About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

#22 and Deja Vu

OK, it's been a while since this happened. I got about a third of the way through my 22nd book of the year, The Sexual Paradox: Men, Women, and the Real Gender Gap, by Susan Pinker, and realized, "Wait, haven't I read this before?" Yep; I had. Admittedly, I churn through books on this subject (gender roles and gender differences, especially in the workplace) about as quickly as I find them, but still ... it was kind of funny.

All right, then -- tangent aside, this book put forth some interesting ideas about the extent to which biological differences between men and women may explain some of the persistent difference in their career choices, but it also overreaches as to the importance of these differences, and often makes the mistake of confusing compelling anecdotes with solid evidence. Pinker's thesis is twofold: first, that many boys who struggle with ADHD, dyslexia, and the like during their school days end up out-earning and out-achieving the female classmates whose performance in school was far stronger, and second, there are biological and developmental differences between males and females that explain the persistent differences in their career choices and trajectories. If the second piece sounds like a hot-button issue, it is; in fact, it's what cost Obama economic advisor Lawrence Summers the presidency of Harvard several years back. And I'll admit straight-out that it's a sensitive issue for me, and that I had to try really hard to read Pinker's book the whole way through (again) with an open mind.

I'll start with the good stuff: some of Pinker's arguments are well-researched and -articulated. Perhaps the most solid is her chapter on males as the more fragile sex, both in terms of increased mortality at every age, and increased risk for difficulties in school. I was also intrigued by her chapters on dyslexia, autism and Asperger's syndrome, and ADHD, and her suggestion that in some ways, these disorders (all of which are far more prevalent in males than in females) each represent extreme examples of traits and behaviors that, in moderation, have historically been advantageous to men -- that's not to say that I'm fully convinced by this book alone that this is the case, but it's an interesting idea and one I'd like to see more research on.

That said, I think the book is far weaker when it delves into the traits and behaviors where women have traditionally had the advantage, and what this means for their career choices. In short, Pinker argues that the reason there are still so few women in the highest echelon science, math, and engineering careers is that their superior verbal and empathetic skills, coupled with their preference for intrinsically-meaningful work over that which is purely lucrative, motivate them to leave these fields (or leave the most prestigious, highly paid jobs in these fields) even when they've gotten the credentials and the jobs, and haven't been victims of discrimination. Again, I'm trying really hard to be objective here, but I think the following quote from the beginning of Chapter 3 illustrates two of the key fallacies in her reasoning:

"At the beginning of 2005, the choices of educated women became the focus of intense public scrutiny. ... [Harvard president Larry Summers] had offered some ideas about why there might be fewer women than men in high-flying academic science, math, and engineering careers. Could one reason be innate sex differences at the very extremes of performance? Or was discrimination still keeping women out? ... I thought about the high-achieving women in science I'd met over the years. They hardly seemed deficient at math, or in any academic area, for that matter. In fact, they seemed to have an array of options due to their native talents and their educational opportunities. Had they drifted into medicine, psychology, and teaching as consolation prizes after having been discouraged from pursuing physics or engineering careers? The answer, as it turned out, could be seen from my front porch."

Problem number one: Pinker seems to be trying to convince us that sex discrimination is a thing of the past, and that therefore, the differences between high-achieving men's and women's career choices must be due to innate differences between the sexes. Even if we accept for the moment her suggestion that discrimination's no longer a problem (and though I don't think it's that simple, I do believe that especially in the positions she profiles, it's probably far less prevalent than it was 25 or 30 years ago), I don't think it automatically follows that innate sex differences are the other explanation available. Sure, some women leave these fields because they decide the money and prestige just aren't worth it, and they find other work more meaningful ... but so do some men. She also seems to be a bit too quick to shrug off women's choices to leave these fields for other, more meaningful work because (oversimplification alert) "after all, it was her decision and she's much happier this way" -- glossing over the issue of whether a profession that requires 60- to 80-hour workweeks in order to succeed might itself be a problem.

Problem number two: Perhaps we should call this one the Belkin fallacy, after New York Times writer Lisa Belkin's infamous "Opt-Out Revolution" article from the early 2000's. The plural of anecdote is not data, and I'm always leery of arguments that seek to extrapolate from "people I know or know of" to society at large -- especially when the people one knows tend to fall within a pretty narrow socioeconomic spectrum. I know no one book or author can address every issue remotely connected to their topic, but I find it interesting (though not surprising any more) that Pinker doesn't even mention how different male-female occupational choices might play out among plumbers, firefighters, day care workers, secretaries, et al. It's easy to feel like it's no problem for women to be underrepresented in science and engineering if they chose to go into other fields and are still making a pretty darned comfortable living, even if it's not quite as lucrative as it might have been. However, what's going on toward the blue- and pink-collar realms? Are women really beginning careers as plumbers or mechanics or carpenters, but then leaving them because they find day care work more rewarding? And if so, are we still comfortable with the "intrinsic meaning for better pay" trade-off when it leaves them (in most cases) unable to earn a living wage?

As I said, I'm a big nerd about this stuff and could go on in this vein for quite a while, but I think you've got the idea -- worth reading, and has some interesting ideas, but I'm not sure I buy the big picture Pinker's trying to stitch together out of these threads. I'm off to do something sterotypically female and start dinner now.

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