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An update on the Ada Initiative

An update on the Ada Initiative

Posted Jan 13, 2012 2:28 UTC (Fri) by Cyberax (✭ supporter ✭, #52523)
In reply to: An update on the Ada Initiative by Julie
Parent article: An update on the Ada Initiative

Well, gender is not a social construct. It's a biological, psychological _and_ a social construct. There are very real gender differences in gender-related behavior that start before the age of 3. This is a fascinating topic in itself, the cases of biological/psycological mismatches are particularly interesting.

ex-USSR countries often have high percentages of women in hard science. And that's not just a fluke, but a result of deliberate policy of attracting women to scientific and engineering disciplines.

For all its faults, the USSR had been extremely egalitarian.

Russia is my home country and I'm a mathematician by education. About a half of my classmates in university were women. And they were definitely as good as men in all classes.

So yes, I'm sure that this initiative could be successful. Even though it alone is unlikely to change much :(


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An update on the Ada Initiative

Posted Jan 13, 2012 23:22 UTC (Fri) by Julie (guest, #66693) [Link]

"Well, gender is not a social construct. It's a biological, psychological _and_ a social construct."

I disagree about the biological part - (see my reply to Nix above, along with a definition for gender) and the psychological can be explained as learned behaviour too.

Regarding the 'very real gender differences in gender-related behavior that start before the age of 3', I would want to look very carefully indeed at these studies if they are trying to demonstrate that the behaviour arises from a biologically-determined origin.
As I mentioned in my previous post in response to giraffedata (which is very long, so I am not surprised if you have not read it ;-) cognitive neuroscientist Cordelia Fine has analysed quite a few studies involving young children and found them to be flawed, and unfortunately the lack of challenge over these flaws by the scientific community, combined with an uncritical and naive uptake of the studies by pop science magazines and forums taking their claims at face value, has led to researchers getting away with claims that range from highly questionable to downright daft [1].
I would be very interested if you could point me to the research that you are referring to that backs up what you are saying, but from what I have seen already I am not confident that it will be capable of swaying my opinion.

Behaviour is so utterly transformed in adults compared to anything that might be hinted at from an early age that it is silly to try and crudely extrapolate an elaborate social concept like gendered behaviour in adults from a few primitive behavioural traits apparently displayed in very young children (particularly when the design of tests trying to demonstrate these traits is fraught with conceptual and structural problems [2]). By the time children are even 10 years old they have necessarily been subject to such an immense amount of inescapable cultural conditioning and social learning that it is simply inappropriate to put down their behaviour to having a biological origin anymore - if this ever _had been_ the case, it would have long since been overwritten during the upbringing of the child.

"ex-USSR countries often have high percentages of women in hard science. And that's not just a fluke, but a result of deliberate policy of attracting women to scientific and engineering disciplines.

For all its faults, the USSR had been extremely egalitarian.

Russia is my home country and I'm a mathematician by education. About a half of my classmates in university were women. And they were definitely as good as men in all classes."

Which just goes to demonstrate what I am saying, right? The power of social and cultural determinants rather than biological ones, combined with the (explicitly human and deliberately-designed) factor of education. ;-)

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[1] This goes for studies that try and 'prove' a biological determinant for specific socially-derived human behaviours or socially-determined concepts (e.g. 'morality') in general, not just for studies that examine gender.

[2] Like, for example, getting children of both sexes to play with various toys and then deducing from the choice of toys that they are being chosen by the children on a sex-derived basis. So (to give a couple of examples from studies quoted by Fine) researchers think they can seriously suggest that when a girl chooses to dress up as a witch, and a boy chooses to dress up as an alien, this is a choice they make according to a biologically-predetermined basis.
This of course is nonsense: children are not born knowing what a witch and alien are, they learn the meaning of these (fantasy cultural) inventions as they grow - along with, necessarily, their gender associations at the same time.

Or, for the second example, researchers define a pan as a 'girl' toy. Why on earth should that be the case when children are not born into the world knowing how to cook? You might as well identify it as a 'boy' toy because it looks like a helmet.

What is inevitably happening here is that researchers are projecting their _own_ idea of what constitutes a 'male' or 'female' toy onto the toys, and this is undermining the entire objective basis of their experiment (a flaw which they completely ignore when reporting the results of their studies).
And this is at the heart of the problem of trying to prove sex-determined behaviour exists in young children.
Also, as Fine successfully argues and demonstrates in her chosen studies - you may well find gender associations made by children younger than 3 - because children start to absorb these associations before the age of 3.
The very definition of gendered behaviour is a social one, gender associations are acquired via social interaction and observation, so it is hard to see how 'associated dress, roles, stereotypes, etc.' can be 'proved' to be determined on a genetic, neurological or biological basis.

An update on the Ada Initiative

Posted Jan 14, 2012 6:30 UTC (Sat) by Cyberax (✭ supporter ✭, #52523) [Link]

>I disagree about the biological part - (see my reply to Nix above, along with a definition for gender) and the psychological can be explained as learned behaviour too.

Not in all cases. At least incidences of homosexual behavior in _animals_ are pretty constant throughout all populations. In human societies they are fairly stable as well.

>Regarding the 'very real gender differences in gender-related behavior that start before the age of 3', I would want to look very carefully indeed at these studies if they are trying to demonstrate that the behaviour arises from a biologically-determined origin.

There are several well-known medical cases, like transgendered children ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Reimer - the most famous one) and children with delayed puberty and androgin/estroegen insensitivity.
I'd been reading a lot about it last year, here are some references: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20358272 and http://psycnet.apa.org/?&fa=main.doiLanding&doi=1... So I think that biological gender-related differences are very real.

However, brain is very malleable especially regarding high-level abstract thought. So there's no real significant difference in the _ability_ of women to be good at math/science.

I think what _might_ be somewhat biologically driven is inclination of women to study hard science/math. And since we're talking about inclination, and not ability, it can be effectively influenced by social environment.

Biological factors in gender behaviour

Posted Jan 15, 2012 18:56 UTC (Sun) by Julie (guest, #66693) [Link]

"Not in all cases. At least incidences of homosexual behavior in _animals_ are pretty constant throughout all populations. In human societies they are fairly stable as well."

I'm confused. What has homosexual behaviour got to do with social roles, identification with gender stereotypes, choice of career, participation in a FOSS conference etc?

(So we are digressing here, but, in any case, are you talking about the proportion of the population that express homosexual preference? live as homosexuals? live as married homosexuals, or have multiple partners? live according to homosexual stereotypes, in which case, which ones, referring to males or females? What about bisexual people? What about people who start out with one sexual preference and move to another during the course of their lives?
Just this simple list of different behavioural possibilities provides a pretty good indication that we are profoundly different from, and much more complicated than, animals in our sexual preferences and behaviour, btw, and that our preferences can hardly be biologically predetermined. What would the determinant be?

Peter Tatchell, the well-known gay rights activist, has the following to say [1]:

'If genes determine our sexual orientation we would expect that in cases of identical twins where one was gay the other would be gay too – in every case. But, in fact, in only just over half the cases are both twins gay. The same lack of complete concordance is found in hormone-associated physical attributes. Not all gay men, for example, have a larger than average penis.

'My conclusion? While genes and hormones predispose a person to a particular sexual orientation, they do not determine it. They are significant influences, not the sole cause. Other factors are also at work. Social expectation, cultural values and peer pressure, for instance, push us towards heterosexuality. Without these pro-straight influences, more people might be lesbian, gay or bisexual.

'Wilson’s and Rahman’s biological determinist thesis has another major flaw. If we are all born either gay or straight, how do they explain people who switch in mid-life from happy heterosexuality to happy homosexuality (and vice versa)?'

I would certainly agree with his views here, although, like I said, without any proven determinant, I wouldn't be inclined to suggest that genes and hormones, or any 'wiring' of the brain, 'predispose a person to a particular sexual orientation'. Maybe they really do; but while there is not concrete evidence that they do, there is a wealth of societal evidence to suggest that they do _not_, expressed via the malleability of people's sexual behaviour.)

Thanks very much for all your trouble supplying me with the links, the case of David Reimer was especially interesting :-)

I think all the David Reimer case can really tell us about Reimer's preference is that he did not 'identify as a girl' after having had his physical sex determining attributes interfered with when he was a child, and that attempts to force a female identity onto him by treating him like a girl were unsuccessful. It does not demonstrate that identification with gendered _behaviour_ is biologically derived.
(To be honest, considering the appalling, distressing way Reimer was treated as a child by his psychologist, I would hesitate before drawing _any_ conclusions about what is 'normal' for human behaviour from how he subsequently turned out. I'm hardly surprised he was suffering from suicidal depression by the time he was 13.)

The passage about Reimer not identifying as a girl is interesting;

'He was ostracized and bullied by peers, and neither frilly dresses (which he was forced to wear during frigid Winnipeg winters) nor female hormones made him feel female.'

Here we have an indication of a presumed biological determinant _not_ working - the female hormones did not make Reimer 'feel female'. I.e., if female hormones (rather than one's highly personal, complex, identification of self) are all it takes to 'feel female' - whatever that means - we would have expected their introduction to have had that effect on Reimer.

That being forced to wear a frilly dress does not lead to one feeling innately 'female' against one's identity inclinations is hardly surprising, as the 'girliness' of frills is something that many 'normally'-brought-up girls pick up very early on (along with other gendered cues) as they grow up, assimilating frills into their developing 'female' personal identity (assuming they aren't already dressed up in frills by their parents from infancy). (Incidentally, it's a preference that can easily be discarded when girls get older, and learn that there's more to 'female' than frills. Boot-cut jeans, for example. Or - as in my case - girls may simply not like frills, even from an early age, for a reason that is as unclear as the one that links 'female' with 'frills' in the first place.)
There is, in other words, nothing that biologically predetermines a human child to choose to wear a frilly dress. In fact there is nothing that biologically predetermines humans to choose wear clothes of any type at all; no genetic, hormonal or neural pre-'wiring' for 'clothes'; it is a cultural phenomenon. When it is not done for pragmatic reasons (to protect us from cold) it is done for cultural ones.

But it appears not even a simple identification with your birth sex (let alone culturally-derived ideas about gender) is necessarily biologically predetermined in humans. What about people who develop 'normally' as one sex, but go on to choose to change sex via surgical intervention later in life? This is surely a choice driven by someone's conscious sense of an elaborate, personal self-identity, actually working _against_ all biological predisposition.

With regards to the pubmed study, I didn't find this especially helpful because of too-vague definitions. I can't find a link to the full article there (maybe I am not looking in the right place?) but at least in the abstract the link points to, while there are references to 'male gender identity' this is not elaborated; in psychotherapy, did the patient just keep expressing a desire to be physically male? Did the psychotherapists infer that the patient wanted to be male because they were behaving in a 'male-stereotypical' way, and if so, what way? Did they express a disinclination to wear a frilly dress, or express an inclination to become a particle physicist?
And what was the 'childhood-onset cross gender behavior' noticed since the age of 3? Who had noticed it, the patient's parents? How and why did they report it? In other words, I think we need to know if, how, and to what extent the report subject's gender identity might have been projected on to them by outside forces.

Fine looks at some studies dealing with CAH (congenital adrenal hyperplasia) in her book which examine whether girls with this condition are likely to be drawn to a male gender identity. The studies she looks at certainly seem to indicate that they do; they prefer playing with 'male' toys and are less interested in 'girlish' pastimes.
However she also urges caution when deriving any assumptions from the results of these studies.
Amongst other points she makes are the following;

- The high prenatal testosterone levels of CAH are not demonstrated to improve mathematical performance, rather it has been suggested that they impair it. Someone's future potential and personal or occupational choices cannot be determined by whether they have CAH.

- There has been no attempt to work out whether 'girls with CAH are drawn to some particular _quality_ in boyish toys and activities or whether they are drawn to them simply by virtue of the fact that they are associated with males'. I.e., the girls with CAH may be looking at what boys are playing with and then making their choices accordingly, rather than having some sort of hormonal predisposition to play with a truck instead of a doll (and why would that happen anyway?).
This is highly relevant to biologically deterministic arguments, and the case for this is strengthened when we see that CAH girls are less interested in activities that are certainly cultural, not biological, inventions, such as dressing up in girlish clothes and pretending to be a female character.

- The definition of toys as 'girlish' and 'boyish' often says more about the researcher's assumptions and preoccupations than it does about a child's choice of the toys. As Fine says, 'What form of brain masculinisation could lead to ... an interest in fishing over needlepoint ... or masculine costumes over feminine ones?'
In other words, while CAH girls may have a predisposition to identify with males to a greater extent than non-CAH girls, their subsequent behaviour is governed by _cultural_ norms. This is a lot more complex a picture than the one which attempts to draw a crude and direct correlation between girls choosing dolls/boys choosing trucks and hormonal predisposition, and it is only likely to become far more complex as the child grows up and elaborates a more detailed sense of 'self'.
Oh, and, of course, there are lots of girls that prefer 'male' pastimes to 'female' ones that don't have CAH :-)

- A reference note given by Fine makes the following point:
'As Bleier pointed out in her critique of earlier studies in this area, 'authors and subsequent scientists accept at face value the idea of tomboyism [such as play preferences, clothing preferences, career interests, and so on] as an index of a characteristic called "masculinity", presumed to be as objective and innate a human feature as height and eye colour. Yet "masculinity" is a gender characteristic and, as such, culturally, not biologically, constructed'.

From what I could deduce from looking at the abstract of the article from the APA, there was nothing implied there that contradicts my view that gender identity is learned. Indeed one sentence states:
'Because of the centrality of early gender development to the cognitive perspective, the latest research is reviewed on how infants and toddlers discriminate the sexes and learn the attributes correlated with sex.'
(There is an option to purchase this article, but I keep getting timed out when I try to do this, so maybe I will try another time. In any case this looks like an interesting source of references, thanks for the link.)

"However, brain is very malleable especially regarding high-level abstract thought. So there's no real significant difference in the _ability_ of women to be good at math/science."

Very true. Well, 'high-level abstract thought', and our explicit self-awareness and consciousness of which that is an expression, is what liberates us from the diktat of our biology (and is why I think it is so very misleading to compare human behaviour to that of animals).

"I think what _might_ be somewhat biologically driven is inclination of women to study hard science/math."

Surely that must be a very big 'might'. I think people develop inclinations to do things for all sorts of (complicated personal) reasons, which makes identifying a biological prompt for them pretty much impossible. How would the link be proved? Again, you have the problem that people move from one inclination to another over the course of their lives, or change from one occupation to a completely different one, while their biological constitution remains static.

[1] http://www.petertatchell.net/lgbt_rights/gay_gene/borngay...

Biological factors in gender behaviour

Posted Jan 15, 2012 20:21 UTC (Sun) by giraffedata (subscriber, #1954) [Link]

You seem to have departed from our discussion of whether biology influences X behavior to discuss whether biology absolutely predetermines X behavior. I don't think the latter is worth discussing; nobody here believes it requires a Y chromosome to like FOSS.

Biological factors in gender behaviour

Posted Jan 15, 2012 20:32 UTC (Sun) by giraffedata (subscriber, #1954) [Link]

What about people who develop 'normally' as one sex, but go on to choose to change sex via surgical intervention later in life? This is surely a choice driven by someone's conscious sense of an elaborate, personal self-identity, actually working _against_ all biological predisposition.

No, not so surely. A person going from A to B surgically typically says biology predisposed the person to be A in some ways but B in others, and the B ones (neurological ones affecting that conscious sense of self-identity) are more important, hence the corrective surgery.

I know you'll argue that the person is wrong; no need to repeat the argument. We just need to recognize that the question is there. Maybe biology isn't as simple as X-X vs X-Y.

Biological factors in gender behaviour

Posted Jan 15, 2012 22:28 UTC (Sun) by Cyberax (✭ supporter ✭, #52523) [Link]

>I'm confused. What has homosexual behaviour got to do with social roles, identification with gender stereotypes, choice of career, participation in a FOSS conference etc?

It's just yet another example of gender-related behavior. It'd be actually nice to have stats on FOSS participation for LGBTs.

>If genes determine our sexual orientation we would expect that in cases of identical twins where one was gay the other would be gay too – in every case

No, that's incorrect - genes rarely work as an on/off switch. Mostly they influence the probability of a certain phenotypic attribute.

However twins (even separated twins!) do have a high level of correlation for LGBT behavior ( http://borngay.procon.org/view.answers.php?questionID=000019 ). As far as I remember, about 60% of gender-related variability can be attributed to genetic factors.

So genetic factors do influence behavior. Is it too far-fetched to think that they influence preference for science/math?

Stats don't matter

Posted Jan 16, 2012 15:23 UTC (Mon) by blujay (guest, #39961) [Link]

> It'd be actually nice to have stats on FOSS participation for LGBTs.

No, it wouldn't. It's totally irrelevant to FOSS. We don't need surveys of white/black/latino, or male/female, or Christian/Buddhist/Muslim, or anything else! None of those should have any bearing on ANYTHING in FOSS.

The only thing that I can think of that might have any relevance is location, because different conditions in different places obviously will affect the number of people exposed to and participating in FOSS. But even that doesn't matter.

What matters are individual people, and for FOSS, the FOSS projects they are participants in. What matters is how people treat one another and the code (and non-code contributions) they contribute. That's all.

You know why it seems like racism and sexism won't die? It's because people won't let them go. People want to belong to something, and the easiest things to belong to are sex and race, because we're all born with them. But they don't matter--or they shouldn't. What matters is that we are all human beings, created by the same God. But it's hard for people to let go of their identities, like sex and race, etc, and be content with being part of the only identity that truly matters.

Stats don't matter

Posted Jan 17, 2012 18:59 UTC (Tue) by nix (subscriber, #2304) [Link]

No, it wouldn't. It's totally irrelevant to FOSS. We don't need surveys of white/black/latino, or male/female, or Christian/Buddhist/Muslim, or anything else! None of those should have any bearing on ANYTHING in FOSS.
Because potentially halving your developer pool and driving off half the human race -- that's got no bearing on ANYTHING in FOSS.

Is that really what you're saying? Doubling developer numbers is not something worth doing?


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