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?