Boys, brilliance and science

I polished off Athene Donald’s manifesto, Not Just for the Boys: Why We Need More Women in Science at the weekend. Athene is a friend as well as the Master of my college (Churchill) at Cambridge so I was going to be well-disposed towards the book, and indeed found it both persuasive (not that it would have taken much) and a good read. There is plenty of evidence provided, statistics are cited, but you don’t feel as if you’re being sledge-hammered as a reader. There is too much common sense for it to come across as pure polemic, including the point that extreme gender imbalances in the other direction are not healthy for society or the process of discovery either.

The main point that stands out for me is that the male skew is highest in all the disciplines where ‘brilliance’ or being ‘really, really smart’ is seen as the key attribute. So “in science” is an over-generalisation. What’s needed is more women in physics, computer science, maths, and also philosophy and of course economics. Some of the other natural and human sciences as well as many arts subjects (but not music composition, surprisingly) skew female. ‘Brilliance’ isn’t just ‘clever but more so’; it’s a type of performative intelligence demanding supreme self-confidence, and I’m a bit suspicious of it in general; or, rather, think it leads to other kinds of insight and attributes being inappropriately undervalued.

Anyway, Athene and I and the wonderful Tabitha Goldstaub will be discussing the book and the issues it raises at an in-person event in Cambridge in the autumn.



Taking people seriously (all of them)

What a month. Hybrid life seems to be more than twice as busy as either Zoomland or life in the beforetimes. Still, a highlight was the Festival of Economics in Bristol at the end of last week. I chaired a panel on the economics of household labour with Sonia Oreffice, Sarah Smith, Mary Ann Sieghart and Andy Eyles, and so before heading there I read Mary Ann’s book The Authority Gap: Why women are still taken less seriously than men and what we can do about it. (Festival recordings will go online shortly.)

It’s an excellent, if enraging, read. There are jaw-dropping accounts from very senior women – presidents, CEOs – of the various put-downs and mansplaining they’ve endured (for example, from Pope John Paul II in the case of Mary McAleese, then President of Ireland. Or Roula Khalaf, now Editor of the FT, being told she was too soft spoken to get on, i.e. not a man). It’s rather depressing to read so many ever-so-familiar experiences of being patronised, ignored, insulted or belittled even by such eminent women. The book summarises a good deal of the academic literature documenting discrimination and its consequences (for pay, promotion, health, happiness), without hitting the reader with a sledgehammer.

But what to do about it, as the subtitle promises? The book argues that there is much we can do, and that if we do it will be good for men as well. And it offers 20 pages of suggestions – for us, for employers, for the media, for policymakers. Many of the lists in each category start with noticing: do we address the men first in meetings or call on them first? Do we think about the adjectives we use? Do male partners reading this take the initiative in organising household matters, rather than waiting to be asked or told (no matter how cheerfully compliant)? There are some excellent ideas here, although I did feel the book is a bit too optimistic about how much some employers/partners/media want to change. Still, there are many good ideas here, helpful to those willing to make the effort.

41jD9Gpi7-S._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Apart from this, much of November has been taken up with reading Louis Menand’s The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War. I loved The Metaphysical Club so was keen to read this. I’ll give it its own post when I’ve finally finished, but will just moan here that it’s a 700 page hardback that can only be read propped up on two cushions, and can’t be popped into a bag to read on the train. The consequence is that I’ve found it hard to keep the arc of the argument in mind, reading it on just a couple of evenings a week at home. But more of that later. BTW, around page 500 out of 700, the book introduces a chapter on ‘Women’s Lib’, observing that it’s all been about men so far.

519Oe8aWOoS._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_And I read Abdulrazak’s Afterlives, which is wonderful.



No Ordinary Woman

I’ve really enjoyed reading No Ordinary Woman, a biography of Edith Penrose by her daughter-in-law Angela Penrose. It is a life story kind of biography – only one chapter (by Edith’s grandson Jago) covers her economic thinking in The Theory of the Growth of the Firm – but what a life.

There’s no question in my mind that, had she been a man, Penrose would be far more esteemed within the economics profession. I haven’t read The Theory of the Growth of the Firm (shame on me – got it out of the library now), and it seems it has been far more influential in management and business schools than in economics. It seems, from the chapter here, that it explores the firm as an institution, and the dynamics of the way firms shape the economic environment.  One can see how this is more at home in the business literature, valid (in fact, essential) as this kind investigation is.

But whatever its stature, Penrose had an extraordinary career as an empirical economist helping shape the field of study of multinational firms, an academic leader (head of the economics deparment at SOAS as it built its reputation, and later at INSEAD), and a public servant (serving on many public bodies and commissions after she and her husband settled in the UK). At the time the OPEC crisis erupted, she was just about the only academic who had studied the oil industry and the Middle East economies. She travelled widely, learnt Arabic and did some consultancy work in her spare time – and all this while bringing up her family and being a housewife to her husband, much-loved but clearly a traditional man of his era.

Anyway, from this affectionate biography, Penrose sounds like she would have been terrific fun and stimulating to know. And it is inspiring to read about a woman who accomplished so much against great odds. Next week in Manchester we’re hosting an event for 14-15 year old school girls to encourage them to do economics in the 6th form. Edith Penrose has to join the pantheon of female economists we’ve been preparing.

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Women in economics

There has been a big response to a column I wrote for the FT about the male domination of economics, following up Justin Wolfers’ recent one. My conclusion was:

The reputation of economics is already tarnished, even a decade on from the financial crisis, and this new evidence of entrenched discrimination will not improve matters. This is not a women problem, it is an economics problem. It is deeply embedded in the discipline’s culture and norms, and the profession’s senior men need to take it seriously.

Some senior men emailed to ask for suggestions. Here are some.

These come from a Twitter thread compiled by Jan Zilinsky (@janzilinsky):

1/ Some thoughts on gender biases in academia, following up on @JustinWolfers’ article / Alice Wu’s findings on sexist expressions on EJMR

2/ Causal evidence shows that even when full info about candidates’ past performance is provided bias against female candidates persists

3/ The experiment (How stereotypes impair women’s careers in science) is by @ErnestoReuben Paolo Sapienza @zingales…

4/ Plenty of issues to dissect (low representation, disrespect online & offline…)

For the thread I want to focus on *unequal treatment*

5/ One thing that bothers me a lot is the co-authorship penalty. Heather Sarsons @saskatchewin shows men who coauthor more are not penalized

6/ but women are less likely to receive tenure if they coauthor more papers:…

7/ That paper is about outcomes in economics. On evidence that women benefit less from co-authorship in polisci see…

8/ The leaky educational pipelines signal more problems…… and @DianeCoyle1859’s…

9/ And when the path leads to professorship, imagine you are discouraged with comments such as ↡…

10/ Want to end the thread w/ some “what can be done” links. But many steps are tiny, as @cheng_christine said…:

11/ Let me try anyway. First, we can learn pay attention to other disciplines; see this @BetseyStevenson talk…

12/ Second, at a minimum, as @Noahpinion wrote workplaces must be professional (why does it need to be said?!)

13/ Third, evaluation nudges could help. Not anonymizing papers/CVs, but moving toward more joint rather than separate assessments…

14/ Promising research shows people rely less on group stereotypes when making joint (not case-by-case) evaluations…

15/ Tools like the gender bias calculator seem fine, as long as there are users motivated to write fair letters…

16/ And it’d be great to eliminate some behaviors that range from baffling to outrageous. Copious examples were shared in the last 1.5 weeks

17/ Things like first-naming female faculty members; title-forgetting; off-color remarks about parenthood; etc…

18/ We could try valuing things other than prestige, as @cjwich pointed out: “As a field, we fetishize hierarchy. ‘Top 5 journals,’ ‘top 10 programs,’ who is/isn’t in the “club” 19/”

19/ Sometimes I lash out at the fashion police b/c the (gendered) focus on some economists’ wardrobe is ridiculous.

A number of people have suggested ending the anonymity of referees’ reports as this conceals biases – there is deep scepticism about the fairness of the process, which is seen as perpetuating privileged networks, mainly male.

Along with many of the female economists who have emailed me, I have observed a range of patronising behaviours – calling women by their first name, men not, is a common one as Jan notes. Offering ‘advice’ to lower one’s ambitions, in research, or submissions and so on. Asking women dispropotionately to do admin tasks, meetings, ‘service’ in the department.

I’d add:

  • senior men are the only people who can address the aggressive culture of economics seminars, which is unique as far as I know. Stop male colleagues from interrupting presenters frequently, rather than giving them space to present. Call people out on hostile, disparaging comments.
  • the ‘publish or perish’ culture for young academics makes it impossible for the primary carer of young children to achieve the expected publication targets; this is usually the woman even in apparently egalitarian couples. As Justin Wolfers has noted, the way policies operate may help men even more. The extension periods for new mothers are laughable, as everyone who has had children really ought to know.
  • I hope male economists would reflect on the recent discussion, acknowledge that the discipline has a problem, and think really carefully about their judgements about people. When you say ‘X is not very good’ and X is female, are you holding her to a different standard than you would a male colleague? The answer is almost certainly yes.
  • I agree about the comment in Jan’s thread about the hierarchy obsession. It is bananas to have only a Top 5 matter….

I hope these provide food for thought. I’ll be happy to update this post with other suggestions.

It’s political correctness gone – profitable

The Google memo affair has sent me quickly to the proofs of a book coming out next month, Scott Page’s The Diversity Bonus. (Here is all the blurb for the book,)

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Page wrote an excellent book a few years ago, The Difference, covering his early research on how and why diversity contributed to better (faster & more accurate) problem-solving.

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The new book, judging from the intro, looks at how diversity contributes to profit. By ‘diversity’ he means a range of different cognitive approaches. Identity is one contributory factor to cognitive diversity, because it reflects the different experiences, networks and knowledge different types of people have; but it is not the only factor. However, it is a relatively easy one to monitor. What’s more, the more multi-dimensional and complex the business activity (eg coding, systems engineering), the more profitable it will be to have cognitively diverse teams. In other words, even if it were true that women were less likely on average to be good coders because of their biology – a doubtful proposition as today’s FT leader and many others (such as Prof Wendy Hall here ) point out – Google should still be eager to hire more of us.

If political correctness is profitable, is it still political correctness? Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading the book properly.

The business also sent me back to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.

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“In human society nothing is natural and a woman, like much else, is a product elborated by civilization. The intervention of others in her destiny is fundamental: if this action took a different direction, it would produce quite a different result. Woman is determined not by her hormones or mysterious instincts but by the manner in which her body and her relation to the world are modified by the action of others than herself. The abyss that separates the adolescent boy and girl has been deliverately widened between them since earliest childhood.”

‘Destiny’ is not predetermined. Biology does not mean women can’t become coders, chief executives, or economists. Even if the distributions of aptitude for certain activities differ by sex among adults  –  and it seems highly unlikely that the between-group differences are larger than the within-group variation – those distributions are the outcome of two decades of socialisation and social constraints.