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. 

Can you Measure Workplace Sexism?

    Warning: This blog is written for a rational audience that likes to have fun wrestling with unique or controversial points of view. It is written in a style that can easily be confused as advocacy for one sort of unpleasantness or another. It is not
    intended to change anyone’s beliefs or actions. If you quote from this post or
    link to it, which you are welcome to do, please take responsibility for
    whatever happens if you mismatch the audience and the content.

    Let’s get to it…

    Has society trained men and women to approach the question of blame in different ways? If so, it’s a big deal.

    Here is my impression of two male friends trying to assign blame for something that went wrong.

    Guy1: It’s your fault. You’re an idiot.

    Guy2: Some of it is my fault, but you’re an idiot too.

    Guy1: Ha! True enough. We both suck.

    Guy2: Hahaha! Let’s drink beer.

    Now here is my impression of a man and a woman in a relationship trying to assign blame for whatever went wrong.

    Woman: This is your fault.

    Man: Yes, it is. I am so sorry. Please stop looking at me that way. May I have sex again this year?

    Now let’s play these two scenarios over and over, dozens if not hundreds of times a year, the way real life works. Wouldn’t the brains of women and men become wired differently in terms of how to assign blame?

    Men reflexively accept blame because doing so has worked well for us in the past. But women have had better success blaming men, at least within the context of intimate relationships, in large part because men prefer accepting blame as a sub-optimal  but effective strategy to get sex. I would go so far as to say it is a nearly universal strategy for married guys, at least in this country. Married guys often talk to each other about accepting blame in return for peace at home, and with it the higher likelihood of sex.

    [If you are a married man and this does not describe your situation, please go directly to the comment section and commence bragging about your manliness.]

    Human males are like other animals in the sense that we respond to habit-forming training. If you give me sex every time I take out the garbage, before long I will be throwing away perfectly good household items just to fill up the trash can sooner.

    Now take that gender difference in blame-handling habits into the workplace and you have a real problem. Women are spring-loaded by society’s training to blame the closest man when things go wrong, because doing so always seemed to work in the past. That’s probably what you saw your mom doing, and your older sister, and your aunt, and your grandma too. It would be hard to escape the imprinting. (Your family might be different. It doesn’t change the point.)

    I am going to assume all of you are rational adults, and you understand that claims of sexism are true sometimes and false other times. What we don’t know is whether the true part is 90% or 50% or 10%. Realistically, you can’t measure that kind of thing in a human situation because there are too many uncontrolled variables. If you’re a woman who has experienced workplace sexism, you probably think the reports of sexism holding women back are 90% accurate. And perhaps they are. Many men would probably guess that the real rate of sexism – at least in terms of impeding the careers of women – is closer to 10% of what is reported. 

    I’m not saying men are accurate in their views. Quite the opposite. I’m saying both men and women have been trained by society to think blame is mostly something that women send and men absorb. That is the model that works in relationships and it would be naive to think the human brain can ignore such a powerful habit in the workplace. 

    Imagine a situation in which a woman feels underpaid or passed over for promotion and one of the possible explanations is sexism. But other explanations might be that the interview didn’t go well, or the hiring manager isn’t good at recognizing talent. How do you know what the real problem was?

    I think men and women would, on average, interpret that situation differently based on their pattern recognition and training. As a result, men and women would have entirely different impressions about the size of the problem of sexism. 

    How could men and women ever learn to view the problem of sexism in the workplace through the same filter, so they see the problem as the same size? One solution might be to get rid of the institution of marriage because it turns men into blame-eating liars. Single people recently became a majority in this country, so perhaps this is a self-solving problem in the long run. 

    My main question today is about my underlying hypothesis and assumptions. Do you, my wise readers, believe that men and women are trained by society (and especially by marriage) to deal with blame differently? And if so, is it a big enough difference to pollute the workforce?


    P.S. If my career ended today, that’s okay. I had a good run.


    Check out the new stories from my associates:

    Bill Gates drinks poop
    Device may prevent “hot-car” toddler tragedy 
    3Doodler draws solid lines
    Second Sight implants aid eyes
    Video game learning for special needs kids

    And don’t miss Vivian Giang’s post on the dangers of smiling 🙂


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