Asking questions about women in the academy

Doing the economist’s job well, Nobel Laureate Paul Romer once quipped, “means disagreeing openly when someone makes an assertion that seems wrong.”

Following this inspiration guideline of mine in the constrained, hostile, and fairly anti-intellectual environment that is Twitter sometimes goes astray. That the modern intellectual left is vicious we all know, even if it’s only through observing them from afar. Accidentally engaging with them over the last twenty-four hours provided some hands-on experience for which I’m not sure I’m grateful. Admittedly, most interactions on twitter loses all nuance and (un)intentionally inflammatory tweets spin off even more anger from the opposite tribe. However, this episode was still pretty interesting.

It started with Noah Smith’s shout-out for economic history. Instead of taking the win for our often neglected and ignored field, some twitterstorians objected to the small number of women scholars highlighted in Noah’s piece. Fair enough, Noah did neglect a number of top economic historians (many of them women) which any brief and uncomprehensive overview of a field would do.

His omission raised a question I’ve been hooked on for a while: why are the authors of the most important publications in my subfields (financial history, banking history, central banking) almost exclusively male?

Maybe, I offered tongue-in-cheek in the exaggerated language of Twitter, because the contribution of women aren’t good enough…?

Being the twenty-first century – and Twitter – this obviously meant “women are inferior – he’s a heretic! GET HIM!”. And so it began: diversity is important in its own right; there are scholarly entry gates guarded by men; your judgment of what’s important is subjective, duped, and oppressive; what I care about “is socially conditioned” and so cannot be trusted; indeed, there is no objectivity and all scholarly contribution are equally valuable.

Now, most of this is just standard postmodern relativism stuff that I couldn’t care less about (though, I am curious as to how it is that the acolytes of this religion came to their supreme knowledge of the world, given that all information and judgments are socially conditioned – the attentive reader recognises the revival of Historical Materialism here). But the “unequal” outcome is worthy of attention, and principally the issue of where to place the blame and to suggest remedies that might prove effective.

On a first-pass analysis we would ask about the sample. Is it really a reflection of gender oppression and sexist bias when the (top) outcome in a field does not conform to 50:50 gender ratios? Of course not. There are countless, perfectly reasonable explanations, from hangover from decades past (when that indeed was the case), the Greater Male Variability hypothesis, or that women – for whatever reason – have been disproportionately interested in some fields rather than others, leaving those others to be annoyingly male.

  • If we believe that revolutionising and top academic contributions have a long production line – meaning that today’s composition of academics is determined by the composition of bright students, say, 30-40 years ago – we should not be surprised that the top-5% (or 10% or whatever) of current academic output is predominantly male. Indeed, there have been many more of them, for longer periods of time: chances are they would have managed to produce the best work.
  • If we believe the Greater Male Variability hypothesis we can model even a perfectly unbiased and equal opportunity setting between men and women and still end up with the top contribution belonging to men. If higher-value research requires smarter people working harder, and both of those characteristics are distributed unequally between sexes (as the Greater Male Variability hypothesis suggests), then it follows naturally that most top contributions would be men.
  • In an extension of the insight above, it may be the case that women – for entirely non-malevolent reasons – have interests that diverge from men’s (establishing precise reasons would be a task for psychology and evolutionary biology, for which I’m highly unqualified to assess). Indeed, this is the entire foundation on which the value of diversity is argued: women (or other identity groups) have different enriching experiences, approach problems differently and can thus uncover research nobody thought to look at. If this is true, then why would we expect that superpower to be applied equally across all fields simultaneously? No, indeed, we’d expect to see some fields or some regions or some parts of society dominated by women before others, leaving other fields to be overwhelmingly male. Indeed, any society that values individual choice will unavoidably see differences in participation rates, academic outcomes and performance for precisely such individual-choice reasons.

Note that none of this excludes the possibility of spiteful sexist oppression, but it means judging academic participation on the basis of surveys responses or that only 2 out of 11 economic historians cited in an op-ed were women, may be premature judgments indeed.

2 thoughts on “Asking questions about women in the academy

  1. I had a similar problem after Tyler Cowen linked to my “10 best history books of the last 10 years” article at RealClearHistory.

    A number of historians on Twitter, most of them female, asked why there was only one woman on the list. They called me a sexist and a stooge of rich white men and all of the other now-familiar names. Unlike you, however, I wasn’t brave enough to respond.

    What I wanted to say was that the women pulling the gender card were all terrible historians, and that leftist-themed “scholarship” wasn’t a worthy pick on any Top 10 list, save for those celebrating leftist-themed “scholarship.” I’m sorry, but “A History of Gendered Labor in the United States, 1872-1888” just isn’t all that important.

    I noticed that your exchange also happened with historians rather than economists. It’s an open secret now that most History Departments are not echo chambers but rather cowardly organizations that have acquiesced to the loud and hostile voices on the far left. There is plenty of good scholarship out there being done by historians, but when it comes to checking the ideological excesses of the discipline’s far left, there is only silence.

    • There’s lots of good work being done on “gendered labor” in history, too. I’m not trying to mock that subfield. It’s just that most of the important gendered labor stuff is being done by anthropologists and economists rather than actual historians.

      tldr: beware ideological straightjackets!

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