Saturday, October 03, 2009

"...and then we'll try to get the vote, too..."

When I was a kid in Russia people used to joke about guerrillas who were hiding in the forests since WWII without realizing that the war is over. Part of the reason for the jokes was, of course, that such people were occasionally found.

Some of the participants in the war of sexes remind me of those jokes. Times change, life changes, their arguments stay the same.

A high school teacher of mine used to say, in 1990: "you girls can be anything you want to be, anything your mothers couldn't even dream of: doctors, engineers...". "Damn," I thought, "just how old do you think my mother is?"

My mother is in fact an engineer. So was her mother before her. My other grandmother was a doctor. Her own mother was a dentist, and her aunt a doctor. And I knew that it wasn't just a Russian phenomenon either: there were thousands of female doctors in the US before my great-grandmother was even born.

A few days ago I ran into a conversation about girls and math. (No, no link, the guilty shall remain unnamed, but I have run into that conversation many times before.) It always goes the following way:

Person A: Girls don't want to study math because they don't believe in their mathematical abilities! Schools must do something to encourage them right now!
Person B: Girls don't want to study math because they don't have the ability to do so, and no amount of social engineering from the schools is gonna change it!

Have those people even bothered to look up the statistics lately? Or ever?

The Univeristy of Helsinki has admitted 208 freshmen as math majors last year: 107 men and 101 women. The Statistics Finland's database doesn't have a listing of degrees by major, but in the "sciences" group, which undoubtedly includes math, 5947 degrees were awarded last year: 2891 to men and 3056 to women (that's 51.4% women). In the US last year 6594 out of the 14954 bachelor degrees in math were awarded to women (that's 44.1%).

Yes, the schools can apply heroic efforts to encourage girls to study math, and in a few years we might have an incoming freshman class of 104 men and 104 women. Yes, there is an innate difference in men's and women's math abilities, enough to account for the fact that no woman has ever won a Fields Medal - but almost six thousand people graduate every year with a BA in math in the US and only 2-4 people in the world earn a Fields Medal every 4 years.

And yes, there are fields with much fewer girls than boys. I just don't think that any simple explanation, be it nature, nurture, discrimination or general stereotypes, could easily tell us why, for example, in the Helsinki University of Technology chemical engineering students have a 48-52 sex distribution, and mechanical engineers 10-90.

BTW, one really interesting number is the number of women getting degrees in computer science in the US: it fluctuates wildly up and down. So does men's, but to a much lesser degree.

One thing that came to my mind while looking that the Finnish higher education statistics: women get 64.8% of all university degrees in Finland. The only areas of study where men get more degrees than women are engineering (75.7%) and painting (52.8%). The field with the greatest gender imbalance is veterinary medicine, with 92.5% degrees earned by women. Considering all of the above, if we are talking about encouraging somebody to study, shouldn't we be talking about encouraging boys?

Another thought: the real gender issue nowadays is not whether some particular feature of men or women is caused ny nature or nurture, but rather why are we discussing this in some particular situations, but not when the sexes are reversed?

And another thought: in 1850s there was quite a lot of talk about whether women are fit to be doctors. Today, women get 66.2% of all medical degrees in Finland. How long will it take before somebody with a strong liking for the natural order of things and weak grasp of history claims that men can't be good doctors on account of insufficient nurturing instinct?

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