Monday, May 24, 2010


Unlike Dennis the Peasant, FLG has long appreciated Matt Zeitlin's take on the world. He doesn't agree on many things, but at least Matt presents reasoning and rationale that FLG can understand.

Today, however, FLG is confused:
So what does Hunt think is driving the higher exit rates for women?

I find that the gap between the female and male exit rates from a field is strongly positively related to the share of men who studied the field. Figure 1 shows that the relationship is fairly linear, and that if engineering fields have the highest female excess exits, it is because they have the highest share of men. The share of men is also sufficient to explain the excess female exits for pay and promotion reasons
Basically, fields with lots of men in them are those that women are most likely to exit. This isn’t an earth-shaking result, but it seems like in a lot of casual conversation about topics like this, even smart people are very prone to putting forward explanations that rely on speculative generalizations about the specific nature of a field they don’t know a ton about*. It could just be that there is a positive feedback loop for the amount of women in a field. And since it’s unlikely that there’s a deep, good reason for engineering and the sciences to be male dominated, there should be an explicit effort to just get women into science and engineering and for them to stay.

So, apparently, as far as FLG can tell, the argument is that the reason men are dominant in engineering is simple inertia. Men historically dominated the field, and women haven't been able to gain foothold enough to create a critical mass of women engineers. Therefore, we ought to encourage women to get into science and engineering.

But FLG wonders why? Why does the gender make up of engineering and science matter? What's the deep, good reason to have the gender ratio of the engineers and scientists match the gender ratio of the public? Is there some sort of unexplored scientific knowledge that we would receive from more women scientists and engineers? What is the social benefit of that scientific and engineering knowledge? Can we attain these benefits in some other way? For example, if you argue that some field of study is underdeveloped, I dunno say breast cancer, because of the gender bias of the researchers, can't we simply provide incentives to study it rather than engage in some social experiment that might affect science and engineering writ large? And if you don't think that shifting the gender ratio of scientists will change science at all, then why are we doing it?

FLG guess his point here is that if you assume away any biological differences, a rather strong assumption in FLG's opinion, and attribute all of the male dominance in these positions to some sort of path dependency, then you need to spell out what the benefit will be beyond simply women will be scientists. There is certainly an argument that any culture that forces half the human population out early might not be fully using the best available people. FLG, however, worries that "an explicit effort to just get women into science and engineering and for them to stay" may just as easily result in a dilution of scientific talent. If the goal is to improve the talent level of scientists and engineers generally, then fine. If the goal is to get more women into science and engineering, then it is very possible that focus on getting women into science will translate into policies that are antithetical to the goal of improving scientific output.

Yes, it's the same concern people have about affirmative action generally. The difference for FLG is that one, racial affirmative action, was and is about righting historical inequities. He isn't so sure that the case of women not succeeding in science and engineering clears so high a bar. Nor can FLG see some large social benefit from it like he can with racial affirmative action or, more to the point for FLG, socioeconomic affirmative action.


Andrew Stevens said...

You're probably aware that breast cancer receives fifty times more funding than prostate cancer, even though breast cancer is only slightly more common and claims only slightly more lives. There's no real conspiracy here except that women's issues always get more attention than men's issues precisely because men have historically had more power in society, so women are motivated to organize for their peculiar interests in a way men are not. I.e. we do provide incentives to study it.

dance said...

The argument, actually, is that women bring different perspectives and questions to the table and thus improve science. For instance, I believe they are recently finding that heart disease works differently in men and women, because all the original studies were all done on men. Studies would not have been constructed that way with women scientists in the room, etc.

Yes, you'll notice that this relies on your notion that men and women are actually different.

I'd also say there's some fix-the-past argument there. We KNOW, for sure, that the historical lack of women in these fields is due to sexism. Thus changing the numbers seems like a measurable attack on sexism in one defined arena, particularly when a number of women report sexism drives them out.

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