Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sex vs. Gender

Recently I've been thinking a lot about the difference between sex and gender. And it makes me wonder, "is this one of the subtleties that causes confusion about the women in cs issue?" But first, I suppose I should explain what I see as the difference between the two words/ideas, which understandably cause much confusion and are frequently used in the definition of each other. Sex is the biological condition of being male or female. (Already this is more complicated than I'm saying, since of course there are people who don't fix nicely into those categories based on their bodies or their chromosomes.) Gender refers to the set of characteristics that are associated with sex groups. So, "liking dolls" is a quality that is thought of as being gendered female. It does NOT mean that all women like dolls, or that all doll-liking people are all women. I like to think of it as a statistical correlation. And it does not and should not imply causation. Being a woman does not cause you to like dolls. (Believe me.)

And this is where Larry Summers went wrong. (You knew I'd get to him eventually.) He looked at the low numbers of women in the sciences and decided that it must imply that women (sex) do not have the intrinsic aptitude for the field. In other words, the smaller number of men who like dolls (or admit it) implies that men can't like dolls. They just don't have the intrinsic ability to like dolls (or the color pink, or cooking, or English literature, or...). Which is obviously ridiculous. Computer science is currently gendered male. There's a (strong) statistical correlation between being in computer science and being male. But gender is a socially constructed concept. So don't tell me that women (sex) just aren't as good at computer science as men or pretend that the current gendered norm means anything about a more permanent biological state.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

The rest of the post aside, I am offended by the straw-man caricature of Larry Summers that you attack. He said nothing of the sort.

What do you mean exactly that computer science is gendered male?

D. Eppstein said...

Perhaps it's worth pointing out more explicitly that the assignment of gender to computer science is contingent on our specific culture. In some parts of the world today (Spain for instance) there are proportionately far more women in CS than there are in the US. So any argument that the correlation between gender and CS skill is sex-based would have to take account of that.

Arvind Narayanan said...

I normally like your posts a lot but your characterization of Larry Summers is absurd. "Straw-man caricature" is putting it nicely.

I'm not saying I agree or disagree with him, I'm just expressing my opinion of your argument.

sorelle said...

Regarding Summers, Wikipedia's article on the controversy says:

"In January 2005, Summers described, at a Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the different ways of explaining why there were more men than women in high-end science and engineering positions. He gave the three main hypotheses in the following order: that more men than women were willing to make the commitment in terms of time and flexibility demanded by high-powered jobs, that there were differences in the intrinsic abilities of men and women (more specifically, men's higher variance in aptitude, abilities or preferences relevant to science and engineering), and that the discrepancy was due to discrimination or socialization. He also stated his view that the order given reflected the relative importance of each of the three hypotheses."

I agree with hypotheses 1 and 3. 2 is the problem. I think that 2 implies one of these three things about what Summers actually thinks.
A) What Summers says is unrelated to what he thinks.
B) Summers thinks, without any scientific backing, that women are worse at science than men are (i.e. lacking in intrinsic aptitude)
C) Summers looked at the small numbers of women in science and decided that the gendered preference of women not to be in the sciences must be related to the sex of the women.

I'm actually giving Summers the benefit of the doubt here by assuming not A (i.e., he's capable of speaking intelligently about what he thinks) and not B (i.e., he doesn't jump to rash conclusions without any backing) and instead assuming C, which only implies that he makes illogical conclusions from the data sometimes or doesn't understand the difference between sex and gender (hence this post).

Anonymous said...

Sorry for writing this, but you are a sad person. I completely agree with what he said, all 3 are reasonable possibilities. You are biased because you are already decided what is true and what is not. Do you really want to even think that you are giving logical arguments?

Anonymous said...

Sorry for writing this, but you are a sad person. I completely agree with what he said, all 3 are reasonable possibilities. You are biased because you have already decided what is true and what is not. Do you really want us to think that you are giving logical arguments?

Anonymous said...

To Anon #5. Now I understand why there are so few women in computer science.

Arvind Narayanan said...

What I fail to understand is why this is such a huge issue. Whatever sex or gender differences there may or may not be, it is clear that they are not sufficient to explain the vastly skewed sex ratio we find today, and that bias plays a big role in explaining it. So why not work together to eliminate the bias instead of getting bogged down in divisive debates?

The anonymous personal attacks are a great example of the sort of thing that's hurting the community the most.

Anonymous said...

Suggesting that one population may exhibit more variance than another is not the same as saying that women do not have intrinsic aptitude.

Whether or not you believe this is true, its dishonest to vilify someone for suggesting it -- this is a perfectly reasonable hypothesis, although obviously it would require research to verify. Blindly insisting that there cannot be any differences based on gender is absurd.

D. Eppstein said...

Anon #9, your use of the word "gender" when what you seem to mean is "sex" hints that you haven't tried to understand even the first sentence of this post, and that you're just arguing blindly anyway. Please pay more attention.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the other comments: you did not do justice to Summers's argument. "[D]ifferences in the intrinsic abilities of men and women" does not imply that no women have intrinsic aptitude for the field. It means either that, on average, women have less aptitude than men; or (hewing more closely to his words) that the average is the same but the variance is higher and so more men are "above the bar" with regard to aptitude.

Whether you agree or disagree with what he said is another issue, but at least understand his argument first.