Glory vs. Relations

From a thoughtful essay by Christina Sommers: 

MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins, … (a prominent accuser of Harvard president Lawrence Summers … [who suggested] men and women might have different propensities and aptitudes), points to the hidden sexism of the obsessive and competitive work ethic of institutions like MIT.  "It is a system," Hopkins says, "where winning is everything, and women find it repulsive. … The list of cultural norms that appear to disadvantage women … includes the favoring of disciplinary over interdisciplinary research and publications, and the only token attention given to teaching and other service" …

If asked to make a drawing, little girls almost always create scenes with at least one person, while males nearly always draw things – cars, rockets, or trucks. … Among primates, including our closest relations the chimpanzees, males are more technologically innovative, while females are more involved in details of family life. … After two major waves of feminism, women still predominate – sometimes overwhelmingly – in empathy-centered fields such as early-childhood education, social work, veterinary medicine, and psychology, while men are over-represented in the "systematizing" vocations such as car repair, oil drilling, and electrical engineering. …

[Consider] women’s [amazing] progress in veterinary medicine …


Nationally, women now comprise fully 77 percent of students in veterinary schools, compared with 8 percent in the 1960s. Maines writes, "To be sure, puppies are cuter than microchips, but most of what veterinarians do isn’t about cute. Veterinary medicine … remains irreducibly bloody, messy, and often hazardous … It certainly requires a rigorous scientific education that is at least as difficult and daunting as what engineering demands."… Veterinary medicine would be a dream job for the scientifically gifted but empathy-driven female. This challenging and exciting field appeals to the feminine propensity to protect and nurture – and the desire to work with living things. …. [In] systematizing fields, free of people, children, or animals – professions like mechanical engineering, metallurgy, or agronomy … the number of men eager to enter these fields is markedly greater.

Humans often signal their abilities, resources, and loyalties.  Two common signal packages are glory (ability and resources realized into rankable achievement) and relations (resourceful able folks tied to you in mutual loyalty), and it seems men tend more to prefer glory, while women more prefer relations.   Social status in men vs. women seems to differ according to glory vs. relations, at least as seen in some mortality data, but it is hard to say how universal it is. 

If real, what biases might result?  Some say men are biased to glory over relations: "No one on his deathbed ever said he wished he’d spent more time at the office."  Are women also biased toward relations, later regretting that they sacrificed glory to secure relations?

Perhaps a more robust bias is that we think what is good for us is also good for the world.  For example, in stock male warhero and superhero fantasies, folks save the world or community and also happen thereby to achieve respect and praise.  Similarly, in stock female healing-through-love-and-understanding fantasies folks promote world peace, national reconciliation, or family closure via relation-building conversations, socializing, and travel.  Beware such self-serving fantasies. 

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  • Cyan

    “Two common signal packages are glory (ability and resources realized into rankable achievement) and relations (resourceful able folks tied to you in mutual loyalty), and it seems men tend more to prefer glory, while women more prefer relations. Such a tendency is consistent with some mortality data, but it is hard to say how universal it is.”

    I’m having trouble seeing what mortality data has to do with signalling via glory or relations. Can you expand on this point a bit?

  • Laura ABJ

    Robin Hanson: If real, what biases might result? Some say men are biased to glory over relations: “No one on his deathbed ever said he wished he’d spent more time at the office.” Are women also biased toward relations, later regretting that they sacrificed glory to secure relations?

    Do you really even need to ask this question? How many people here have mothers who have accused their fathers or their children of eating their careers? How many complain about getting pregnant and not finishing school, or wasting their time fucking around with too many men and not taking school seriously enough? This cry is so common, it is almost a stereotype.

  • http://www.iphonefreak.com frelkins

    @Robin
    “Are women also biased toward relations, later regretting that they sacrificed glory to secure relations?”

    Hasn’t technology made this issue obsolete? I might put forward that this is a false dichotomy now. My first example is Tila Tequila, who parlayed her distinction of having the most friends on Myspace into a TV career – thus achieving “glory” thru “relations.”

    But actually we can reach back into the past for other examples – Pamela Harriman comes to mind, the woman who most famously became a DC powerbroker and arguably made Bill Clinton president, not to mention being ambassador to France, as perhaps also does some of the famous “salon hostesses” and muses of 19th century Europe.

  • Cyan

    Hasn’t technology made this issue obsolete? I might put forward that this is a false dichotomy now.

    Technology hasn’t made this issue obsolete, because not everybody has the same access to the technology. But technology is a side issue — societal expectations are much more important. This issue won’t be obsolete until a father choosing to stay home with the kids while a mother works is as socially acceptable as the converse.

    (General question: if you were reviewing a resume of a man who had taken several years off to take care of his pre-school-aged children, would it affect your assessment?)

    And examples of specific women who fall outside of the generally prevailing conditions do not change the fact that the conditons really are generally prevailing. Look at the bulk, not the outliers.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    Isn’t Nancy Hopkins suggesting that men and women might have different propensities and aptitudes?

    When I was a child, I drew pictures of things. I wanted to draw pictures of people, but I knew they’d come out terrible, so I stuck to things made out of straight lines.

  • poke

    I think there’s two strong explanations for the lack of women in the hard sciences and engineering that need to be taken into account before we look at innate differences (or sexism). I rarely see them mentioned though.

    (1) The modern demographic make-up of the hard sciences and engineering is different to other fields. Foreign students and minorities from Asian cultures are vastly overrepresented compared to society at large and other academic disciplines. The male:female ratio should therefore be expected to be heavily influenced by the male:female ratio of academics in these demographic groups that may have more conservative views of the roles of women.

    (2) The hard sciences are poorly compensated. We should rationally expect women to move first into well-compensated appealing professions before they “choose” to become manual laborers, sewerage workers or physics grad students. Less appealing fields will naturally lag behind. Becoming an academic scientist involves years of study for little reward. I recall seeing data that during the 90s dot-com boom, female participation in Computer Science here in the UK spiked to near parity but dropped off rapidly after the bust, indicating that compensation is key.

    I don’t doubt that there are difference between men and women but this “nurturing” vs. “systematizing” nonsense is bordering on hilarious caricature. I actually find the notion that male scientists and engineers are seeking glory more amusing than that women like to work with puppies. The fields where one goes to seek glory and status (business, finance, law, medicine) have better representation of women than engineering and the hard sciences (where we go to toil in obscurity and beg for meager scraps from the glory-seekers).

  • MZ

    Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that a woman is more likely to drop her plans to follow a man than vice versa. Girlfriend may drop out of school to follow boyfriend who just graduated and got a job elsewhere. That certainly fits with the glory vs relations model.

    2) The hard sciences are poorly compensated. We should rationally expect women to move first into well-compensated appealing professions before they “choose” to become manual laborers, sewerage workers or physics grad students.

    There’s good data in professional and graduate programs. Women are at parity with men (or outnumber men) in medical schools, while they are a small minority in science graduate programs. Medicine, at least the academic aspect, is a lot of science, so it’s not that they can’t do the science. So we have to ask what the differences between the fields are. Yes, compensation is different, but medicine is a more people-oriented and empathic field.

    Re: Hopkins and Summers, the differences between men and women go beyond breasts and penises. As a statistical average, there are many physiological differences: in hormone levels and sensitivity to those hormones, in fat distribution and metabolism, and in propensity to acquire certain disease. I think the suggestion that the brain is the only structure immune to selection is the truly radical idea.

  • gwern

    poke, re compensation: this is Philip Greenspun’s position as well. (See http://philip.greenspun.com/careers/acm-women-in-computing – I would swear he has a longer article pointing out in more detail exactly how bad a career move the hard branches are compared to softer stuff, but I can’t seem to find it in his cluttered site.)

  • Laura ABJ

    I’m not quite certain why the nature-nurture question is so important to everybody- especially those of you who believe the universe is in imminent danger of ending. Whether by biology or acculturation, or cultural positive feed back towards slight tendencies in biology, women have developed a different, though not worse and not all that differnt, skill set from men. At least from my vantage it seems that the future of humanity institute has epically failed in utilizing them, and that is a travesty considering the possible female contributions to the question of grace and how to make a machine with compatible human morality. I think that the discussion of gender differences is relative to the discussion of possible mind space, and that in that thin sliver of mind space where men and women do not overlap, you might find some new tools. Or maybe that’s just my raging, hormonal, irrational Femm speaking out… Not that I’m volunteering for this job.

  • Laura ABJ

    Also of note- huge numbers of gay intellectuals. Might this be evidence for what a more female-type psyche could accomplish if cultural barriers were removed?

  • josh

    Is there any reason to believe that gay men have a “more female type psyche” wit respect to this context?

  • josh

    Robin,

    “Some say men are biased to glory over relations”

    You might consider men biased with respect to maximizing their deathbed perceptions of life, but wouldn’t it be just as reasonable to say that men prefer a higher glory to relations ratio than women on average?

  • Laura ABJ

    Josh- I am not certain of this, because it’s hard to know what agendas funded what research, but there seems to be evidence that gay men are hormonally and neurally (fMRI) more similar to women than heterosexual men. Gay men also display interests that are considered typically female- psychology, people, empathy, fashion, home-making, child rearing…

  • Laura ABJ

    *correction-
    gay men are hormonally and neurally (fMRI) more similar to women than heterosexual men *ARE*.

    IE- I mean gays and women have more in common than straights and women- not that gays have more in common with women than straight men.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    Another point to consider with regard to the deathbed-reflections issue is that retrospective memories of happiness often differ from contemporaneous evaluations. Even if someone wishes at the end that they had spent more time with friends and family than at work, they might actually have been happier during those high-intensity working hours.

  • http://zbooks.blogspot.com Zubon

    Laura ABJ, are you thinking of the research discussed here? The Language Loggers believed the research to have been mis-reported, with several follow-up posts on headlines and stories based on it but not (strongly or at all) supported by it. You may know of better research.

    This may not be the place to get into the weeds of that specific question. My experience supports your comment on interests, although I have seen just the opposite too. I just felt a [citation needed] coming on.

  • Laura ABJ

    Finney has a good point. It’s like I explained to my father-in-law when he was appalled that his daughter becoming a kindergarten teacher was an ‘absurd waste of a good brain,” that people have other desires in life besides reaching their genius potential.

  • Tim Tyler

    Re: I recall seeing data that during the 90s dot-com boom, female participation in Computer Science here in the UK spiked to near parity but dropped off rapidly after the bust, indicating that compensation is key.

    An extremely unlikely-sounding state of affairs. I would need to see some pretty good supporting references, rather than a recollection, before taking it seriously.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    The hard sciences are poorly compensated. We should rationally expect women to move first into well-compensated appealing professions before they “choose” to become manual laborers, sewerage workers or physics grad students.

    Engineering, computer science, and even math, pay much better than psychology, sociology, literature, nursing, teaching, and women’s studies. Yet men predominate in the former, women in the latter.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    It may be relevant to consider women’s choices to work or stay home with kids. Kahnemann and Krueger published a study to determine how happy people were during various activities (PDF link). As it happened, the subjects were all Texas working women, providing insight into this question. Table 2 on page 13 ranks 19 activities by enjoyability. “Intimate relations” (meaning challenging intellectual debate, right?) ranked highest, as I’m sure most of us would find unsurprising.

    Unfortunately from the perspective of the work-vs-raise-kids question, both activities were among the lowest ranked of all. Work was 2nd from worst, and childcare was 4th from worst. Only commuting was worse. Socializing, eating, exercising, etc. were highly ranked as enjoyable. The discouraging conclusion is that if your choice is to stay home and raise the kids vs work away from home, either way you’re going to be miserable. It appears that childcare is slightly less horrible than working, for these women, but it hardly makes the choice seem an attractive one.

    This would suggest that giving women more and better choices could improve overall happiness. This study does not tell us whether men also dislike working as much as women; but it’s possible that at least part of the problem is that working women feel guilty about leaving their kids part of the day, making their time away that much less pleasant. If society were more equal in sharing child-raising burdens then this might help, as working women might feel better if they knew that their husband was taking care of the kids. This is of course speculative. It would help to have data comparing work happiness among working men and working women with various family situations in terms of childcare responsibilities.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/Akhna/ Ben Wraith

    Nancy Hopkins complained about the competitive environment “where winning is everything.” I saw an interesting article in New Scientist the other day about girls actually being just as competitive as boys, it was just that they competed via social exclusion instead of less subtle means.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/rhhardin/ Ron Hardin

    Vicki Hearne had the answer long ago, which I’ve copied out here.

    Roughly that men abstract away details in order to reach a decision, and women add specifics until it’s complex enough to interest them.

  • billswift

    That reminds me of something I read 15 or 20 years ago, maybe by Pournelle, but I’m not sure. Paraphrasing (definitely not quoting) from memory, “Engineers solve problems by breaking them down until each part can be solved; bureaucrats and lawyers get their job security by combining problems until they form a mass no one could possibly solve.”

  • George McCandless

    An Argentine woman Ph.D. meteorologist told me that there are an unusually high number of women in the physical sciences in Argentina. Since the sciences pay quite poorly here (a Ph.D. physicist teaching in the national university and working in a research center will earn about 1000 dollars a month, not enough to support a family at middle class standards) so she claimed that the low wages kept men out of the field and allowed women (who in Argentina normally provide the second income in a family and want a job with flexible hours) to be relatively dominant.

  • Sociology Graduate Student

    There is a lot of good stuff in this essay, but doesn’t she oversell it a little bit? Take this paragraph towards the end:

    “Few academic scientists know anything about the equity crusade. Most have no idea of its power, its scope, and the threats that they may soon be facing. The business commu­nity and citizens at large are completely in the dark. This is a quiet revolution. Its weapons are government reports that are rarely seen; amendments to federal bills that almost no one reads; small, unnoticed, but dramatically con­sequential changes in the regulations regarding government grants; and congressional hearings attended mostly by true believers.”

    Do we really believe this could be a significant roadblock for scientific progress?

  • Female Physics

    My best physics teacher so far has been a woman. She actually cared that you learned. She got emotionally involved. When at one point I failed to understand something and gave up on it, she got visibly concerned “Is everything alright with you (at home, emotionally, etc.)?” She worked it out with me. No other teacher has ever paid so close attention. I got my best grades with her.