Roy Baumeister’s great talk on gender differences, “Is There Anything Good About Men?” is ricocheting around the blogosphere this week. The talk makes some amazing and provocative points touching on a variety of ways in which men’s and women’s roles in society a have evolved to be different. One great point is that fact that although men and women have approximately equal average abilities by a variety of measures, the distributions are different, with more men at both extremes. Failing to account for this difference in distributions can create “all sorts of misleading conclusions and other statistical mischief.” He points out two examples of observed statistical gender differences — college grades and workplace salaries — that can be explained by the differences in statistical distributions, and suggests that the difference also explains the preponderance of men in science.
However, I think that other points in his talk have even more to say about gender differences in science, and should be emphasized. More below the jump…
Two of his conclusions are particularly relevant:
Men go to extremes more than women, and this fits in well with culture using them to try out lots of different things, rewarding the winners and crushing the losers. … What seems to have worked best for cultures is to play off the men against each other, competing for respect and other rewards that end up distributed very unequally. Men have to prove themselves by producing things the society values. They have to prevail over rivals and enemies in cultural competitions…
This all fits in very nicely with Phil Greenspun’s theory that the reason there are so few women in science is that (academic) science is a high-risk, low-expected-reward career, and only young men are irrational enough to choose it as a career path. Greenspun understates the reward for a successful scientific career, but the fact remains that academic science is essentially a tournament with good rewards for the winners (those who get tenure), and high costs for the rest, who have to spend significant time working at relatively low wages.
Salaries are higher in academic computer science, thanks to market pressure from industry, but CS postdocs still make less than a smart programmer could make industry with a BS and 6 or 7 years of experience. And even if someone bails to industry with a Ph.D. they’ve already missed out on all the salary they could have made during grad school, plus all the compounded interest they might have made had they invested the difference.
Given Baumeister’s notion that men have evolved to be the risk-takers, it seems natural that science would be dominated by men, purely by self-selection.
Update: Moments after submitting this, I ran into this post on the massive surplus of Ph.D.s in the bio-sciences.
Update2: This must be the theme of the day! Moments after that, Scott Adams posts The Power of Stupid on the Dilbert Blog, about how our economy is driven by people willing to mortgage their houses for ventures with a 90% chance of failure.