The Wrong Standards – Arguments against the relevancy of biological differences between men and women as having meaning in society

In my last post I talked about a hoax perpetuated by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, which I argued was not only a bad hoax that didn’t prove what it set out to prove, but seems to be indicative of misogyny in higher academic circles as well.  I’d like to use this as a launching point into two future posts.  This one I am going to address James Lindsay’s claim that gender studies ignores biological differences completely and whether or not this is even important, and then I thought it would be interesting to look in more detail at the gender imbalance that does exist at the higher echelons of intelligence,  and academics.

So let’s begin our investigation into biological differences between men and women with the assumption that such differences exist.  There are clearly some genetic differences and if it’s a collection of genes that go into our various behavioral qualities it’s plausible that there are differences.  But let’s go a step further and say some of the stereotypical ones are true.  An employee at Google reminded us of several of them.  So let’s say men or more aggressive/assertive, more competitive, they are about things, and have a high drive for status, and let’s say, and I hate to even pretend this is the case, that men handle stress better and are less neurotic.  Anybody who’s seen the typical working mother knows that it’s probably more likely that men just don’t have as much stress, but for now let’s assume this is the case.  So conversely this assumes that women are more agreeable, cooperative, don’t have a high drive for status and prefer to have a more balanced lifestyle, are more about people over things (this sort of translates also to the stereotype of women being better nurturers than men), and don’t handle stress as well.

The first thing that matters of course is how different are these things.  In a previous post I talked about some basics about statistics and that any trait is distributed about some mean value.  If the difference between men and women in some trait like aggression is small, there is a lot of overlap.  Meaning there are many women who are as aggressive as men and increased probability that some women will be more aggressive than some men. The main difference is that you will only find men in the hyper-aggressive end of the distribution, and only find women at the far opposite end of the aggression distribution (super timid?).  Whatever metric you might use to measure aggression the closer the averages between men and women the less presumptive you could be about any particular gender having that trait.  It’s arguable though that even if there is more separation if you were interviewing applicants for a job this would not be something you could simply assume and use as a basis for making your decision.  That is still discrimination.  Even if the odds are in your favor there is still a chance you could be unfairly punishing somebody solely based on their gender instead of their individual qualities.

But let’s say the differences were significant enough to have some meaning.  Are any of the traits that women are supposed to have bad for any reason?  Our friend at Google actually doesn’t consider them bad, but simply wants to say that maybe there is just some natural reason for why there aren’t more women in tech and hey who are we to fight nature?

Imagine a society that was built valuing the traits that are so “obviously” female.  What would that world look like?  Could we say it was worse?  Let’s say you were a man going in for a job interview at a corporation.  In this world where the feminine traits were valued, where they are the ones that society was built around you might hear things like this at your interview:

EMPLOYER:  Now you list here on your application that one of your strengths is competitiveness.  How do you think you would fit into the cooperative philosophy we have here at our company?

EMPLOYER:  I’m a bit worried that your aggressiveness might be a problem in a leadership role.  We’re looking for someone who is more thoughtful before making decisions and listens more carefully to ideas that come from their team over making decisions unilaterally.

EMPLOYER:  As a man we know you are more about things, but things are used by people, and so really what we are looking for is a more people focused person.

EMPLOYER:  We think it’s great that as a man you can handle stress really well, but our company has gone to great lengths to creating a stress free environment so that’s not a quality we are looking for.

EMPLOYER:  As you know children are the future and the key to a child’s development is having a parent home in those early times especially.  Given that men aren’t interested in a more balanced lifestyle you’ll simply be expected to take on more responsibilities as your female colleagues go on leave without compensation for those extra duties.  And given that we are playing an important role in our children’s welfare, those extra duties you take aren’t considered as additional experience when being considered for promotion.

A female friend of mine were talking and she just said to me, “I am not exactly sure what life should look like, but if I were to build it all back up from scratch, it wouldn’t look like this.”  I think another thing we have to consider when we are analyzing studies that purport differences between males and females is how much of our society is structured with maleness as the standard.  If women and men have different traits as a result of their biology then much of what we see in society will naturally show women as being disadvantaged as compared to men in a society that is built on traits they on average excel at.  There is nothing inherently better about favoring competitiveness over cooperativeness, there is nothing inherently better about favoring things over people.   Why should assertiveness be more rewarded over being agreeable?  These are all examples of a male standard that women are being forced to meet for no reason other than this is a man’s world.  Even the way we do education could be argued as being structured with male education in mind, given for a long time educating women wasn’t a priority as they weren’t expected to utilize that knowledge in a career.  So if men and women learn differently, maybe we are forcing them to conform to a different style of learning.  Now, I’m not saying that biologic differences don’t exist, but it seriously casts some doubt on any study that is trying to disentangle biological differences between men and women in a world that still uses maleness as the gold standard that everyone must meet.

Finally the onus is on those who purport biological differences in traits between male and female to demonstrate that they are significant and useful in any way.  There a lot of reasons to doubt that this is the case.  In a series of meta-studies and research findings by psychologists by Janet Shibley Hyde, Elizabeth Spelke, and Diane Helpern indicate little to no difference between cognitive abilities in language and mathematics among men and women.  Their results are summarized here.  From this same summary, Spencer (1999) found:

“… that merely telling women that a math test had previously shown gender differences hurt their performance. The researchers gave a math test to men and women after telling half the women that the test had shown gender differences, and telling the rest that it found none. Women who expected gender differences did significantly worse than men. Those who were told there was no gender disparity performed equal to men.”

In another study by Gneezy et. al (2009) differences in competitiveness between women and men is challenged.  Participants from villages that are matriachal (Khasi) and patriarchal (Maasi) in India were asked to take part in a game of throwing tennis balls into a basket:

“They were given a choice of a simple payment for the task—about 40 US cents—or they could earn three times as much if they beat they the other player. Among the Maasai, half the men chose to compete, while only a quarter of the women chose to. Among the Khasi, not only were the results reversed, but Khasi women were even more competitive than the Maasai men: 54% of the women opted to compete, as did 39% of the Khasi men.”

The clear role that socialized gender roles plays in differences between men and women is highlighted in a paper by Guiso et. al (2008) where employers were asked to make quick decisions about who to hire for a job based on performance on a 4 minute math sprint exam:

“Men and women employers alike revealed their prejudice against women for a perceived lack of mathematical ability. When the only information that the employers had was a photograph of the candidate, men were twice as likely to be hired for the simple math job, no matter whether it was a man or woman doing the hiring, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The hiring bias did not disappear when candidates self-reported their ability on the task, in part because women tended to underestimate their ability while men tended to boast. And even when the employers received accurate information about the actual performance of the candidates, the bias did not fully disappear. The more prejudiced a person was, as measured by the Implicit Association Test, the less likely they were to correct their bias.”

Confirming the findings from this study as well as outlining the difficulty with pointing to biological differences as any sort of major cause for the  presence of women with high levels of cognitive abilities and leadership roles, I strongly recommending reading this article by Halpern et al (2012) published in Scientific American.

The article will make a nice launching point into my next post where I talk about the intersection of feminism and atheism or lack thereof.  What seems clear is that there continue to be strong biases against women in both academia and in the work place.  While such bias still exists in our society it seems more apt for the Boghossians, Lindsays, and Shermers of the world to spend more of their time worrying about that imbalance instead of mocking a field which may not be as bereft of scholarship as they claim, and which may have some valid arguments to make.  And if they are the scientists they claim to be and going to rail against a field which denies biological differences between men and women, they should also make sure that all the findings out there fit that assertion.  It seems far from clear that those differences are significant enough to be meaningful in any gender make up of any corporation, tech company, or university.

It may be that at some point biological differences do give us important information that can help men and women achieve better states of well-being in reaching their full potential, but it seems clear we are far from that stage in our society.  Only once we truly see that there is no career or field that women are less qualified for, and that we live in a world that puts emphasis on good human values, not male values, should biological differences really be part of the discussion.

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36 thoughts on “The Wrong Standards – Arguments against the relevancy of biological differences between men and women as having meaning in society

  1. Hi Swarn,

    My thoughts may be tangential to your actual purpose, but I’ve realized in reading this how little I know about the science of gender difference. I was on the phone with my sister tonight, who works as a lab manager in a nephrology laboratory at a university, and she gave me a long list of differences between men and women that she’s observed as a manager. It seems from your article–and this makes sense to me–that we’re not talking about differences in intellectual faculties or the ability to think symbolically or mathematically, but that perhaps there are differences in interpersonal behaviors, communication tendencies, decision-making styles, roles assumed in conflict, etc. Those may or may not be biological differences, and may simply be cultural norms. This is why we need the science!

    I think your post is spot-on in the sense that given there may be differences, whether cultural or biological, the male way is not clearly better. Just different. I personally think we’d benefit from more women in many aspects of society, but I also think there is something incorrect about saying we’re all the same in those cases where we’re not. Not just in the area of gender, but in all the areas that we represent a diverse society. The fact of the matter is that if there are differences in how women would tend to behave in various settings, and those settings–business, governance, research, etc.–are controlled by male-driven norms, that’s a problem. But we needn’t solve that by all being the same (and I don’t think you were saying that; it just came up for me.)

    My intuition is the research will show many ideas about men and women are not as accurate as we thought, and that without the positive characteristics of both genders involved in our collective problem-solving, we’re not firing on all cylinders.

    Michael

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The fact of the matter is that if there are differences in how women would tend to behave in various settings, and those settings–business, governance, research, etc.–are controlled by male-driven norms, that’s a problem. But we needn’t solve that by all being the same (and I don’t think you were saying that; it just came up for me.)

      No actually I was kind of saying that, but perhaps not as deftly as I thought. lol I think you’re exactly right, and again for any average trait there is variance around the mean such that we should simply just expect diversity rather than trying to deny it doesn’t exist. I think your either a person who likes to think of the world in averages or enjoys talking about the distribution, if I may make a statistics analogy there. lol Thank you for your thoughtful comments as always Michael.

      Cheers,

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Quoting from the Scientific American article:

    “Shortly before the investigators published their study in 1997, the United Nations had named Sweden the leading country in the world with respect to equal opportunities for men and women. Even so, men dominated Swedish science. At the time, women received 44 percent of Swedish biomedical doctoral degrees but held only 25 percent of postdoctoral positions and 7 percent of professional positions.

    What Wennerås and Wold discovered was shocking.

    Female applicants received lower mean scores in all areas in which they were evaluated: scientific competence, quality of proposed methodology and relevance of the research proposal. It was possible that the women applicants were less qualified. To test this possibility, the investigators computed scientific productivity based on the applicant’s total number of publications, number of first-author publications, quality of each publication and number of times other scientific papers cited their work. By these measures, the most productive group of female researchers was rated as comparable in ability to the least productive male researchers. All other women were rated below all the men.

    The authors of this study concluded that the peer-review process in what is arguably the most gender-equal nation in the world is rife with sexism. These results provide a strong rationale for making the peer-review process more transparent. Despite these findings, which were published in the top-ranked international scientific journal Nature, there has been no progress toward making the peer-review process more open.”

    The reason I quoted this specifically was because of what I read on the Skeptic Magazine’s website regarding the Hoax study. I laughed out lout at the irony.

    “This hoax, however, was rooted in moral and political biases masquerading as rigorous academic theory. Working in a biased environment, we successfully sugarcoated utter nonsense with a combination of fashionable moral sentiments and impenetrable jargon. Cogent Social Sciences happily swallowed the pill. It left utter nonsense easy to disguise.

    https://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/conceptual-penis-social-contruct-sokal-style-hoax-on-gender-studies/

    From the Scientific American article:

    “Even though social psychologists agree that the overt sexism that existed decades ago in the U.S. and in many other countries is now rare, they say it has been replaced by unconscious sexism in some situations.

    I’d like to believe that it’s rare but I see it (and experience it) often. Swarn, your post was very well written, and very much appreciated. Thank you for posting the studies I shared with you.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you Victoria for your kind words.

      Yes you are right that the results from Swedish science would certainly indicate there is much more bias out there in the other direction. Which is sort of my thrust of my argument which that even if there is bias in gender studies, A) The hoax didn’t really prove it, and B) nor is it the greatest source of bias in academia out there. So energies could be put to better use elsewhere.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi Swarn,

    Interesting post, especially the papers you reference at the end. A few thoughts of my own to add:

    I think an important point to emphasize, which you bring up but don’t expand on, is that gender trait or personality differences (whether due to social or biological causes) are mostly overlapping bell curves. The implication of this is that all the hyper-insert trait here people tend to be a specific gender, but on an individual level, there’s no reason to expect that one person will possess more or less of a given trait because of their gender. So, although virtually all hyper-aggressive or violent people are men, most men are similarly as aggressive as most women. But people make the mistake in assuming that because all hyper-aggressive people are men, all men are more aggressive than women.

    I see a bit of a conflict between fairness and pragmatism. For example, I would be very reluctant to hire a male babysitter for my kids. Virtually all sexual and physical abuse is committed by boys and men (at least, that’s my perception), and it’s easier for me to hire a female, rather than take a small, but real risk.

    The guy at Google that was fired, from what I could understand, was mostly objecting to what he perceived as enforced group think, i.e. Google wants diversity with regards to everything except for thoughts. He referenced unrecorded meetings, so it’s hard to judge if his concerns were warranted.

    Something that I’ve been thinking about lately is how I treat my children (one boy, one girl) differently. I think that I am responding to their different personalities and needs, but certainly there is some amount of gender stereotyping going on. What I realized is that there’s on way to know for certain which is which.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Chris. In regards to overlapping means I did reference a previous post I did explaining the statistics of population differences and normal distribution, so I didn’t want to go into too much detail again.

      The guy from google could have done better if he was simply dissenting to a lack of diverse opinions, but the fact that he tried to incorporate biological differences as some sort of basis to build company policy on was unsound basis to do that. While political diversity is important, his arguments weren’t terribly based in science, and given that bringing more women in also increases diversity, his arguments weren’t completely coherent to me. Many of his arguments are straight out of the men’s rights movement playbook actually.

      Well one has to remember that when it comes to children they aren’t only being influenced by you, but by other children, stories, TV, commercials etc. So you may be responding to them, and they are having likes and dislikes that are being determined by society. I think the best you can do is simply let them know that there are other options open to them. That if Jonathan just really wants to wear pink he should get to wear pink, or if Evelyn decides she wants to have short hair she can have short hair.

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      1. Regarding the dude from Google, I agree his memo wasn’t very coherent; he never really defined what the problem was that he was trying to address and then he kind of rambled on. That aside, from what he did say, did you think he was just plain wrong, or making unreasonable conclusions, or over-attributing too many things to biology? We’ve discussed this at my office and I’m probably the most left-leaning of the bunch, so I’m interested in a counter opinion.

        Regarding the kids, Jonathan already wears a lot of pink because I make him wear his sister’s hand-me-downs. He also went through a stint last year where he thought he had to wear a tutu in order to dance (because that’s what his sister did). So every time he wanted to dance, he would put on a tutu. I found it both extremely funny and despite myself, slightly unsettling.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It sounds like your doing fine parenting-wise then. lol

          No I didn’t disagree with everything he said. And honestly from what I’ve heard of Google’s corporate model I am not even certain that he should have been fired, because when I heard a Google exec in an interview they said that they encourage openness. It seems firing someone, regardless of whether or not they were wrong, wouldn’t really be helpful for that type of model. Although I guess the main argument would be that I think was sent to everybody where is there was probably a protocol to follow regarding memos. Plus I do think his clams about nature of difference between women and men was offensive to many women and maybe even a few men.

          So anyway he says some good things at times, but then he says other things that are not good and ends up abandoning how own logic. This is why, at least to me, it appeared as though he was sexist but trying to dress it up as him not being sexist. The main logical flaw in his argument was when he said in the intro:

          When addressing the gap in representation in the population, we need to look at population level differences in distributions.

          Then in the rest of his memo he proceeded to define men and women by the means of a distribution (if we can even say that the results from such studies are robust).

          If his goal is to say that different political views should be allowed to be expressed without shaming, that’s a very sound argument which I can defend. He then explains why liberal and conservative views can lead to a more balanced approach. Had he stopped there, that would have been fine. But then he goes on assigning certain traits to certain genders, and that’s where it goes off the rails.

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          1. Thanks for the response. Your main criticism makes sense. We have somewhat frequent discussions regarding feminism/sexism at work and your views are more progressive (for lack of a better word) than anyone here, so I’m always interested in hearing what you have to say about the subject.

            I listened to part of an interview with James Demore. He’s not as articulate as he needs to be to make his case well, so I wasn’t able to endure for the whole thing. I didn’t get the sense that he is sexist, although he might be. I did get the sense that he was very frustrated with the Google environment surrounding diversity and felt there was no ability to have a discussion, that employees were required to undergo something like diversity or sensitivity training without being allowed to question the effectiveness or underlying philosophy.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. I am not certain that he is actively going around demeaning women or anything, but as was mentioned in one of the articles I linked there is an unconscious bias that men and women get in a world that is tilted in favor of men. It is a position of privilege. Thus someone like Demore might be more inclined to believe MRA arguments from a position of biology simply because men dominating roles in science and tech seems like the norm to him and what is normal is often what we perceive as natural. This of course isn’t true. I mean it could be true obviously but a case has to be made for it. Such a case has not been made by biological studies. So if he wanted to question the underlying principles and he wanted to use biological differences between male and female to do so he was not only using such information correctly but he was still parroting, perhaps in a more sophisticated way, arguments use to keep women from advancing in fields where it has been so difficult for them to be seen as legitimate.

              Part of my goal in giving those examples of a world built based on emphasis of what Demore called feminine traits is that you can actually see how easily those traits could be valued over others. It would still be a mistake and getting a diversity of things like assertiveness versus agreeableness might be helpful. Putting as much value in family as career might also be valuable. I wasn’t picking on Demore in particular, but since his biological characterizations of women were most recent I thought that was a good launching point. At times he did make good points, and overall I don’t think he should have been fired as I’d rather deal with people like that with counter arguments that challenge there’s. As a corporation there is going to be a lot of public outcry and this is always something that impacts corporate decisions, but I don’t deny the possibility that Demore is the type of person who would be open to reasons.

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            2. I should also add that I think part of the problem why so many women took offense had to do with his attitudes towards being dismissive to what women are saying about their experience in male dominated fields. At some point he says in his “manifesto”:

              …feeling another’s pain—causes us to focus on anecdotes, favor individuals similar to us, and harbor other irrational and dangerous biases. Being emotionally unengaged helps us better reason about the facts.

              This implies that if we are being emotional we aren’t reasoning, but there is evidence to support reasoning is something that we are only motivated to do through some emotion so it doesn’t make empathy valueless.

              More importantly the the experiences women go through have to be part of the conversation. I think there is good cause for sensitivity training because quite honestly a man doesn’t face the same barriers a woman experiences in many of these fields. There simply isn’t the symmetry he seems to imply. An important feminist principle is that lived experience should be part of the conversation. It counts at least some level of empirical evidence for issues women face. Now if there are particular issues that men face advocating for a discussion of those issues I think would also be warranted, but the tone Demore uses, to me, is somewhat dismissive that any understanding of gender specific challenges are worth being informed or sensitive about.

              In general also just felt he had this sort of corporate unfeeling attitude in general. A company is made up of people, without the people, there is no Google, so pretending that it is some inhuman machine (maybe it will once AI is developed) seemed odd to me.

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            3. Great points, Swarn, especially about using empathy as motivation to make reasonable changes.

              It does seem to me that we will not necessarily achieve gender parity in some traditionally male dominated fields. In STEM fields, from stats I’ve seen, women are over-represented in biology & chemistry and under-represented in physics, math, engineering, and computer science. Given that women make up the majority of grads in biology and chemistry, it would seem that the barriers to entry have been removed. So, why are they so under-represented in these other areas? Maybe we’re approaching numbers that are aligned to what people want to do with their lives. Maybe something like computer science will always be male dominated.

              Liked by 1 person

            4. Thanks Chris. In regards to math, physics and engineering, the rate of increase has been slow, but it’s still not clear to me that is because of some intrinsic ability by gender. Given that IQ does not vary by gender, it seems most likely the barrier is more of a social one. Lack of role models, a school structure that favor’s a learning style that caters to boys more than girls. Physics and math still seems very stigmatized to me. Even when men are bad at math, I rarely get male students who say they can’t do math, but it’s commonly parroted by girls. And the stories I do hear from women in those fields about the lack of respect they get from male counterparts, the sexism, the difficult they have in getting grants (which I was going to address in my next post), I think all point to there being more going on. If there are biological differences maybe it will lead to a split more like 70-30 or 60-40 men vs. women, but what we have now in North America doesn’t seem supported by research on intelligence.

              This was an interesting discussion I found from 2002. https://www.aps.org/units/fps/newsletters/2002/july/urry.pdf

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            5. “Thanks Chris. In regards to math, physics and engineering, the rate of increase has been slow, but it’s still not clear to me that is because of some intrinsic ability by gender. Given that IQ does not vary by gender, it seems most likely the barrier is more of a social one.”

              I concur. Here’s an example. Take special note at around the 9:00 minute marker where she talks about underdeveloped spacial skills and the type of toys that develop them — toys not traditionally marketed to girls.

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    2. One other thing I wanted to say in regards to your point about child care. While it’s true that your odds are better with a female in that regard I don’t think that warrants discrimination when it comes to applying for a job. Making the decision purely by gender alone seems discrimination. Certainly if I had to blindly pick one that would be different… But if it wasn’t somebody I knew I would certainly require a background check… Man or woman.

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  4. “… that merely telling women that a math test had previously shown gender differences hurt their performance. The researchers gave a math test to men and women after telling half the women that the test had shown gender differences, and telling the rest that it found none. Women who expected gender differences did significantly worse than men. Those who were told there was no gender disparity performed equal to men.”

    Were any of the men told anything in this study? Were there and differences in their scores on a group level?

    Has anyone done the “reverse”? A study with verbal tests, telling only some men of differing scores by gender?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a good question. For completeness they probably should have, but I think what’s interesting is that they were only told there was a gender difference. They weren’t told what that gender difference was. If not socialized gender differences about math abilities existed in society one would expect a random difference between women who believed women did better than men, and women who did worse than men such that average test scores of those who were told about gender differences should have been roughly the same. The fact that gender difference, to all the women, seemed to indicate in their mind that women did worse makes the findings, I think, still significant.

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      1. I didn’t mean to suggest that the results are insignificant. But I’m inclined to agree that they should have done it, too, as I think it could offer additional insight. And I’m curious to see/know if anyone else did/does it.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. I understand what you are saying, sorry if I misinterpreted. I actually was able to find the original paper on google scholar. It certainly gives more detail as well as discussing other factors that may come into play for the results that they found such as women also having lower expectations when it comes to math tests. But it does appear that it wasn’t only the women that were told there were gender differences. They told this to all people who took the test. From the paper:

            “We should also note that men did slightly worse when they were told that there
            were no gender differences on the test than when they were told that there were
            gender differences. This difference did not obtain significance and therefore
            should be interpreted with caution. However, it might suggest that characterizing
            the test as producing gender differences benefited men or that characterizing the
            test as not producing gender differences interfered with men’s performance.”

            Liked by 1 person

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