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.