Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Elephant in the Room

I suppose that, as a female computer science blogger, I should have realized I'd have to address the elephant in the room eventually. What elephant? The elephant from an interview with Sally Ride in 2006:

Q: Let's talk Lawrence Summers. The Harvard president recently resigned after giving a controversial speech a year ago suggesting that men might simply be predisposed to be better at math and science. Is there at least a grain of truth in what he said?

A: (Laughs). Suppose you came across a woman lying on the street with an elephant sitting on her chest. You notice she is short of breath. Shortness of breath can be a symptom of heart problems. In her case, the much more likely cause is the elephant on her chest.

For a long time, society put obstacles in the way of women who wanted to enter the sciences. That is the elephant. Until the playing field has been leveled and lingering stereotypes are gone, you can't even ask the question.

Affirmative action is used to slay the elephant, and so affirmative action is the real elephant in the room. And with that, I'm done with the elephant metaphors.

Sadly, affirmative action is one of those issues about which people tend to have strong opinions that are unlikely to change. My unlikely to change opinion is that affirmative action is fair. Note that I don't say equal. Affirmative action is not equal because it is trying to correct previous situations which were not equal. But it is fair to try to correct previous wrongs. I'm not talking about previous wrongs that were committed hundreds of years ago (though that's when these systematic wrongs started), I'm talking about the every day continuous wrongs that, through racism*, classism, and sexism, make it harder for equally talented people to be perceived that way. Greg is more likely to get an interview than Jamal, and there are lots of studies showing that this is true for other groups as well.

Now, I recognize that there are many implementations of affirmative action which are problematic. Michigan's point system, for example, was bizarre - not because it gave extra points to minority applicants, but because it determined admissions by a point system instead of by individual consideration of the applicants to begin with. Still, I don't think that some buggy implementations are a reason to assume this is impossible to do correctly.

So, to my anonymous commenter and others who think that:

I also believe (and I've seen it happen more than once) that, when one is in the job market, it helps being a woman.

I point out that this is unlikely to be statistically true (see previously linked articles). Any positive effect of being female likely only helps to balance out the negative effect of the men who say "I just don't think she'd fit in here" and the other discrimination she's had to overcome up to this point. In other words, affirmative action works to help the job market to be more fair - and yes, this means that men may not have an advantage anymore. That's the goal.

* I'm talking about the US here - I'm afraid I don't know much about these issues, especially racism, on an international scale.


Gerald said...

Since you were kind enough to invite comments I thought I might present a perspective probably not usually seen here. The joke that is frequently told is feminists truly believe in evolution but think it stops at the brain.

Why would "nature" not favor certain skills? And if over millions of years those whose job was hunting rather than gathering, might further prosper if they could better use physical principles.

I know that the reason I can't dunk in basketball might be an elephant on my shoulders but the more likely reason is my lack of innate ability which cannot be brought up to NBA levels no matter how much training I am given.

One very basic fact of life I have learned is if an experiment is repeated hundreds of times and the results are amazingly consistent, it could be that every trial was faulty and tainted but more likely there are facts to be learned from evaluating the tests.

If 95% of any group,mathematicians, physicists, chess players etc, are male there may be elephants on the female shoulders but maybe there are true differences. I can easily explain why they exist but to deny them requires a conspiracy of millions over thousands of years. Is there sexism? Of course. But in todays modern society woman 25-35 earn more than men 25-35. The times, they are achanging.

I am truly amazed at how brilliant highly trained women are some how totally unable to accept the huge huge biologic effects of testosterone. Testosterone and the lack of it produces more biologic effects than almost any other human hormone.

I personally am fortunate enough to have 3 brilliant daughters. Amongst them they have one MD degree, one PhD, one PhD (ABT), one CPA. They have achieved professionally want they want. Two of them want to stay home and raise children (estrogen)(lack of testosterone). Their husbands, far less trained, want to go out and raise money (testosterone).

That is not men holding women back from success, that is what they want to do. If you then look at society as a whole and see millions of women not being CEOs or Deans etc, it is evolution, estrogen, freedom of choice not sexism.

Anonymous said...

I agree. I work in industry in a group where new hires are much more likely to have a phd if they are female. Then the men complain that women move forward faster - ignoring the fact that the women were more highly qualified to begin with.

Jaymie Strecker said...

Gerald's comment reminds me of something Newt Gingrich once said:

"If combat means living in a ditch, females have biological problems staying in a ditch for thirty days because they get infections and they don't have upper body strength. I mean, some do, but they're relatively rare. On the other hand, men are basically little piglets, you drop them in the ditch, they roll around in it, doesn't matter, you know. These things are very real. On the other hand, if combat means being on an Aegis-class cruiser managing the computer controls for twelve ships and their rockets, a female may be again dramatically better than a male who gets very, very frustrated sitting in a chair all the time because males are biologically driven to go out and hunt giraffes."

To argue that testosterone/estrogen cause men and women to make different career choices is to go WAY beyond the scientific evidence. Females and males are treated differently from the moment they are born-- it's systematic and ubiquitous. That is the elephant on the chest. You can't go attributing things to nature when this enormous weight of nurture hasn't been ruled out as an explanation.

Incidentally, the late Dr. Estelle Ramey said, "If it's testosterone the public wants in a president, as an endocrinologist I can't recommend a 70-year-old man in the White House. They should get a 16-year-old boy instead. It seems the only thing the public doesn't want to see in a president is estrogen."

Anonymous said...

Sadly, affirmative action is one of those issues about which people tend to have strong opinions that are unlikely to change.

Affirmative action is a blunt instrument. In certain situations blunt actions are the best way to address--or redress--a problem. For example, the fiscal stimilus check of $700 sent earlier this year to every taxpayer is a blunt instrument yet it was the most cost effective way to help the economy. Any number of people can point out reasons why sending the same amount of money to rich and poor, young and old might be potentially discriminatory, yet society tollerates the flaws given the importance of the ultimate goal: rescue an economy in risk of collapse.

Similarly, given the pervasive nature and depth of historical discrimination against black people, AA was wholly justified however blunt it is.

Once the situation is less dire, that is, discrimination is no longer so overt, the question arises if the instrument is now unnecessarily blunt for the magnitude of the problem. When it comes to race, I don't think we are there yet. According to recent Princeton study a white person with a criminal record was as likely to be interviewed as a black person without one.

Is the situation equally dire when it comes to sexism or can we afford to use finer tools to eliminate systemic discrimination? For example, companies could be subject to random EEO audits: they would be required to keep a copy of every applicant file for a certain number of years. The audit could then look at interview patterns: consider the cases where the best CV in the candidate set was not hired, is this person preferentially a woman?

Personally when it comes to sexism and given the rapid progress of women in the work force I believe AA might now be too blunt of an instrument.

Anonymous said...

[sarcasm]A female coming up in the sciences today who thinks that affirmative action is still fair? I am shocked at this revelation.[/sarcasm]