Why is gender equality so rude?

I don’t see much anti-female sexism in my immediate surrounds; I notice more that is anti-male. But one place I have been continually put off by anti-female sexism is in attempts to promote gender equality. It seems especially prominent in efforts to seduce me to traditionally non-feminine academic areas. If my ratio of care about interesting subjects vs. social situations were different I might have been put off by the seeming prospect of being treated like a defective sacrifice to political correctness.

Some examples from the advertising and equity policies of various academic places I’ve been:

‘Women can make valuable contributions to …’ implies that this is an issue of serious contention. If most people thought women were of zero value in some fields, this would be a positive statement about women, but they don’t. Worse, the author can’t make a stronger statement than that it is possible for women to create more than zero value.

Appeals to consider myself capable of e.g. engineering despite being female make the same error but this time suggesting that the viewer herself is likely in doubt. Such a statement can only be useful to women so ignorant of their own characteristics that they need to rely on their gender as deciding evidence in what career to devote their lives to, so it suggests the female audience are clueless. The smartest women have likely noticed that they are smart, and will not be encouraged by the prospect of joining a field where others expect them to be intellectually insecure special people to be reassured and included for human rights purposes.

Statements such as women are valuable because they can provide a different perspective on computer science, imply that women can’t understand a computer the usual way, but might help figure out how to make it more personable or something. If this is true, why not just say ‘women are not that valuable in computer science’?

Policies of employing a certain number of female staff to provide role models or leadership for female students imply that females would rather aspire to femalehood than to superior ability (presumably the decision criteria forgone).

Recommendations that courses like mathematics should be more focussed on women say that while existing mathematics is about completely gender neutral abstract concepts, not men, it is unsuitable for women. Presumably either women are not up to abstract concepts, or women can’t be motivated to think about something other than women. Despite whichever inadequacy, they should be encouraged to do mathematics anyway by being taught to work out the mean angle of their cleavage or something.

Why do so many attempts at equality seem so counterproductive?  The above seem to fall into two processes: first, assuming that society believes women might be useless, advertising this, and arguing against it so badly as to confirm it, and second, trying to suck up to women by making things more female related at the cost of features capable women would care for. Perhaps those more concerned about anti-female sexism make these errors more because they have an unusually strong impression of society being anti-female and their own obsession with femininity makes it easy to overestimate that of most women.

13 responses to “Why is gender equality so rude?

  1. Alexander Nikolaevich

    To a large extent, women are subject to a variety of different pressures that most men aren’t (in addition to much of the pressures that men face). Ideally, reform toward gender equality should take these pressures into account and hopefully work to relieve them. I think you’re only looking at a very limited set of representations of work toward “gender equality” and drawing a conclusion that isn’t fair to a lot of the work being done out there. Sure, these examples go about working toward gender equality in an unproductive (and even harmful) way, but sexism is very much a potent force in the lives of most women and efforts really should be made to remedy that.

    Just minutes before reading your post, I read a post on Tanya Khovanova’s Math Blog about how personal choices contribute to the gender gap in mathematics careers. Her point is that the choices that many women make regarding working in academia are often motivated by the pressures to raise a family. I don’t think it’s at all a contentious claim to say that social pressures for women to do the brunt of the child-rearing work is preventing quite a few women from entering into mathematics.

    The post is here: http://blog.tanyakhovanova.com/?p=264

  2. These kinds of posters, pieces of advice, etc, are generally token gestures, a way of keeping one’s hands clean of the dark prejudicial matter that lurks in the corners, mysteriously hindering the attainment of equal outcomes. The nature of these offerings are painfully obvious to those who don’t accept the delusion; but for most people I’d guess the whole routine eases the effects of the cognitive dissonance of the belief in equality and the persistent, inevitable inequality in abstract, high-IQ fields like mathematics. The inequality must be due to poor self-esteem, self esteem doesn’t seem to be improving on its own, so babying is seen as an unfortunate, but necessary antidote, at the very least it wards off the conclusion that this inequality is natural.

    It can even be justified as more in accord with the nurturing nature of women, although I think this tends to remain a quiet thought because the inconsistency of this sentiment with the ideology of equality is too obvious.

  3. Jonathan Graehl

    Well said. The idea that some of us can make up for widespread expectations of female disinterest or inability in math/science, by acting extra solicitous and welcoming, probably is patronizing in practice.

    Whatever women are already interested and capable probably don’t appreciate hearing “we don’t only care about your ability, we value you for your womanly qualities”. I guess the intended audience is the uninterested (capable) woman – who may choose more lucrative careers in law, medicine, or business.

  4. Holding employer behavior constant, you can model the likelihood of a person entering a particular academic area as a function of aptitude, interest, and practicality (this latter category is meant to include the life structural constraints discussed by Tanya Khovanova). More precisely, imagine estimating aptitude, interest, and practicality indices for each person, and defining the likelihood function as the inverse logit of a linear combination of those indices.

    My guess is that the male and female population distributions have rather different interest and practicality distributions (and in most cases, differences in aptitude distributions are much smaller, though not necessarily nonexistent–see Larry Summers’ faint-inducing comments on suspected higher male variance and the effect this would have on the tails). In this setting, when reliable information about specific candidates is relatively expensive to obtain, statistical discrimination is rational. When bureaucrats try to prevent statistical discrimination by methods other than making it easier for female outliers to accurately signal their ability and interest, you end up with condescending employer behavior.

    I’m curious what you think the gender distributions tend to look like.

  5. Here’s something that might be relevant:
    Physics Students Reveal Bias for Male Lecturers

  6. During my stint on a university engineering faculty, we went through one of our periodic bouts of “We need more female engineering faculty so that we can recruit more female engineering students.”. Pursuant to this discussion, I ran a simple linear regression between the numbers of female faculty and students in our own department over time. I discovered that the correlation between the number of female students we recruited and the number of faculty members we had at the time was actually negative: ie. we generally recruited fewer female students (or a smaller percentage of female students, I forget which) in the years during which the number of female faculty was at its

  7. . . . peak. (The usual caveats apply: I could only get about ten years worth of data, and the variance in numbers of females wasn’t especially large.)

  8. It is commonly accepted that to have order, you must have hierarchy (and its’ inherent inequalities). So, “they” wrote the history books, which is where people go to search for the true origins of inequality. With no real evidence to point to, people tend to take a position that they believe best fits their own interests, and then proceed to view things through that lens. This process limits people’s awareness just enough to make their arguments inaccurate, or demonstrably untrue. So, all of their pent up emotions aren’t even close to hitting their marks. This leads to frustration, which stresses & wears down the mind’s ability to suppress powerful emotions. Both genders have suffered greatly, and with nowhere to go but the path of the least resistance, their emotions are often mindlessly expressed in some sort of derogatory fashion at the other.

    A more correct manner to proceed (if equality is truly the concern), is to promote the improvement of the quality of life for those who need it most. That’s where people fail, and make “their cause” seem selfish, childish, and unenlightened (regardless). Anyway, until the birth rate is addressed, this subject can only be taken so seriously.

  9. This cartoon seems highly relevant.

    The comment thread under it could also inform some posters here. Just sayin’.

  10. Katja, you make an excellent point highlighting seemingly progressive tenancies in academia (and that also occur in the corporate world) that amount to nothing more than the infantalization of the audience they seek to engender.

    There is nothing just about lowering expectations in such a soft-sexist way, it only leads to perpetuating the myth that women cannot or don’t have the desire to play on a level field.

    Now get back in the kitchen and make me a sandwich.

  11. Attempts to create gender equality should focus on changing the gender dynamics that make people in general more reluctant to cede higher status to women even when it’s deserved. This phenomenon is illustrated in West’s study of physician-patient interaction, in which she found that while the patients of male doctors interrupted them far less than the reverse, female patients interrupted female doctors at the same rate as the reverse, and male patients interrupted female doctors far more than the reverse. The gender of the nominally higher status person in these interactions (the doctor) is being superseded by gender when the doctor is female, which illustrates a general trend where people in many professional fields are less likely to accord qualified women high status than they are to accord equally qualified men high status. One of the only fields where this kind of inter-gender interaction isn’t present is in child-rearing, which is female dominated. Women in other professions that are frustrated by the difficulty in attaining recognition and status might feel incentivized to then switch their efforts to child rearing or similar fields, even if that wasn’t the area they were originally most interested in.

  12. Katja,
    Like you, I am a woman working in a technical field. I found your blog a week ago and read several posts with interest, but didn’t feel motivated to contribute to dead comment threads until I came upon this post.
    I agree with much of what you say. Many attempts to create a welcoming environment for women in the sciences are misguided, weak, or frankly patronizing; appeals to create a space for “women’s unique talents” in any given technical field are as charmingly condescending and liable to create stereotype threat as outright dismissiveness.
    Now I must address the points in which I think you are blatantly wrong. You are, in fact, wrong in many of the same ways I was wrong until a few years ago.
    Specifically: your claim to not see much anti-female sexism in your immediate surrounds. The weight of empirical evidence states that anti-female sexism, whether in the form of hiring discrimination, discrimination in promotions and raises, or the myriad subtle ways that people’s knowledge of a woman’s gender modulate their opinions of her competence, leadership qualities, and emotional warmth, are still pervasive. For a meticulous, high content-density, and tightly written documentation of these phenomena, especially how they operate in traditionally male fields, consider reading Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine. Forgive me my brashness, but I can think of no reason how you could make a statement like this unless you 1) live in a very unique, isolated community, to which I would like to instantly relocate 2) are not very perceptive–which doesn’t fit the persona I see in your writing here or 3) are deliberately misleading yourself, as I did, to preserve the sense of having self-efficacy in a just world.

  13. As for your statement about the necessity of female role models, you are setting up a false dichotomy. I would like to aspire to both femalehood and superior ability! And we exist in a hiring environment where two applications for tenure, labelled Katherine or Kenneth with the same credentials, still do not receive the same amount of “willingness to hire”– where clever experiments have shown that hiring managers skew their perceptions of the relative importance of desirable qualities in an employee to better fit the credentials of a male applicant, but do not extend the same courtesy to female applicants. A policy of hiring more female staff might create a danger of hiring unqualified people, but it also creates an opportunity for equally qualified women to erase the effects of the typical discrepancy between their actual and perceived competence.
    I do not think the idea that women’s performance would increase in the presence of a female role model is patronizing, either–because it is true. It’s been found that the presence of a woman who excels in math can decrease the effect of stereotype threat on another woman’s performance on a math related test. These examples are important. They are a simple matter of changing the implicit associations we have–or rather don’t have– between “femaleness” and agency, ambition, competence, and power. The only other option is for professional women to distance themselves from the concept of femaleness altogether, a difficult pursuit, because others will still see them as female.


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