Two articles surfed recently that brought me back to thinking about the messy issue of gender, and ways in which things are changing, and not changing, in the world around us. The first was a NYT interview with Audrey MacLean, who is founder of several tech start-ups, and a professor at Stanford. The second is also a NYT article, this one by Mark Oppenheimer (the longest NYT article I have ever seen!) prompted by the Weiner scandal, examining a number of issues around sex, gender, marriage and relationships. Those who have followed my blog from the early days (yes, only a couple of months ago but still an eon in tech time!) are aware that I have previously posted on girls and technology, and more recently on Weinergate (thanks to all who commented on both of these posts!).
The Audrey MacLean interview more or less affirms everything else that we read about girls, women and technology, and points out some of the vast gaps that still exist between men and women, boys and girls, where technology is concerned. I believe, as
MacLean also believes, that this gap is not genetic, and that it can be changed, and that this is a high priority for change if women are to participate in shaping the future. She says that only about 20% of the women in her classes at Stanford are women, and that the vast majority of those are women from countries other than the U.S (mostly China, India, and Russia). Her opinion is that there are two factors that influence the lack of women in general, and the big scarcity of women from the U.S. entering careers in technology. One factor is the simple fact that women in the U.S. and most other “developed” countries still remain far behind men in technological skills and know-how. Part of this, she believes, can be turned around if girls, by the 1st and 2nd grades, are already computer literate, and in addition are encouraged to remain engaged beyond just the social media world they tend to be good at. They need games, MacLean says, that “change the world or save the planet”! Now isn’t that a fabulous idea?!!!
The Oppenheimer article has a very different focus. It is actually one of the very best analyses of the serious issues raised by the Weiner scandal, and it helped me to sort out just why the sexual behavior aspect of this scandal turned out to be important, despite the legitimate claims that stuff like this should not be anyone’s concern where political acumen is concerned. Oppenheimer is not coming from a particularly feminist perspective but his detailed analysis essentially affirms the fundamental insight of feminism — the personal is political. This article delves into gay marriage, the Dan Savage “It Gets Better” campaign, marriage in general, cultural mores, among others. All of the issues he addresses are significant in their own right but taken together, as Oppenheimer has done, also help to understand why Anthony Weiner’s personal behavior struck such a chord of dissonance in our culture. Oppenheimer opens his detailed analysis with the observation that “In addition to giving us some good laughs, he forced us to ask particularly uncomfortable questions, like ‘what am I capable of doing?’ and ‘what have my neighbors or friends done?'”
I will not go into a summary or commentary on Oppenheimer’s full analysis, but one aspect that pertains to the question I posed in my earlier post (when might we see a female version of this scandal?) particularly caught my attention. Here Oppenheimer points to the possibility of biological differences between men and women. Based on interviews with Janis Abrahms Spring (a psychologist and couples’ therapist)
and feminist blogger Sady Doyle, he concludes: “Spring and Doyle both hint at a larger truth about men and women, which is that, generally speaking, they view sex differently. While there are plenty of women who can separate sex from love, can be happily promiscuous or could have a meaningless, one-time fling, there are — let’s face it — more men like that.”
So not everyone will agree with these perspectives of course, but there are a few things that seem pretty obvious to me: we (women) have come a long way, we still have a long way to go, and there are important signs that we are still moving along in the direction of more important and positive change. As feminist writers have stated over and over for many years — the world needs to change for women AND for men. Someday we may better understand biology and how that works to sustain any differences, but meanwhile, we know that there is huge potential for women to be stronger politically and personally, to have more skills in important areas of life that are currently not common for us, and to make significant contributions to creating the world we all would like to see for the future. And there is huge potential for men to be the kind of humans that make the world a kinder and gentler place (in deeds as well as words), to embrace women as full equal partners in life, and to be as generous and giving toward women as they want women to be toward them.
Being ursine, not human, I have a very different take…
First, I tend to have a knee jerk reaction whenever assertions are made that persons of one gender, race, religion, or color are definitively different, and implicitly, or explicitly, superior, than people of other genders, races, religions, or colors. So, when suggestions are made that women are more collaborative than men, it is particularly painful for me because I see nothing in morphology that overrides the reasonable assumption that socialization and acculturation, rather than gender, is the issue.
This also goes to the heart of what I think is at the problem – that in our culture women are encouraged to focus on distractions that, over the long term. disadvantage them. I also want to point out something that I think might be overlooked in reading the interview with Audrey MacLean, which is that her father apparently did not say: Higher education is for men only, but something quite different: That his 8 year old daughter would have to get a scholarship to cover the costs of college.
I would concede that she may have been disadvantaged by her father’s decision to place the onus on her of securing financial support, tho one might argue that he actually advantaged her by focusing her attention on the economic barriers she would face in pursuing higher education at an early enough age to make a difference. Certainly his advice was far different than the advice many of my women peers received in the 1960s and 1970s that they ought not even aspire to higher education or careers in the sciences.
Second, while I think it is great that Audrey MacLean has had a rich and rewarding career in the tech field, I think she downplays the effect of environment. Between the time she likely entered college, in the late 60s and the present, she was clearly advantaged by virtue of her own decisions to invest her time and effort in acquiring technological skills AND a changing environment in which broad scale social changes were occurring. In academia, governmental, and private sector employment achieving gender balance assumed more and more importance in the first critical years of her career trajectory..
While achieving gender balance was clearly desirable, it would be inappropriate to fail to acknowledge that in that the mechanisms employed to achieve those goals, clearly advantaged Audrey MacLean. Compared to any individual male candidate, she was competing against a significantly smaller pool of identically gendered and equally qualified applicants. She rose in a situation where there may have been 5 female candidates for every 95 male candidates, and to fail to note that if a prior decision had been made to hire, if at all possible, a female candidate, is to ignore the precise technical details that I would expect her to respect in any business decision she might make.
Even if we assume that the ultimate decision was one based on having satisfied the minimal skills requirements that may have only been matched by the top 5 male candidates, the extremely small pool of qualified female candidates should not be ignored in assessing her experience..
As one of very few women suitably prepared for employment in the tech field she clearly benefited in an environment in which there was a desire to achieve a gender balance that could only be achieved by hiring more women than men, over time, in all future hiring decisions between say 1975 and 1990.
Lest anyone else react in knee jerk fashion, that does not imply that Audrey MacLean was hired in preference to any specific male candidate, nor does it imply that she was less qualified than any male candidates, merely that she was not competing against as large a pool of women as her male conterparts in engineering and the sciences were at that point.
In fact, during the 1970s, at precisely the time she would have been entering these fields, there was one of the worst employment markets for engineers in the 20th century. The glut of engineers resulted in major dislocations for male engineers at exactly the moment when technologically proficient women were experiencing expanding opportunities. Male engineers were losing their jobs even as demands for gender equity in their fields were increasing the opportunities for women.
As well, I’d like to remind the blogosphere of one of the most powerful tools of social engineering ever employed in our own country: mandatory conscription and the use of the Selective Service System (Refernce Lewis B. Hershey’s references to channeling” for example) to compel males to enter academic fields they may not have chosen freely were they not compelled by fear of conscription. Women were neither the beneficiaries nor the victims of the Draft and its importance ought not be ignored.
While Audrey MacLean voluntarily entered a technological field, many of the men she competed with in the early years of her career did so only under the threat of the draft. Viewing the disparate proportion of males in high tech fields in the 1960s and 1970s and failing to understand the oppressive environment that produced these disparities is not entirely fair.
I have no reason to question Audrey MacLean’s intellect, credentials, drive, or dedication, but ignoring the fact that there was an extremely small pool of women with the kind of skills that she had in the early 1970s and assuming that her achievements were not influenced by other factors runs the danger of perpetuating a “false consciousness” about the circumstances of her success. Had she been competing against a pool of other women candidates as large as the competing pools of male candidates for similar jobs, her career trajectory might not have been quite so stellar, perhaps appearing more like the careers of many excellent nurses who teach and practice in second or third tier institutions for no reason other than the size of the pool they competed with for the best positions. She might still have obtained a teaching position at Stanford, but the small number of similarly skilled female applicants certainly did her no harm.
Again, none of this is to in any way diminish her personal achievements, just to suggest that it is very easy to imagine that gender explains things that are, in fact, poorly explained by gender alone. Men are not morphologically better at mathematics and women morphologically better at relationships – both exhibit disparate skills as the end results of their socialization.
Women are not more moral, more caring, more compassionate than men, nor are men more analytic, more rational, more aggressive than women as a result of chromosomal composition but because each gender group has been coerced into such stereotypical behaviors by socialization and acculturation.
It sort of reminds me of Edwin Sutherland’s work on white collar crime when sociologists of his era assumed that engagement in crime was pervasive and expected in the “Lower” classes and an aberration, and unexpected, in the “Upper” classes. Sutherland showed that criminal activity was not a matter of social class at all, but a matter of socialization to different criminal types of criminal enterprises: White collar crime among the upper classes versus traditional crimes among the lower classes. Despite his work, we still see the vestiges of an assumption that crime is more common among the lower classes when the sub-prime mortgage mess was clearly a matter of upper class, white collar criminals run amok.
Gender, I suspect, explains very little that cannot be more accurately and succinctly explained by other factors when it comes to the expression of presumably socially desirable or socially undesirable behaviors.