17 thoughts on “How does biology explain the low number of women in computer science?

  1. Cute, but what in the world does this have to do with biology? How has she established anything whatsoever about what biology does or doesn’t account for? Maybe women are biologically hard-wired to hate programming. (That’s idiotic, but the point is it may have nothing to do with math ability). Maybe the relationship between women’s and men’s math abilities have nothing to do with biology anyhow. Her conclusion relies on some pretty huge, implausible, and pernicious assumptions!

  2. Yeah, fair enough. She’s not a philosopher. Should really be “how does mathematical ability explain the low number of women in computer science?”

  3. Yeah I didn’t mean to expect her to be a philosopher. But the association with biology is not just sloppy but problematic!

  4. Odd that she seems to assume that the remaining difference IS due to biology. There are many many many good reasons for thinking that that’s false and frankly her assumptions simply join in on the problem. Assuming that population level differences are biologically grounded would make us somehow think that poor people are just genetically worse. I mean…look at them, they don’t go to good schools, don’t do as well on tests, don’t make as much money…

    But of course that’s rubbish. So as much as I thought this was cutesy it is about as wrongheaded as one could get.

  5. Recent Society of Neuroscience panel discussion on “The Promise and Peril of Research on Sex Differences” [http://tinyurl.com/7qutp83], and recent discussion with Baumeister on his bio-cultural account of difference in motivation rather than ability [http://tinyurl.com/78gq7ma].

  6. Yeah, Michael you’re right too. I don’t think she does actually assume it, though– she just doesn’t argue against it. And it *is* interesting to see that *even if* one doesn’t dispute the biology claim the numbers don’t hold up. Or so I thought.

  7. I think that Michael is helpfully getting at the same point I was trying to make, from a different angle.

  8. Well, her presentation was defective in another important sense.

    I don’t think there are many researchers of any stripe who believe that the medians in math ability for men and women differ by much. The issue has always been what happens at the tails — the right tail in particular. The claim has been that the variance (or standard deviation) among men is much higher. (That’s the speculation that got Larry Summers into such trouble some years back.)

    So this is really just so much Strawperson, anyway.

  9. I’m sorry but I think it’s very nice (when you consider its target audience) and I’m having a really hard time seeing how she would be assuming that “hat the remaining difference IS due to biology”. Am I missing something?

  10. Maybe now I see it. Is it where she says: “They [i.e. the biological differences] aren’t that significant” (emphasis mine), which seems to have the conversational implicature that they are somewhat significant?

  11. Rebecca Kukla:
    “Maybe women are biologically hard-wired to hate programming. (That’s idiotic, but the point is it may have nothing to do with math ability).”

    “Biologically hard-wired to hate programming” is a straw[person], and you know it. and even elizabeth spelke says that the more responsible version of that hypothesis is a possibility.

    “Let me end, though, by asking, could Steve [Pinker] also be partly right? Could biological differences in motives — motivational patterns that evolved in the Pleistocene but that apply to us today — propel more men than women towards careers in mathematics and science? My feeling is that where we stand now, we cannot evaluate this claim.”


  12. James, I don’t understand your comment, sorry. Are you accusing me of attacking a straw position, which you say you know I am, or supporting my comment by saying some version of it is not so straw (which would be fine with me)? Not trying to be difficult – I honestly can’t tell what point you are trying to make.

    Gabriele – I think you are being overly subtle. The thesis of the whole thing is that biological differences don’t explain the low numbers of women in the field. But the presentation doesn’t show squat about what biological differences do or don’t show. It doesn’t have a shred of biology in it. So unless she is making some background assumptions about what sorts of things, in general, are and aren’t underwritten by biology, her title and conclusion are nonsensical.

  13. Hi Rebecca,

    Thanks for the clarification but, as far as I can see:

    (1) Terri is clearly engaging in a ‘even if for the sake of the argument’ kind of argument throughout the slideshow,

    (2) To me it seems very clear that by ‘biology’ she means ‘biological differences’ or ‘sex differences’ and doesn’t her argument go some way towards showing that “sex differences” cannot explain the low number of women in the field? Maybe I’m missing something? (I’m not trying to be disingenuous. I really don’t see the point you are trying to make.)

    (Btw since she is a PhD student at Carleton I told Terri about this thread. I hope she’ll look at it and contribute and that her slideshow can be even improved on the basis of the feedback)

  14. I agree with Gabriele that this can all be read (charitably) as an “even if” argument. i.e. “even if the observed math differences are biological, they dont explain a difference in CS participation.” There are definitely a few phrases (GC points to one) that undercut that interpretation, but one can attribute them to the casual tone of the piece. There is, of course, also the implicit assumption that if biology DID explain the phenomenon, it would be via a math difference.

    FWIW, I thought the weirdest assumption in the thing, which was nearly explicit, was that being successful in CS was just a matter of “being able to code.”

  15. EW says “There is, of course, also the implicit assumption that if biology DID explain the phenomenon, it would be via a math difference.”

    Agreed but I think charity should lead us to assume that Terri knows better than us what assumptions are common among computer scientists, though.

  16. That wasn’t a strawman Rebecca gave; I’d say it was more in the nature of a counterexample to one of the premises of the implied syllogism in the slideshow. (I find that counterexamples are frequently mistaken for, and derided as, strawman arguments.)

  17. Ok, I agree with Eric that the ‘even if’ reading is a plausible charitable reading, though I do not agree with Gabriele that it is the obvious reading. I just don’t see the conditional mood in there – one has to add it in for purposes of interpretation. (That was a little reference for Eric’s benefit!)

    And yes, I pointed out the implicit assumption that if biology did explain the phenomenon it would be via a math difference at the start.

    So fine, that’s a charitable reading. But since the language of biology and biological difference is so volatile and so frequently and dangerously misused, if the author wants to make the presentation better she should go out of her way to make the conditional reading very precise and clear. “Assuming that Terri knows better” seems to me to be uninteresting; the question is how the presentation can be used and read and misread. Just because an assumption is common among computer scientists doesn’t make it either true or a good idea to assume and reinforce it in a presentation that is flying around cyberspace.

    And I entirely agree with Nemo’s comment #16.

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