarchy would look like, so trying to generalise about what “women” are really like is a moot point? And while we’re talking about that, ever notice how so many people assume that men as a class “just are” certain ways (such as the just-so stories about male sexuality), rather than products of their cultures too?