“Why are Kenyans so good at long distance running?”

Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book, Outliers, emphasizes that high achievement depends much, much more on environmental factors and hard work than on something like innate talent.  A dramatic example comes with the dominance of Kenyans in men’s long distance running competitions.  They are remarkable.  Is it the genes?  Something in the water?  How about this:  in Kenyan 2,000,000 boys run 12 miles a day.  In the US, which doesn’t in general do well?  Gladwell said in a talk on Wednesday that he’d be surprised if  it were more than 5,000.

So what does that have to do with women in philosophy?  Well, it was part of his discussion about how ways in which the environment is structured can determine who can achieve.

In his talk, Gladwell  used an interesting example for unwitting discrimination.  In both Canada and the Czech Republic the cut-off age for being considered for a hockey league is Jan 1 (of some one year, such as one’s 9th).   So a child born on Jan 3, 2000 will be judged along with a child born on Dec. 3, 2000.  But the first child will be 11 months more developed.  The consequence?  Members of hockey leagues tend to be born in Jan-Mar; if you are born after the summer, you basically do not have a chance at playing at a league level.  And a similar thing happens in school.  The youngest children in a class are likely to do less well than the much more developed oldest children.   They are, then, less likely to be selected for high achieving programs, and so on.

He was asked about gender, and responded to that question by commenting on math ability; it is silly to think in terms of innate ability, though it is hard to stop people from doing it.  But he said,  the society’s attitude toward math skills in girls (not generally positive) was enough to guarantee that girls, once they internalize it, will do much less well.  He’s looked a lot at factors in maths achievement and maintains firmly that there is no evidence that there’s some basic talent such that if you don’t have it, you can’t do maths.

So how about women in philosophy?  What social factors or rules discriminate against women?And which of them are matters of changeable rules?  Can the rules of tenure governing the granting of tenure be changed?    And is the tolerance of lechery more  a matter of rules or not?  (It might seem at first that it isn’t a matter of rules or changeable structure, but how about providing women with safer alternatives?)

12 thoughts on ““Why are Kenyans so good at long distance running?”

  1. I think the preference for aggressive writing and dialectical styles is a “changeable” factor that tends to discriminate against, or at least alienate, women. More generous and intelligent maternity leave policies are another changeable factor at many colleges and universities.

    At the end when you said “safer alternatives,” I wondered, “Safer than what?”

    I also had a quick question about this: “[Gladwell] maintains firmly that there is no evidence that there’s some basic talent such that if you don’t have it, you can’t do maths.” What sort of talents are included here? Surely you need some basic abilities and talents to even understand the material, much less excel, no?

  2. Two points:

    1) In the 70’s and 80’s the ratio of men to women who won excellent scores on the math SAT was 13:1. By the late 90’s the difference decreased to 3:1.

    2) It is very interesting to look at the _differences_ between the people who do well on tests that some might say measure basic talent and the people who actually end up excelling in a public way.

  3. Thanks, alpha. #2 is really the topic of Gladwell’s book. Some of the differences are predictable (poverty is a huge factor in holding people back despite early IQ scores) and others less so. I think Miranda Fricker’s work is really relevant; what difference does it make to be considered not credible?

    I’d love to hear of some of the factors you will have noticed.

    The whole thing about the outliers are maths tests is also changing. In fact, I had read and heard Gladwell repeat, that Asian women now outnumber men in the highest reaches of maths ‘IQ’ scores.

  4. I think John is on to something in his comment about style. I see many very capable young women in my courses – and they are often much better philosophical writers than the men. But they seldom show the intellectual aggressiveness of the young men.
    We try, in our department, to encourage the women, but we still always have more male majors than female – despite a college-wide gender disparity of something like 60%/40& women to men. The women seem to go to English or Foreign Languages or Psychology [where they hugely outnumber the males].
    I also wonder about modeling: what is the ratio of female to male professors at undergraduate programs which are typically ‘feeders’ for graduate programs? We are not really such a program, but when our grads do go into graduate philosophy, it is almost always the males (maybe one woman in 15 years). The women usually say that grad school will be too competitive for them, given the likelihood of a real career.

    I’m not sure what this all comes to; it is very frustrating. I wish we knew how to get more women to major and, perhaps, to go on with philosophy. On the other hand, I cannot honestly tell them that grad work in philosophy is even equally likely to lead to a career as law school or immediate employment in some business field.

  5. John, I wasn’t clear about it. In many arenas it is not safe for women to complain about sexual harassment. They get labelled trouble makers and then they are in worse trouble.

    I’m picking up on the point about style in response to cstars; I do agree with you.

  6. Thanks for that link, cstars. I read it with great interest.

    Did you read any of the reader comments? I noted in particular that Louise Antony (http://www.sfu.ca/philosophy/swartz/blood_sport_comments/1998-03-17_louise_antony.htm) and Harriet Baber (http://www.sfu.ca/philosophy/swartz/blood_sport_comments/1998-03-10_harriet_baber.htm) both say that, for them, philosophy’s aggressiveness was a pro, not a con. (They distinguish between aggressiveness and rudeness or hostility.) I wonder if anyone else here feels the same.

  7. This discussion reminded me of an exchange between Gabriel Segal and Jyl Gentzler on the AskPhilosophers website. When Segal suggests (as a reason that there are few women in philosophy) that “women simply don’t like the argumentative, combative interactions that philosophy typically involves,” Gentzler replies that she loves a good fight, and suggests that the supposed purported contrast between “adversarial” and “cooperative” methods may be partly confused.


  8. Thanks, Andrew. I will look, but Segal’s explanation (which isn’t unusual at all) suddenly strikes me as very strange when offered as anything like a complete explanation. If it were worded slightly differently, it would clearly fail as an adequate explanation. Thus, “They avoid philosophy because we mostly act in ways they find pretty unpleasant and indeed awful,” is obviously inadequate, because it doesn’t say why the guys don’t mind driving the women away and why they are allowed to do it.

    Some other observations I’d like to try out:

    The adversarial method has at least two flavors: adversarial-to-outsiders and adversarial-to-insiders. The first is much worse than the second, since it can often be quite hostile and dismissive. I suddenly wonder if women who find it less bad are for one reason or another treated as insiders. I personally find inside adversarial encounters not too bad, but the outside ones, which usually start for me with my comments being totally ignored, are pretty intolerable.

    That said, I should say that in my experience since the practitioners of the adversarial method are not especially interested in changing their minds, they often invent really silly explanations for why a challenger may be wrong, so a lot of time is wasted before they can see there really is a problem.

    And if they don’t just invent silly explanations, they may just repeat themselves, and that’s very boring. Picture this: you’ve got someone with a much louder voice loaming over you and saying the same thing time and again. What’s to like about that?

    Engineer at universities are often said to be social misfits and often thought to be commonly in the autism spectrum disorder. Whether or not that is true, my dear friends in engineering have confided in me that they find “people in my college” (and so not just philosophers) far, far worse. Coming over to my college makes them feel better about theirs.

  9. Andrew, I don’t know who you are and please be assured that nothing in my descriptions is meant to be about you at all.

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