Saturday, January 14, 2017

Scissors or Zipper?

The gender gap in the sciences is often illustrated with the "scissors diagram". It represents the fact that there are generally more undergraduate women than men, rough parity among graduate students, but then increasingly more men as we move up the career ladder to full professor. But perhaps "scissors", with its connotation of "pivot" and "leverage" is the wrong metaphor. Look at this overlay of two "scissors" from 2007 and 2013 (taken from this 2015 report):

It looks like the "pivot" is moving to the right, i.e., up the career ladder, as one would expect if the gap is being closed over time. And what this suggests is not that doctoral programs are a pivot that exerts leverage on women, keeping them out of academia, but rather that it is, today, the point at which the male and female populations are converging. There is no reason to think this process won't continue.

No one, I think, expects the gap to close overnight. So any disagreements here are really about the rate of change not the current "status of women". My question to feminists*, then, is simply this: in so far as the current (or 2013) situation is "problematic", how far to the right do you think the zipper should have moved by now (or 2013)?

*Update: It has been (and may still be) fashionable to argue about the definition of "feminism". Who am I addressing this question to? I don't consider feminism to be merely the belief that "men and women are equal" but rather an ideology and a movement that aims to bring about that equality. That is, I take feminism to be the view that men and women ought to be but are not yet treated as equals. Specifically, in this post, I point out that feminism is a particular kind of impatience with the actual "status of women" in society (here, specifically, the part of society that does science). In that sense, I am not a feminist. To me, the data shows that moral and political equality has been achieved, and we're merely waiting for the effects of this equality to work itself out over a generation or two. We do not need any particular ideological or political labor to maintain the process and, certainly, not to expedite it. That is, I don't think we "need feminism" any longer. Feminists, of course, disagree about this. And I'm here basically trying to gauge the seriousness of that disagreement. After all, I expect the zipper to close the gap to within 20% (in different directions for different disciplines) within about thirty years. I think that outcome is perfectly acceptable, and I definitely think anything above 50% (e.g., 75% male) is very likely an effect of discrimination. The point is just that it's an effect of past discrimination, which was very overt. Not the sort of "implicit bias" that today's feminists are fighting. I believe that that fight does more harm than good.


Jonathan said...

For example, where I teach the graduate rates for men are far below that of women, so objectively women are achieving higher levels of academic success that women are, by that particular measure at least. If blacks and Latinos have low graduation rates, as they do in fact, then we can say that is the effect of disadvantage, discrimination (past and present), but we cannot have an explanation for low rates of male success that points to their lack of privilege. So when a female colleague mentions how difficult it is for the underconfident women she mentors, I think the older paradigm is at work. She can still try to foster "equality" in the old feminist way by encouraging confidence in women. That seems a worthy goal. But in some sense we shouldn't see this in a zero sum sort of way, because more students of all kinds of gender identity should graduate. Her effort on behalf of women fosters inequality, since she will help even more women to succeed, and that's ultimately a good thing even if it increases the success of an already successful group.

With Title IX, you could almost say that if women graduate at a higher rate, almost by definition discrimination is not taking place. Period. That's the odd thing about making sexual misconduct mostly a matter of discrimination. I think it should be punished appropriately, but that it should be in the category of physical violence, not discrimination. I'm not ignoring that violence can be used to deny people equal opportunity, but is this really what is happening?

Thomas said...

Yes, some people seem to think of encouraging a student as a political act. They think some students need it more than others, and that there's therefore a political economy to consider. As if confidence is a kind wealth that can be redistributed, and that white males have more of it than they deserve going into grad school. One imagines these people withholding praise from white males while going out of their way to praise members of other groups. One even imagines them withholding criticism of (so as not to discourage) less "privileged" students, and not the white males. This, of course, is especially unfortunate, since exposure to criticism generally makes students stronger, and unfounded praise fosters imposter syndrome. In any case, what they are obviously doing is discriminating.

Sexual misconduct is sometimes a kind of violence and sometimes a kind of corruption. But in either case, you're right, it's not always part of an attempt to discriminate against women.