Showing posts with label Schools. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Schools. 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?

Children and School: A Snapshot on 3 April

Threading four news items reported this morning:

A bunch of children shown climbing a tall ladder in news videos inspire everyone the world over. That they brave near-vertical cliffs for school is a popular meme on twitter today. The BBC reporter inevitably draws a link to China’s rapid development having eluded the region. Is it easy or necessary though to constantly judge one region’s conditions compared with another's? It is hard to ignore the pristine cloud forests in the backdrop there (Sangzi, Hunan). Roads destroy and divide habitats such as that. Unless she has severe acrophobia, would the child necessarily be better off caught in the midst of a school traffic phenomenon so severe it has its own Wikipedia entry? With all our common knowledge of the advantages of modernised urban life, can we also acknowledge and not dismiss the perks of an active life in wild surroundings?
Portrait of Haitian Girl Western Sahara - Refugees
A child in Port-au-Prince, in Dakhla,
Speaking of comparisons between Chinese and American schoolchildren, an interesting account of what happens when immigration eventually does pit them together: something about the success of tuition classes aimed at local students in Chinatown is now attracting non-Chinese students from all over New York City. Not that proximity matters today. Even when they remain separated across the pacific, comparisons with their Chinese counterparts appears to be high on the policy agenda in the US.

Afghanistan Faces of Tsunami Disaster
in Mazar-i-Sharif, and in Mulliyavalai. Photos courtesy United Nations, via Flickr, licensed under a Creative Commons License
Whether you face a difficult trek to school and happen to get low grades, or face perilous traffic conditions and yet consistently top the class, surely what matters most is that you are cared for and you have a school that you are motivated enough to go to every day. That you were not abandoned either by those that nature entrusted with your care or those that society elected to be responsible, as continues to happen to far too many children in almost all parts of the world.

Old School

Much of what we (25 and over) learned in school is now moot.

Makes me wonder how schools cope with the lag in updating textbooks in the Information Age. Even the most advanced teachers who largely dispense with texts in favour of videos and such cannot hope to keep up with students who follow science blogs. I imagine schools turning into battlegrounds – at least those that have teachers like mine who encouraged students to challenge them in class. And if you think I am exaggerating the issue, let us take stock of the magnitude of what has changed.

Religion may have led to settlement and necessitated agriculture, rather than the other way around. That is a big one. For all the militant atheism supposedly sweeping the world, it seems we might need a second look at religion after all. To understand who we are and where we come from, we examine how we progressed from a gloriously natural animal existence to the present. It is profoundly central question - what came first? Did the need to transcend our physical existence to seek a higher spirit give rise to the first fixed building or did the discovery of cultivating a food surplus finally allow us to settle down?

You might want to sit down for this next one. I often goes after E, never mind where C is. And this is not even a new finding. Turns out, there are – and have always been – far more words that flout that rule than otherwise! English teachers around the world - yes, including English English teachers - just never bothered to check. Many, I fear, still continue to refer to it while helping students to spell better. Imagine the shock they get when they leave school. Even Harry Potter was stumped, which is some consolation.

ChampagnePool-Wai-O-Tapu rotated MC
Champagne Pool, Wai-O-Tapu, near Rotorua, New Zealand © Christian Mehlf├╝hrer, Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Life arose in the sea, we were told and always thought. It certainly added to the awe I felt during pre-dawn strolls along sea shores; apart from its sheer vast spread and unfathomable depths, it was also where we came from. Evidence since uncovered suggests that the first living cells may have emerged in geothermal pools on land. The open ocean just got a little less enigmatic.

Pluto used to be planet. There were nine. But this one I expect they must have corrected even in texts by now.

(Update: We have far more than five senses, including thermoception, proprioception, equilibrioception, and nociception. And oh, glass is back to being consdered boringly solid. I remember being fascinated to hear in class that window panes of old churches get thicker at the bottom because it 'flows'.)

From revisionist accounts of history and alternative economic models to genuinely new insights in physics and biology, there is plenty more that is rapidly changing in the human ken. I just hope teachers learn some way to deal with it.