Gender Imbalances Are Mostly Not Due To Offensive Attitudes

[This post has mostly been replaced/supplanted with a more thorough analysis in Contra Grant On Exaggerated Differences]


One idea that kept coming up in the comments to the thread on signal-boosting-as-doxxing: it’s permissible to take emergency action against offensive male libertarians, because we really need to improve the gender balance in libertarianism.

The implied assumption is that women flock to movements full of respectful feminists, and shun the ones without them. If women aren’t in libertarianism, that’s because it’s tolerating too many sexists.

Since the assumption is implicit, nobody has defended it, and maybe nobody really believes it in its explicit form. But it underlies enough of this discourse that it’s still worth challenging.

Donald Trump is not a poster child for respectful inclusiveness. He is on record saying that he likes to “grab women by the pussy” in what sure sounds like a nonconsenual manner. His sophistication on gender issues is generally somewhere around the level of australopithecine, distantly aspiring towards Neanderthaldom as some shining mountaintop goal.

But Trump voters were more gender-balanced than libertarians: about 47% female, 53% male. Among Trump’s key demographic of white people, he actually won the female vote, beating Clinton among white women by 53% to 43%.

The Catholic Church also isn’t a poster child for feminism., which has such an authoritative-sounding domain name that I assume it’s written personally by the Pope, says that:

Women are more natural caregivers for children, and men more naturally work outside the home. Yet women can and do work outside the home and men do act as caregivers for children (changing diapers, feeding babies their bottles, burping them, walking with them when they are crying at night-men do all these things, just as women do). Their roles tend to be focused in one area (caregiving for women and working outside the home for men), but one can fill in for the other whenever needed.

Add in their consistent opposition to abortion, birth control, sexual liberation, et cetera, and it should be at least a little surprising that women outnumber men among churchgoing Catholics by about 20%.

Reddit as a whole is about 30% female. But the r/libertarian and r/neoliberal subreddits are 5.5% and 4.5% female respectively. Is this because they’re hostile to women? Seems unlikely. The r/mensrights and r/KotakuInAction (ie Gamergate) subreddit are frequently considered especially offensive, and both of them hover around 10% female. Believe that offensiveness is the sole determinant of gender balance, and you’re forced to conclude that adopting Gamergate’s gender-related norms would double libertarianism’s female population.

See enough of this stuff, and you come to the conclusion that the percent of women in a movement isn’t just a function of how carefully it purges all of its insufficiently pro-feminist members.


So what is it a function of?

Richard Lippa’s Gender Differences In Personality And Interests is a pretty good source for this sort of thing. It notes that one of the largest gender differences recorded – larger even than the things we tend to think of as hard-and-fast obvious gender differences like physical aggressiveness or attitudes toward casual sex – is what Lippa calls “interest in things vs. people”. He writes:

For the people–things dimension of interests, the results in Table 1 are clear, strong, and unambiguous. Men tend to be much more thing-oriented and much less people-oriented than women (mean d = 1.18, a ‘very large’ difference, according to Hyde (2005) verbal designations

He notes that a d of 1.18 is “very large”, but I worry that the less statistically savvy won’t appreciate quite how large it is. All I can say is that I spent several years believing that the d statistic was a scale from 0 to 1, because I’d never seen a d go outside that range before. Daniel Lakens wrote a great piece about a study that found a d = 1.96, where he argued we should dismiss it almost out of hand, because non-tautological effects are almost never that large and so clearly somebody made a mistake in the study (spoiler: they did). Lippa’s finding isn’t quite at that level, but it’s getting up there.

This strikes me as sort of similar to the systematizing-empathizing distinction, where men and women also score pretty differently (d = 0.5). I admit I don’t have great proof that these are related concepts, but it seems intuitive to me that systems are a sort of “thing”, and that the kind of people who are interested in analyzing formal systems all the time usually aren’t super people-oriented.

(am I using “kind of people” here as a dog-whistle for autism? Give me more credit than that; I’m actually trying to dog-whistle “NMDA receptor hypofunction.”)

There seems to be a similar gender difference in tendency to use utilitarianism – see eg Friesdorf et al’s meta-analysis. Without me being able to explain exactly what I mean, I hope you share my intuition that utilitiarianism is an unusually thing-oriented and systematizing moral system, and that this gestures at the same large but hard-to-explain difference as the other two results.

These are probably upstream of more noticeable differences in political attitudes. A less-empathizing/more-systematizing personality would make people more interested in the politics of effective institutions than in the politics of provisioning social welfare. And a less utilitiarian and more traditional-morality-focused personality would make people more interested in using government power to enforce social norms. Eagly et al look at gender differences in political attitudes and find exactly this:

The most commonly noted difference is that women are more likely than men to endorse policies that support the provision of social services for deserving and disadvantaged groups (Goertzel,
1983; Schlesinger & Heldman, 2001; Shapiro & Mahajan, 1986), including housing, child care, educational opportunity, and financial support in the form of welfare…Women also advocate more restriction of many behaviors that are traditionally considered immoral (e.g., casual sex; Oliver & Hyde, 1993; consumption of pornography, Seltzer et al., 1997)…Women can thus be regarded as more liberal than men in social compassion and more conservative in traditional morality.

“More liberal in social compassion and more conservative in traditional morality” sounds like a pretty good description of “not libertarian”.

I’m not sure there’s a lot of mystery left to explain here. You can eliminate every single shred of sexism in the libertarian movement, make it so feminist that it makes Ursula K. LeGuin books look like Margaret Atwood books – and it will still never get anywhere near the gender balance of those weird evangelical sects who talk about women have to be subservient because Eve was made from Adam’s rib.


A strong counterargument:

What if all this stuff about sexism driving away women is all a big hoax? And so after we make women feel safer, stamp out prejudice, enforce common decency, and encourage everyone to treat each other with compassion – darn it, we created a better world for nothing! If the goal is “eliminate malignant sexism” – and surely it should be – why be so upset about one argument for eliminating malignant sexism which might not be entirely accurate?

First, because I’m a heartless thing-oriented systematizer, and I despise bad arguments on principle, and I don’t care if you people-oriented empathizers think they serve a prosocial community-building function.

But second, because this gives fuzzy-empathizing-humanities types a giant hammer with which to beat all sciency-systematizing-utilitarian types forever.

I’m not the sort of New Atheist who believes in some kind of apocalyptic battle where the defenders of rationality and civilization face off against some fantastic coalition of postmodernism / hippyism / gender studies / crystal-healing / evangelicalism / cultural Marxism / Islam / Donald Trump. But STEM ideals conflicting with humanities-focused ideals isn’t a total fiction. There really are some differences in values between the average Silicon Valley programmer and the average Oberlin literature professor. A humanities/empathizing/intuitive vs. sciency/systematizing/utilitarian distinction isn’t a perfectly natural category, nor the only axis on which people differ. But I’m hoping you share my intuition that it’s at least a vague cluster, and at least one axis of difference.

And however different postmodernists, evangelicals, Islamists, Muslims, crystal-healers, and Trump supporters might be, there actually is one thing they have in common: all these groups have great gender balance. You’ll never find a Wiccan circle or a gender studies class that accidentally ended up as 100% male.

And computer scientists, mathematicians, economists, utilitarians, libertarians, movement atheists, skeptics, transhumanists, cryptocurrency enthusiasts, et cetera – are an equally sundry non-coalition. But they also have something in common: a serious skew towards men.

And if you accept the implict assumption that good opinions = gender balance and sexism = gender imbalance, then forever and always the crystal healers and Trump supporters will have a clear badge of being good people and responsible citizens, and the utilitarians and economists will be, on a collective level, sexist jerks. And it sure seems like this is a point in favor of the crystal healers and Trump supporters if you’re trying to figure out who to trust.

A community made up of sexist jerks has a moral obligation to stop being sexist and jerkish right away, both because it’s the right thing to do, and because it’s tactically advantageous to be able to recruit women to the cause. If sexist jerkishness can be measured by gender balance, the appropriate response is “keep dialing up the level of cracking-down-on-sexism until gender balance approaches parity.” But if this is your philosophy, and gender balance doesn’t respond at all to these crackdowns, then level-of-cracking-down quickly rises to infinity.

So we end up with sciency/systematizing/utilitarian fields and movements turning into circular firing chambers. If “it’s permissible to take emergency action against offensive male libertarians, because we really need to improve the gender balance in libertarianism”, then the state of emergency quickly becomes permanent, as more and more extreme measures fail to effect any improvement. Yes, there will be people trying to get you fired over making sexist jokes on Twitter. But don’t worry – there will also be people trying to get you fired over if you’re too interested in BDSM, or if you find the word dongle amusing. And if the people trying to get the other people fired overstep their social status just a tiny bit, then the backlash will get them fired (“circular firing chamber” wasn’t intended as a pun, but maybe it should have been).

At the same time, everyone on the humanities/empathizing/intuitive side of the divide gets a knockdown argument against any sciency/systematizing/utilitarian challenge: “Oh, those sexists? Come back when you’ve taken off your fedora, dudebros.” And this sort of thing works. And since so many of us implicitly accept the poor-gender-balance = sexist jerks narrative, we can’t even fight back. The best we can do is “Yes, our side is full of repellent people with terrible values, and your side is full of lovely tolerant accepting people who successfully build inclusive communities for everyone, but, uh, we make some good points anyway. Wait, come back! Why aren’t you reading my double-blind randomized study showing that I’m right?”

I think a better response is to point out that there’s never been any study or informal survey suggesting that sciency/systematizing/utilitarian people are any more sexist than anyone else (if you find one, tell me). No person or community is perfect, but to claim some special evil for libertarians, economists, utilitarians etc is a weird hypothesis I’ve never seen anyone try to explain, let alone prove. When 20% of high school kids taking the AP Computer Science test are women, and 20% of college students majoring in CS are women, and then 20% of people in the tech industry are women, maybe “demographics are a thing” is a better hypothesis than “the tech industry is uniquely full of gross sexist nerds”.

This isn’t to deny the experiences of women who feel more frequently harassed in these communities. But it does seem s more likely to be a result of gender balance than a cause of it. That is, if we dectuple the male-to-female ratio while holding the sexual-harasser-ness of each man constant, then each woman faces ten times more sexual harassment.

This might mean that there’s a duty for sciency/systematizing/utilitarian people to work ten times harder to fight harassment than anyone else. I think that might be happening. When I first entered medicine, I was shocked at the lackadaisacal attitude people there took to casually sexist speech, compared to an environment in Silicon Valley which I’ve heard people describe as “Stalinist”. But medicine is a people-oriented/empathizing profession; 90% of nurses are women; so are 57% of psychiatry residents. The potential-harasser:potential-victim ratio keeps people safer without the same permanent state of emergency.

So yes, let’s try to build a better world. But let’s do it because it’s a good thing to do, not because we expect it to single-handedly normalize gender ratios.

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