Why can’t a man be more like a woman?

Women are often encouraged to move into male dominated activities, such as engineering. This is not because overall interest in engineering appears to be lacking, but because women’s interest seems to be less than men’s. This is arguably for cultural reasons, so it is argued that culture is inhibiting women from pursuing careers that they may be otherwise suited to and happy with.

If the symptom is that women do less engineering than men, why do we always encourage women to do more engineering, rather than encouraging men to do less? It seems we think men are presently endowed with the perfect level of engineering interest, and women should feel the same, but are impaired by culture.

This could make sense. For instance, perhaps all humans somehow naturally have the socially optimal level of engineering interest, but then insidious cultural influences eat away those interests in women. I think this is roughly how many people model the situation.

This model seems unlikely to be anywhere near the truth. Culture is packed with influences. These influences are not specific to inhibiting women’s impulses to do supposedly masculine things. They tell everyone what sort of people engineers are supposed to be, how much respect a person will get for technical abilities, how much respect they get for wealth, which interests will be taken to indicate the personal qualities they wish to express, which personal qualities are good to express, which cities are most attractive to live in, etc etc etc. Everyone’s level of inclination to be an engineer is significantly composed of cultural influences.

A cacophony of cultural influences may somehow culminate in a socially optimum level of interest in engineering of course. But it is hard to believe that some spectacular invisible mechanism orchestrates this perfect equilibrium for all cultural influences, except those that are gender specific. If there are fleets of rogue cultural influences sabotaging women’s inclinations, this must cast suspicion on the optimality of all other less infamous cultural influences.

Besides the incredible unlikelihood that all cultural influences except gender related ones culminate in a socially optimal level of interest in a given activity, it just doesn’t look like that’s what’s going on. Socially optimal cultural influences would mainly correct for externalities, for instance encouraging activities which help others beyond what the doer would be compensated. But this is not the criterion we use for dealing out respect. It may be part of it, or related to it, but for instance we generally do not respect mothers as much as CEOs, though many people would accept both that mothers have huge benefits often for little compensation and that CEOs are paid more than they are worth. We respect the CEO more probably because it is more impressive to be a CEO.

Incidentally, the correction of cultural influences is another example of expressing pro-female sympathy by encouraging females to do manly things. It seems here we accept that many male jobs are higher status than many female jobs, so to give women more status we would like them to do more of these jobs. Notice that while more men operate garbage trucks, there is less encouragement for women to do that. But my main point here is that we are obsessed with equalising the few cultural influences which are related to gender, while ignoring the sea of other influences which may misdirect both genders equally.

If a gender gap only tells us that either men or women or both have the wrong level of interest in engineering, and we don’t know what the right level is, trying to move women’s interest to equal men’s seems about as likely to be an improvement as it is a deterioration, except to the extent people like equality for its own sake, or where the cultural influences have other effects, such as making women feel less capable or worthy. If we are really concerned about people finding places in the world which suit them and let them make a worthy contribution, we should probably focus on other influences too, rather than being mesmerised by the unfairness of a politically salient discrepancy in influence.

So when people motivate their concern about a gender gap with the thought that there might for instance be capable and potentially interested women out there, missing their calling to be engineers, I can’t feel this is a pressing problem. Without investigating the rest of the cultural influences involved, there might just as easily be capable and potentially interested men out there missing their calling to not be engineers. Or perhaps (as I suspect) both genders should be engineers more often than men are, or more rarely than women are.

11 responses to “Why can’t a man be more like a woman?

  1. I have the impression that we think that there is too little overall interest in engineering. Political speeches on education heavily emphasize the importance of improving math and science education, and it seems like a widely held belief that there are too few scientists and engineers coming out of colleges (as opposed to, say, economists and finance types). Rich countries selectively allow immigration of people with technical backgrounds. etc. Encouraging women to become engineers is then simply one particular strategy for increasing overall engineering interest.

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  2. Yes! I’ve been wondering these kinds of things myself recently. People seem to consider it enlightened to treat “what men do” as equal to “what everyone (particularly women) should do.” Why isn’t this considered deeply misogynistic? It seems like a glorification of men.

    Perhaps an even better example is lawyers: you could make a good argument that far fewer people (male and female) should try to be lawyers than the status quo, yet people routinely complain that there aren’t enough “women in law.” For there to be more women in law, there would need to be specific, individual women going into law rather than whatever-they-would-have-otherwise-done. The unintended consequences are enormous, but no one wants to talk about them, because that’s not how you gain status; you gain status by calling for more women in [insert field here].

    There’s a somewhat comical quality to your whole blog post (with its benevolent third-person plural voice), which I don’t know if you intended or not: why is it “our” business how interested men or women “should” be in engineering? Who are “we” to say what other individuals (male or female) should want to do? Regardless of the gender dynamics, how is this even a legitimate inquiry? How do “we” (whoever we are!) have any authority to tell other people what they should be doing with their lives?

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  3. My answer to your original question: presumably men don’t take advice that they move into fields dominated by women (more male domestic work and child-rearing is all I recall hearing), nor is that advice generally given, because women generally aren’t attracted to the men who act that way. Male disapproval matters too, but not as much.

    As to your more subtle point: yes, you should have a reasoned opinion of how much engineering is good before you start spouting about whether there should be more or less of it.

    I’d go further: because people have superstitious beliefs about the abilities and desires of the male vs. female population, they necessarily want to expect equal male/female ratios in most jobs in order to confirm their superstition.

    I have a hard time caring whether most of a job is done by one sex or the other, unless the job is high-status/pay and that real sexist exclusion is responsible (both of which are or were true of the CEO job).

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  4. but for instance we generally do not respect mothers as much as CEOs,

    Don’t we? I can think of a fair number of harsh criticisms of CEOs, especially since the financial crisis.
    Of course I can think of a fair number of harsh criticisms of mothers, too, both criticisms of mothers in general and criticisms of some mothers (eg mothers who are overly-strict, mothers who are overly-indulgent). But that’s the nature of society, no matter what you do someone is going to criticise you for it.

    I am very doubtful that people do respect CEOs more than mothers, because I’ve read so many articles saying things like ” we generally do not respect mothers as much as CEOs”. Those articles seem to all expect their readers to think that we should be respecting mothers as much, or more, than CEOs. But of course, if you think that we should respect mothers as much, or more than CEOs, then presumably you already do so.

    though many people would accept both that mothers have huge benefits often for little compensation

    The difference is that mothers are doing something for themselves, and their immediate families, so naturally they and their husbands (if said husbands exist) are the ones who are paying the bulk of the costs.

    We respect the CEO more probably because it is more impressive to be a CEO

    Yes, even total idiots can get pregnant, and absolute geniuses with every moral perfection can fail to. So to become a mother isn’t that impressive in and of itself. To become a CEO requires at a minimum some ability to impress the right people and we tend to respect people more for displaying abilities with some mental component than for just having functioning organs. Of course, perhaps we underestimate the role of luck in achieving a CEO’s position. (And then, if the determinists are right, none of us are responsible for any of our achievements as we have no free-will, so there’s no point in respecting anyone for anything.)

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  5. Men are constantly urged to act more like women. Be neater, share your feelings, don’t be such a sexist pig.
    It may be the basis of civilization but it gets a little annoying.

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    • But not in the same way that women are encouraged to be engineers.

      Women are encouraged to be engineers by making it easier for them to become engineers, giving them positive reinforcement etc.

      Men are encouraged to be more like women by punishing them if they do not e.g. hitting them and telling them to be more like their sister.

      And in some cases the “encouragement” is probably dishonest – quite a lot of men must have grown up with the firm impression that if they actually follow the instruction to share their feelings, they will end up a lot worse off.

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  7. That was my favourite musical growing up.

    The thing is that these high-status professions are extremely competitive. There really are plenty of women who are reasonably capable and interested in being engineers or CEOs, but didn’t quite make the grade. These people are calling for implicit subsidies for the marginal female candidate, and in fact lowering the status of these activities, by claiming that they are sexist, discriminatory, etc.

    Plus, what Walt said. Men really are constantly told, from a very young age, that female is good and male is bad.

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