The Problem With Assuming Exogenous Preferences: Women in Science and Math Edition

There has been a lot of discussion of the gender imbalance in certain technical fields – mathematics, computer science, etc. While gender ratios in some fields (medicine, biology) are evening out, women are still quite underrepresented in the “hard” natural sciences. Via the Contexts Crawler:

The significant gender gap in these careers is often blamed on science and math classes in schools, apparent differences in aptitude, as well as potentially sexist companies. Although women make up nearly half of those participating in the paid labor market, they hold only a small proportion of careers requiring high-qualifications and receiving high earnings. Women make up only 20% of our country’s engineers, less than 30% of chemists, and only about 25% of those specializing in computing and mathematics.

Contexts Crawler goes on to cite a Boston Globe story reporting on recent research by economists with an utterly unsurprising (to me) finding:

Now two new studies by economists and social scientists have reached a perhaps startling conclusion: An important part of the explanation for the gender gap, they are finding, are the preferences of women themselves. When it comes to certain math- and science-related jobs, substantial numbers of women – highly qualified for the work – stay out of those careers because they would simply rather do something else.

One study of information-technology workers found that women’s own preferences are the single most important factor in that field’s dramatic gender imbalance. Another study followed 5,000 mathematically gifted students and found that qualified women are significantly more likely to avoid physics and the other ‘hard’ sciences in favor of work in medicine and biosciences.

My question is this: What does this finding explain? If you believe preferences are exogenous – determined at birth say – then this finding explains a lot. Equally capable men and women have different preferences for careers and thus we will naturally find a wide gap in certain fields.

But who actually believes that preferences are determined exogenously at birth? And if preferences are not exogenous, then what you have really found is a new question: Why do women prefer to “work with people” while men prefer to “work with things”? The Boston Globe article actually does a reasonable job of raising precisely these questions. The problem is not in the more nuance discussion in the last page of the article, but in the first:

It’s important to note that these findings involve averages and do not apply to all women or men; indeed, there is wide variety within each gender. The researchers are not suggesting that sexism and cultural pressures on women don’t play a role, and they don’t yet know why women choose the way they do. One forthcoming paper in the Harvard Business Review, for instance, found that women often leave technical jobs because of rampant sexism in the workplace.

But if these researchers are right, then a certain amount of gender gap might be a natural artifact of a free society, where men and women finally can forge their own vocational paths.

Here’s a hint: “society” doesn’t have “natural artifacts”. To the extent that the two are useful analytical terms, they are quote opposed. If society is producing women and men with divergent interests, that is by no means a natural outcome. Indeed, I’d bet the ‘interest gap’ has declined in the last 100 years as more women have been taught that careers in science and math were even a possibility, let alone a perfectly reasonable life plan. This kind of research will be used to justify cutting precisely those programs that might instill in mathematically-talented women a desire to go into math or physics in the name of sacred, immutable preferences.

Take home point: Preferences do not precede society. Explanations in terms of preferences are thus not ‘natural’ or ‘immutable’ and while they do lead to a new question (why do people have these preferences?), these explanations are not particularly satisfactory on their own.

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