Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Gender politics – STEM - Irony

I usually browse through the BBC News app on my phone when commuting to work. Recently, I came across this article; based on this report(pdf): 

Note the alarming headline: State schools 'making gender bias worse'.

The article gets off to a bad start with this in bold:
Almost half (49%) of state-funded mixed schools in England are "reinforcing gender stereotypes" in terms of the subjects students study at A-level.

We can read form this then that 51% of state-funded mixed schools in Endland are undermining or at least not reinforcing gender stereotypes. A far less alarming statement. Nevertheless, it would be troubling if nearly half of these schools were actively reinforcing gender stereotypes, which is what it appears to be saying. Very troubling!

Of course, nothing of the kind is happening. Girls are not electing to voluntarily choose Physics or Maths. Boys are not electing to voluntarily choose biology or psychology. Presumably these schools should be forcing them to choose those subjects whether they want to or not in order to not be reinforcing stereotypes. In order not to be guilty of the charge of “reinforcing” the stereotypes a school would have to be actively working towards a gender parity in subject choice. 

Despite the fact that the study shows that some subjects are very biased in favour of girls, it is difficult not to notice that the lack of girls studying physics is the real problem in this article. Why the lack of boys studying psychology is not as alarming or serious an issue I can’t work out. 

In any case, we are treated to some truly delicious irony here

"We found that nearly half of the co-educational state-funded schools we looked at are actually doing worse than average," explained Clare Thomson, curriculum and diversity manager at the Institute of Physics.

What is wonderful about this statement is that it seems Ms Thomson is not at all acquainted with the meaning of “average”. In an article pointing out that women are just as capable at maths as men, Ms Thomson, who works at the Institute of Physics, doesn’t seem to understand one of its basic concepts. Incidentally, I must confess that I can’t take any person seriously who is a “diversity manager”; nor any institution that employs someone in that role. 

In case anyone is getting the impression that I am of the opinion that men are inherently better at maths than women, I have no reason at all to think that is the case. However, from my own personal experience, women tend to be dramatically less interested in the fields of maths, physics and engineering than men. This is just my experience and is hardly conclusive evidence but I have found it to be a fairly consistent bias. Personally, I would like to see anyone interested in Physics encouraged to undertake it. I find it a fascinating field personally and I couldn’t possibly be less interested in the plumbing of any person who pursues it. 

The major issue I have with these kinds of studies and articles, and there are many these days, is that they completely overlook the possibility that there actually are inherent preferences in the genders. It is as though this is a known thing. There are very many articles these days about the need to get more women into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. Perhaps I am being a bit thick here, but I simply don’t understand why this is such a pressing issue. I would be grateful if someone could explain it to me. There are no similar efforts to get more men into biology. Why is this not as much of a concern? Where are the editorials and opinion pieces on the misandric world of biology that is intimidating and blocking men from taking part?

This pushing of women in STEM seems to be a part of the general effort to bring about equal gender representation in many things. It is worth noting that this push is only for equality when the thing is thought desirable. Presumably the men can keep all the crappy and dangerous jobs. There has been a lot of flirtation with the idea of mandatory gender quotas on non-executive boards and occasionally some not so flirtatious laws being enacted

I have seen many men and many women rise up the ranks is several different companies. They all had certain characteristics in common. Most notably, an over-abundance of confidence in themselves and their abilities. Usually well into the unjustified arrogance range but there were some very capable folk in the mix too. Most were at least somewhat capable but stood out for their willingness and eagerness to sell themselves. They also shared a notable ambition. I find these traits are much more common in men than women. It therefore doesn’t surprise me at all that more men than women rise up the ranks. It incidentally doesn’t surprise me that certain kinds of men don’t either. If women want these board positions they have to start acting like the sociopaths who generally get them. Ok, I’m being a little bit flippant and a tad unfair there but not as much as you might think.

It is often forgotten in the men-as-a-single-entity and women-as-a-single-entity world of gender politics that the vast majority of men do not make it onto boards, nor do they become cabinet ministers or anything else exceptional. Even members of the gender that seem to be given a leg up in aggression/confidence (men demand more money for their work), ambition (men are generally more interested in advancement) and more risk-friendly (entrepreneurs are about 70% men)  mostly don’t achieve these lofty positions so it would be startling to find that despite these differences women were succeeding at as great or at greater rates than men. Now why these differences exist is open to debate and I am happy to accept that it may be a lot of nurture at work as well as nature, though I have no doubt it is not exclusively the former. I wonder what the eventual outcome of all this will be.
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