Correcting for the Selection Function: Gender

The under-representation of women and minorities within certain areas of academia, business and education, particularly in high-paying jobs and managerial roles is well documented. Anti-discrimination laws can only do so much when unconscious bias is rife. This is where affirmative action comes in, controversial as it is, in the form of any of the following:

  • scholarships for minorities
  • prioritising minorities given equal qualifications
  • diversity quotas.

The general idea is to account for the “selection function” that is privilege. In science, data is collected from objects which satisfy certain criteria. Often, the data we really want is convolved with the selection function. An example from astronomy is when you include only galaxy clusters brighter than a certain threshold in your sample; you are more likely to include objects: of higher mass; at low-medium redshift; that have cool-cores. If one wants to know the properties of an otherwise “fair” sample, you must perform some kind of deconvolution or correction (easier said than done). That’s what affirmative action attempts to do (also easier said than done). For the rest of this blog-post, I look at recent attempts to improve the representation of women, in particular, as well as responses to these .

Personally, I feel we need to pay far more attention to childhood development. How young people are conditioned to emulate certain behaviours that are socially acceptable, and identify certain career paths with gender (but there’s hope!). Ideally, gender quotas would force us to encourage young women to take on non-traditional roles. But to be honest, there’s something disconcerting about the way they leave women vulnerable to being perceived — not just by others but by themselves — as beneficiaries of lower-standards. Case in point: the Australian left-wing Labor party implement quotas but the right-wing Coalition do not. The latter had only woman in Cabinet announced in September 2013. This was followed by general uproar, and then came the comment from Coalition Senate leader Eric Abetz that twisted the knife: “these positions should be based on merit rather than on quota”. To me, gender quotas feel like an awkward first attempt at doing something… anything.

From a business perspective, there exists a fear of reduced productivity resulting from politically-correct laws. To appease such employers, I’ve heard such gloriously over-blown arguments as:

  • “women bring a different perspective”
  • “gender-balanced teams are more productive”

The former argument makes me want to puke.

The latter may be true, but it gives the wrong impression. It inadvertently shifts the weight of responsibility for the productivity of the whole team onto the shoulders of women. One might instead point out that if only 45% of the population is encouraged to pursue a particular career path, you lose 55% of potential candidates, and the result is actually a weaker hire. Conversely encouraging women (and girls from the get-go) widens the pool of potential candidates and ultimately results in a stronger hire. However, this argument only applies when considering the gender or racial bias, seeing as women and non-whites are not exactly a minority in the global population.

Harvard Business School conducted an extensive experiment on the class of 2013 for the purposes of improving gender relations by running discussion groups and teaching (female students) assertive in-class behaviour; there was the addition of teacher training in an effort to increase numbers of female senior faculty members. The overview in the New York Times makes for a fascinating, though uncomfortable read. The experiment uncovered a worrying trend in single women choosing between academic and social success. In a similar vein, the teaching methods of women were found to suffer because of a need to be liked. I wonder if the behaviour and body language associated with social success doesn’t always correlate with that associated with professional success, authority and power… depending on your gender. In any case, one issue cut deep:

“She was happy with her job at a California start-up, but she pointed out that she and some other women never heard about many of the most lucrative jobs because the men traded contacts and tips among themselves” 

This goes to the heart of one of the road-blocks that women face: it’s difficult to compete against The Old Boys’ Club. So perhaps we need a female equivalent, although I’m not sure I’m comfortable with endorsing any such kind of exclusivity.

Whether at business school or preschool, more radical attempts to change attitudes towards gender roles can meet with exasperated responses such as

“is this political correctness gone too far?”


“it’s all very well to provide this nice environment in a sheltered supportive space, but it doesn’t prepare them for the real world. Aren’t we leaving them ill-equipped to deal with reality?”

Thus, the argument goes, if the world is a tough place, then we should make our educational institutions just as tough, so as to prepare the students.

And I suppose change will just happen by magic?


6 thoughts on “Correcting for the Selection Function: Gender

  1. Matt Francis

    Gender stereotyping and programming must start pretty young in my experience. My daughter Keira (just turned 2) loves trucks, cars, blocks, switches and dials. For her birthday she got some great presents from close friends and family (i.e. the people who know her and us well) such as a set of plastic nuts and bolts that she loves playing with. But from more casual friends and neighbours she got mostly bland pink fairy/princess crap. If you go into a toyshop the ‘boys toys’ are typically interactive and interesting and the ‘girls toys’ are pretty and mostly passive.

    I’m sure there’s plenty of girls (and boys) who do, of their own accord, develop an interest in the pink princess/fairy stuff, but their must be a whole lot more who get it all foisted upon them and develop accordingly.

    1. madhurakilledar Post author

      Oh yeah it’s pretty disturbing how toys are marketed (and how well-meaning adults are bought into it). Meanwhile, there is quite a bit of research into children’s preferences for toys, but this kind of study is really problematic for all but the youngest infants: conditioning starts really early!

  2. Al Black

    I’ve been a feminist and a advocate for equal opportunity since the early 1970’s, but I’m not convinced that women should be the same as men in every way: they are better than that. There is however still no definitive answer to the “Nature or Nurture” question. It is fashionable to blame gender difference 100% on “Gender stereotyping”, but in my experience some of the gender differences seem to be hard-wired. For instance most long-haul truck drivers are men: it is not because little Johnny was given a plastic truck to play with when he was four: it is because boring, fatiguing work that takes you away from your family for days on end pays better than say office administration jobs, where you work in a clean air-conditioned office and get to go home each night. Women with children make decisions based on their desire to nurture their own children and maximise the time spent with them. In my view this proves the superiority of the female intellect placing work/life balance ahead of remuneration. By comparison, “men work in jobs they hate, to buy things they don’t need, to impress people they don’t like!” That’s not just my opinion, it’s a quote from the Dalai Lama.
    Only 20% of Australian Engineering Graduates are women while over 55% of Law, Commerce and Finance graduates are women. Could it be that women would rather work in a Law firm than in a mine in the Outback? They’ll be paid more and can have a home life as well: smart decision, I’d say.
    We do not have to have equal proportions of each gender in every occupation, just equality of opportunity. Maybe in 50 years, women will be over-represented in managerial and professional careers while men will be over-represented in the dirty, manual and boring jobs. It’s still a long way to go, but that is the direction of the trend.


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