Wednesday, December 27, 2006


Gender balance

A couple of weeks ago in the Washington Post, Shankar Vedantam commented on a study of gender stereotypes. The study relates well to a post of mine from a few days earlier. Mr Vedantam calls the study “recently published”, but it is in fact from 2004 (here's the full paper); it's recent enough, though, to give us interesting information about the subtle ways people can be affected.

In the study, participants were led to the same questions or the same activities in different ways. Here's the idea:

More specifically, we investigated the stereotype that women have inferior quantitative skills by examining the performance of Caucasian females on a quantitative test under various conditions. Half of the women in each study performed a computer task that subliminally primed them with the female construct, while the other half performed a similar task that did not prime them with any particular identity. In each of these groups, half of the participants subsequently answered an individuation questionnaire while the other half answered a comparable but neutral questionnaire. For each study, performance on the ensuing quantitative test was assessed and compared for each of the four groups.

The “quantitative test” was 12 math questions from the Canadian Math Competition. One would think that one's math skills are what they are, and that performance on the test wouldn't be affected by what one was asked beforehand. Or, at least, that any difference wouldn't be consistent enough to generate statistically significant results.

One would be wrong.

Women who were not primed with the “female construct” did better on the quantitative test than the ones who were so primed. On the other hand, the effect was reversed for those who answered the “individuation questionnaire” after the priming. This suggests that

  1. subtle suggestions of gender-specific stereotypes can actually affect performance in a statistically significant way, and
  2. it's possible to reverse that by focusing on individual attributes, and away from the generic stereotype.

The researchers acknowledge that there are alternative interpretations for the data, and more study would be useful to narrow this down. Still, there is good reason to conclude that the more we teach girls that “girls aren't good at math and science”, the more we actually cause it to be true. They're not just words; the words have an effect.

A related article in the New York Times the other day gives us recent information on the pay gap between men and women. It's better than it used to be, but it's not yet balanced and the improvement has stalled:

Throughout the 1980s and early ’90s, women of all economic levels — poor, middle class and rich — were steadily gaining ground on their male counterparts in the work force. By the mid-’90s, women earned more than 75 cents for every dollar in hourly pay that men did, up from 65 cents just 15 years earlier.

Largely without notice, however, one big group of women has stopped making progress: those with a four-year college degree. The gap between their pay and the pay of male college graduates has actually widened slightly since the mid-’90s. For women without a college education, the pay gap with men has narrowed only slightly over the same span.

Essentially, we made some significant ground in the 1980s, but since then we've sat on our laurels and have not continued to work at fixing the problem. There is no good reason for women to be paid around 75% of what men are paid for the same work. It's easy to look at certain successes — Condoleezza Rice and Nancy Pelosi in the U.S., Angela Merkel and Ségolène Royal in Europe, Michelle Bachelet in Chile, and so on — and say that we're addressing the problem.

For one thing, having a few women in high places is good, but doesn't represent a balanced situation. Sure, having boardrooms with 5% or even 10% women is better than having no women there at all — much better. We can't stop there and say we're done. For another thing, even if the boardrooms were half men and half women, if the women are being paid 75% of what the men are, how can we pat ourselves on our collective backs?

The Times goes on to say that “[t]he reasons for the stagnation are complicated and appear to include both discrimination and women’s own choices.” On the latter, they point out that women still choose family over career more often than men do, and that they often “consider money a top priority less often than men do.” There may be truth there, but let's be careful with that, as we consider the results of the study above.

And apart from those possible reasons, there's this:

Whatever role their own preferences may play in the pay gap, many women say they continue to battle subtle forms of lingering prejudice. Indeed, the pay gap between men and women who have similar qualifications and work in the same occupation — which economists say is one of the purest measures of gender equality — has barely budged since 1990.
...and we continue to have situations like this one:
At Sam’s Club, Ms. Kwapnoski said that when she was a dock supervisor, she discovered that a man she supervised was making as much as she was. She was later promoted with no raise, even though men who received such a promotion did get more money, she said. “Basically, I was told it was none of my business, that there was nothing I could do about it,” she said.

That's what we have to fix. If a woman chooses to work for a non-profit agency, we'll compare her pay with men who do the same. If she decides to stay home with the kids, that's fine. But if she chooses to work in the corporate world, I want her to be paid accordingly.

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