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December 10, 2003

Men @ play & pure science

On my post Ms. Math Amy Greenwood comments:

My general feeling is that women tend to be a bit more pragmatic about education than men. I have no data to support this except anectodal observations.

For me, math and physics are only marginally interesting at best.... until I need to build something, at which point math and physics are absolutely fascinating. Similarly, I had no interest in statistics until I needed it.

I think this is true to some extent. On the other hand, if women were so broadly pragmatic I would expect more to be in the Engineering Department and fewer in English Literature.

Pragmatism is important, but I think sometimes rhetorically our society de-emphasizes silly play and fanciful curiousity too much (I speak as one who engages in both more than most would prefer). My experience with women & software is that they are highly pragmatic. Pieces that talk about "outreach" to women so that they get involved in I.T. tend to emphasize the importance of making ends clear. The reason to me is that fewer women will play with a novel hard-ware configuration or try out a new computer language (say like Perl in the late 1980s) just for the hell of it.

Engineering and affinal fields often require years of abstract "play" with what might seem marginalia and not relevant to the practical end-point of making useful products. By the time a kid is 18, many boys (generally the nerdy kind) have been "playing" with computers, math and abstract and "useless" objects and perfecting skills that serve them well in fields like engineering, aside from natural cultural and possibly evolutionary advantages in the visuo-spatial realm and the items that are associated with said skill[1].

Shifting from gender, historically the Chinese have been very oriented toward pragmatic social ends. Their scholar class had little interest in pure science or abstraction for abstraction's sake (take that to the monastaries or forests), but rather perfected the human sciences of governance and administration. Among the many philosophical schools of pre-Imperial China (circa 6th century B.C.E.) the "logicians" had little status, but rather those who emphasized literature, the arts and cultural skills seized the high ground. The Chinese of course had engineering, but it was more of a trial-and-error sort rooted in individual genius or massive state mobilization in the face of short-term needs.

Concurrently in the West, the pre-Socratics who theorized about the natural realm were superseded by more ethically oriented systems of thought (Stoics, Epicureanism, etc.) that seemed to have more utility in the New Order of Hellinistic despotisms and later the Pax Romana. The less practical systems, like Neo-Platonism, did not concern themselves with abstracting on the natural realm, but the inner self and the world of "ideas," which in a fashion was more pragmatic as it furthered self-cultivation and importantly was easy to debase into magics.

My general point, playing with the world, playing with math, playing with machines, are not immediately practical. Socializing and cultivating a network of personal associates is. But the former build skills and habits that are important to the formation of science and the continuance of innovation. The Chinese for 2,000 years siphoned their best and brightest into practical endeavors and never developed a systematic pure science. Today, some classes oriented toward training female I.T. professionals emphasize slapping together pre-existing modules of code into a fully functional piece of software, so that these girls can see the more immediate results of their work. But this short-circuits the processes of low-level abstraction and cognition that are crucial for genuine innovation in this area (yes, many developers do nothing much most of the time but slap together modules, widgets, etc., but they have usually gone through the process of low-level coding so they know what's going on "under the hood").

Give a man a tool and he make what his ancestors made. Encourage a man to make tools and you give him infinite possibilities....

Update: Here is an article that indicates values, not aptitude, influence male gravitation toward mathematics and female aversion to such fields. Here is a telling quotation (and a response to Curt's economistic perspective, though I think Curt does have a point):

In 2002, women made up 43 percent of the incoming U-M Medical School class, but were just 14 percent of doctoral students in the College of Engineering.

Also, here is a citation of an early 1990s study of math SAT scores of males and females:

above 500 ratio 2/1

above 600 ratio 4/1

above 700 ratio 13/1

Also, here is a site with links to articles on mathematically gifted youth. Some of them deal with gender related issues.

fn1. Women are on average more socially adept than men and focus on verbal academics. So they have skills that lend themselves to fields like public relations or trial law.

Posted by razib at 02:55 PM