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Science Fails Again (to communicate) on Gender Issues

Science Fails Again (to communicate) on Gender Issues

    As a clarification, I have little interest in the politics of gender discrimination in the workplace. But the psychology of it fascinates me like few things have. 

    I doubt I have seen worse arguments on both sides of an issue. Most people identify as either a man or a woman, so the “my team” problem overwhelms our rational capacity. No one, including me, can come anywhere near objectivity on this issue. So how do you make rational decisions on a topic in which no human has even the slightest potential to be rational?

    I like the challenge. And few people would be reckless enough to go where I plan to go on this. 

    Every time I see an article on the Internet about gender issues in the workplace, I see these two opposing comments:

    1. There are many studies that show gender bias. For example, teachers give better grades on math tests to male students, but the difference vanishes when the tests have no name on them. Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, has lots of references to similar study results, or so I hear. And Vivian Giang got some of you riled up with examples here

    2. Another set of folks (all men) invariably point me to studies that suggest there is no pay difference between men and women once you adjust for experience and time on the job. And I hear there are studies saying there is no difference for younger women just entering the workplace.

    How can both views be true?

    So I declare a link war. 

    I appoint myself the judge in this contest. Give me links to studies that support your point of view. I will assess those studies and pick a winner. Or I might declare that the studies are not clear when viewed in total. I will ask any interested parties (including Vivian Giang) to comment on the reliability and usefulness of the studies.

    I have no idea how this will turn out. But I think you need to know my starting bias to assess my judging skills.

    Keep in mind that the POINT of this is my ignorance. And my bias. I put it on full display for you because I think that is helpful on this issue. If you don’t know what others are thinking, you can not hope to communicate effectively. So as a public service, I present my biased, ignorant, male perspective. But I am open to revising my opinion based on data. Would you ask any more of me?

    Here is my starting bias:

    1. Gender discrimination in the workplace is a big problem, according to some types of studies and countless first-hand accounts. With so much smoke, I assume there is fire. 

    2. The problem of gender discrimination is curiously invisible to men, and that includes me. All I see is a confused ball of incomplete thinking on all sides. But that tells us nothing about how big the problem is. Cognitive dissonance is a reasonable hypothesis for why lots of folks fail to see the obvious. I see no reason to exclude myself from the ranks of the deluded. 

    3. My working hypothesis is that studies showing gender bias in controlled tests don’t translate into the workplace as pay differentials – at least in this country – because educated adults are on the alert for gender bias. So we use our reason to compensate for the bias, if for no other reason than to avoid lawsuits. Any time I am involved in hiring, the risk of unintentional bias is always top of mind. And since men have a biological impulse to be successful and powerful to attract quality mates, hiring the right employees (and avoiding lawsuits) is in our best interest. 

    4. Some men are bullies and assholes. And most men are assholes at least some of the time. When men are bullies and assholes to each other, we interpret it as exactly that. But if I observe those same bullies and assholes mistreating a woman, I interpret it as sexism. I assume others see it the same way.

    5. I have also blogged that I think women should have a few superior rights to men because they handle the vital function of reproduction. In general, society grants extra rights to folks who take on extra responsibility. That’s why cops can speed, soldiers can kill, and so on. One example of extra rights in this context is that I think only women should have a vote on abortion laws. 

    Things get thornier when you are talking about a workplace with pregnant women, potentially pregnant women, and moms. Big companies can absorb some extra friction for the larger benefit of society, but small ones do not have that option. If you own a small business, you don’t want to have two of your three employees out on maternity leave at the same time, to pick a worst-case scenario. A rational small business owner will discriminate in that case and hope to get away with it. And a rational victim of discrimination in that case will sue. That part of the story seems clear to everyone. And I have not heard a proposed solution. But if a proposed solution provided superior rights for women without hurting small businesses, I can imagine that working for me.

    6. The other day a good friend who works as a massage therapist was describing a time in her past she was a victim of gender discrimination. The story sounded convincing to me. Then I asked if she knew I would not have considered her as my massage therapist if she were a man. 

    Cricket noises.

    Personally, I have willfully discriminated by gender in my business dealings at least … oh, a hundred times. And every time it was in favor of women, simply because I prefer the energy. I spend way too much time with men because of shared interests. I need balance in my life, so I bend the rules to get it. I have never considered using a male real estate broker, for example. I get the same service from a woman and it is a great break from the dude-centric rest of my life.

    My larger point today is that any discussion of gender in the workplace is like two blind people standing on an elephant and arguing whether the elephant is a sandwich or a bar of soap. Both are 100% wrong. That includes me. 

    Evolution did not give us brains that can comprehend our reality. All we have is the type of brains that did not get our ancestors killed. So our brains create delusions of reality and we try to force reason onto them. That’s why men and women are looking at the same elephant but one sees a bar of soap and the other sees a sandwich. 

    Is it possible to get to a clearer view of this topic? THAT is the interesting part to me. This is in the category of things that cannot be communicated, which is a big interest of mine.

    Part of the problem is that anyone dumb enough to engage in this topic becomes a target for the angry villagers with pitchforks. The only reason I can be this reckless is that I already made all the money I will ever need and I feel as if getting some clarity on this topic would be a public good. And seriously, who else would even try to be objective on this topic in public? This is a suicide mission. 

    And if you think any of this is good for traffic to my site, you would be wrong. There will be a two-day traffic bump followed by 5% of regular readers swearing off this site for good. That is the usual pattern for a hot topic here.

    Ladies and gentlemen, please provide your links and your insights on gender bias and discrimination in the workplace. I will compile them in summary form and give my verdict. 

    Long-winded comments will be ignored unless the first sentence or two are awesome.

    Let’s do this.



    In other news, a start-up called EnChroma figured out how to make glasses that correct color blindness. As a bonus, the glasses also make colors pop for everyone else too. Will spectacles start replacing contacts and laser eye surgery because the color you see with these glasses is so much better? Could happen.

    And what about a finger-attached device for the blind that reads aloud what they point to on a page? This is a good year for people with vision problems. 

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