Men: bad at anthropology?

The blog is simmering with gender controversy anyway, so here, via Crooked Timber, is a  chart of the percentage of women earning PhDs in various disciplines:

To my eye, this isn’t very compatible with a biologically deterministic view of the professions.  What feature of life on the savannah explains why so many more women get Ph.Ds in statistics than in religion?  Are men chromosomally undercapable at anthropology?

To forestall one obvious comment — of course it is plain from the chart that there is some loose correlation in these numbers between the “mathiness” of a field and its “maleness.”  But surely  it’s just as plain that this isn’t the only thing going on.


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23 thoughts on “Men: bad at anthropology?

  1. Note that according to the post you linked-to, this is data for the US only. (I have no idea whether other countries would show much difference, but it seems worth mentioning.)

  2. Tyler Lawson says:

    In the comments it links to an expaded version, which has an interesting and more specific breakdown:

    It breaks down mathematics very coarsely, however. Logic, topology, and foundations?

  3. Rod Carvalho says:

    On the eve of his 90th birthday, Israel M. Gelfand reflected on the essence of mathematical achievement. ”It is not only about aptitude,” he said, sitting in his cozy office on the Busch campus of Rutgers University in Piscataway. ”It is about appetite.”

    [ source ]

    Does anyone seriously believe that males and females have the same appetite for all academic fields of study? The mind boggles…

  4. Tyler: Based on the category names, I think this data may originate from the National Science Foundation. Until recently, one of their research programs inside the NSFs Division of Mathematical Sciences was called “Logic, topology, and foundations”. (I think they’ve split it in two now.) Similarly, the other math headings more or less match the names of the of the other NSF research programs.

  5. To follow up on myself, the data comes from NORC’s survey of earned doctorates which is conducted in part by the NSF.

  6. Barbara says:

    I think Emmanuel Kowalski has an important point: major differences in gender representation in the same field but in different countries (European data divided by country are often impressive in this sense) point out, imho, to a social influence in the choice of majors.
    For instance, in my country physics and chemistry are perceived as male subjects, but biology and mathematics are not (math undergraduates are over 70% female).

    As for the Gelfand reference, my impression is that to fight your way through as a female in the hard sciences you need twice as much “appetite” (I would have said passion, but maybe at 90 my appetite will be stronger then my passion) than as a male.

  7. T.T. says:

    It’s quite remarkable that Italian and Portuguese women have such masculine appetites:

    There exists at least one workshop in theoretical computer science where women are at parity (by several measures, including speaking slots). By a strange coincidence, most of the key researchers in that subfield are Italian.

    So perhaps you should ask instead, “Does anyone seriously believe that men (and Portuguese and Italian women) and women (except Portuguese and Italian women) have the same appetite for all academic fields of study?”

  8. Rod Carvalho says:

    I am Portuguese, so your reply greatly amuses me.

    Unless you’re Portuguese or Italian (and these two countries share many similarities), you’re not qualified to infer anything meaningful from those statistics. Academia in PT or IT is completely different from academia in the US. Virtually all math teachers I had back home (college included) were women. Nobody claimed that men were “under-represented”. Fortunately, American neuroses such as “diversity” have not yet reached the shores of my homeland…

    To be rather blunt, I did not know that the appetite for Math was “masculine”. All mathematicians I know seem to be motivated by some sort of “intellectual beauty”, which seems to be a rather “feminine” appetite to me. I would say that war and empire-building are “masculine” appetites, but certainly not Math. There’s no money / power in Math.

    Disclaimer: I am an EE, not a mathematician.

  9. Rod Carvalho says:

    To clarify:

    I used Gelfand’s quote to point out that it’s fallacious to attribute any gender imbalance in a certain field to unequal aptitude, when unequal appetite is much more likely to be the cause. I emphasize that this blog post’s title is “men: bad at anthropology?”, and NOT “men: turned off by anthropology?”

    Human beings generally react to incentives. If there’s a gender imbalance in Math academia in the U.S. (but not in Portugal, for instance), then I would claim that, men being romantic and women being pragmatic, such imbalance merely reflects the fact that becoming a professional academic mathematician in the U.S. is an extremely competitive and risky endeavor.

    The statistics suggest that there aren’t many female mathematicians in American academia. Some use such statistics to claim that women are stupider. Others use such statistics to claim that women are oppressed. I use such statistics to claim women are smarter.

    Why is it that there’s no significant gender imbalance in the math community at the National Security Agency (NSA)? Because women are smarter and prefer the safe government job at NSA (where they can work 20 or 30 hours a week to have time for children, and where they have great job security), than risk ending up unemployed at age 35, single, childless, and denied tenure. There’s no “male conspiracy”. Women are just smarter and react to the incentives in a more rational manner.

  10. Yemon Choi says:

    I used Gelfand’s quote to point out that it’s fallacious to attribute any gender imbalance in a certain field to unequal aptitude, when unequal appetite is much more likely to be the cause.

    There is a “ceteris paribus” missing here, I feel… the phrase “much more likely” is far too sweeping a statement unless one specifies a historical or sociological context. Try your application of Gelfand’s quote to, say English academia 1850-1940 and see if you still think that it’s about appetite rather than opportunity.

    (This belief that – if I may paraphrase – says “if you want it hard enough, you can get it; therefore if you don’t get it you just didn’t want it hard enough” is something I am reasonably familiar with from rhetoric that was used in England while I was growing up. I suppose that it wasn’t invalidated by the general mendacity/unpleasantness of some of the people throwing it around, but it does mean I find it difficult to warm to.)

  11. Does anyone seriously believe that males and females have the same appetite for all academic fields of study?

    In terms of innate appetite (and moreover ability), yes I believe that there is no difference between men and women regardless of academic field, and I’m hardly the only one to think that.

    If nothing else, the chart above proves that social/cultural forces of some sort must play a huge role in the gender balance in each discipline. There are many pairs of area which seem to be very similar intellectually (at least from my perspective as a mathematician) yet have quite different gender ratios: Chemistry vs. Microbiology, Physics vs. Astronomy/Astrophysics, etc., etc.

  12. Frank says:

    I would be very interested in hearing or reading about how prevalent implicit biases, discrepancies in hiring, and other forms of sexism are in the more female-dominated disciplines. Does anyone have any links, data, or other information to share?

    I tried googling, but the study of sexism itself overlaps with the top five disciplines on the chart, so this was kind of useless.

  13. Rod, I don’t deny that being an academic mathematician is pretty competitive and that the timing of the tenure process is not good with respect to having kids. However, my very distinct impression is that mathematics is in fact way less cut-throat and competitive than the lab sciences (e.g. microbiology), and actually has a more collaborative and egalitarian culture than many disciplines. Oh, and the tenure issue is universal across academia and hence moot. (Actually, the average tenure age is probably less in mathematics than most other disciplines.)

  14. Peter says:

    In a way, I don’t really care about the statistics. What I care about is that I have seen too many smart people leave mathematics because, in the best case, nobody attempted to draw them in; but all too often they leave because they faced prejudice and ignorance from their (potential) peers.

    Do I really want to tell the smartest people that it’s smarter to leave mathematics? What does that leave us with as a community?

    So when somebody even tells me that they experience a bias against them, I’d rather offer real help instead of silly advice like “just try harder” or “find a husband”.

  15. Very interesting… (Though the rank-distribution data for 2005 is hard to interpret — I wonder how the researchers projected the French system into a UK-style Prof/Senior lecturer/Lecturer scale. )

    I also wonder if there is a correlation between the distribution and the typical hiring procedures in those various countries (the German hiring procedure, for instance, being completely different from the French one).

  16. Paul says:

    What is “a biologically deterministic view of the professions”?

    To compensate my criticizing (like Jordan compensates his :), a great talk by Sheryl Sandberg:

  17. Given the overall tenor of society, I presume such biases never go away completely. However, evidence suggests that once the portion of women reaches a critical threshold (something like 25-35%) such biases drop off quite a bit. (Here, I’m referring to the portion of women in the discipline as a whole, not just new PhDs.)

    There’s a striking study to this effect where people were asked to rate 7 resumes as candidates for some hypothetical job. Each person was given the identical resumes except for the first names, all which were clearly gendered. If only 1 or 2 resumes had female names, those resumes got considerable lower scores than if all the names had a single gender. At 3 female names the effect diminished markedly and at 4 it was basically gone. With only one or two male names a smaller reverse bias appeared. (I should say that the above is all my memory of reading Valian’s book “Why so slow” a decade ago, so I may be off a little in the particulars. )

    For racism, similar studies have been done in real life: sending out near-identical resumes to job adds in the newspaper and counting the number of call backs. The result is that Lisa Wilson gets more interview requests than La Toya Wilson.

  18. T.T. says:

    Rod, I’m always happy to amuse, even by accident.

    I don’t understand your simultaneous beliefs that “it’s fallacious to attribute any gender imbalance in a certain field to unequal aptitude” (with which I agree) and that wanting diversity is a mental illness. Suppose that no women at all got PhDs in math; assuming equal aptitude, this would reduce the talent pool by half compared to a gender-blind ideal. Underrepresentation (the reality) is just a less extreme case. If you think men and women are equally apt, and you care about getting the best people, you should want them to be roughly equally represented.

  19. Frank says:

    Interesting. Thanks for sharing.

    It seems like cheerful news, in a way. If we right the ship just a little bit, perhaps it will become easier to make further progress.

  20. Frank says:

    I read an interesting story in a book by Cathy Davidson. She was teaching at a women’s high school, and she planned a lesson on gender differences in mathematical ability. Why do men achieve more? Why do men, overall, appear to understand mathematics better?

    She started teaching the lesson, but her students just laughed at her. Davidson was confused, but eventually the students explained that virtually all of them helped their brothers with math.

    It turns out that pre-1860, it was considered vulgar for samurai and other high-class Japanese men to handle money or business transactions. Indeed, traditional Japanese male clothing lacks pockets.

  21. Peter says:

    Apologies for my earlier post — I shouldn’t write comments late at night…

    A PNAS paper on structural issues was all over the scientific blogo-twitto-sphere today and I thought it could be interesting to add to the discussion. It seems that the biggest problem isn’t personal but structural bias preventing women from combining their personal choices with an academic career.

  22. Richard Séguin says:

    I would like to point out that no one has attempted to answer Jordan’s original specific questions regarding anthropology and religion.

    Anthropology has always loosely been subdivided into archaeology and cultural anthropology, two very different activities. (And, I just noticed, there is now a third subfield: biological archaeology.) None of the above referenced data makes this breakdown. I would like to see if there are significant gender differences between the three subfields. Without breaking down the three very different subfields, and providing absolute numbers in addition to percentages, the data regarding anthropology is more tantalizing than informative.

    And I can only speculate on the low percentage of women in religion. Could it have anything to do with the female aversive but “child friendly” scandal plagued Catholic Church (I have much stronger inflammatory words that I don’t have to mention) and the general exclusion of women in many of the world’s religions? I understand that years ago there was a big scandal when it was discovered that the computer of someone high in the Harvard Divinity School (was it the dean?) was chock full of pornography. Is there some endemic problem with these folks?

  23. Matleena says:

    Many males I know are turned off by classical (i.e symbolic) anthropology, apparently because they don’t seem to view the profession as one of status and importance.They are not as turned off by religious studies, because many famous authoritive males have published about religion, usually from an atheist perspective “explaining” religion using cognitive/neuro sciences. That area of discourse is full of hot debate and followed intensely by lay people (ted talks and all that), whereas cultural anthropology rarely if ever does anything that reaches the news.

    But there are naturalistic approaches to anthropology and culture, these however often go by some other name (evo pcych of culture, sociobiology, behavioral ecology etc). This might explain the stats above; the binnig is done badly. It would be better to analyze a sample of PhD’s from various fields and give them a “mathliness” score for example, if one were interested in whether gender correlates with that.

    I’m fairly sure it’s just that men are attracted by prestige and risky competition that women.

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