Showing posts with label Geography. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Geography. Show all posts

She's Just Not Interested

Female CEOs always make headlines (recently GM, Yahoo). Several media outlets have spent much space lately to commentary on women in science. Few would bury their heads in sand and deny the gender disparities in the workplace and outside. And there is no dearth of arresting visual statistics on the yawning gender gaps.

But the analysis that proclaims the gaps rests on assumptions that rarely figure in the discourse. Observers speak of vocations and industries missing out on “half the population”. If I were to ask for a pause to consider the assumptions, you might dread this is headed towards unsavoury territory. But bear with me. The conversation on gender representation in vocations is generally driven by discussion of ability and opportunity. What about interest?

Both opportunity and ability seem easier questions to engage with than interest. Opportunities are not equal for the genders, period. We know that. No question. The question of equal ability only has pieces unsolved that are both too trivial and too pointless to discuss. The scarce evidence from neuroscience is for minor and poorly understood differences, and moreover, even finding significant differences would give no ground for prejudice in single cases.

Interest is different. Unlike innate aptitude or opportunity, one does not make a normative argument: everyone is not expected to be equally interested in everything. Quite to the contrary, the only normative claim one might make is that we may not assume interest on anyone’s part. So why make the assumption that the genders should or would be equally interested in every vocation? Can we not make room for interest to vary despite exactly equal aptitude? There is evidence that given equal ability interests might indeed drive the discrepantly low representation of women in science.

If equal interest is not assumed, then actual numbers of a gender engaged in any occupation cannot be taken as a measure of opportunity. Opportunity must be measured by testing provision, not uptake.

The place of women in society then is not a simple variable to understand. Besides the question of interest, presumptions about geography are equally rife. Genders are not quite equal anywhere, but is the picture we have of how the gap varies by age and region accurate? Let us contrast two regions to take a snapshot.

Across large parts of India, opportunities for young girls are severely restricted compared to boys. Sexual assaults on young women were always a problem but have received widespread attention in recent years. But also in India, CEOs of about 20% of major private banks and financial institutions happen to be women, in contrast with virtually none in the US or the EU.

Arguably, little girls in Norway or Netherlands are no different than boys at their school. But there is a very real pay gap in the private sector, with disparity even more noticeable at the higher executive levels, which is why every new female Fortune 500 CEO in the US makes big news. Norway has quotas in place for female board members in private firms that other countries in Europe have tried to emulate.

The place of Indian women in a socio-cultural context too appears to be different from the West. It may not be the best means to assess gender parity in films, but Hindi films do significantly better on the Bechdel Test. The test is certainly not conclusive for arguments about culture. But precisely because the requirements on the test are so basic, significant differences in scores do prompt one to wonder. It would seem that Hindi films are more likely to have named female characters discussing women than English films.

Given that it is difficult variable, gender differences between vocational inclinations would likely be very difficult to disentangle from all the noisy confluence of factors. Sure, we must continually strive to ensure that opportunities are not skewed or denied. But the uptake of those opportunities might not be the best way to assess the results of efforts.

If it turned out that with everything else equal, women really are less interested in a science career or editing Wikipedia entries, that would be okay right?

Of course we must raise both boys and girls with acute awareness of gender disparity and to be on guard for biases in their own thinking and to fight unfairness when they see it. But equally, in a post-modern world, we do not wish to inhibit little girls from expressing their true interests for the fear they might fall on the wrong side of the strict line of expected equality between the genders. It should suffice to teach children not to a priori assume or expect either skills or interests of the other people based on their gender.

In one of last year's sweetest films, 'Wadjda', when a ten-year-old girl's last recourse to earning a bicycle is thwarted, Abdullah, her next-door friend, offers her his bike. "Then how will we race?", she replies, not attempting to hide a mix of indignation and exasperation. It is an error all too common in talk of gender disparities. One assumes the problem because one of the problems is obvious. Sure it is wrong that girls should be denied bikes where boys take them for granted. But in Wadjda's case, presuming that the delivery of one bike delivers her from the specific disadvantage she wishes to overcome is prejudiced reduction. Next time, let's just ask her, shall we?

To Arrive Where We Started

Man moves. Without migration, the history of mankind would have been a blip in the Pleistocene epoch, and the epoch would not have that name. And yet, once we settled, subsequent migration has always brought conflict in its wake. Once a people get attached to a piece of land, they take to seeing all who arrive after them as usurpers. The attitude is familiar to anyone who has as a child fought over a trifle - invariably one side cites the fact that they found or used it first as a pre-emptive trump.

It is not saying anything new to remark that in post-millennium political landscapes in all parts of the world, political constituencies thrive on taking and propagating that myopic view of migration and immigrants. In some cases though, the pairing of the complaining destination population and the group of hopeful new arrivals is pregnant with irony.

Inspecting immigrants entering America

circa nineteenth century,
Source:The Wellcome Library via Europeana
Creative Commons License
...and in the twentieth.
Source: U.S. National Archives via Europeana

Germany, just as other countries in Western and Northern Europe continues to see polarising discourse on immigration, assimilation, integration, ‘multiculturism’ and other sundry ‘-tions’ and ‘-isms’. Not everyone uses so many words, but the conflicting sides each stem from set worldviews concerning expectations, responsibilities, prejudice, promises, roles, culture and every such thing.

The debate descends into a chicken-and-egg stalemate. In the case of Germany and Turkey though, to speak to those who know only the language of who-saw-it-first, one only need look further back in time to stumble across shudder-inducing irony. Overwhelming DNA evidence is now confirming a picture of early migration in the region. All indications are, that not only are a majority of modern Europeans descended from a wave of new arrivals (c. 7000 years ago) from Anatolia who dominated the earlier indigenous population, those arrivals also brought with them the knowledge of farming. Listen to the narrative as told with a view of current borders: agriculture came to Germany with Turkish immigrants, who then settled there and replaced much of the then hunting-gathering population of Germany.

Wildebeest Migration
The Face of (Wildebeest) Migration (in Profile)
Photo by Ganesh Raghunathan, under Creative Commons Licence via Flickr

Another face-scratchingly gigantic irony lurks in the fears that Chinese immigrants uniquely inspire in the West. When I read of the widespread notion that the China’s rapid progress is built on top of technological secrets stolen from university research labs and replicated back home, I sigh. The concerned suspicion not only extends to tuition-paying students that universities need, but transfuses prejudice to much larger contexts. Consider this from an article in Foreign Policy: “The Chinese are still busy copying technologies we built over the past few decades. They haven't cracked the nut on how to innovate yet.” The language that another commentator uses in the Business Insider to counter that view is, if anything, even more telling: “Does anyone in their right mind think the Chinese people are any different than the Japanese or any other human society? Don’t worry. The Chinese will ‘crack the nut’ too.” Future tense.

I sigh because I seem the only one to remember from primary school when I was taught a long list of inventions that took longer to make their way from the Chinese heartland to the rest of the world which then marvelled at how they ever managed without those gadgets for centuries. I am weaker than the temptation to reproduce the list in part. The enterprising folk invented: the flush-toilet, porridge, printing, brandy, bells, whiskey, wheelbarrows, kites, compasses, crossbows, calendars, oil drilling, fishing rod, whips, helicopters, mechanical clocks, hot air balloons, parachutes, the iron plough, relief maps, suspension bridges, umbrellas, water pumps, seismographs, and arguably many more such besides the more commonly known silk, paper, abacus, gunpowder/fireworks/matches and, of course, china (ceramics). Talk about freeloading, violating patents and piggy-backing your technological revolutions in the distant wake of pioneers!
Ming dynasty mariner's compass
Diagram of a Ming dynasty mariner's compass
via Wikimedia Commons

Yes, property rights were codified much later and intellectual property recognised as such relatively recently, but that does not detract from the fact that the timing was more convenient for some regions than others. The concept of stealing has been doubtless known to mankind ever since we fought over scarce meat that a few had hunted for many. Any ancient society could have prevented the stealth of ideas - penalties were much more deterring back then. That it did not occur to them is a sign of virtue. Imagine trying to assess today the benefits of learning of farming or paper just a bit earlier from a foreign visitor.

1562 Map of America ("Hold that compass still!")
via Library of Congress

Patterns of migration often show complex interdependencies and cross-flux of values, with the new arrivals sometimes bringing in priceless wealth of knowledge and ideas that may help the receiving population leap-frog great strides on the path of human progress. Irony aside, the moral is that migration, much like travel, is good for innovation and progress. People meeting new people is like fertility treatment for the birth of ideas. Peace-time movement is rarely the same as a horde of have-nots invading upon a group of gullible haves, sneaky alien parasites leeching off every last drop of the bounty that attracted them. If we must look to population interaction in nature rather than history to shape our expectations for human societies, parasitism is a curious pick from a whole continuum of cases. Symbiotic organisms depend on the mutual benefits and often co-evolve into fitter forms. Many parasites do the host no discernible harm. Think of your school days when the word 'bacteria' put you in mind of fearsome disease-inducing pathogens. Whereas we now know that human physiology would be inconceivable without the trillion bacteria we host. Imagine a bag of skin that carries far more bacterial DNA than the human kind viewing an approaching bacterial colony with prejudiced suspicion.