Math is Hard, Let’s Go Into Other Professions

Reddit points to what promises to be a controversial article about women’s preferences for work:

Now two new studies by economists and social scientists have reached a perhaps startling conclusion: An important part of the explanation for the gender gap, they are finding, are the preferences of women themselves. When it comes to certain math- and science-related jobs, substantial numbers of women – highly qualified for the work – stay out of those careers because they would simply rather do something else.

I’ve always felt that a goal of 50-50 splits in all workplaces seemed a little artificial. Men and women are different, and so each profession probably has a natural ratio of men to women. Some are going to be 75-25 in favour of women, and others are going to be 60-40 in favour of men.

Of course, we need to design a working world where women don’t face discrimination or inequity, regardless of what job they want. That’s tricky, and it’ll only get trickier if we start making assumptions about what women want.

There was another interesting point in the article, discussing how men and women tend to differ in achievement:

Women who are mathematically gifted are more likely than men to have strong verbal abilities as well; men who excel in math, by contrast, don’t do nearly as well in verbal skills. As a result, the career choices for math-precocious women are wider than for their male counterparts.

This is pretty anecdotal, but that was definitely true for my high school class. The smart boys were good at Math and the sciences, but usually not top of the class in English or Literature. The top-performing girls, conversely, seemed to be good at everything.


  1. I’ve got to agree with your statement about top-performing girls generally being well-rounded academically.

    I wonder if it is still that way in high school, 16 years later?

  2. Even though I’m probably suited to it, I stayed out of engineering because of the blatant sexism and the Lady Godiva at UBC. Most of the women I know who went into engineering have switched because of a chilly climate.

  3. To really get the lowdown on this subject, I recommend reading this book. Susan Pinker’s thesis is that men are more extreme, that is, the tail on both sides of the curve is longer for men, as far as relative giftedness ( or lack of same). She gives a number of reasons why this is in the book. It’s very fascinating reading.

  4. I always think of a comment by Dori Smith made several years ago. She’s a talented JavaScript expert and book author, with a son now in college, and a husband (Tom Negrino) who is also a computer book author. She is also outspoken about women in technology, but perhaps not in the way you would expect.

    When a technical recruiter from Google came to talk about his employer at a conference she attended, he described all the mythical Google perks and benefits, the free food, the dry cleaning, the groovy office spaces and other stuff that make it so that, well, you never have to leave the office if you don’t want.

    “If you want more women,” she said after his spiel, “try describing the company in a way that doesn’t make it sound like it’s hell on earth.”

    She later wrote that “what appeals to guys right out of school drives people like me in the opposite direction.”

    I think the problem with tech and engineering and math and such is that they define success in terms that young, hard-charging men like. That’s fine, if tech and engineering and math only want those types of people (which I think is a mistake).

    The problem is that the reward structure is skewed too. Why do jobs that take advantage of overfocused male-type geeks pay better than those that might appeal to women? I think it’s okay if men and women have different job preferences. The unfairness is when those preferences aren’t equally esteemed or compensated.

  5. Derek: Thanks for the comment. I agree with everything up to the end. I don’t think compensation should have anything to do with gender equality. That is, men and women should obviously be paid the same amount for the same work.

    However, the value of work should have nothing to do with which gender prefers it. It should be determined by sundry other factors, like supply and demand, value to the organization, and so forth.

    If a particular profession feels it’s under-valued (and thus under-compensated), then they need to convince the market of that fact. Unions try to do this all the time by going on strike.

  6. That would be reasonable if it hadn’t been us men who set up and defined nearly all the markets out there. Notice that I mentioned both compensation and esteem—there’s more than pure economics behind how we value different jobs.

  7. Derek: That is a problem, but what’s the fix? Do we artificially inflate the compensation for jobs that women prefer (I think it’s difficult to inflate the esteem)?

  8. I’m being snarky and academic here and pointing out the problem without any proposed solution whatsoever. As some of my professors used to say, we’ll leave the implementation as an exercise for the reader. Ahem.

  9. Physics seems to be one of the worst areas with regards to discrimination against women. Studies have shown that women have a much harder time getting to make presentations at conferences than men with similar qualifications.

    There is an article in the current New Scientist about this.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: