Painfully true

by Eszter Hargittai on July 29, 2008

I keep referring to this cartoon in conversations and people keep telling me they have no idea what I’m talking about so I’m just going to put it here with the hope that it spreads to more and more folks. (I know some of you have already seen it, Vivian linked to it in her comment here. Nonetheless, it deserves its own post.)

It’s amazing how well it tells so much. It reminds me of specific experiences throughout my life from high school through graduate school (although the latter not in my department, to be fair). Plus one encounters this type of attitude online all the time.

Thanks to xkcd. I’d buy this one on a T-shirt, but it’s not in the store. The college-style XKCD is tempting.

{ 83 comments }

1

James D. Miller 07.29.08 at 2:11 pm

The claim usually made is not that women on average have a lower mean math ability than men on average do but rather have a lower variance of mathematical ability than men.

The politically correct like to pretend that when anyone compares the variance of math ability between men and women they are really talking about means. This makes it much easier for the politically correct to mock their opponents.

Here is a blog post about how much of the media did this when reporting on a new study:

http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2008/07/summers-vindica.html

2

Minivet 07.29.08 at 2:12 pm

Similarly pithy, on a similar subject: http://www.viruscomix.com/page330.html

3

G 07.29.08 at 2:32 pm

Anyone want to calculate the % of ensuing commenters to this post who will assume the comic is strictly about whether or not girls are good at math?

4

Eszter 07.29.08 at 2:52 pm

I do sometimes wonder if the cartoon is a bit too subtle for everyone to get the main point it’s making.

5

jdkbrown 07.29.08 at 3:13 pm

Too subtle for James D. Miller, apparently.

6

dfreelon 07.29.08 at 3:14 pm

Even if, in the aggregate, the sexes or any two given races are found to differ significantly on some variable of interest, what is to be gained by expressing the point in a way that implies the difference is inherent? At most, statistics that show such aggregate disparities tell a story about the current state of things, but stating them as though they are laws of nature can have a deleterious effect on the aspirations of the impugned demographic. It certainly satisfies a strong impulse on the part of some to commit the ecological fallacy, but it denies the individuality of the person who has to hear that his or her group is “just bad at” the undertaking in question.

Meanwhile, many of those who seem to delight in making this sort of generalization have the gall to go on about why identity politics is such a bad idea . . . it boggles the mind . . .

7

jdkbrown 07.29.08 at 3:19 pm

dfreelon,

Right. Nobody missed that Summers was talking about variances, and so claiming that there just weren’t enough women on the high-end of the curve for Harvard to hire. What everybody was objecting to was his claim that the variance was innate, and not socially conditioned. Which is why James D. Miller’s comment is simply misdirection.

8

franck 07.29.08 at 3:32 pm

People don’t want to engage with discriminatory actions like this because it makes them complicit in an unjust system. Cognitive dissonance.

9

s 07.29.08 at 3:54 pm

The slightly off thing about this cartoon is the “Wow” in the second frame. After all, the speaker clearly isn’t *at that moment* arriving at the conclusion that girls suck at math, but is instead taking this to be an instance that confirms an earlier belief that such is the case. Reminds me of the many times I’ve witnessed a woman proving a result or raising a point of central importance and being dismissed on the basis of a trivial misstep made along the way; also reminds me of cases where the value of the contribution can’t be dismissed and so the focus veers to the matter of why the contributor isn’t ‘really’ a woman.

10

Eszter 07.29.08 at 4:25 pm

S – I think the “wow” here can be interpreted in different ways that make it consistent with the cartoon, e.g., “wow, I was right all along”.

11

Righteous Bubba 07.29.08 at 4:31 pm

Thanks for the repost of a good cartoon.

Completely OT but academic types might want to forward this long list of diploma-mill buyers to their friendly registrars.

12

Michael Bérubé 07.29.08 at 4:34 pm

Anyone want to calculate the % of ensuing commenters to this post who will assume the comic is strictly about whether or not girls are good at math?

I’m sorry, I can’t be bothered with these low-level calculations right now. I’m busy mentally rotating three-dimensional shapes while urinating standing up.

13

Anderson 07.29.08 at 4:36 pm

That is indeed a great xkcd … I wish he (she?) had that and the “Someone is wrong on the internet” panel available on T-shirts.

14

pushmedia1 07.29.08 at 4:44 pm

Eszter, could you share some of the moments this strip reminds you of?

My only experience with woman and math is as a math undergrad student as a economics grad student. Clearly, fellow (fella) majors are good at math. Even in high school, in college prep classes, by definition the students were good at math, boy or girl.

So I guess I’m asking where do situations like those depicted in the comic occur?

I “get” the cartoon for other things — a black man is convicted of a crime and then all black people commit crimes — but I don’t get it for math.

15

Mike Maltz 07.29.08 at 4:45 pm

Reminds me of a cartoon in the New Yorker ~ 20 years ago. The usual white males (like me) and one woman sitting around a boardroom table, the person at the head of the table saying something to the effect of, “Excellent point, Ms. Smith. Let’s wait until a man brings it up before we discuss it.”

16

harry b 07.29.08 at 4:59 pm

James,

the problem is, as dfreelon says, that there is no reason at all to assume that whatever difference there is in performance is inherent. And ample reason to suppose that at least a good deal of whatever difference there is is environmental. No-one denies the data — the question is about the explanation for it, and the assumption that it is substantially inherent sounds simply dogmatic — or sexist/racist.

And didn’t some Swedish study just provide strong evidence that all the differences are explained by environment except, perhaps, in geometry.

17

Slocum 07.29.08 at 5:04 pm

Hmmm — I wonder how many more years it will be before the sheer weight of numbers will make it seem absurd to think that women are the disadvantaged sex in higher education? A nearly 60-40 ratio of female to male undergraduates is obviously not enough. Would 70-30 do it? Maybe not, since, for example, Veterinary medicine has shifted, over the last couple decades, to 70 percent female students without anyone thinking it’s a particular problem — any more than anybody really worries much that nursing is 95% female or K-12 education is 75% female and increasing..

But there has to be a tipping point somewhere, doesn’t there? Or perhaps not — maybe advocates won’t concede female underdog status until every field at every level, from freshman to department chair, is minimum 50% female (the max % does not matter, of course). Which is to say–somewhere between a very long time and never.

18

Dr. Drang 07.29.08 at 5:13 pm

Well, I was going to say something clever and pithy, but Eszter’s first comment and Ḃéřüƀé’s have taken the wind out of my sails. Couldn’t you two wait before winning the thread?

19

Michael Bérubé 07.29.08 at 5:25 pm

But there has to be a tipping point somewhere, doesn’t there?

Yes indeed there does, Slocum. Once the ratio of female to male undergraduates surpasses 63:37 in the United States, people all over the globe will stop making the assumption that a woman’s personal strengths and/or weaknesses are to be attributed to her gender. Mark my words.

20

Dave 07.29.08 at 5:25 pm

@17: dam’ right, and why should they stop? Frankly the level of historical injustice available to be put right would keep the struggle going for centuries…

Us honky dudes really have *no* idea how lucky we are we sold the rest of the world on “equality”, ‘cos “turning the tables” would really suck for us…

21

Watson Aname 07.29.08 at 6:05 pm

pushmedia1: My hypothesis is that you just weren’t paying much attention, and selection bias makes you feel like it’s unusual. I regularly hear this sort of thing is alive and well, from colleagues and students. Ask any female math faculty if she’s run into this or not. And then consider what’s it’s probably like for students who aren’t already at the top of their math classes.

22

a very public sociologist 07.29.08 at 6:57 pm

Great little cartoon. I didn’t think it was sublte at all, I just guess some people are blind to this sort of thing.

23

Barry 07.29.08 at 7:35 pm

Slocum 07.29.08 at 5:04 pm
“Hmmm—I wonder how many more years it will be before the sheer weight of numbers will make it seem absurd to think that women are the disadvantaged sex in higher education? A nearly 60-40 ratio of female to male undergraduates is obviously not enough. Would 70-30 do it? Maybe not, since, for example, Veterinary medicine has shifted, over the last couple decades, to 70 percent female students without anyone thinking it’s a particular problem—any more than anybody really worries much that nursing is 95% female or K-12 education is 75% female and increasing..”

If veterinary medicine is 70% female, doesn’t that prove that women are genetically superior at it? The main thing which convinces me that the various ‘Bell Curve’ people are lying is that the percentages of women in various fields has been increasing over the past few decades; which would lead to any honest and competant person figuring that there’s something non-genetic going on.

But when the percentage was 1%, these guys used that as proof of innate differences;

When it was 5%, ” ” ” “

When it was 15%, ” ” ” “

When it exceeds 50%, that, of course will be used by the same people to argue that there’s discrimination in favor of women.

Larry Summers, to name somebody totally at random, has seen large shifts in gender distributions in economics since he graduated. Anybody who’s seen that and still assumes innate skills as the or a major factor is not worth listening to.

24

Martin James 07.29.08 at 7:55 pm

You liberals are such sexists.

25

Michael O'Hare 07.29.08 at 8:04 pm

I get it! I get it! In the second frame, the bald guy should be saying “Wow, people with hair suck at math”, right? right? Good puzzle!

Related parable, not original with me:
A teacher enters a grade school classroom and says, “good morning, boys and girls.”
A teacher enters a grade school classroom and says, “good morning, white children and black children.”

26

Slocum 07.29.08 at 10:02 pm

If veterinary medicine is 70% female, doesn’t that prove that women are genetically superior at it? The main thing which convinces me that the various ‘Bell Curve’ people are lying is that the percentages of women in various fields has been increasing over the past few decades; which would lead to any honest and competant person figuring that there’s something non-genetic going on.

Did anybody ever doubt that there was something non-genetic going on?

There’s obviously a complex interplay of sex-based differences in ability and preferences going on. Some of those differences are have a genetic basis and some have a social basis, but actually probably most have both–which are mutually reinforcing. That is, if nursing is 95% female, that is partly because women are inherently more interested in that kind of work, partly because society tends to think that is appropriate work for women (in part because of A) and men who do that kind of work are considered a bit odd (which, statistically, they are). It may be the case that women are, on average, no better at the work–it would more than enough only if they were more likely to find it interesting and agreeable.

And there are obviously also economic and status factors–which, too, are tied to inherent psychological and cultural factors (and again, probably mutually reinforcing)–so, in general, women still have to worry less about being the main source of support for their families, and don’t have much incentive to push themselves to maximize their income or job status to attract a mate. Note that Crooked Timber is distinctly non-PC on this topic when discussed from a status rather than gender angle:

Colour me unconvinced. Wilkinson’s claim implies, unless I misunderstand him badly, that it doesn’t matter very much to me if I’m a despised cubicle rat who can’t afford a nice car and gets sneered at by pretty girls, because when I go home and turn on my PC, I suddenly become a level 75 Night Elf Rogue who Kicks Serious Ass!

Is it just random that the ‘despised cubicle rat’ in this example is male and the ‘pretty’ mate he’s trying to attract is female?

It is also perfectly acceptable for women to stop working for years (or even permanently if their husband earns enough) once their first child is born. Which leads women to prefer particular kinds of careers (with easier entry, exit and part-time opportunities). Nursing and teaching fit the bill there.

Where does all that lead? I’d say to the conclusion that we have no idea whatsoever what the gender ratio in particular occupations ‘should’ be (in some ill-defined ideal society). Which, to me, suggests trying to engineer occupational sex-ratios is a very bad idea.

But given current numbers of males and females in higher ed, there is no justification for focusing exclusively on fields where women are underrepresented while ignoring the fields where they are grossly overrepresented. The proposal to ‘fix’ the gender ratios in hard-sciences and engineering by fiat via Title IX is just stupid.

27

Jeff Rubard 07.29.08 at 10:44 pm

This is the same XKCD that had a strip with the slogan “Science. It Works, Bitches”, right?

28

pushmedia1 07.29.08 at 10:46 pm

@Watson Aname: Sure there’s selection bias in the sense if someone is doing math than they’re good at math. Who else would be doing math, though? This is why math/gender is different from crime/race and why I “get” the cartoon in general but not specifically.

Its likely situations like depicted in the cartoon happen in early education (i.e. pre-high school when math curriculum aren’t split yet), but because of “selection bias” (really just selection) I wouldn’t expect to see it in higher education. Eszter, and now you, claim to have seen this in higher education. I’m interested in hearing your stories because these aren’t experiences I’ve had.

BTW, I was “paying attention” as I was from a small high school with no girls in advanced math classes. College was the first time I ran into women that shared my interests! Outsider men may have interest in keeping women out of technical fields, but speaking from the inside I’d welcome as many women as possible.

29

gobineau 07.29.08 at 10:56 pm

And didn’t some Swedish study …

Yup, that’s about the level of ‘thought’ and ‘scholarship’ one expects here. While you neanderthals …or would that be negynothals.?.. are still reading Foucalt and spinning your wheels about ‘power-relations’ and ‘social construction’ of whatever, the data are coming in. In can’t be stopped, it won’t be stopped. Humans are animals, and our genes matter at least as much as ‘environment’. Indeed, as environments become more equal, genetics matters that much more.

Now, who was the last woman Noble winner in a hard science?

Seriously guys (and gals) try googling ‘La Griffe du Lion’ — you’ll learn some stuff.

30

notsneaky 07.29.08 at 11:06 pm

“‘I suddenly become a level 75 Night Elf Rogue who Kicks Serious Ass'”

I don’t know what thread that’s from but I was under the impression that shit’s capped at 70 until the expansion comes out.

Zug-zug.

31

wren 07.29.08 at 11:22 pm

Wow lefties suck at math.

32

pushmedia1 07.29.08 at 11:22 pm

notsneaky, about 30% of WoW players are women, btw. And yes… Wow, Women don’t suck at WoW.

33

minneapolitan 07.29.08 at 11:43 pm

Oh great.
Another discussion where a paleo-Falangist and a net.schmibertarian team up to prove that patriarchy was invented at 10:05 this morning by a cabal of hairy-legged feminist grad-students, and that if it weren’t for the interference of those meddling liberals, full gender equality could have been achieved by lunchtime. I love those!

34

Steve LaBonne 07.30.08 at 12:05 am

Now, who was the last woman Noble [sic] winner in a hard science?

Linda Buck, 1984, Physiology or Medicine, for her work on olfactory receptors.

Next question, retard?

35

Steve LaBonne 07.30.08 at 12:07 am

That should of course have been 2004, sorry.

36

Dr. Drang 07.30.08 at 12:08 am

The Onion comes through with exquisite timing:

(And it was actually G’s comment near the top that I wanted to praise in my earlier comment.)

37

Dr. Drang 07.30.08 at 12:26 am

Oh, there’s nothing more painful than a vestigial colon.

38

Witt 07.30.08 at 12:43 am

where do situations like those depicted in the comic occur?

Anywhere that people thoughtlessly assess one person’s behavior or skills and generalize to an entire population. Cf. “Mary’s really not good at speaking up about things like that.” “Yeah, women just aren’t assertive.” etc.

I could probably cite a dozen anecdotes from the last month. Although they are definitely more common in some settings than in others, I also hypothesize that they sting less (i.e., you are less likely to even remember them, let alone feel hurt) if you aren’t directly being addressed.

Note to Slocum: I recommend reading up on some history of nursing, circa the Crimean War (Florence Nightingale’s era). Oddly enough, people were thoroughly convinced that women did NOT have an inherent interest in that sort of work as a career. To steal Scott Lemieux’s wonderful line, it’s amazing how fast evolution happens these days.

39

Witt 07.30.08 at 12:54 am

Ooh, wait, thought of a perfect example. Group of co-workers out to lunch, a woman in the group tries to calculate the tip and jokes, “I’m no good at this,” somebody else says “Yeah, girls can’t do math.”

Stupid, petty, but part of the fabric of the culture.

Not to pick on pushmedia, but your comments make me wonder: Did you ever do study sessions or homework on math with female friends from other high schools? No? Ever wonder why that was? (Or yes? Were you a close enough friend to have heard about incidents like that, even if it was not presented as A Problem?)

40

bad Jim 07.30.08 at 1:31 am

Jeff Rubard @ 27: Yes, and that one DOES come on a t-shirt.

pushmedia1: one of the advantages of privilege is not even having to notice that you’re privileged.

41

Jeff Rubard 07.30.08 at 1:52 am

Well, I guess I’m from the old school, but I was under the impression that was a derogatory term for a woman.

42

PersonFromPorlock 07.30.08 at 1:54 am

jdkbrown 07.29.08 at 3:19 pm:

What everybody was objecting to was his claim that the variance was innate, and not socially conditioned.

Should we believe that women would be as tall as men if society didn’t discourage their growth? Bones and brains are both body parts and if sex differences in the one exist, sex differences in the other must at least be possible.

Now, if Summers was asserting that the differences are innate he was clearly jumping to a conclusion. But if all he said was that it’s possible that they are, then his critics are jumping to the opposite conclusion themselves.

(FWIW, incidentally, I seem to see many more tall young women around than I did forty years ago.)

43

Watson Aname 07.30.08 at 2:05 am

@pushmedia1 You misread me. This sort of thing happens to women all the time in college (and graduate) level mathematics also. Just because you failed to notice it doesn’t mean much at all. I’m asserting that your anectdata is unusual. To be fair, I’m only offering my own in return — but it’s broader than yours would be as a student, at least.

44

Watson Aname 07.30.08 at 2:13 am

@pushmedia1 I should have added, `selection bias’ was correct. This refers simply to the fact that your particular path & experience must be inferred to have biased your observations, making generalization difficult. It’s not judgemental, just an unavoidable fact when generalizing from (anyones) personal experience. Having more samples helps, but doesn’t preclude the problem.

45

pushmedia1 07.30.08 at 2:34 am

Yes. I’m biased. Also, I understand this sort of stuff “happens all the time”. Can I get a personal anecdote please? Also, I’m looking specifically for stories regarding doing higher math in university.

I’m specifically interested in math because that is the subject of the comic. I’m interested in higher maths because that’s what the larger conversation is about, i.e. the Summers thingy and the new research confirming no differences between the sexes on mean score but fatter tails in the distribution for men.

PS – I went to a small school because I lived out in the middle of nowhere. College was the first time I had even met a woman interested in math except for the math teacher at my high school. In college, I mostly studied with women because half the math majors were female. Also, in grad school I’ve asked a female colleague her experience and she said she wasn’t discouraged from math (maybe a little by her folks) but economics has been hard for her because there’s so few role models.

46

pushmedia1 07.30.08 at 2:40 am

Nitpick Better Left To Myself But Because This Is The Internet: I can’t have selection bias when relaying my own experience. If I generalize from that, then yes, that’s a bias. But in my first comment I specifically asked for more data because Eszter’s claims don’t jive with my experience.

47

bdbd 07.30.08 at 2:49 am

maybe one more frame with 2 girls, and one says, “try it again”

48

Witt 07.30.08 at 3:00 am

Thanks for clarifying, pushmedia. I don’t work in that field, so I don’t have a useful firsthand example for you about math in a university setting.

As to this, though:
that is the subject of the comic

I refer thee to comment 4 in this thread.

49

pushmedia1 07.30.08 at 3:11 am

I refer thee to comment 4 in this thread.

I don’t know the terms of art, but I don’t think the subject of the comic is stereotyping. The subject is math and gender. The subtext or the lesson or the moral of the story or whatever is stereotyping.

Maybe I was being to subtle with my understanding earlier when I said “This is why math/gender is different from crime/race and why I “get” the cartoon in general but not specifically” or when I said “I “get” the cartoon for other things—- a black man is convicted of a crime and then all black people commit crimes—- but I don’t get it for math”.

Perhaps I should have jumped to my feet, waved my hands and yelled “I get it!” into the Grand Canyon.

50

R 07.30.08 at 3:16 am

Its likely situations like depicted in the cartoon happen in early education (i.e. pre-high school when math curriculum aren’t split yet), but because of “selection bias” (really just selection) I wouldn’t expect to see it in higher education.

But “good at math” gets redefined by the selection process. As a grad student I often had the feeling that the credibility threshold was a bit higher (and with some people a lot higher) than if a male student had been making the identical argument.

51

Watson Aname 07.30.08 at 3:21 am

pushmedia1: The generalization I read you as claiming was that a) such conversations didn’t happen to women around you as a student and moreso b) this would be unusual in math majors/graduates because “clearly they are good at math”. Sorry if I misinterpreted.

I suspect a) is not actually true (hence the “not paying attention”, which perhaps I should have put as “not noticing”). Really this reads to me a bit like men being surprised/disbelieving to find out that women are very commonly sexually harassed in the street, because they haven’t witnessed it.

I’m certain that b) is at least often not true.

Every one of the female math profs I’ve discussed this with (a dozen, anyway) has related stories of their talents being dismissed or underplayed along the way somewhere because of their gender. Many from years ago, sure, but others even as graduate students and junior faculty. Mathematics is probably as merit based as any discipline, but the undercurrents of this attitude exist in even the highest levels (where, of course, they are difficult to distinguish from more garden variety sexism). Many friends relate more questioning of if they “had what it takes” to pursue a research career than I ever encountered, that’s for certain.

From undergraduate students and even graduate students I often hear stories of being discouraged from pursuing math & hard sciences, even when they were at the top of their high school classes. I’m sometimes surprised we have as many female students as we do.

52

vivian 07.30.08 at 3:28 am

Slocum: First a civilized comment. Veterinary medicine has skewed female over the last 20-25 years, and completely by coincidence, certainly nothing causal, over the same period the money has gone out of general veterinary practices. Now like with people medicine, specialists get the bucks and the prestige, and the primary care is undervalued. (Costs the pet owners a lot, but it doesn’t go to salaries.) You may also want to compare the sex ratios of practice owners with their salaried employees.

53

R 07.30.08 at 3:28 am

Actually, if it is the case that the math-ability distribution has wider tails for men than for women, then you would expect to see *more* of the reaction in the comic in higher ed than in grade school, since that’s where the statistical differences would be more pronounced.

54

jdkbrown 07.30.08 at 3:33 am

“Now, if Summers was asserting that the differences are innate he was clearly jumping to a conclusion.”

This is what he said, and he used it to justify Harvard’s poor track-record, under his stewardship, of hiring and promoting women.

“But if all he said was that it’s possible that they are, then his critics are jumping to the opposite conclusion themselves.”

My understanding of the current state of play is that we have evidence that these things are predominantly socially conditioned. Part of what pissed people off about the Summers thing was that he made his remarks to a room of experts, and made his claims in the face of contrary evidence. That is, the “possibility” he raised had been considered and rejected. It’s rather as if he had addressed a room of climate scientists and said, ‘Have you considered that perhaps fossil fuels don’t cause global warming? This is why we’re wasting more energy since I’ve become president.’

“Bones and brains are both body parts and if sex differences in the one exist, sex differences in the other must at least be possible.”

Sure, but height is very different than competency at a complex, higher-level
activity like math, chemistry, physics etc.

55

Witt 07.30.08 at 3:37 am

The subject is math and gender.

OK, now I see how we are talking at cross-purposes. I hadn’t explicitly articulated it, but when I read your post I thought, “No, the comic is about inappropriate generalizations and how damaging they can be, and the vehicle for illustrating that is math.”

So we have a pretty darned different understanding of what this comic is “about.”

Anyway. I don’t think there is an easy way to resolve this and I see you’re already getting some of the anecdata you’ve asked for with regard to math. No need to keep batting our respective interpretations back and forth.

56

pushmedia1 07.30.08 at 3:37 am

“credibility threshold was a bit higher”

Now we’re cooking with gas! What do you mean by this? How did this play out in a typical seminar or whatever?

57

jdkbrown 07.30.08 at 3:38 am

One thing I’ve never gotten about the whole “women are just worse at technical disciplines”: there’s a clear counterexample–linguistics. Linguistics is a highly technical discipline (think of much of it as applied set theory), and yet many of its best and most prominent practitioners (especially in semantics) are women.

58

Nitish 07.30.08 at 3:41 am

Pushmedia, I’m male, and so I don’t have personal anecdotes. But I work in theoretical computer science, which is essentially math (and a large chunk of my work actually is done with people in the math department.) Every one of the women in my research group has told me anecdotes about being discouraged from pursuing math, or of being subtly discriminated against. One story I’ve heard from several women is that they couldn’t find study partners easily, because most of the other students in math classes were men, and they didn’t want to work with the women because “everyone knew they couldn’t pull their weight”.

59

pushmedia1 07.30.08 at 3:49 am

“you would expect to see more of the reaction in the comic in higher ed than in grade school”

I’d have to think about this more, but this doesn’t seem right. Each stage in the selection process is proving more and more math competence. By the time you’re in a grad program, your 4 sigma status should be plain to your colleagues.

60

vivian 07.30.08 at 3:49 am

Slocum: I am amazed that someone as thoughtful as you (usually are) can put together a sentence like “so, in general, women still have to worry less about being the main source of support for their families, and don’t have much incentive to push themselves to maximize their income or job status to attract a mate.”

Why not trip off to the Census website and see how ‘in general’ that ‘have to’ turns out to be? Or, you know, ask around (maybe you know some women who are still speaking to you ) how many women expect to be their own critical source of income. Then just for laughs, explore the premise that maybe women who take jobs in fields where one can easily leave the workforce and return, just maybe that’s not a free choice so much as a forced choice or lack of choice.

61

Watson Aname 07.30.08 at 3:54 am

“credibility threshold was a bit higher”

I think this happens all the time, (and not particularly with respect to gender). I think that as an educator, it’s difficult to avoid or even catch yourself doing. If a good student gives you an argument that is clearly outlined, you may not push much for details because you believe they understand it. A student you have less faith in, you’ll be more likely to ask for justification.

But topically, if you have a bias (unconscious even) against a female student, you might be more likely to push for justification, to mark conservatively, to ask questions. And even if it doesn’t affect her standing much, it will be harder for her to be confident in her own abilities when she see’s that you aren’t. If you have a bias in general against female students, this will happen for them generally in your class.

62

jdkbrown 07.30.08 at 3:57 am

“By the time you’re in a grad program, your 4 sigma status should be plain to your colleagues.”

Right. But by the time you’re in a grad program the salient threshold for being “good at x” is not being in the top 1%, but being in the top 0.1%.

“Good at the piano” means something different when applied to a 9-year-old than when applied to a professional musician.

63

G 07.30.08 at 4:22 am

Yeah, now I’m remembering (again) why I don’t blog that much anymore.

(Anyone calculate that % yet?)

64

notsneaky 07.30.08 at 4:29 am

Well, the conclusion of this whole argument is clear; we should scrape Women Studies’ departments across universities and use those funds as scholarships and fellowships in math and sciences for women.

65

pushmedia1 07.30.08 at 4:50 am

notsneaky: or for men in vet schools, linguistics or nursing.

66

notsneaky 07.30.08 at 5:05 am

No, no. That doesn’t carry the same irony.

67

ingrid robeyns 07.30.08 at 6:38 am

you could read this cartoon as being about women and maths, but you could also read this cartoon as an illustration of the claim that ‘if a male person is performing poorly, it is attributed to their talents; if a female person is performing poorly, it is attributed to her sex (and generalised to all female persons)’.

Incidentally, that claim has not just been backed-up with loads of annecdotal evidence, but also with scientific studies in social and cognitive pyschology; of the top of my head, a good place to start fr those who think this is all ‘Women Studies Fiction’ would be Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women by Virginia Valian.

If we have readers who are activily doing research in this field, it would be great if they could give us some further (and perhaps more recent) references. I really wish Professor Valian would make a revised version of her book with the latest studies included. I have found this one of the most powerful books I’ve read when I was workign on my PhD dissertation.

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Dave 07.30.08 at 7:06 am

Why are there still sexist arseholes out there prepared to defend male specialness by any means necessary? Where have all the femininja castration squads gone? I mean, come on people, there’s a job of work to be done here, my daughters’ future depends on you…

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sg 07.30.08 at 8:00 am

I read a book once, “The Mind has no sex”, which discusses the problem of women’s relative underrepresentation in maths and physics from a historical, sociological and political perspective. It is very interesting and quite eye-opening about the history of women’s involvement in maths. Bit old now though.

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reason 07.30.08 at 8:19 am

Yes but I’m sure there are plenty of black men who would think that women are not alone. The poison of low expectations?

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Eszter 07.30.08 at 9:11 am

Yeah, now I’m remembering (again) why I don’t blog that much anymore.

G – stop plagiarizing my thoughts.;-)

Thanks to Watson Aname, Witt, Vivian, Dfrelon, Jdkbrown, Nitish and others for taking on the various commenters here who just don’t care to see the real purpose of this cartoon. Its meaning has now been explained quite explicitly by several people in this thread and several examples of this in real life have been shared throughout the discussion. Those who are still not willing to get it won’t get it after more explanations and examples either, because getting it is not their true intention here (trolling anyone?).

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abb1 07.30.08 at 10:16 am

I’ve seen this attitude, starting from elementary school – it’s really big there. High school – yes, but not as big as among the younger kids. College years – sure, but to a lesser degree still. Workplace, western countries? I don’t know about academia, but where I’ve worked so far – I’m not a woman, but for what it’s worth – if this attitude does exist, it’s hard to detect.

So, it seems to me that, at this point in time, this is, perhaps, merely a manifestation of childishness, and not necessary a burning social issue. There is Summers, of course, but perhaps he is just a nerd, autistic nerd, one sick puppy.

So, can I argue that the idea that most men stereotype women this way has become a bit of stereotype itself?

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Slocum 07.30.08 at 12:00 pm

Witt: Note to Slocum–I recommend reading up on some history of nursing, circa the Crimean War (Florence Nightingale’s era). Oddly enough, people were thoroughly convinced that women did NOT have an inherent interest in that sort of work as a career.

What of it? That was during an era when people were thoroughly convinced that women did not (or should not) have interest in ANY sort of career outside the home (as in the Victorian “Angel in the House”). That women have long become the absolute dominant majority in some previously male-dominated fields should suggest that there’s something other than social prejudice going on in fields where that has not happened, shouldn’t it? And, obviously, if the numbers of men & women are roughly equal, and if women are going to have lower workforce participation than men (which they do), then the existence of some jobs that are mostly female (nursing, teaching, etc) necessarily means that there will be male dominated fields (do the math).

Vivian: Slocum–I am amazed that someone as thoughtful as you (usually are) can put together a sentence like “so, in general, women still have to worry less about being the main source of support for their families, and don’t have much incentive to push themselves to maximize their income or job status to attract a mate.”

Why not trip off to the Census website and see how ‘in general’ that ‘have to’ turns out to be?

And I’m amazed when people can deny the completely obvious. In general means, for example, that women are far more likely to spend time out of the labor force completely or work part-time during their adult lives. It doesn’t take much googling to discover this:

“First, women, married women in particular, are much more likely than men to work part-time, either for their entire working career or for part of their careers. In 2004, about 25 percent of married women in the labor force aged 25-54 worked part-time as compared to only 5 percent of men. Second, women have fewer years in the labor force than men. Among retired workers, women spent 32 years in the labor force as compared to 44 years for men.”

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/10/11/earlyshow/contributors/raymartin/main2080349.shtml?source=RSS&attr=_2080349

Obviously, there are many women who’ve always had to work to support themselves — but there are also lots of women (but almost no men) who haven’t. Hence the statistics.

Then just for laughs, explore the premise that maybe women who take jobs in fields where one can easily leave the workforce and return, just maybe that’s not a free choice so much as a forced choice or lack of choice.

Yep, you did give me a laugh. I know a number of men who’ve kvetched about their wives not working, but I know none at all who’ve complained that their wives won’t quit. Sometimes it’s just funny, but sometimes not so much. A while ago I had lunch with a 40-something guy stuck in a job he despises, but he has no choice because his wife’s ‘job’ is selling Tupperware (or something similar) — which activity, last year, may have almost broken even. When women have a man around the house who won’t get a job, they’re often encouraged to “throw the bum out”. That’s not really a viable option for men, though.

I mean, hell, even feminists have noticed and are arguing about whether ‘opting out’ is a sensible or foolish choice for women to make (but not whether or not it’s a choice):

http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/working-moms

Eszter: Thanks to Watson Aname, Witt, Vivian, Dfrelon, Jdkbrown, Nitish and others for taking on the various commenters here who just don’t care to see the real purpose of this cartoon.

Oh, c’mon–the real purpose is political. As is the trumpeting of the results that ‘prove’ there’s no difference between male and female math abilities, which results can be then used to justify the application of title IX to technical fields in academia that are still male-dominated. Or are you suggesting that the purpose of the cartoon was to start a discussion about ‘confirmation bias’ where the fact that bias in the cartoon was about women and math was purely incidental?

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Kevin Donoghue 07.30.08 at 12:31 pm

Well Slocum, Eszter didn’t really spell it out, nor did the cartoonist, so we can make of it what we will. Personally, when I read “one encounters this type of attitude online all the time” it reminded me of the fact that a link to a silly post by Jonah Goldberg prompts comments about what a clown Goldberg is, whereas a silly post by Megan McArdle prompts comments about what a stupid bitch McArdle is.

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Witt 07.30.08 at 1:21 pm

73: What of it?

Well, upthread you contended that women are inherently more interested in that kind of work (meaning nursing). Obviously we agree that there are lots more factors at work than “inherent interest,” but you did say it was a factor and I was pointing out that 150 years ago, some people were equally convinced that women were NOT inherently suited to nursing.

That was during an era when people were thoroughly convinced that women did not (or should not) have interest in ANY sort of career outside the home (as in the Victorian “Angel in the House”).

Upper-class white women, maybe. I’m not a social historian and can’t pretend to have a thorough understanding of this time period, but I don’t buy your depiction as a general rule.

That women have long become the absolute dominant majority in some previously male-dominated fields should suggest that there’s something other than social prejudice going on in fields where that has not happened, shouldn’t it?

Or it could suggest that social prejudice works powerfully to guide people disproportionately into certain career paths based on gender. I know a man who applied to be a public school teacher in Boston in the 1960s. He was told that men were not allowed to teach elementary school, only junior and senior high school.

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Sk 07.30.08 at 1:26 pm

I think the caption in the second frame is outdated. Shouldn’t it read

“Wow! You are just as good at math as I am! I believe this to be true! Your mistake is clearly caused by my failure to create a comfortable environment! Please don’t report me to the department chair for the sexist behavior I exhibited by noticing your error! (Is anyone from the faculty listening?). Sexism is doubleplus ungood! “

Sk

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lemuel pitkin 07.30.08 at 3:21 pm

That women have long become the absolute dominant majority in some previously male-dominated fields should suggest that there’s something other than social prejudice going on in fields where that has not happened, shouldn’t it?

Why should it suggest that, and not just the opposite? Doesn’t the fact that women have succeeded in so many areas they were formerly thought inherently unsuited for (by talents or inclination) once social barriers were lowered, suggest that something similar will eventually happen in the remaining male-dominated fields?

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Maria 07.30.08 at 3:29 pm

Eszter, this is my favorite XKCD as well. It’s not just about women, I would say.

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Slocum 07.30.08 at 4:22 pm

Witt: Well, upthread you contended that women are inherently more interested in that kind of work (meaning nursing). Obviously we agree that there are lots more factors at work than “inherent interest,” but you did say it was a factor and I was pointing out that 150 years ago, some people were equally convinced that women were NOT inherently suited to nursing.

And my point was that, during Victorian times, people were convinced that women were not inherently suited to ANY kind of work outside the home. It was certainly not the case that people thought women might make naturally good coal miners but certainly not nurses. See for example:

Civil War Nurses: “The Angels of the Battlefield”
http://www.civilwarhome.com/civilwarnurses.htm

Seems it wasn’t such a leap from Victorian “Angel of the House” to Victorian “Angel of the Battlefield”. I googled in vain for a story about Victorian “Angels of the Coal Mine” however.

Why should it suggest that, and not just the opposite? Doesn’t the fact that women have succeeded in so many areas they were formerly thought inherently unsuited for (by talents or inclination) once social barriers were lowered, suggest that something similar will eventually happen in the remaining male-dominated fields?

But there are no male-dominated fields where women have not succeeded (with a few obvious exceptions like ‘infantry soldier’ or ‘NFL quarterback’). Just as males have succeeded in K-12 education and nursing. Just not in equal numbers.

Do you really think it’s a legitimate goal of government to try to move women from teaching and nursing to hard-sciences, engineering and heavy construction and men the reverse? If so — why?

Should government be trying to equalize women’s and men’s years of labor-force participation and engagement in part-time vs full-time work? Again, if so…why?

80

Adam 07.30.08 at 4:33 pm

Good lord people.

When I saw this cartoon I immediately thought of the Economist.

In the Economist, if a country is pursuing Washington Consensus economic policies and failing then it is the fault of the country, and if a country is pursuing progressive economic policies and failing then it is the fault of the policies.

Determining the association between characteristics and results is how ideology and power interact to shape the debate.

On the whole gender issue.
1) Women faced massive prejudice entering male dominated fields.

2) Essentialism is bullshit.

3) Gender roles strongly influence professional choices. Biomaterials and Bioelectrical engineering include a far greater proportion of women than Materials Science and Electrical engineering. Even though the curriculums are basically the same through sophomore year when people choose their majors.

4) The assholes who degenerated female pioneers in male dominated fields 20 years ago are not the male undergraduates taking classes today. Dismissing the female-skewed gender ratio in undergrad education today makes you every bit the asshole they were.

Frankly, I think kicking more male ass in high-school would be a better solution than quotas for men in undergrad. The perceived incompatibility of masculinity and excellence in school is probably responsible for most of the disparity. It is a cultural problem.

5) Has it occurred to anybody that this attribution game works in reverse to?

ie. I didn’t fail because I’m not good enough, I failed because I’m a woman and people are prejudiced.

People have very good self-protective strategies.

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Dave 07.30.08 at 5:42 pm

@80: who failed, who’s discussing “failures”?

And of course it’s a cultural problem, “masculinity” is a cultural trait…

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vivian 07.30.08 at 11:46 pm

(and thanks for the thread, Eszter. CT doesn’t get wild trolls so much as domesticated, highbrow ones, and it’s probably good to give them a little exercise on occasion. They appear to be arguing that in order to understand XKCD you need the extra X chromosome. Awww.)

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Robert 07.31.08 at 10:31 am

I’ve listed a few groups who probably can provide resources about women in mathematical disciplines.

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