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Men Did Invent the Internet (and That’s a Huge Problem)

June 5th, 2012 · 43 Comments

Boing Boing’s Xeni Jardin recently unleashed some righteous fury on the “steaming turd of an opening line in David Streitfeld’s otherwise serviceable New York Times piece about [...] gender discrimination in Silicon Valley.” The offending line: “Men invented the Internet.”

The thing is—and hold the rotten fruit, I’m going somewhere with this—that’s actually pretty accurate. The putative counterexamples Jardin offers are so strained that they end up reinforcing rather than refuting the claim. Grace Hopper was an important computing pioneer, but her achievements have to do with the creation of early programming languages (notably a predecessor to COBOL), not the Internet. Radia Perlman wrote a key networking protocol, and should probably be more widely known for it, but she did it in 1985, well after the invention of ARPANET and TCP/IP.  Ada Lovelace, by far the most famous of this trio, is also the one with the weakest claim to an original contribution: She was basically a press agent for Charles Babbage, and her reputation as the “first computer programmer” is based on her single significant paper, published in 1843, which included a description of an algorithm actually written by Babbage. If we’re really talking about the 15 or 20 people who could most reasonably be called “inventors of the Internet”—as opposed to “people who did a cool thing related to computers”—we are, in fact, talking about a bunch of guys. If we go with the broader “cool thing with a computer,” we’re no longer exclusively talking about guys, but until the last few decades, it’s still pretty disproportionate.

The correct takeaway from this, however, is not “herp derp, women can’t do math.” It’s that the social costs of sexism are really, really high. If, despite massive cultural and institutional barriers, significant numbers of women were making important contributions at the highest level all along, but denied credit, that would obviously be grossly unfair to the women in question. But it would be sort of a wash from the perspective of overall social utility: The allocation of credit is different, but society still gets the benefit of the brightest women’s contributions. The grimmer alternative is not that the wrong people get the credit, but that important innovations just don’t happen because the pool of brainpower available to tackle important social goals is needlessly halved—the potential female counterparts of Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn never got the opportunity to accelerate the progress of the Internet because, at the time, hostile institutions froze them out, or antiquated norms of femininity deterred them from obtaining STEM educations in the first place. That’s a much, much bigger loss.

It’s natural that we want to look for inspiration to the members of marginalized groups whose incredible achievements required surmounting equally incredible obstacles, but overselling the success stories can also subtly reinforce the complacent view that Genius Always Finds A Way, regardless of social arrangements, even if it’s not properly recognized until much later. The depressing reality is that it very often doesn’t. And the deeper the roots of the inequality—the more culturally entrenched it is—the longer we should expect inequality in achievement to persist even when the most obvious formal barriers have been eliminated. It’s worth pausing to belatedly recognize the neglected heroines who did overcome the odds, but insisting that there’s been some hidden parity of contributions all along actually seems to risk underselling  the gravity of the collective harm we’ve done ourselves. Sexism has consequences—and it has left all of us vastly worse off.

Tags: Sociology · Tech and Tech Policy


       

 

43 responses so far ↓

  • 1 misuba // Jun 5, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    But: the NYT piece was really talking about the invention of the Internet _as we know it today._ So, things like Facebook and… well, it’s the NYT, so mostly just Facebook. (And right there, they have a problem, because Facebook and the like were so influenced by Flickr, and Flickr was co-created by a woman.)

    This is not to diminish what you say here – that’s a problem too. But Xeni is right to be mad.

  • 2 Fred // Jun 5, 2012 at 11:15 pm

    Well, if sexism has consequences, then it seems obvious that some of them are good.

    Probably one of the good consequences in this instance is that the men who were busy creating and inventing the Internet were not too distracted by women with their odd ways of working and interacting, and therefore they were even more focused and successful than they would have been otherwise.

    There will almost certainly never be as many women who want to do this kind of work as there are men. Of course we should encourage everyone to explore and fulfill their talents to the maximum.

  • 3 dragnet // Jun 6, 2012 at 9:00 am

    How is this surprising? The fact is that men invented the vast majority of the things we find useful today.

    Everyone, no matter their gender, should be encouraged to pursue their interests and talents to the best of their ability. But you aren’t going to ever have gender parity in everything. This is fine as long people are free to make their own choices without duress.

  • 4 Mark // Jun 6, 2012 at 9:00 am

    I’m tired of all this attention on women in tech. The tech workplace is better without women.

  • 5 Ryan // Jun 6, 2012 at 9:13 am

    These men all have mothers; let’s celebrate them. Kidding aside, women will soon have their day (in the West, at least). Based on demographic trends in education, women will be in charge of many things. Math and Computer Science departments might see a slower transition to female domination. I know that I find working in an all male team much more efficient and enjoyable. Is this cultural or biological or both? Sex, like race relations, is very messy and misunderstood.

  • 6 Jeff // Jun 6, 2012 at 9:19 am

    “The grimmer alternative is not that the wrong people get the credit, but that important innovations just don’t happen because the pool of brainpower available to tackle important social goals is needlessly halved—the potential female counterparts of Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn never got the opportunity to accelerate the progress of the Internet because, at the time, hostile institutions froze them out, or antiquated norms of femininity deterred them from obtaining STEM educations in the first place.”

    A less grim alternative is that Larry Summers was right, and there are just a lot more men on the far right of the bell curve for skills necessary to do trailblazing work in computer science and IT. That, or women simply self-select out of such fields because they find it tedious.

    Why the dismissive attitude and the faux confidence that this is “not the correct takeaway?” Have you taken a stroll around the engineering building of a large university lately? The ratio of Y to X chromosomes in those places is, in my experience, almost exactly 1:1. Maybe higher.

  • 7 Jeff // Jun 6, 2012 at 9:40 am

    From Mark Perry:

    The Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) released its annual report today, here are links to the press release and full report.

    For the second year in a row, women earned a majority of all doctoral degrees in 2010 (51.9%), an increase from the 50.4% female share in 2009, which was the first time in history that women outnumbered men earning doctoral degrees (see top chart above)….

    Men still outnumber women earning doctoral degrees in fields like Engineering (76.8%), Math and Computer Science (74.1%) and Physical Sciences (66.9%). …

    Women represent 58.7% of all graduate students in the U.S., meaning that there are now 142.1 women enrolled in graduate school for every 100 men. In certain fields like Education (74.8% female), Health Sciences (79.8% female) and Public Administration (75.3%), women outnumber men by a factor of 3-4 times. Overall, women enrolled in graduate school outnumber men in 7 out of the 11 graduate fields of study, all except for business (45.9% female), engineering (22.3% female), math and computer science (29.2% female) and physical sciences (37.5% female).

    Here’s a prediction: The fact that men are underrepresented in graduate school enrollment overall (100 men for every 142 women), and underrepresented in 7 out of 11 graduate fields of study will get almost no media attention at all. Additionally, there will be no calls for government studies, or increased government funding to address the problem, and nobody will refer to this gender graduate school enrollment gap as a “crisis.” But what will get media attention is the fact that women are underrepresented in four of the 11 fields of graduate study like engineering and computer science, which can likely be traced to some kind of overt or unexamined gender discrimination.

    http://mjperry.blogspot.com/2011/09/142-women-enrolled-in-grad-school-per.html

  • 8 Ralph // Jun 6, 2012 at 9:52 am

    Jeff: “A less grim alternative is that Larry Summers was right, and there are just a lot more men on the far right of the bell curve for skills necessary to do trailblazing work in computer science and IT. That, or women simply self-select out of such fields because they find it tedious.”

    Larry Summers was not castigated for being a bold un-PC truth teller (well he was, but improperly); he was first and properly castigated for ignorantly suggesting to a group of experts on gender inequality in the workplace that they had never considered the possibility that gender stereotypes might have merit and a biological basis. In addition to insulting their profession and intelligence, he showed that he was completely unaware that this suggestions had been thoroughly scientifically refuted decades ago.

    For instance, Europe has a much higher rate of female participation in fields that are dominated by men in the US; are we to believe that European women are smarter or more masculine than American women?

    Further, analysis of the “leaky pipeline” demonstrates that American women drop out of male dominated fields for many social reasons at every level of professional development, and that small changes that benefit both sexes can patch many of those holes.

    Those facts have nothing to do with women’s supposed “odd ways of thinking and interacting” (odd to whom, Fred? men in tech?) , lower propensity for intelligence, or avoidance of work they find “tedious” (Jeff: do you really think women find work in tech more tedious than dishes and laundry? Seriously, think about that for a minute.)

    If anything, having to learn a discipline while surrounded by the sorts of people that leave comments like those above make them think that they have more friendly places to ply their talents.

    Indeed, I have seen plenty of female students pushed out of STEM fields by the men in their cohort. The men aren’t trying to push them out, they’re just so rude and domineering and socially clueless that the women find a higher quality of life if they go be smart in fields with fewer men like that, fields like biology (as difficult a science as there is, BTW).

    The dominant reason IT is filled with men is social inertia, not chromosomes.

    And Fred:
    “There will almost certainly never be as many women who want to do this kind of work as there are men. Of course we should encourage everyone to explore and fulfill their talents to the maximum.”

    Do you not realize that the latter sentence is inconsistent with emphasizing and insisting on the former, especially to aspiring young women, especially since it need not be true? Saying “IT will always be a man’s field” is self-fulfilling.

  • 9 K.Chen // Jun 6, 2012 at 9:52 am

    If we’re going to persist in talking about the notion that women and men are different, (a statement that is both self evidently true and surprisingly malleable to both noble and invidious purposes) the major cost isn’t the lost brain power not devoted to the internet from women, but also the lost perspective. The main benefit from diversity isn’t, but the broad range of perspectives and experiences that come from different lives, be it an issue of biology, socioeconomic class, or identity. An internet developed predominantly by (just taking a stab in the dark here) middle class, male, and white people is a poorer, less universal internet compared to one where others have a larger part in innovating.

    And, as someone who has burned bridges with friends trying to defend Larry Summers’ provocations in the name of academic discussion and pushing back against the all encompassing white/male privilege narrative, it is really goddamned infuriating to see the kind of attitudes and behaviors I end up in some way subsidizing. If you’re going to talk about gender in a stupid way, go feminist over sexist, please. You’ll still be stupid, but you’ll do less harm.

  • 10 Ralph // Jun 6, 2012 at 9:59 am

    Jeff, being obtuse, wrote:
    “Here’s a prediction: The fact that men are underrepresented in graduate school enrollment overall (100 men for every 142 women), and underrepresented in 7 out of 11 graduate fields of study will get almost no media attention at all. Additionally, there will be no calls for government studies, or increased government funding to address the problem, and nobody will refer to this gender graduate school enrollment gap as a “crisis.” But what will get media attention is the fact that women are underrepresented in four of the 11 fields of graduate study like engineering and computer science, which can likely be traced to some kind of overt or unexamined gender discrimination.”

    Of course! You say that like it’s a problem.

    If women are historically outnumbered in a field but clearly qualified, then it certainly is a problem that needs to be fixed, for the reasons Julian explains in his excellent post.

    If women, despite all of the historical disadvantages, reach parity in a field they have historically been out of, then we have apparently overcome the worst of the discrimination in those fields.

    And please LOOK at the fields where women dominate doctoral degrees; they have ALWAYS dominated those fields; the difference now is that they are actually getting PhDs in them. Are you seriously suggesting that the media should highlight that men aren’t getting degrees in those fields because they’re getting discriminated against?

    Short version: It’s not a gender gap per se that is newsworthy, but if a gap is due to discrimination, it’s a problem, and so the media should cover it. Which gaps do you see that are due to discrimination that the media isn’t covering?

  • 11 Evan // Jun 6, 2012 at 9:59 am

    The issue with computer science, as with other kinds of science, isn’t and never has been sexism at the top. The people who reach the pinnacle of these fields usually place enough value on technical ability that they don’t care where it comes from and don’t discriminate based on sex, sexual orientation, race, religion, etc. It’s the people at junior levels in these fields, who aren’t so talented and feel threatened by different people who are more talented than they are that create the kind of hostile environments that cause women and others to flee. Alan Turing, the early computational mathematician responsible for British code breaking during WWII and founding father of computer science, is a perfect case in point. His colleagues all knew he was a homosexual and had no problem with this; it was his superiors that had him persecuted.

    The depressing thing is not that women are underrepresented in CompSci, but that things are actually getting worse – the percentage of students and graduates in Computer Science who were female actually peaked in the 1980s.

  • 12 Ralph // Jun 6, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Evan:
    I wish it were so.

    I am in a STEM field. The issue is not that less talented people leave because they feel threatened (though that happens, too), it is that there are lots of subtle cues for women to leave: behavioral double standards (he’s confident, she’s pushy; he’s brilliant, she’s a know-it-all; he’s a hard worker, she’s only here for gender balance; he’s friendly, she’s not tough enough), different preferences for job perks (parental leave, safe walkways at night, pausing the tenure clock for family issues), and even unconscious bias (identical papers are judged differently based on the gender of the name of the author, a well documented effect).

    It would be great if the tech fields were purely meritocratic. As a successful member of one, I assure you they are absolutely not (though they are closer than many). Science is a social endeavor operating within a cultural institution, and there are many skills unrelated to IQ that are essential for success.

  • 13 Jeff // Jun 6, 2012 at 10:23 am

    Ralph,

    First, there is no need to throw accusations of “obtuseness” around, especially considering you were quoting something that I didn’t actually write. Please read more carefully in the future before commenting.

    “Short version: It’s not a gender gap per se that is newsworthy, but if a gap is due to discrimination, it’s a problem, and so the media should cover it.”

    I agree wholeheartedly. Where we disagree is that I think the gender gap in STEM fields has little or nothing to do with gender discrimination and a lot to do with, as I mentioned before, women being underqualified or self-selecting out of such fields of study.

    More from Mark Perry:

    To explain the stubborn underrepresentation of women in STEM jobs and majors, the Department of Commerce cites three main factors: a) a lack of female role models in STEM fields, b) gender stereotyping, and c) less family-friendly flexibility in STEM fields compared to other occupations. In the conclusion of the report, the Department of Commerce is very clear about its ultimate, long-term goal: perfect gender parity in STEM.

    Unfortunately, the Commerce report never addressed what might actually be the most important reason that females remain persistently underrepresented in STEM jobs and college majors, even after decades of concerted effort and federal funding targeted to change that outcome: the continuing and statistically significant gender disparity in mathematical aptitude favoring males.

    High school boys have scored higher on average than their female counterparts on the SAT math test in every year from 1972 to 2010, and the differences are statistically significant and large, averaging 38 points higher for boys over the last four decades. At the very high end of mathematical ability, high school boys overwhelmingly outnumber girls by a ratio of more than 2:1 for perfect test scores of 800 points on the math SAT test.

    Bottom Line: Given the significant gender differences in mathematical aptitude favoring high school boys that have persisted over many generations on standardized tests like the math SAT, it’s perfectly understandable that males are overrepresented in STEM jobs and college majors.

    http://blog.american.com/2011/08/perfect-gender-parity-in-stem-is-an-unrealistic-and-unreachable-goal/

  • 14 albert magnus // Jun 6, 2012 at 10:40 am

    Any accusation that STEM discriminates against women needs to explain why women do better in medicine and law. I roomed with law students when I was in graduate school in physics. It was night and day in terms of treatment of women, with the law students being much, much worse in any objective measure.

  • 15 Ralph // Jun 6, 2012 at 10:52 am

    Jeff, sorry to misattribute you, and I apologize for “obtuse”. I misunderstood that your entire post was in fact a quotation.

    I stand by my characterization that rhetorically wondering why the media focuses on women being underrepresented but nothing is done for men to help them into fields like education is obtuse, for the reason you agreed with when you wrote:”I agree wholeheartedly. Where we disagree is that I think the gender gap in STEM fields has little or nothing to do with gender discrimination”

    If “gender discrimination” means overt male chauvinism, I agree. Most of those dinosaurs are kept away from female students. But if you’re a woman, it doesn’t have to be overt or conscious for it to be discrimination nonetheless. A lot of it is structural and institutional, not chauvinistic. I see it all the time; it is real.

    “and a lot to do with, as I mentioned before, women being underqualified”

    If we’re talking about training, then I don’t disagree, especially since qualifications are easier to get for men. If we’re talking aptitude, I really disagree. It’s tempting to think that the issue has been ignored because it’s not PC to suggest that women aren’t as likely to be superlatively smart as men; in fact this has been studied to death and it just isn’t so. The SAT results are mostly because high school girls are not as well-prepared as high school boys, not because they don’t have the brains for math: a girl is less likely to be encouraged to take AP Calc, when she’s little her Barbie will inform her that “Math class is tough!” while her brother will be given cool interactive building sets, most of her STEM teachers will be male, she will be more outnumbered in STEM classes, and she will have fewer role models. These things are real; why assume they are insignificant compared to biology?

    “self-selecting out of such fields of study.”
    This one is dead on. Women do self-select out of such fields, as I have written. My point is that lot of that is subtle encouragement to leave that men don’t receive. That is a problem for those fields, and for society, not something to shrug off as “their choice” (which is true, obviously, but beside the point).

  • 16 Ralph // Jun 6, 2012 at 10:54 am

    Albert the Great:

    Sorry, are you saying that there is a lot more overt misogyny in law school than in physics grad school?

  • 17 Slabjob Pwozak // Jun 6, 2012 at 11:17 am

    Ralph:

    “Larry Summers was not castigated for being a bold un-PC truth teller (well he was, but improperly); he was first and properly castigated for ignorantly suggesting to a group of experts on gender inequality in the workplace that they had never considered the possibility that gender stereotypes might have merit and a biological basis. In addition to insulting their profession and intelligence, he showed that he was completely unaware that this suggestions had been thoroughly scientifically refuted decades ago.”

    This is odd. It necessary to point out that many “experts on gender inequality”, for purely ideological reasons, *will not* consider the “possibility that gender stereotypes might have merit and a biological basis.” Such as that MIT professor who walked out of Summers’ talk in order, as she later explained, to avoid blacking out or vomiting.

    Additionally, could you point me to the refutations you mention? I was under the impression that the psychometric analysis Summers gave was rather sound.

  • 18 Ralph // Jun 6, 2012 at 11:40 am

    Slabjob:

    “This is odd. It necessary to point out that many “experts on gender inequality”, for purely ideological reasons, *will not* consider the “possibility that gender stereotypes might have merit and a biological basis.” ”

    Maybe so, but applying that stereotype (which is what that is) to the entire field is wrong. Over the 20th century the possibility of a biological component to aptitude has gone from being assumed, to questioned, to studied, to debunked, and yet Summers acted as if it had never even been considered; as is if he were supplying great insight by suggesting that they look into this interesting possibility. It really is enough to make a distinguished scholar in the field puke to know that your university president knows so little about your field and still purports to lecture you on how you’re doing it wrong.

    You wrote: “I was under the impression that the psychometric analysis Summers gave was rather sound.”

    It is not sound; the results cannot be replicated across cultures, demonstrating that the effects are cultural, not biological (exactly the opposite of Summers’s conclusions).

    You wrote: “Additionally, could you point me to the refutations you mention?”

    Sure. Here is a starting point for your research, filled with references for you to follow:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1299319/

    A tidbit:
    “Although PISA also found that males performed better than females in mathematics in a large number of countries, no statistically significant difference was found in one-third of the countries, including the top performers Finland, Hong Kong and Japan. In Iceland and Thailand, girls consistently score better than boys in mathematics tests.”

    Apparently culture has not kept girls from being good at math in some places. Unless the brightest Icelandic and Thai women are smarter than their American counterparts genetically, Summers is wrong.

  • 19 Men Did Invent the Internet (and That’s a Huge Problem) | Accidental Bear // Jun 6, 2012 at 11:42 am

    [...] The thing is—and hold the rotten fruit, I’m going somewhere with this—that’s actually pretty accurate. The putative counterexamples Jardin offers are so strained that they end up reinforcing rather than refuting the claim. Grace Hopper was an important computing pioneer, but her achievements have to do with the creation of early programming languages (notably a predecessor to COBOL), not the Internet. Radia Perlman wrote a key networking protocol, and should probably be more widely known for it, but she did it in 1985, well after the invention of ARPANET and TCP/IP.  Ada Lovelace, by far the most famous of this trio, is also the one with the weakest claim to an original contribution: She was basically a press agent for Charles Babbage, and her reputation as the “first computer programmer” is based on her single significant paper, published in 1843, which included a description of an algorithm actually written by Babbage. If we’re really talking about the 15 or 20 people who could most reasonably be called “inventors of the Internet”—as opposed to “people who did a cool thing related to computers”—we are, in fact, talking about a bunch of guys. If we go with the broader “cool thing with a computer,” we’re no longer exclusivelytalking about guys, but until the last few decades, it’s still pretty disproportionate. MORE [...]

  • 20 Quote of the Day : depth first search // Jun 6, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    [...] by JS The correct takeaway from this, however, is not “herp derp, women can’t do math.” It’s that … [...]

  • 21 Jeff // Jun 6, 2012 at 12:41 pm

    I can’t buy the “subtle” gender discrimination argument: again, take a walk around the engineering hall at your typical large state university. These places are not anything like, say, The Citadel circa 1995 when Shannon Faulkner was trying to make it through. They’re populated mostly by high IQ, low aggression men. A bunch of Mark Zuckerberg/Bill Gates types. Am I really supposed to believe that these guys are just so socially domineering and rude and chauvinistic and off-putting and so on that they’re causing half or more of the women who enter these fields to give up on them or intimidating them into not giving them the old college try in the first place? That simply defies credibility.

  • 22 albert magnus // Jun 6, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    Ralph, yes that’s exactly what I’m saying, especially from their peer group.

  • 23 albert magnus // Jun 6, 2012 at 1:27 pm

    Not sure I would characterize Bill Gates as “low aggression” since he could be quite a bully. However, he is not really typical and most women who are engineering and sciences are treated quite respectfully by faculty and students.

    Also, when looking at standardized test scores in relation to STEM field, you can’t focus on the average, but need to focus on the top 10% where the most people who make a living at it work. If you want to look at faculty members you need to look at the top 0.5%.

    Also, the US is a much more heterogeneous country and if you implement some input controls (like comparing East Asian-Americans to East Asians) you get totally different results.

  • 24 Nate // Jun 6, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    I disagree with the premise that women are selected out of STEM fields by a pervasively sexist professional environment.

    What we do to our women, in our culture, we do to them when they are girls. In our public education system, one’s future is largely set by about age 11 or 12, as far as whether they’re headed for a professional STEM academic track. We do such a poor job of teaching our kids math – particularly girls, in grades 1-5, that long before a woman can think about being intimidated by a lab full of nervous, socially inept geeks, the opportunity for such a career has pretty much been taken away. Poor grades and test scores. . . why pursue a career in something that is not rewarding, and only causes failure, shame, and pain?

    And when they do feel encouraged to this work, and when their “genius finds a way” – they look at the workforce with these careers, and see people getting pay cuts, layoffs, losing pensions, etc. It’s not as secure a job as lawyer, doctor, or financial analyst. Kids see this, and it influences their choices.

    It doesn’t have to be that way – (and Finland, Japan, Iceland – etc. prove this); that we can, overall do a better job at teaching math fundamentals, and building a strong and confident skillset across both genders.

    But if we start now – we wouldn’t see the benefit in our workforce for about 15-20 years.

    In our culture, we do not encourage our girls to pursue these kinds of careers, or this work, at that age. We often do not even encourage our boys. It is more and more culturally unpopular. Today, it is popular to be a “nerd”, but that means you like pokemon or read science fiction. It doesn’t mean you do calculus for fun, and are getting a scholarship to MIT based on your good coursework. (most kids are more likely to get scholarships for sports. THIS is where our priorities are, as a culture.)

  • 25 Hank // Jun 6, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    I think Nate has the right idea. There are a few surly tech types, but they are few and far between, hardly enough to have much effect.

    It’s amazing how important the first 10 or so years of our lives our, how much they shape what we will think and do and believe. It’s why things like pre-school have such been shown to have such a vital role in a person’s future success.

  • 26 Kim // Jun 6, 2012 at 3:07 pm

    I bristle at the idea that discrimination and stereotypes don’t affect girls performance in math. My personal experience:

    At the start of daughter’s 6th grade year we had just returned from living overseas and she was out of sync in math. Before she had left she was in the top math group in elementary school and I wanted to put her back with her peers (a double accelerated track). But, it was suggested that she do a year single accelerated in order to catch any missing concepts. At the end of a year of getting A’s and being bored, we asked her teacher to recommender her to skip to the next level. In front of her he told us that yes, she could do the math at that level, but he didn’t think she had the “personality” to keep up with it. He had concluded, since she didn’t ask for extra work from him she didn’t really like math enough to do well. Again, he said all this in front of my 11 year old daughter. Luckily, she didn’t give a crap what he said, jumped up in math and will now be taking multivariable calculus as a high school senior, a class beyond what her high school teaches. I’m not saying she is a math genius, but she will at least have a solid background for college STEM courses.

    Anyway, I guess a less confident girl or one who didn’t have parents telling her that particular math teacher was a jackass, might have decided he was right. Enough of those types of teachers in enough schools – math teachers who think that only one type of person is going to be good at math can do damage. Especially when that stereotype leans towards a male perspective.

  • 27 Ralph // Jun 6, 2012 at 3:14 pm

    Jeff asked:”Am I really supposed to believe that these guys are just so socially domineering and rude and chauvinistic and off-putting and so on that they’re causing half or more of the women who enter these fields to give up on them or intimidating them into not giving them the old college try in the first place? That simply defies credibility.”

    There’s no reason to muse about credibility and what “seems” likely; this is well studied stuff.

    No, domineering males are not the whole problem and don’t lead to all or even most of the overall losses. The whole point of the “leaky pipeline” metaphor is to convey the results of studies of how women are lost from STEM fields at every stage of professional development, not all at one point. A hostile study/work environment from domineering males is one of many small well documented causes.

    So don’t fall into the fallacy of monocausality. Hank and Nate point out other ways that it’s harder if you’re a woman; the point is that there are LOTS of social reasons, it’s not just a few misogynistic admissions and hiring officiers.

    I’m signing off; but since this forum seems to attract an apparently logical and intelligent crowd, I strongly encourage you to do what Larry Summers did not: really look at the detailed, thorough, objective, scientific literature on this subject. There’s no reason for us to argue from our guts when so many people have studied this for so long.

    I’ll repost a good starting point for research:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1299319/

  • 28 Alon Raz // Jun 6, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    Ralph, you’re right that the topic has been studied, but the results are more mixed than you suggest. Here’s a recent paper that offers a pretty good summary.

    I’ll have time to post more later, but the lack of a gap in PISA scores in certain countries is likely to be noise: the country-level gender gaps (as opposed to the general gap) aren’t stable over consecutive tests (search for “Figure 4″). In fact, most of the gap is already present among kindergartners. (Of course, as you point out, that doesn’t show the gap is innate.)

  • 29 albert magnus // Jun 6, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    Its a bad idea to analyze female experiences in a vacuum. That’s the common mistake of thinking about this subject. Smart boys can be treated pretty badly, too. The stereotype of boys picking on nerds is there for a reason.

  • 30 Mike // Jun 6, 2012 at 4:01 pm

    @Ralph

    Having been a nerd all of my life and gone to school in a STEM field, most of the socialization issues driving women away are not socialization issues specifically regarding gender, but socialization issues in general that the men in the field have grown up tolerating but the women have often not. As one of the girls in my freshman class said “The odds are good but the goods are odd.”

    Because of earlier social pressures, girls are less likely to be *that* weird, and less likely to be willing to tolerate that weirdness. Our cultural version of femininity discourages *geeking out* to the same degree as boys are encouraged to do. But that level of geekiness is exactly what is required to excel at STEM pursuits (not the socially awkward part, but the almost diagnosably obsessive part).

    Moreover, it is even worse in IT fields, because IT has become something that is a hobby for nerds. Most bio students haven’t been making cultures in their garage for years – nearly every CS nerd freshman comes in already having taught himself to program (poorly) and has been building and overclocking his own gaming system since he was ten.

    There are girls around who have that level of hobbyist obsession, but our culture does not produce them at anything close to the same rate. And it is very intimidating for anyone, girl or boy, to step into the first class of freshman year knowing next to nothing when everyone else has eight years of experience on you.

  • 31 Freddie // Jun 6, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    The ratio of Y to X chromosomes in those places is, in my experience, almost exactly 1:1. Maybe higher.

    Ummm…..

  • 32 Havlová // Jun 7, 2012 at 1:32 am

    As a female person, I will share my experiences to edify those men claiming that sexism simply *couldn’t* exist in their cherished field.

    Having done very well in math and sciences in high school, I wanted to pursue those interests further in college. Unbeknownst to me, my “guidance” counselor placed me in “business” math and science classes, which were intended for students who only needed them as requirements for a liberal arts degree, as opposed to the more serious classes for those interested in majoring in STEM-related areas. After completing Physics and Calculus courses on that track, I found that to advance I would have to go back and retake a total of 4 semester-long courses if I wanted to pursue those avenues of study further.

    Not wanting to delay my graduation, I switched over to Engineering. The courses were literally all-male (this was circa 2002). As were the teachers. I could stomach sitting in class by always placing myself in the front row, so as not to have to see my classmates, and to force the teacher to pay attention to me. However, the labs were the worst. How could I get an equal learning experience when the guys treated each other as brothers together in an elite genius club and me as a weird alien species to be alternatively ogled, mocked or reviled?

    It is ridiculous to claim such a situation is sexism-free, and that the men treat their one female classmate as an equal. It is also nonsensical to claim that this men’s club attitude dissolves at the professional or managerial level, that suddenly the men at the top “just care about talent” and are “gender-blind”. In male homosocial environments, misogynistic and homophobic comments are commonplace, and the entrance of a woman is seen as a threatening and unwelcome intrusion. She is then treated accordingly.

    It’s surprising any of this is news to any literate person, as, like Ralph said, these gender dynamics are endlessly researched and very well documented.

    On a final note, I find it hard to believe any man who claims women are underrepresented in STEM fields due to biological ability or free choice, because men in the field have a very real stake in convincing others to believe that claim. Significantly less competition for admissions, jobs and promotions, and maintenance of a social hierarchy of male dominance for instance. It harms your credibility.

  • 33 Jeff // Jun 7, 2012 at 10:23 am

    What, exactly, did your classmates mock and revile you for?

    Look, I am not saying such places are “sexism free,” or whatever. What I am saying is that I find it difficult to believe that in an era when 21% of Naval Academy cadets are women and West Point has changed the lyrics of its alma mater to be more gender neutral, somehow the engineering department at, say, MIT remains this bastion of reactionary, patriarchal misogyny. Right. Because college campuses have always been havens of conservative ideology…like those students at Kent State, rioting over the de-escalation of the Vietnam war, for example.

    What bizarro world are you people inhabiting?

  • 34 the real STEM question in all of this // Jun 7, 2012 at 1:16 pm

    At least Freddie saw it.

  • 35 K. Chen // Jun 7, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    Jeff,

    Conservative ideology is not the only manifestation of sexism. In fact, I don’t know that it is a manifestation of sexism.

    You seem to be suggesting that Sexism that is a Problem that presents on a single continuum that is defined by Awful Macho Men. “Low-aggression” Bill Gates types can provide their unique brand of problems for women. Arguably, many more. Speaking from observation, women in tech fields have a lot of pretty unpleasant crap to deal with that doesn’t come from an overdose of testoterone so much as a lack of social grace. And since we’re trucking in stereotypes, the Bill Gates types do lack in social grace.

    To the point statements like “I’m tired of all this attention on women in tech. The tech workplace is better without women.” don’t have to come from aggressive conservatives threatening women to get the hell out of their workplace and back into the kitchen, they can come from liberal, educated, brilliant men who just happen to be of the opinion that /their/ workplace shouldn’t have women, because of whatever bullshit.

    Has the world gotten better for women? Certainly. Are there still old white male department chairs, generals, division directors, and so-on dragging their heels? Also yes. Is it silly to blame them for everything? Still yes. But at the end of the day, however complex and nuanced the face of sexism is in our society, it is still extant, and still a problem. We can argue all day long about the exact nature of the problem and how best to fix it (or leave it alone) but shit still sucks for women out there. All it takes is asking a few to find out how. I’d suggest wives, girlfriends, daughters and the like for starters.

  • 36 prasad // Jun 7, 2012 at 7:23 pm

    I suspect everyone else before Freddie “saw” the chromosome ratio thing as well. I’m guessing they were also awake the day they did hyperbole in school.

  • 37 François M. Gagnon » Le sexisme dans le monde de la techno // Jun 10, 2012 at 8:17 am

    [...] réponse à un article du New York Times qui commençait par «Men invited the Internet», Julian Sanchez s’interroge sur les coûts sociaux du sexisme : The grimmer alternative is not that the wrong people get the credit, but that important [...]

  • 38 Alon Raz // Jun 10, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    Ralph, the evidence on gender differences in mathematics isn’t as unequivocal as you suggest. There’s a good survey in this 2009 paper: http://duende.uoregon.edu/~hsu/blogfiles/ceci.pdf

    The issue with the varying gender gaps across countries is that the country-level gaps aren’t significantly correlated across consecutive administrations of the test, which indicates that they’re dominated by noise. (By contrast, the male-female gap across all countries is stable.)

    In fact, as the paper you linked noted, a large portion of the male-female gap is already present among kindergarteners. As you point out, though, that doesn’t necessarily indicate that the gaps are innate, as opposed to being the product of early socialization (“Math is hard!” etc.)

  • 39 Barry // Jun 26, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    Jeff: “They’re populated mostly by high IQ, low aggression men. A bunch of Mark Zuckerberg/Bill Gates types. ”

    ?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!

    I think that you’re confusing ‘not heavily muscled’ with ‘low aggression’.

  • 40 Wie vond internet uit? « De Zesde Clan // Jul 1, 2012 at 6:06 am

    [...] kan het waardevol zijn om me te gaan met dit beperkte scenario. Het werpt namelijk licht op de kern van een van de vele onderliggende problemen met dit soort wereldbeelden: The grimmer alternative is not that the wrong people get the credit, [...]

  • 41 j.eel // Sep 4, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    There might be a clue in these comments for an explanation of why women don’t go into engineering fields beyond “women don’t understand math.”

  • 42 Marginalized Histories of Great Innovators « The World We Live In // Oct 22, 2012 at 5:28 pm

    [...] After reading several articles, I noticed a common view that women, homosexual men, and even minorities in STEM and IT innovations have been regarded as secondary players to the more important roles held by the white male innovators. One article goes so far as to say that the contributions of women to technological advances have been elevated beyond fact and thereby have hur…. [...]

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