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August 25, 2006

Women in Science Shouldn't Marry Economists

Since most women in the sciences and quantitative fields fit a recent definition of "career women" in Forbes Magazine, you'll be interested to learn that Forbes editor Michael Noer suggests men avoid marrying a career woman.

The internet is afire with the controversy of Noer's editorial, originally published Tuesday. In it, he uses social science to support his basic argument, which is that career women are more likely to divorce than homemakers. Apparently, men are simply passive objects in marriage. Sorry, guys.

I'm delighted, though, to have Noer's advice on this point, since I, as a career woman (that is, a university-level educated woman who works 35 or more hours a week out of the home, making more than $30,000 annually) am always interested in hearing what the "experts" advise for my male peers. Let's see what we can learn today.

According to Noer, "successful men... are attracted to women with similar goals and aspirations." Well! This is good news. Last I'd heard, men were intimidated by successful women. It's hard to keep track, I'll admit, but thanks to the crack reporting of folks like Noer and Maureen Dowd, it can be done.

Noer goes on to point out that the value of a marriage is lower for both partners if they both work outside the home. Thus, he concludes, in order to make the marriage valuable, someone should stay home, and it goes without saying that "someone" should be the wife. Great! What else can I expect from marriage?

Well, to keep the marriage valuable to me, all the family income should come from my husband, which should keep me from leaving him for any frivolous reason, since I won't be financially independent. And since I'll be working at home, I won't have much chance to meet other men who might catch my wandering eye and convince me that my cavemanhusband might not be the best match for me. Never mind that the same data that suggests that I will be more likely to wander if I'm highly educated and self-supporting also tells me that my potential husband is similarly more likely to do so, if he matches the same categories of education and income. I suppose if I'm a housewife, that's simply my burden to bear, as tradition dictates.

On the bright side, Noer does point out that correlation and causation are not the same thing, which warms the cockles of this data geek's heart. Still, though, it sure does sound like he's confused on that point. It sounds like Noer could use a bit of remedial training in the quantitative fields, himself.

August 22, 2006

Abby Cadabby

Sesame Street has just welcomed its first new female muppet in 13 years, Abby Cadabby. Abby, the daughter of a fairy godmother, is reported to be "an inquisitive 3-year-old fairy-in-training." It is great to have another female muppet on Sesame Street, especially since the current count, including Abby, is four female and 12 male muppets (if you count Super Grover and Grover as two different muppets). So welcome Abby but darn it Sesame Street can't we have a female muppet who does science. I'll bet Sally Ride wouldn't mind becoming a muppet. .

August 09, 2006

Pink, Blue and IQ

Rosa's fabulous entry reminded me of another story from the past. When the Stanford Binet IQ Test was being revised in the early 1940's, early results found women, on average, scoring higher than men. The test developers quickly (and by the way accurately) assumed that "intellect can be defined and measured in such a manner as to make either sex appear superior”. To “produce a scale which will yield comparable IQs for the sexes," the test developers "sought to avoid using test items showing large sex differences in percents passing". That is exactly what they did. And guess what, they ended up with a test where women's average IQ was 100 as was men's. On bad days, I wonder what would have happened, if the initial results showed men scoring higher than women.
(The quotes come from a 1942 book The Revision of the Stanford-Binet Scale by Quinn McNemar.)

August 03, 2006

Current affairs: not inevitable

An easy mistake for everyone, including researchers and journalists, to make is to think that the current state (of society, nature, or anything, really) is the destined result of a natural process and is, therefore, somehow morally or naturally correct. This can be seen clearly in thinking about the process of evolution and natural selection, where people tend to think that humans are the end point of a process that has led directly and inevitably to where we are.

This kind of thinking comes out in hundreds of small examples in reporting on science and gender. For example, last winter, the Times Online published an editorial by Anjana Ahuja suggesting that little girls' preference for "pink fluff" is a biologically determined feature of girlhood.

Perhaps Ahuja is not aware that this premise is not universally supported:

There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.

[Ladies Home Journal, June, 1918]

The mere fact that some feature of gender difference exists now is not proof that it is biologically determined or some neutrally-valued "natural" state.

The same point can be made with regards to more serious suggestion of gender difference, like that of Larry Summers two winters ago. The fact that there is a measurable gender difference in, for example, high-end scientific achievement tells us nothing about the inevitability of that difference, much less its source.

It is important for science journalists and gender researchers to keep this in mind when addressing or reporting on the current understanding of gender difference and similarity. The current state is not necessarily meant to be; it simply is the way things are right now. Next year, they may be different.