Someone working at Google wrote a memo saying that google memo saying that some of the differences between men and women in tech are down to biology (read it), is promptly fired and this provokes one of those endless tempests of dishonesty and nastiness online.
For reasons I’ll be getting into, I’ve been trying to steer clear of Western feminism during my year of absence and despair, but I’ve been prickled into commenting by an exchange Scott Alexander has had with Adam Grant. Scott makes this argument:
All sex differences in careers cannot be blamed on evil sexist men because, firstly, women are now overrepresented in fields (medicine, law) which had just as much bias against women in the past, and second, because the gaps that do exist in engineering and computer science narrow in less equal societies. Therefore, the gaps are driven by differences in biologically pre-determined interest. Men are more interested in things, women are more interested in people.
I’m going to focus almost exclusively on the argument about the differences between less and more developed societies, because I think they are both missing something important.
1. The Selection Bias of Poverty
Grant responds as follows:
It’s not that women become more communal or feminine in egalitarian cultures. It’s that men become more disagreeable. Which is consistent with research on precarious manhood, which suggests that in egalitarian countries, men are more likely to feel that their status is threatened—and respond with more dominant “alpha” behaviors.
If Grant’s argument is accurate, it means that men are more likely to act dominant and push women around in Sweden than Somalia. That men are far more likely to behave disagreeably towards women in Canada than Nigeria, Afghanistan… Is there anyone who believes this?
However, Grant get’s closer to the truth here:
I concur that it’s about interests, not ability. But I think we disagree on the sources of interests. Let’s not take them as given; they can be changed, and they have been changed by cultural and structural biases.
Closer in the sense of the mirror image. The developed world doesn’t have forces pushing women out of engineering and data science, but the developed world does have a very strong force pushing women into engineering and data science.
The name of that force is poverty. I’m not talking about the kind of poverty where you might get stuck with a shitty service job for the rest of your life, but the kind of poverty where you might not be able to eat for days on end. The kind of poverty that comes with crippling deformities due to field labour and losing half your teeth before you’re thirty-five, thanks to malnutrition.
Simply growing up in a society with such poverty places radical pressures on life choices. This meme has been making the rounds:
What most people don’t know is that this holds just as true, if not more so, in countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria…
There’s a great deal of humbug talked about ‘asian family values’, about Confucius and Taoism and paternal respect – yeah, yeah. It has nothing to do with any of that. You get this attitude everywhere were people have experience of real poverty around them and in their past. Mummy and Daddy are far more likely to say:
Oh, you want to be an artist and discover yourself? That’s nice, sweetie, and you can do that in your spare time after you’ve gotten your engineering degree, because that’s the only thing I’m willing to pay for.
Even absent that, any child, male or female, who has the brains for engineering has the brains to work out what fate awaits those chasing their interests, rather than the path that gives hard cash returns.
So, am I saying that patriarchal or negative stereotypes play no role in sex differences? No, I’m saying they play the opposite role. What Grant misses is that positive stereotypes can be even more destructive than negative ones.
In The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, David S. Landes notes that:
One cannot rear young people in such wise that half of them think themselves superior by biology, without dulling ambition and devaluing accomplishment. One cannot call male children “Pasha,” or, as in Iran, telling them that they have a golden penis, without reducing their need to learn and do. . . . In general, the best clue to a nation’s growth and development potential is the status and role of women.
That’s why so many revolutionaries in the developing world are women. Ayaan Hirsi Ali notes that while she grew up under the usual Islamic stigmas against women, her brother was praised to the sky and told that he was automatically going to be a great warrior and leader. Result: Ayaan worked herself up and became one of the greatest figures in the modern world and her brother became a useless bum. So in parts of the world where women know that they will have to work twice as hard to get anywhere, they are much more likely to do just that.
Is it beyond the bounds of imagination that something similar could be happening in the West, only in reverse? Could it be that relentless You Go Grrrl! boosterism and encouraging girls to blame every failure on the patriarchy leads to less ambitious, and hence less able women?
So if you really want there to be sex-parity in engineering and computer science, perhaps your best hope is to be ultra-patriarchal and in general imitate countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh. Sounds a bit of a high price to pay.
2. Selection bias in feminism
S.A. lists examples of how hysterical and nasty feminism and social justice in the tech industry (and the Young Adult) industry has become. He concludes with a plea for a better world:
It doesn’t have to be this way. Nobody has any real policy disagreements. Everyone can just agree that men and women are equal, that they both have the same rights, that nobody should face harassment or discrimination. We can relax the Permanent State Of Emergency around too few women in tech, and admit that women have the right to go into whatever field they want, and that if they want to go off and be 80% of veterinarians and 74% of forensic scientists, those careers seem good too. We can appreciate the contributions of existing women in tech, make sure the door is open for any new ones who want to join, and start treating each other as human beings again. Your co-worker could just be your co-worker, not a potential Nazi to be assaulted or a potential Stalinist who’s going to rat on you. Your project manager could just be your project manager, not the person tasked with monitoring you for signs of thoughtcrime. Your female co-worker could just be your female co-worker, not a Badass Grrl Coder Who Overcomes Adversity. Your male co-worker could just be your male co-worker, not a Tool Of The Patriarchy Who Denies His Complicity In Oppression. I promise there are industries like this. Medicine is like this! Loads of things are like this! Lots of tech companies are even still like this! This could be you.
Sorry, Scott, but it couldn’t. It really couldn’t.
Scott Alexander here is mistaking system for substance. Short version: imagine a group of people. Train ’em to play football as a team. Then to play basketball. Then baseball. And so on. The system is the sport they are currently playing (the rules that define each individual role, and the relations of each to the others). The substance is the actual people involved.
You can change the system relatively easy. Short of massive intervention with drugs, cybernetics, genetic engineering or hard training, you can’t change the substance.
This holds true across human history. The systems change, but the substance remains pretty much the same, and will likely do so until we can get to the Singularity. That’s why we can read Homer and Shakespeare and recognise the human types they represent.
One constant is that some human beings are just awful. Nasty, spiteful, narcissistic, bullying, toadying snitches who get off on making other people’s lives miserable. S.A. is shocked by the kind of spying and snitching going on the tech industry; to me it’s wearily familiar. It’s the exact same thing my father faced in East Germany. Except that then it didn’t end in mandatory diversity seminars and firings, but in torture chambers and firing squads. As bad as things are today, they are still miles better than they used to be.
A related point: I’ve long noticed is that there’s an inverse relationship between how well any given community is doing and the quality of its representative. The better a community is doing, the more likely it is to be represented by absolute scum. Women in the west are the most emancipated in human history; hence, western feminists are largely awful people.
I usually say that I love feminism because I loathe feminists. As bad as these snitches and stoolies are, they would infinitely worse under just about any system. If Anita Sarkeesian had lived in my grandfather’s time, she wouldn’t be moaning about video games, she’d be part of the literal book burning campaign against ‘degenerate art’. The same mob that got this poor sod from Google fired would have gleefully had him tortured and shot in East Germany. If the nerd shaming feminists had been born in the Dixiecrat South, they wouldn’t be yelling about sexist nerds making them feel unsafe; no, they’d been screaming about how their womanhood needed protecting from savage black men, and getting innocent men lynched.
As someone once said, the KKK were the original White Knights.
I’ve explained the mechanism in detail elsewhere, but here’s the short version: when a movement of liberation succeeds, it ceases to be dangerous. It also becomes prestigious and a source of power and esteem. Therefore it will always attract those who are hungry for unearned esteem and who enjoy wielding power over their fellow human beings. There is literally nothing, nada, you can do to stop this.
So if Scott Alexander wants to stop such things happening in tech, he’ll have to advocate for social-justice proofing the industry, keeping feminists out and in general running a tightly meritocratic ship. Even that might not work; I have a suspicion that any such effort would be invaded by alt-righters who’d make the current rabble look reasonable in comparison.
Yes, this sucks. But what can you do? Seriously, I’d love an answer.
‘I didn’t ask for this to be the underlying Truth to existence … But life isn’t what we wish it to be.’ – Argel Tal