Sexism Inflation

What counts as “sexism” seems to be slowly inflating. You may recall that in 2005, Larry Summers lost his job as Harvard president for suggesting that genetically-caused ability differences contribute to women doing less well than men in science. In 2017, James Damore lost his job as a Google engineer for suggesting that Google has fewer female engineers in part because women tend to have different preferences, being more artistic, social, neurotic, and tending to prefer people to things.

Now a recent article describes the sad story of a math paper on why males are more variable on many traits in many species. Its key idea is that variances is rewarded when less than half of candidates are selected, while variance is punished when more than half are selected. This paper was accepted for publication by a math journal, and then it was unaccepted. Then this happened again at another math journal. No one claimed there was anything technically wrong with the paper, but they did claim that it was “damaging to the aspirations of impressionable young [math] women”, that “right-wing media may pick this up”, that it “support[s] a very controversial, and potentially sexist, set of ideas”.

So first it was sexist to suggest human women have lower science ability, then sexist to suggest women have differing tech-job preferences, and now it is sexist to say that in general across species and traits males tend to have more variance because they are selected less often.

My job seems safe and I haven’t had any publications unaccepted. But I can report on a different kind of inflation regarding what counts as (something close to) sexism: it seems now not okay to presume that male-female differences that were common in the past may continue on into the future, unless you explicitly say that such differences are due to evil discrimination and claim that the future will be full of evil discriminators.

My evidence? In my book Age of Em, I guess that past male-female differences may continue on into the future. This includes differences in what each sex desires in the other sex, and differences in employer demand for each sex in differing circumstances.

On differing desires, Sarah O’Connor said in a Financial Times review back in 2016:

One also has to believe that current economic and social theories will hold in this strange new world; that the “unknown unknowns” are not so great as to make any predictions impossible. Certainly, some of the forecasts seem old-fashioned, like the notion that male ems will prefer females with “signs of nurturing inclinations and fertility, such as youthful good looks” while females will prefer males with “signs of wealth and status”. Even so, the journey is thought-provoking. (more)

On differing labor demand, Philip Ball said in Aeon just this last week:

He also betrays a rather curious attitude to the arrow of historical causation when he notes in The Age of Em that male ems might be in higher demand than female ems, because of ‘the tendency of top performers in most fields today to be men’. (more)

Here is the entire relevant section from my book on labor demand by sex:

The em economy may have an unequal demand for the work of males and females. Although it is hard to predict which gender will be more in demand in the em world, one gender might end up supplying proportionally more workers than the other. On the one hand, the tendency of top performers in most fields today to be men suggests there might be more demand for male ems. However, while today’s best workers are often motivated by the attention and status that being the best can bring, in the em world there are millions of copies of the best workers, who need to find other motivations for their work. On the other hand, today women are becoming better edu- cated and are in increasing demand in modern workplaces. There are some indications that women have historically worked harder and more persistently in hard-times low-status situations, which seem similar in some ways to the em world. (p.338-9)

So I consider both possibilities, higher male and female labor demand, and for each possibility I note a sex-difference pattern from the past suggesting that possibility. Why does that suggest a “curious attitude to the arrow of historical causation”? Emailing the author, I was told that “a blank statement of male predominance today could easily be misinterpreted as an acceptance of something natural and inevitable in it” and “To say that [men] have been the ‘top performers’ implies that they achieve better on a level playing field.” And also “such differences … [might] arise because of a choice to perpetuate the inequalities we have seen historically. And one certainly can’t dismiss that possibility. But you do not say that.”

So it seems that today, to avoid (something close to) the label “sexist” (or “old-fashioned” on sex differences), it is not enough that you avoid explaining past observed sex differences in behavior in general in terms of sex differences in any selected parameters, including abilities or preferences, and including their means or variances. One must also presume that such differences will not continue into the future, unless one explicitly claims they will be caused by continued unfair discrimination. Regarding sex differences, predicting the future by guessing that it may be similar to the past is presumed sexist.

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