21 August 2008

Gender: Sex Differences and Employment Discrimination

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
August 14, 2008

An interesting issue is how society should respond to the fact that men and women are different. There is good reason to believe that on average men and women differ in the way they view the world and this difference is in part genetic. Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Cambridge University, argues that in general, women are probably more empathetic than men. On Baron-Cohen’s account, men are in general more likely than women to pursue systems of objects and information. I should mention the obvious, namely that these are general patterns, plenty of counterexamples exist.

Others, such as M.I.T. psychology professor Steven Pinker, note other differences that are probably in part genetic. He notes that in general, men are more violent, more interested in no-strings-attached sex, and more likely to compete for status using occupational achievement, whereas women are more likely to have more intimate social relations, feel more empathy toward friends, and are more concerned with their children. Baron-Cohen also points out that girls play more at parenting and trying on social roles, whereas boys play more at fighting, chasing, and manipulating objects. It is an interesting question as to how these differences are related to the empathy-systematizing differences.

Baron-Cohen notes that the observed differences in empathy begin early. He points out that girls as young as one year respond more empathically to the distress in others. He also points out that girls’ speech is more cooperative, reciprocal, and collaborative than boys. He observes that later in life this pattern continues. For example, women score higher than men on empathy tests and are better at judging emotion.

The evidence that these differences are in part genetic comes from several sources. First, Baron-Cohen notes, similar differences are observed in our closest relatives, the apes. For example, in apes both juvenile and adult females are more interested in babies of their own species than are juvenile and adult males. The background idea here is that any pattern that is widely found across human cultures and also found in our genetic relatives, stands a good chance of resulting in part from genetic factors.

Second, he points out that hormonal differences tend to track the above differences. Because hormonal differences are significantly influenced by genes, this is evidence of genetic differences. For example, lower levels of male hormones (specifically, testosterone) correlate with an increase in indications of sociability and empathy and this is true within each sex. Also, adding testosterone to men increases their systematizing abilities.

Third, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Deborah Blum, Pinker, Baron-Cohen, and others point out that in human beings, males’ and females’ brains differ. They differ in hemispheric development and laterality (how specialized the hemispheres are), and the strength of connections between the hemispheres. A brain hemisphere is the left or right side of it. They also differ in the areas of the brain related to empathy and systematizing. These differences are what one would expect if the two sexes differ on these dimensions.

These differences probably in part produce sex differences in commitment to jobs. Warren Farrell notes that men work more years in their occupation, work more years with their employer, work more weeks per year, work more hours per week, and are absent less often. In addition, they are more likely to relocate, commute to jobs that are farther away, travel more when on the job, and more likely to work at hazardous jobs. These differences are likely due at least in part to the different family roles that men and women occupy and these roles are probably influenced by genetics.

One area in which these differences come up is whether an employer may discount women’s job applications because of on average their lower level of commitment to their jobs. Many people don’t think employers may discount women’s applications, but it is a little hard to see why. If we have two applicants and given what we know about them one is likely to be more productive, it is hard to see why an employer shouldn’t be able to take this into account. The main reason that firms hire workers is so that they can make the firm profits. This concern for profits explains why firms prefer employees who are brighter, harder working, and have better employment histories. Because many firms don’t have the resources to do an in-depth investigation of every applicant, they have to rely on statistical patterns. In some contexts, sex is one of these patterns. It should be noted that federal law prohibits such discounting.

A second area that these differences have an impact is in expectations. In discussing areas of study, careers, and other professional matters, advisors oftentimes discuss these matters in a gender-neutral manner, suggesting that men and women face the same considerations. The idea is to let the individual decide what is important to her. But if women are likely to be more interested in family matters and less in their careers than men, and this difference is a strong one, it is not clear why this fact should be ignored. This is not to say that women should be steered toward “family friendly” fields or men away from them, but it is to say that pretending sex differences don’t exist and are irrelevant to career choices is a case of willful blindness.

A third area in which this comes up has to do with child-custody battles. Here the situation is murkier. This is because one might think that each parent has an equal right to have parental rights over the child. So even if women are on average more empathetic and even if empathy is related to parenting ability, and I don’t know whether this is true, it is still not clear whether fathers should more often lose most of their parental rights as usually happens. Other rights are not curtailed on the basis of people’s ability to exercise them and so it is not clear why this should be done here.

The notion that women and men are different and that the difference is in part genetic probably strikes most readers as so obvious that it is not worth discussing. The notion that these differences affect people’s job performance is more controversial, although it is a little hard to see why once we realize that these differences affect people’s preferences, which in turn affects performance. That these differences are relevant to hiring and advice is more controversial, but not obviously false.

06 August 2008

Gender: No Discrimination in Education

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
July 25, 2008

A widely held view is that in the United States there is widespread discrimination that disadvantages girls and women. The problem is said to be particularly acute in education. This view explains the recent attempt by a number of federal agencies (National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Department of Energy) to aggressively apply Title IX to promote women scientists at research universities. Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in education and has previously focused mostly on sports. In addition, the National Science Foundation is giving funds to Cornell University to hire more women in the hard sciences and engineering. This view also explains the widespread presence in academia of women’s studies departments, feminist student groups, and women’s discussion forums and the presence of women’s interest groups, such as the American Association of University Women. Needless to say, similar groups for men would never be tolerated.

Before looking at education, it is worth noting that women arguably have better lives than men in the U.S. There is some reason to believe women are happier. One study showed that over the last thirty years, in general U.S. women have been happier than men, although this trend has reversed itself. Men also commit suicide more often, although women attempt it more frequently. Women live five years longer (2004 numbers) and by 2015 this gap is projected to grow to six years. They also are far less likely to be in trouble with the law. Men are more than five times more likely to be incarcerated or on probation and parole. They are also more likely than women to be victimized by violent crime (understood as homicide, rape/sexual assault, robbery, and assault). The notion that women are systematically oppressed by society is hard to square with the fact that they are probably happier (taking a long view), live longer, less likely to be punished, less frequently attacked, and better educated.

The fact of the matter is that females do better than males at every level of the education process. According to Jeffery Leving, writing in The Buffalo News, at the K-12 level, girls get better grades and are more likely to graduate from both high school and college. They are also less likely to be held back, suspended, or expelled. Boys comprise the vast majority of learning disabled students and are more than four times as likely to be diagnosed as having attention-deficit disorder.

The pattern continues in higher education. Christina Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute points out that women earn 57% of bachelors degrees, 59% of masters degrees, and the majority of research Ph.D.s given to U.S. citizens. They also earn the majority of doctorates in the life sciences and the social sciences. At the very least, it must be said that education in the U.S. heavily favors women.

There are some areas in academia where men do better, but these areas probably reflect the fact that as a group, women are interested in different things than men. Consider the hard sciences. Sommers points out that they are a minority in some academic areas. For example, they earn about 24% of the Ph.D.s in the physical sciences and comprise 19% of the tenure track positions in math, 11% in physics, and 10% in electrical engineering. They are also 10% of physics faculty.

Some support for the notion that this difference reflects preferences can be seen in a study by Vanderbilt University psychologists David Lubinski and Camilla Persson Benbow and which was discussed in the New York Times. This study focused on mathematically gifted students. The psychologists found that beginning at age 12, gifted girls tended to be more interested in people and other living things than gifted boys. This likely explains why, despite their math abilities, these girls were less likely to go into physics or engineering. Nevertheless by their 30s, they were as content with their careers and made as much money per hour of work as their male counterparts. Another study by University of Kansas researchers found that the gender gap in the computer industry was explained by gender differences in preferences rather than discrimination.

These preferences are probably at least in part genetic. Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Cambridge University, provides strong evidence to believe that in general, the female brain is more hard-wired for empathy than the male brain and that the male brain is more hard-wired for understanding and building systems of objects and information than the female one.

This theory fits with much observed behavior. For example, Baron-Cohen points out, baby girls as young as one-year old respond more emphatically to the distress of other people than do baby boys. He reports that by the age of two, girls are more people-centered. This pattern continues to adulthood. Women spend far more time than men talking about feelings and relationships and are more sensitive to facial expressions and non-verbal communication. Also, mothers differ in parenting styles from fathers in a way that suggests that they are better at empathizing with their children. In contrast, men perform better in tasks requiring the systematizing of information. When young, boys are more physically aggressive and more likely to engage in rough-and-tumble play.

Nor is this difference purely cultural. The differences in empathy and systematizing appear in our nearest relatives. Female apes, both juveniles and adults, show greater interest in ape babies. After female monkeys are injected with male hormones (testosterone), they were more likely to engage in rough-and-tumble play; when they were injected with female hormones they engaged in more maternal behavior, such as an increased interest in babies. In human babies, up to a point, there is a wide range of studies that establish a correlation between the level of pre-natal testosterone and male-typical behavior. The different behaviors are likely the result of brain differences. In human beings, males’ and females’ brains differ. Specifically, they differ in hemispheric development and laterality (how specialized the hemispheres are), and the strength of connections between the hemispheres. A brain hemisphere is the left or right side of it. These patterns fit nicely with the notion that males’ and females’ differences in empathy and systematization are in part due to brain differences and the notion that these differences are in part the result of genetic differences.

This difference in genetically-influenced preferences probably explains why women are well represented in science fields that deal with people. Women are about half of medical students and 77% of veterinary students. These programs have high entrance standards.

Men and women as a group have different preferences and these preferences are probably in part genetic. This difference results in men and women have different levels of representation in academic subjects. There is little to no support for the notion that U.S. education disadvantages females in academia or anywhere else in education. To the extent that various federal agencies and women’s interest groups are pushing for more female admittance and hiring, they should be ignored.