women in STEM: where to intervene

I am at workshop this week, and had an interesting sideline conversation today.  We both agreed that there was culture-induce inequality of the genders in STEM fields, but the fellow I was talking with disagreed with with me on how to fix things.

I was saying if a department had zero female faculty, then they should make an effort to encourage women to apply.  I was not saying that they should be given less stringent requirements or that a lesser qualified female candidate should be preferred over a more qualified male, but that they should simply make an effort to seek out qualified candidates.

He was arguing that we should address the cultural influence not at the faculty-hiring level, but at the elementary school level.  While I think that there is much that can be done in elementary school, this would never be enough.  A girl could be taught to love math in the third grade, but by the time she made it through the gauntlet of media aimed at middle schoolers, there is very little chance that the elementary school efforts could outweigh other influences.

If we're going to make an effort to level the playing field for men and women in STEM, it needs to happen at every level.  We cannot focus only on faculty or other employment nor can we only dedicate our efforts to primary or secondary education.  The efforts go hand in hand: without role models, girls may think that certain jobs are unappealing.  Without efforts in schooling, there will not be a population of women with the interests and tools to pursue STEM fields.

But these aren't the only areas that influence girls' choices to pursue math-y fields or not.  TV shows, movies, toys, magazines, advertisements, parenting choices, religious communities, political parties, news, and books all shape the way we think about ourselves, how we contextualize our existence in the world.

Any time a mother says to a daughter: I'm not good at math, ask your dad, the daughter's expectations  are adjusted; it's now okay not to be good at math.  Worse yet, she's taught that it's okay to deprecate yourself, which lowers self-esteem and propagates negative cultural influences.  Now, it's totally legitimate for many women not to enjoy math or not be skilled at it, but for the sake of your daughter, your own skill doesn't need to enter into it.  Instead, a mother could say: Oh!  This is important, but it's your dad's responsibility to help with math homework.

Since the influences are so broad and diverse, what can we possibly do?  When do we intervene and how much?  In most cases, I don't think we need a broad campaign; we just do what we can where we can.  If we're on a hiring committee, we seek out qualified candidates.  If we're an elementary school teacher, we make sure to present the material without gender (or other) biases, and teach all students that they can excel.  If we're a manager, we assign tasks simply based on the ability to perform them.  This applies to all areas of bias, be they gender, ethnic, orientation, religious, or something else.

The idea here is that popular culture and media pushes individuals in a certain direction: women need to conform to certain standards of beauty, families need to be constructed a certain way, boys should be good at math and sports.  When we see something that feels wrong, we just need to push back in whatever ways we can and hope that our efforts offset the influences we deem to be negative.

The frustrating thing about the conversation today was what felt like a willful misunderstanding.  He asked things like, So do you think that a certain percentage of the faculty in a department should be female?  No; it's silly to set numbers in advance.  If things are grossly unbalanced (like the specific case I was actually talking about with zero female faculty in a reasonably large department), then the department should make an effort to hire women.  He then objected that you shouldn't fight an inequality with the inequality of hiring under-qualified women.  What bothers me about this argument is that it assumes there aren't qualified women; there are, you just have to look a little harder for them, which is what I was proposing.  He then shifted the focus to contrasting elementary school initiatives vs. faculty hiring efforts and eventually even went so far as to compare recruiting females to recruiting people with blue eyes in an effort to question what constitutes diversity.

I think it's common for men to feel threatened by the idea that women should be more actively recruited.  It's natural: it implies that they're less desirable, which isn't the case.  The reason I bring this up isn't to shame a particular person (I intentionally included no names), but to highlight an area that can be improved.  I don't think everyone should agree with me, and I do think that he's right in some ways: women are just people and should be treated as such.  The problem is, that until they're actually treated as people in all facets, we can't pretend that everything will just be okay if teach elementary kids to like math and science.  There are so many factors at play that we need to make an effort to change culture; it doesn't happen naturally.

And in the effort to change to that culture, I think we need to be a little more careful about they way we converse about these issues.  I know I get defensive and other people do too; I think this is the first thing that can change, because as soon as it does, we can stop talking past each other and actually get some stuff done.


Anonymous said...

(My master's thesis advisor is female, the topic is on algorithms. I am male.)

I'm not quite clear on what to do about this issue. The less than proportional representation of women in STEM faculty is obvious – no matter whether we compare with the proportion of degree holders or that of women in the general population – and it seems clear that the notion that STEM isn't for women is also widespread. For this latter reason it seems to me a more fundamental approach than hiring policy might be warranted.

There are a bunch of confusing misunderstandings or misrepresentations about the debate surrounding hiring policies. The first and most obvious thing is that seeking out potential female candidates is a form of positive discrimination; males are not sought out, and viewing it from the individual's standpoint, it is a disadvantage of the suitable male candidate who is not specifically asked to apply due to his gender. Considering that the point of it is to give women more proportionate visibility, that in itself might be tolerable, though. The question then becomes, is it necessary and/or useful to counteract an actually existing bias, and what metrics to use to decide this. Since I haven't got a clue about the statistics and the research done with regard to that question, let's just suppose it is for the sake of discussion.

What I found to sting a little was the notion that the men who object to this do so out of some wounded sense of self-worth; personally I don't see a problem with actively seeking out female candidates and encouraging them to apply until their representation in faculty is roughly their representation in degree holders, but I understand how this positive discrimination might make people feel treated unfairly. Not recognizing that positive discrimination is a form of discrimination (as is every form of legal distinction that treats different cases differently - I'm borrowing from the notion of equality pervasive in German law here, since I studied that for a while) seems to be a disservice to this approach. If someone is not treated equally for some reason, then telling them they aren't actually being discriminated will tend to offend them and foster resentment against it as well as against the women who profit from it – „oh, her – yeah she only got that job for quota reasons“.

About the argument that „you shouldn't fight an inequality with the inequality of hiring under-qualified women“ – this seems perfectly obvious to me, and I disagree that it presupposes that there are no equally qualified women. Rather it suggests that actively hiring women who are less qualified than male candidates simply because they are women is the wrong approach. This may sound like some far-fetched non-issue, but there are cases where professorships were advertised for women exclusively; last year the HU Berlin was hiring a professor for mathematics, but when a male candidate applied, he was told that his application would not be considered since it was women-only. Now hopefully this is some grotesque extreme, but it illustrates the issue.

As a final note: all of this assumes that the less than proportionate representation of women in STEM (when compared to the general population) is actually a matter of obstructive bias that brings about inefficient allocation, not one of natural differences in tendencies between the sexes. As far as I'm aware – although I'm very poorly educated on this – there are significant differences in leaning towards STEM originating from cognitive traits. Now to talk about the nature vs. nurture thing in this regard is a bit much here, but I haven't nearly seen that question addressed exhaustively enough in discussion about this – if I didn't misread your post, it seems to me that you consider it to be wholly a matter of nurture, and while nurture is obviously relevant, I'm far from convinced that there is no nature in this.

ajbc said...

I think that there are some perfectly rational objections to positive discrimination, and I’m sorry that my words stung a bit. My intent was to highlight that often, but not always, people are self-interested and more emotional about these issues than they should be. Men are privileged by being a part of a majority; women are privileged by being sought out for diversity. Both sides are likely to defend their respective privileges. We should, however, discuss these issues rationally, as you have.

For the argument that you should not fight inequality with a different inequality: I completely agree with it as a general principle, but in the context of this particular conversation, it bothered me. Since I was talking about a very specific case of seeking out female candidates, it implied that I thought women should be given an unfair advantage once candidates have applied, which I don’t. When it is used as a reason to ignore or dismiss issues of inequality, then it can imply that there aren’t qualified women. In isolation, it doesn’t.

I know I didn’t talk about nature vs. nurture. I think nature certainly plays a role in skills and preferences, but that gender is only a tiny component, and that personality and other attributes will far outweigh anything else. "Studies show that one's sex has little or no bearing on personality, cognition and leadership." [1]