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The joy of gender imbalances on campus

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The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on the social effects of gender imbalances. As we know, teenage girls are more likely than boys to have their acts together, hence make up a larger and larger percentage of those who attend college. I see this all the time in my intro classes — a majority of the most organized students are female, and a majority of the least organized are male. Many universities will have to use affirmative action for male applicants in order to preserve 50-50 gender ratios.

Math puzzle: (optional for readers who have trouble with distributions) If most of the least able students are male, and yet men and women perform equally on average (actually this may not be true anymore, but see PISA data :-), what does that imply about the most able students on campus?

Chronicle: American colleges are undergoing a striking gender shift. In 2015 the average college graduating class will be 60-percent female, according to the U.S. Education Department. Some colleges have already reached or passed that threshold, which allows anecdotal insights into how those imbalances affect the pickup culture. What can be seen so far is not encouraging: Stark gender imbalances appear to act as an accelerant on the hookup culture.

…In 2006 I visited James Madison University, a public university with 17,000 students. At the time, women made up 61 percent of the campus population.

…A senior added: “The guys see that there are a lot more girls, and they’re not interested in having a relationship longer than the next girl to come along. Men know how to take advantage of that competition. They’ll set things up at parties to get girls to do stuff, such as having a slip and slide contest,” in which girls strip to their underwear and get wet sliding through water on a plastic sheet.

As a result of the rising gender imbalances, the university has become “female centric.” But while women may run the clubs, dominate in classes, and generally define the character of the university, the law of supply and demand rules the social scene. That’s why the women are both competitive in seeking men and submissive in lowering their standards.

Men at the university don’t dispute what the women say. “Since there’s such an overwhelming number of girls, they have such competition between each other to get a guy,” a male junior admitted. “The guys here aren’t stupid. They’re plenty aware of that and know that girls have to get into a fight over them, instead of what’s normal with guys courting girls.”

I wonder what a FaceBook search on the keywords “slip and slide” brings up?

Written by infoproc

July 22, 2008 at 6:09 pm

Women in the classroom

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Interesting comments from Judith Warner of the Times, as she reports on a brain science workshop for journalists, held at MIT. The audience was more engaged (less intimidated?) by female lecturers. I find as well that women are less likely to try to get by with “proof by intimidation” than men, and that their presence tends to improve the quality of scientific discussion, assuming an equal level of competence.

Anyone familiar with Feynman idolatry knows that “man crushes” are just as real as what is described below for women.

At M.I.T., we were mostly spoken to by men, various kinds of men, of different ages and with different speaking styles, and we interacted with them with typical reportorial formality. Some were more popular with us than others; some were more engaged with us than others. Some spoke right over our heads; some reached even me with perfect clarity.

Something very different happened, however, on the two occasions when we were spoken to by women. The atmosphere in the room changed. We all became more familiar. We asked more questions. We interrupted more. We made sounds of assent or dissent; we questioned methods, concepts, base assumptions. It was as though, with the women, the boundaries dissolved. We were all immediately drawn into relationships.

How much of this had to do with the fact that the women tended to speak more relationally (“I think,” “I feel”), I don’t know. I don’t know if it was created by the fact that the women — to varying degrees — turned the story of their work into personal narratives.

I know that there was no conscious desire on anyone’s part to talk back to them or treat them with less respect. But one woman in particular, Rebecca Saxe, a young, dynamic professor of neurobiology at M.I.T. who gave a riveting presentation on social cognition — “how we reason about the desires and intentions that motivate others’ actions” — was interrupted so much by her super-engaged audience that she didn’t have time to get through essential portions of her talk.

I did not ask questions of this amazing young woman. I was struck, once again, with one of my crippling bouts of shyness, and besides that, I was too busy writing down her every word and wondering why on earth I had never taken science and whether my daughters might attend M.I.T.

Maybe I could send them to do summer study, I thought. (Once they’d both learned their multiplication tables, of course.) Maybe I should sport little wire glasses and wear my hair in a long braid. Or buy Birkenstocks.

“What did you think?” I breathed to a fellow female fellow, as we filed out of the classroom for lunch.

“I have a crush on her,” she said. The women around us made approving noises.

“It was her passion and energy and approach that was infectious,” she later explained in an e-mail. “I really had an emotional reaction to her, and found myself day dreaming about being her friend.”

What is this thing we so often do, when confronted with an impressive woman? Why do they, in particular, set off such a Pavlovian rush of emotion? Why, for women in particular, do they set off this me/not me engagement, this game of my friend/not my friend, this eternal, sometimes infernal play of positive or negative mirroring?

Men do a version of this with women, too — though I think it plays out more in terms of validates me/doesn’t validate me, which may amount, in slightly altered form, to much the same thing. I don’t see them doing it with other men. I don’t hear of men getting “crushes” on other men because they’re impressed with them. They don’t seem to get so flooded with the desire to be them, to try on their skins; they don’t appear to be constantly testing their identities against another man’s example, calling into question, at the drop of a hat, their clothing style or hair or general sense of being in the world.

Written by infoproc

June 27, 2008 at 5:37 pm

Posted in gender, science

Gender differences in "extreme" mathematical ability

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Since the Larry Summers debacle I’ve kept my eye out for relevant data on gender differences in mathematical ability. Finally I’ve found some analysis of results from a nationally representative study of elementary school children (K-5). Interestingly, the larger variance in male math performance is already observed at the beginning of kindergarten — yes, before formal schooling has begun. By 3rd grade males are outperforming throughout the distribution, but the advantage at the high end is roughly unchanged. Note the authors consider 95 percentile to be “extreme” ability, which is kind of funny. You have to go quite a bit further out on the tail to find the talent pool from which professors of math, computer science, physical science and engineering are drawn.

Taking a quick look at their numbers, it appears that at the beginning of kindergarten the male distribution has standard deviation about 8 percent greater than the female distribution (larger variance — both tails are overpopulated by males), although means and medians are pretty much the same. This implies that, already at age 5, at the 1 in 1000 talent level there will be roughly 2.5 times as many boys as girls. This ratio becomes larger and larger as one looks at more elite groups — for 1 in 10k talents the ratio is something like 4 to 1 male to female. (I am extrapolating the normal distribution here, which might be a source of error.)

If subsequent societal effects were exactly gender neutral after age 5, one still might expect to find a strong asymmetry in gender representation in certain fields. Therefore, gender asymmetry in outcomes is not by itself evidence of discrimination at higher levels of the selection process. Removing gender bias at all levels, starting from kindergarten and continuing through grade school, high school, undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral training, and, finally, faculty hiring, will not correct for the effect which is already present at age 5!

Note, I’m not claiming that the male advantage at age 5 is necessarily biological in origin — it might be due to environmental causes. If one believes the causes are entirely environmental, and if one wants to equalize the numbers of male and female math geniuses, then intervention had better begin quite early — extending to how mommies and daddies raise their infants.

In some other research by the same authors (I don’t have a web link), international scores on the TIMMS examinations show that at the 90th percentile in math ability among seniors in high school, the ratio of males to females varies between roughly 2-3. This is a much larger discrepancy than the kindergarten numbers (strongly apparent already at only the 90th percentile), although it would be hard to know whether it is due to biological causes such as hormones and differences in male/female development, or to societal causes. The fact that there is some variation between countries does suggest at least a significant societal component.

If you read this post carefully, you will see that I have done little more than interpret the results of the nationwide testing examined in the paper below. Nevertheless, I anticipate I might get into trouble for having the temerity to perform this simple analysis. Let me therefore state, for the record, that I do believe that societal effects tend to discourage women from achievement in math and science, and that we can do much better than we currently are in promoting female representation in math-heavy fields. However, I do not think that there is any data supporting a complete absence of gender differences in the distribution of cognitive ability.


Gender Differences in Kindergartners Mathematics Achievement! Evidence from a Nationally Representative Sample

Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (to appear in Social Science Research)

Paret, M. and Penner, A., Dept. of Sociology, UC Berkeley (2006, Aug)

Abstract: Gender differences in mathematics achievement are typically thought to emerge at the end of middle school and beginning of high school, yet some studies have found differences among younger children. Until recently the data available to examine gender differences among young children consisted of small non-nationally representative samples. This study utilizes data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-99 to analyze differences in a nationally representative sample of kindergarteners as they progress from kindergarten to third grade. Using quantile regression techniques to examine gender differences across the distribution, differences are found among students as early as kindergarten. Initially boys are found to do better at the top of the distribution and worse at the bottom, but by third grade boys do as well or better throughout the distribution.

Written by infoproc

November 8, 2007 at 6:20 pm

Posted in brainpower, gender, iq

The truth about men

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Via NYTimes’ Tierny Lab blog, this address to the American Psychological Association.

What was the audience reaction? Did people run from the room to avoid vomiting at Baumeister’s horrible remarks? Do psychologists not have an intuitive understanding of variance? Why does Baumeister take so long to explain something so mathematically simple?

Former Harvard president Larry Summers’ vile comments here.

Is There Anything Good About Men?

R. Baumeister, Eppes Eminent Professor of Psychology & Head of Social Psychology Area, Florida State University

… I’m sure you’re expecting me to talk about Larry Summers at some point, so let’s get it over with! You recall, he was the president of Harvard. As summarized in The Economist, “Mr Summers infuriated the feminist establishment by wondering out loud whether the prejudice alone could explain the shortage of women at the top of science.” After initially saying, it’s possible that maybe there aren’t as many women physics professors at Harvard because there aren’t as many women as men with that high innate ability, just one possible explanation among others, he had to apologize, retract, promise huge sums of money, and not long afterward he resigned.

What was his crime? Nobody accused him of actually discriminating against women. His misdeed was to think thoughts that are not allowed to be thought, namely that there might be more men with high ability. The only permissible explanation for the lack of top women scientists is patriarchy — that men are conspiring to keep women down. It can’t be ability. Actually, there is some evidence that men on average are a little better at math, but let’s assume Summers was talking about general intelligence. People can point to plenty of data that the average IQ of adult men is about the same as the average for women. So to suggest that men are smarter than women is wrong. No wonder some women were offended.

But that’s not what he said. He said there were more men at the top levels of ability. That could still be true despite the average being the same — if there are also more men at the bottom of the distribution, more really stupid men than women. During the controversy about his remarks, I didn’t see anybody raise this question, but the data are there, indeed abundant, and they are indisputable. There are more males than females with really low IQs. Indeed, the pattern with mental retardation is the same as with genius, namely that as you go from mild to medium to extreme, the preponderance of males gets bigger.

All those retarded boys are not the handiwork of patriarchy. Men are not conspiring together to make each other’s sons mentally retarded.

Almost certainly, it is something biological and genetic. And my guess is that the greater proportion of men at both extremes of the IQ distribution is part of the same pattern. Nature rolls the dice with men more than women. Men go to extremes more than women. It’s true not just with IQ but also with other things, even height: The male distribution of height is flatter, with more really tall and really short men.
Again, there is a reason for this, to which I shall return.

Tierney’s summary:

“I’m certainly not denying that culture has exploited women,” he said. “But rather than seeing culture as patriarchy, which is to say a conspiracy by men to exploit women, I think it’s more accurate to understand culture (e.g., a country, a religion) as an abstract system that competes against rival systems — and that uses both men and women, often in different ways, to advance its cause.”

The “single most underappreciated fact about gender,” he said, is the ratio of our male to female ancestors. While it’s true that about half of all the people who ever lived were men, the typical male was much more likely than the typical woman to die without reproducing. Citing recent DNA research, Dr. Baumeister explained that today’s human population is descended from twice as many women as men. Maybe 80 percent of women reproduced, whereas only 40 percent of men did.

“It would be shocking if these vastly different reproductive odds for men and women failed to produce some personality differences,” he said, and continued:

For women throughout history (and prehistory), the odds of reproducing have been pretty good. Later in this talk we will ponder things like, why was it so rare for a hundred women to get together and build a ship and sail off to explore unknown regions, whereas men have fairly regularly done such things? But taking chances like that would be stupid, from the perspective of a biological organism seeking to reproduce. They might drown or be killed by savages or catch a disease. For women, the optimal thing to do is go along with the crowd, be nice, play it safe. The odds are good that men will come along and offer sex and you’ll be able to have babies. All that matters is choosing the best offer. We’re descended from women who played it safe.

For men, the outlook was radically different. If you go along with the crowd and play it safe, the odds are you won’t have children. Most men who ever lived did not have descendants who are alive today. Their lines were dead ends. Hence it was necessary to take chances, try new things, be creative, explore other possibilities.

The second big motivational difference between the genders, he went on, involves the kind of social relationships sought by each sex. While other researcher have argued that women are more “social” than men – more helpful and less aggressive towards others — Dr. Baumeister argued that women can be plenty aggressive in the relationships that matter most to them, which are intimate relationships. Men are more aggressive when it comes to dealing with strangers, because they’re more interested than women are in a wider network of shallow relationships.

“We shouldn’t automatically see men as second-class human beings simply because they specialize in the less important, less satisfying kind of relationship,” he said. Men are social, too, he said, just in a different way, with more focus on larger groups: “If you make a list of activities that are done in large groups, you are likely to have a list of things that men do and enjoy more than women: team sports, politics, large corporations, economic networks, and so forth.”

Written by infoproc

August 21, 2007 at 4:06 pm

Posted in gender, genetics