Bryan Caplan

What Summers Missed: Women, Personality, and the Sciences

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Inequality... Econlog and the Academy...

I suspect that Larry Summers would still be president of Harvard if he hadn't shared his thoughts on gender imbalance in the sciences. Patri Friedman now advances the theory that men dominate in the sciences because their priorities are so screwed up:

There are more higher IQ men because men have a higher variance in IQ, because men are risk-seekers, because of evolutionary biology. But that same high-variance that makes there be more really really stupid and really really smart men than women *also* makes men prone to stupid status-seeking like the academic track Greenspun describes. So its not just that there are more men than women intellectually capable of being a science professor, there are also more of them stupid enough to try.

In other words, Patri's pointing to a personality difference between men and women: Men care more about status. He's probably right, but there's a much simpler personality story that as far as I can tell has been totally neglected: Both the popular Jungian and the more academic Five Factor personality tests confirm the stereotype that men are more logical and women are more emotional. (The first class of test says that men are more "Thinking" and women are more "Feeling"; the second says that women are more "Agreeable." Take your pick.) The difference is about a half standard deviation in size. That's big; when you go out to the tails of the Thinking-Feeling personality distribution, men greatly outnumber women.

So what? Well, personality tests also confirm occupational stereotypes. Yes, librarians really are introverts. And yes, scientists are extremely Thinking - or, if you prefer, they're extremely Disagreeable. It's not a matter of IQ - Feeling people have virtually the same average IQ as Thinking people. It's a matter of cognitive style. No matter how smart you are, a scientific career won't appeal to you if you care more about how people feel than how things tick.

The big problem with other stories is that they don't explain variation in academic disciplines' gender ratios. My story does: In fields that appeal to Feeling people - like English literature and psychology - you'll see a much higher fraction of women than you do in math, physics, or econ.

Question for Discussion: Is my story more palatable than Summers'? How would academia and the world have reacted if he said "There are fewer women in science because women like science less"?


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The author at South(west)paw in a related article titled debunking behavioral economics writes:
    Rightwing economists are frightened of behavioral economics and rightly so: research that debunks the assumption that people are rational calls into question their blind faith in the invisible hand of the market. Economists have launched a two-pronged ... [Tracked on March 9, 2006 11:36 AM]
COMMENTS (11 to date)
Matt McIntosh writes:

Your story is the one I usually go with to explain the dearth of female programmers. I've said it to three women to date and all of them pretty much agreed.

Patri Friedman writes:

There are surely a number of factors. My usual explanation is the small-but-significant difference in standard deviation between male & female IQs, which results in a large disproportion at the tails. Hence why both prisons and universities are full of men. For variety, I was exploring a less loaded explanation which credits the women with more rationality. Of course, both are merely different mechanisms expressing the same basic differences in biology.

I have to say, I like your explanation a little less only because it is not so clearly connected to the basic male/female differences based on their different reproductive strategies. I understand why men have a higher variance in IQ, but I don't understand why they are more thinking. Do you?

James writes:

The Summers affair brings up another semi-interesting issue as well. Everyone seems to reject a priori the possibility that women really aren't as smart as men, including a lot of people with hefty credentials who work in empirical fields. So exactly what would be sufficient evidence to convince a good empiricist that men really are brighter than women? Not that I believe this true. I think some combination of the variance in IQ explanation and the personality type explanation is far more plausible. But I wonder if the empiricist's methods are really as non-dogmatic as they claim.

meep writes:

Well, I don't think Summers would have made many friends if he noted what a sucker's game trying for an academic career in the sciences is.

If he said: "Hey - women as a group are too sensible to waste their lives running after a relatively low-paying job when they could have greater career flexibility by working on Wall Street! Heck, even elementary school teachers have it better, in terms of working conditions and pay! And we don't complain that the vast majority of elementary teachers are women!" I'm sure the women in the room, all of whom were tenured or seeking tenure, would have given Summers a pass on that one. Surely none of them would have gotten the vapors.

Silas Barta writes:

Caplan, if you really think that a reasoned argument would have spared you the wrath of those who don't like your politically incorrect conclusion, you're rather naive.

rvman writes:

Not why men are more thinking, but why women are more feeling. If you are dealing with a crying baby, you aren't going to logic out what it needs - you are going to figure it out through empathy. Logic isn't going to help you hold a family together, nor is it going to help you catch the alpha male as your provider-male. Men don't need either the family or the 'alpha' female - spreading one's seed far and wide is a viable strategy for them, but women's reproductive strategy has to be catch the best providers of genes and help.

Jim R writes:

Summers did not move on over a single issue.

Keep in mind the brewing scandal of Harvard Economist Andrei Shleifer. He is a close buddy of Summers, he cost Harvard a $26 (?) million payoff to the Russians and Summers tried to protect his job at Harvard.

On the issue of the place of women in our society.
The 19th Amendment for the right to vote passed in 1920. Not a very long time ago.

In 1975 women in public accounting were a small minority. They were expected to be cute and were thought to be a form of super secretary. Now women constitute the majority of the lower levels of public accounting but are still rare at the upper levels. Give it another 30 years and check in again.

Look at the applications for admission to the upper level colleges in this country. Women are
currently a larger group than men.

As for the sciences - look at the ages scientists and engineers are when they did their best work. Physics average around 28. Electrical engineers - 35. (This data relates to folks who are currently 65+ years of age). Prime childbearing years are what? 20-35? It is a tough choice between a 24/7 dedication to research vs. a birthing a family (until a person produced by in vitro fertilization can go the full 9 months outside a womb). Cutting-edge research does not do well if you take a few months off.

jult52 writes:

I completely disagree that women are less interested in status than men. The desire for status just expresses itself in different ways.

William Goodwin writes:

RVMan's comment is a classic example of allowing pre-existing assumptions to shape our understanding of what's going on. He/she writes:

"If you are dealing with a crying baby, you aren't going to logic out what it needs - you are going to figure it out through empathy. Logic isn't going to help you hold a family together, nor is it going to help you catch the alpha male as your provider-male."

What is the evidence for these statements? Why doesn't strategic thinking help you catch the alpha male? (Certainly that's what the authors of books like "The Rules" are doing: defining romance as a strategic game, which you have to play rationally if you want to win.) And what kind of mother doesn't try to think about why a baby is crying: is he hungry, tired, wet, or so on?

Also, how does "Agreeable" get equated with "Illogical"? This entire discussion shows how hard it is to think rationally about gender, because our prejudices shape our views of what's happening. Look at Matt McIntosh: his supposed meaningful piece of evidence is conversations he's had with three people. If a woman offered that up as "evidence," it'd be dismissed -- rightly -- as a meaningless anecdote.

J Klein writes:

How would academia and the world have reacted if he said "There are fewer women in science because women like science less"?

The only way to keep his job was to adopt the position that women scientists are injustly, terribly discriminated against and he was heroically fighting the discriminators. He should have identified a victim (an expendable white male professor, preferably one that had recently promoted a white male over a female scientist) and make a public case of the victim/offender and publicly, symbolically, verbally punish him. That would have make it difficult to accuse him of having politically incorrect leanings.

dsquared writes:

Economics isn't a "thinking" profession at all. The mathematics is absolutely basic by the standards of sciences, and the crucial criterion for success is insight into economic behaviour.

What economics does share with physics and (to a lesser extent) mathematics is an academic culture in which it is considered OK to be an intellectually arrogant a-hole and to not listen to people who disagree with you. Economics is almost certainly a) more male and b) worse because of this sociological fact.

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