Those mysterious and evasive apparently innate gender qualities

Earlier this year, the Guardian reported that companies with at least one women on the board perform better than those without. Reasons for this are often framed in terms of “increased diversity”. This implies female directors bring along with them some mysterious female quality which is based on the belief that being a woman provides one with a different built-in set of traits than being a man.

This article stems from my alternative hypothesis which doesn’t require such assumptions: companies with more even distributions of women and men on their boards do better because their institutional culture does not encourage discarding a portion of their talent based on factors such as gender.

That is to say, there are often unspoken and subconscious cultural barriers to promoting particular subgroups within an organisation which result in a narrowing of the talent pool available, which can become pronounced as you go up the scale.

Much of my direct experience lies in programming, where an oft-repeated — and true, I believe — maxim is that if there were more women programmers the whole field would stronger. These arguments are again usually presented with the implication that women bring something men lack. On the other hand, if one only assumes that women and men bring the same distribution of skills to the table overall, it stands to reason that by encouraging women into the profession we’d increase the number of fantastic programmers, again simply by virtue of a greater talent pool.

Supporting the view that gender disparity in computing is more about culture, Siann et al found that, while girls initially had a marked difference in their attitude to computing, “after the computer experience gender differences in attitudes to computing diminished”. Simply allowing children to experiment with computers changed their attitudes.

Though I only present two examples, the refrain of gender predicting a different set of skills and values is repeated across many fields. The far simpler fact of the greater numbers of candidates predicting stronger performance for a fixed number of places is ignored.

This traditional story of diversity and its implications is a subtle and insidious form of gender stereotyping which pops up everywhere once you start to watch for it. The worst aspect is its common appearance even in apparently positive articles like the one above. The framing is damaging because it perpetuates the myth that women and men are innately suited to different things. It’s particularly evident if a discussion descends into pop-psychology, with women being given “caution” as a foil against male “risk-taking”, for example, or “empathy” vs. “individualism”. The evidence for innate differences is thin on the ground.

Recently there has been an upsurge, predictably seized upon by the press, in scientific research which does provide hints of subtle differences between men and women on average. Nash and Grossi do a good job of pointing out the flaws in these studies. On top of this, much existing work shows differences within gender to overshadow differences between genders to an extent that real-world differences seem remarkably unlikely to be caused by any general difference between men and women. Work by Costa, Terracciano and McCrae provides strong support for the view gender differences stem from cultural environment. From their abstract:

Contrary to predictions from evolutionary theory, the magnitude of gender differences varied across cultures. Contrary to predictions from the social role model, gender differences were most pronounced in European and American cultures in which traditional sex roles are minimized.

So why is the narrative of inbuilt gender-based differences so persistent in the face of evidence and simpler explanations? While obviously this is a many-faceted question, there are common threads which interweave in common stories where the question is discussed.

The first is that we view ourselves as an egalitarian society. In many ways it’s clear that this isn’t true. In the case of gender, presuming in-built differences provides an easy out: “we were made that way”. The entrenched, subconscious discrimination implied by the view that people might instead be forced into traditional roles by social conditioning is unpalatable to modern society. The new idea of presenting women as providing different strengths — as opposed to just different traits — absolves us of the need to admit any previous discrimination, with the side benefit that old ideas can continue unabated.

The second is that, when physical strength dictated power dynamics, as in much of history, men will tend to come out on top. Over time, mental acuity has become dominant over physical strength. Initially, women were prevented from taking advantage of this by denying them education. It is of no surprise that as education of women has increased, so has their prominence in both the workplace and in the corridors of power. However, those in power tend not to like challengers: the narrative of women at home with fulfilling family lives — safely away from the workplace — is suspiciously congruent with their desires.

The third thread is fear of change. Society is set up with many predetermined roles to slot into, many coming with gender expectations. If a large number of people decided to break with tradition the upheaval in society would be huge. The removal of previously “safe” assumptions might be difficult. Even a subconscious desire to maintain the status quo leads one to unquestioningly accept traditional stereotypes.

The way forward? Be sceptical of any claims which imply gender differences, in particular those which support the status quo. Follow up news reports by reading at least the abstract and conclusion of involved studies to mitigate the tendency of the press to thrive on hype, controversy and conflict. And above all to not take the traditional as true.