Sunday, March 05, 2017

A Gendered Approach to Science?

The Women in Astronomy blog draws our attention to a recent paper in Science and Engineering Ethics by Elaine Howard Ecklund and Di Di at Rice University. I may return to it and read it more closely at a later time, but I just want to note the striking contradiction in feminist science studies that it clearly exhibits.

The idea that gender stratification in science is the result of gender differences in intelligence is normally considered a non-starter. I mean that in the technical sense of "Don't even start!" To even suggest the possibility that a capacity for abstract thinking and mathematical reasoning might be differently distributed among men and women on average is taken as making excuses for the systemic influence of sexism. The only reason that there are more successful male physicists than female physicists that will normally be considered is that there is some form of discrimination at work, some mechanism driven by the "ingrained" belief that men are superior to women.

The most common exception to this rule that I've seen is the hypothesis that "stereotype threat" makes women perform under their natural ability. That is, there is, indeed, some weakness in women, it is argued, but it is a pitiable one for which, not they, but society is to blame, and therefore we should make some sort of accommodation for it in the short term, not merely wait for them to get over it in the long term.

Ecklund and Di, however, now draw on a (to me) new reason for gender stratification, also not tied directly to sexist sentiments. In their paper they consider "two prevalent theories [that] are used to explain why female professionals may be more ethical than their male counterparts." I'll leave the details to one side in this post; my concern is not with the explanans but the explanandum. Imagine a paper that proposed to examine various theories to explain why men might be more ethical than women. Or, like I say, just imagine wondering why men might be smarter than women. These research questions are easily dismissed. And yet, here we are, wondering what it is about women that might make them more ethical than men. Literally: these people are wondering why women might be morally superior to men!

I've got to say, I won't reject the notion out of hand. I would, of course, insist that women are capable of unethical behavior, just as men are capable of ethical behavior. But if we found that the reality isn't equally distributed and that men [on average] come out "the worse" for it, I would not be shocked. Why then is it that we are not allowed to consider the possibility that an aptitude for—or even merely an interest in—science might explain the gender stratification we see in, say, physics and astronomy? If a generally higher ethical standard could explain why women advance more slowly in science, why can't a generally higher epistemic standard in men explain their more rapid advance?

I simply don't understand this sort of double-think. I don't understand how they keep these two ideas comfortably in their own minds. Why can't the people who are pushing for gender equality realize that they are going to have to choose between (1) the thesis that men and women are equal in every relevant way when it comes to science, making all gender stratification a de facto injustice, and (2) the thesis that there are important differences between the sexes, allowing us to explain gender stratification in a wholly natural way?


Anonymous said...

One needn't posit an innate difference. It could be that because of discrimination women face more scrutiny and hence can't get away with things that men can get away with. Or that with affirmative action women don't need to cut corners like men.

Of course, it could also be that with discrimination women have to produce at infeasible levels to draw even with men, so they have to cheat. Or that affirmative action means it is harder to punish women for misconduct so they get away with more.

Ultimately, this is an empirical issue, but of the four possibilities the only one we can safely explore is the possibility that women are more ethical because either they are innately better or discrimination pressures them to be better.

Thomas said...

Yes, but I don't think much hinges on innateness. To me, the question is how much explanatory power sexism in science can possibly have. As long as ethical habitus is formed before people enter higher education, my concerns hold.

After all, the same can be said of abstract reasoning. Just because there is some cultural reason someone can't think abstractly is no reason to give them a chair in theoretical physics anyway. It's like me explaining the cultural reasons I'm not a good soccer player, say, because I left Denmark for Canada at an early age, but then demanding a spot on the Danish national team upon my return.

Anonymous said...

Oops, my bad. I thought they were using discrimination as an explanation for why women are (allegedly) more ethical, but it looks like they're actually arguing that women are held back _by_ being more ethical.

It's worth noting that this study doesn't actually find that women _are_ more ethical, just that people say that they perceive women as more ethical.

Jonathan said...

That's a way of smuggling in a conclusion by making it a premise of research. Let's examine folk beliefs about gender differences prevalent among scientists. Aha, such beliefs do exist, surprise surprise. So they may reflect reality. If it were a study about folk beliefs about intelligence, then it would be used as evidence for discrimination.

Presskorn said...

Yes, surely there is sort of double standard here. Yet, *perhaps* there is also a sort of historical relationship. Sophocles' Antigone, at least, pretty much directly tells us that women are able to stand up to men of superior power, because women are ethically superior.

Thomas said...

Yes, when you square off all the women in a population against all the men, pitting the sexes against each other, so to speak, the outcome of various contests is likely to be predetermined. But I'm not sure that's what's happening in Antigone (I'll have to read it again). Perhaps Lysistrata allegories such a battle of the sexes better, with the women cast in the role of the more virtuous ones.

I, for one, think it is simply amazing that anyone would think that, given the vast differences between men and women as groups, that any field of human endeavor would be equally population by both sexes. Or, indeed, that any set of characteristics ("intelligent", "ethical") would be equally distributed.

Anonymous said...

Thomas, I think you are pointing out that it is a double standard that a woman - but not a man - can ask a question of a sort, not the question's content or implicit premise. Correct? Or are you asking about this particular issue, the potential difference in perception of ethical behavior of men and women? I think the former - not the latter - is a more important and easily validated issue.

As an example, the committees (SOC and LOC) for the upcoming Women in Astronomy IV conference are quite lopsidedly female. It could be that men don't feel welcome to serve on such committees. It could even be that men have specifically been trained to not participate in such committees, because if a man asks a research question in such a venue, germane to the topic, like, "Could it be that women are less able than men, intrinsically, at (fill in anything you like)?" that man risks not simply being refuted with something like, "Oh come on - that's crazy - let's ask better questions ..." or asked to elaborate with "Tell us more about why you asked that question?" but instead an activist mob calls for his resignation, say, from his post leading Harvard University. So, given such prominent examples, it's not too surprising that even well meaning men are hard to recruit or to retain on such committees.

Thomas said...

I think the problem you raise is a real one, but it's not the double standard I'm after in this post. When someone (male or female) suggests that a particular virtue (like a capacity for abstract thinking) is more common among males than females, "the very idea" of gender differences is summarily rejected, especially when it is offered to explain gender stratification. But when there's a chance that another virtue (like an inclination toward ethical behaviour) might be more common among women than men, and that this virtue might explain why they are less successful than their male counterparts, this is suddenly an important possible cause of gender stratification worth exploring.

You allude to the Summers case, and right so. After all, he stated the question so broadly that Ecklund and Di's hypothesis could easily be included.

It's important to keep in mind that women who ask these questions are also vilified. Basically, I think it's hard to recruit anyone to these committee who have, let's say, better things to do.

WiA IV is not a great example because it's a conference that is specifically directed at women. Many of the sessions seem to be pitched only to women. I personally don't think such conferences are a good idea in any discipline, but I'm not going to make an issue out of their lopsidedness. There are probably also overwhelmingly many Americans on the planning committees of the American Studies conferences. One could argue that's a sign of hegemony, I guess; but why bother?

Anonymous said...

Double standards have their place in day-to-day social interaction. But not in deciding which hypotheses are worthy of scholarly evaluation. This is one reason why a profession should generally refrain from studying itself, and instead outsource that to a disinterested community of social science outsiders. However, for a number of reasons that I lack the time to get into now, the STEM fields are increasingly studying themselves and ignoring social scientists.

Mind you, social scientists have their own taboos and can be similarly reluctant to explore certain hypotheses, but you have at least a chance of getting them to say things that you could never get a natural scientist to say.

Jonathan said...

There is a whole branch of feminism that stresses feminine virtue. It dates back at least to the 19th century and had another apogee in the 70s or 80s. The whole Carol Gilligan approach. Not only are women more ethical, but their ethics are different and presumably superior, emphasizing care & nurturing over more abstract rights, etc... (according to this tradition.) Since ethics is a behavior and intelligence an aptitude, then there might not be any contradiction in saying that women behave in more ethical ways but are equal in aptitude.

Of course, I tend to view all of this with skepticism. For example, I see no problem with the fact that women are doing really well in biology but are less prominent in physics. Why not let people follow their inclinations, barring any discrimination? In my field women are equally or more prominent than men (increasingly).

Thomas said...

@Anon: Interestingly, my somewhat limited experience on this suggests that when, say, astronomers design their own studies of gender systematics they do a pretty good job, but when they collaborate with a social scientists they make a botch of it. I'm not sure why that is, but I think it has something to do with not knowing how to hold each other to methodological standards.

I actually have greater confidence in the ability of astronomers to analyze data than I have in most sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists. It's when astronomers defer to social scientists that the trouble seems to start.

@Jonathan: Just to be clear, the contradiction I see in not that women are taken to be equal in some ways and superior in others. Rather, it is that comparisons are only allowed when they find women to be superior in some way.

Jonathan said...

Yes, you are absolutely right. Any difference must be to the female advantage to be a permissible subject.

Anonymous said...

Huh, my observation is the opposite: The Ceci and Williams study of hiring practices is higher quality than anything I've seen from people in STEM, and education research by psychologists is generally much higher quality than education research from physical scientists.

Anonymous said...


I think you might find kindred spirit in this essay by the lead author of the piece you critique in your blog piece.

Some excerpts:

We need to live up to the best vision of the university, where everyone is welcomed to hear and be challenged by views different than their own.

Here are some concrete suggestions:

Challenge yourself to find the best voice on the other side. Academics are human, and it’s tempting when dealing with controversial issues to choose an unattractive opponent...
Claim the best vision of the university as a protected space for dialogue. ... I have seen conservative and liberal faith leaders, people who would never meet under another circumstance, come together ...
Claim a nonutilitarian vision of the university. Universities have fallen prey to business principles. ...

Thomas said...

@anon (7:43 PM): I agree that there is some good social science on this. Ceci and Williams is a good case in point. Rachel Ivie, as far as I can tell, is also quite good. Like I say, I'm basing my judgment on limited experience. I wanted to say that STEM people forget their standards when they turn their attention to social phenomena. But that isn't true either; Nando Patat does good work gender systematics. So I've really only got one, example, I guess: the Richie-Clancy collaboration. I suspect they simply weren't able to communicate with each other and therefore ended up with nonsense. Joan Schmelz's attempt to understand implicit bias is also less impressive than one hopes her astrophysics work is.

Thomas said...

@anon (10:22 PM). May I ask whether you had some point with that comment? I certainly agree that views should be challenged and that one should seek out the most qualified people who hold them. But surely that's exactly what I'm doing?

Anonymous said...

Thomas - right. I wrote, "you might find kindred spirit" because of what you are doing here.

In my opinion the article by Ecklund and Di Di didn't need the sample of UK and US physicists it gathered to make its claims. The style of the article is to pick a quote from one of the people, excerpt it, and then expand on that in a narrative. It's much like a journalist calling many people for a good quote for their newspaper article before the deadline: "Professor X, what do you think of Professor Y's result reported in the press release this morning?"

We learn that interviewees are split roughly half and half by nationality but we are not given any numbers for gender. All we have is "despite our efforts to over-sample female scientists, they are still vastly underrepresented in our respondent population." As such, the article seems to take the "gender blind" approach to the genders of the interviewees and their expressed viewpoints. And yet they write of their interviewees, "When these physicists deny the differences in males’ and females’ approaches to science ethics, they are denying structural differences for male and female scientists." I wonder, "When these two authors deny the reader to know the differences in males’ and females’ fractional participation to the interview pool, they are denying potential differences for male and female physicists in responding to such interviews." They do offer at the end, "Future scholars might more specifically examine how female physicists interpret gender and ethics."

I was intrigued by this sentence at the end of the following paragraph, before the footnote.

Data for this analysis come from a broader study—Ethics among Scientists in International Contexts (EASIC)—that consists of in-depth interviews with physicists in both elite and non-elite universities in the US, UK, and Mainland China. The objective of the broader study is to understand how physicists in three national contexts approach important ethical issues facing science. For this article, we utilize the narratives just from physicists in the US and UK, where we asked questions about the impact of gender on approaches to science ethics (we were not able to ask this question in China). [ footnote: This study has received the approval from our university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). ]

Did the IRB disallow it? Did Chinese authorities? Or was it forbidden by a law governing their NSF grant?