Of Gender and Rationality

Among all self-iden­ti­fied “ra­tio­nal­ist” com­mu­ni­ties that I know of, and Less Wrong in par­tic­u­lar, there is an ob­vi­ous gen­der im­bal­ance—a male/​fe­male ra­tio tilted strongly to­ward males.

Yet surely epistemic and in­stru­men­tal ra­tio­nal­ity have no gen­der sig­na­ture. There is no such thing as mas­culine prob­a­bil­ity the­ory or fem­i­nine de­ci­sion the­ory.

There could be some en­tirely in­nocu­ous ex­pla­na­tion for this im­bal­ance. Per­haps, by sheer his­tor­i­cal con­tin­gency, as­piring ra­tio­nal­ists are re­cruited pri­mar­ily from the athe­ist/​liber­tar­ian/​technophile cluster, which has a gen­der im­bal­ance for its own rea­sons—hav­ing noth­ing to do with ra­tio­nal­ity or ra­tio­nal­ists; and this is the en­tire ex­pla­na­tion.

Uh huh. Sure.

And then there are the less in­nocu­ous ex­pla­na­tions—those that point an ac­cus­ing finger at the ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity, or at wom­ankind.

If pos­si­ble, let’s try not to make things worse in the course of hav­ing this dis­cus­sion. Re­mem­ber that to name two parts of a com­mu­nity is to split that com­mu­nity—see the Rob­bers Cave ex­per­i­ment: Two la­bels → two groups. Let us try not to make some of our fel­low ra­tio­nal­ists feel sin­gled-out as ob­jects of scrutiny, here. But in the long run es­pe­cially, it is not a good thing if half the po­ten­tial au­di­ence is be­ing ac­tively filtered out; what­ever the cause, the effect is no­tice­able, and we can’t af­ford to ig­nore the ques­tion.

Th­ese are the ma­jor pos­si­bil­ities that I see:

(1) While the pure math of the right Way has no gen­der sig­na­tures on it, we can imag­ine that men and women are an­noyed to differ­ent de­grees by differ­ent mis­takes. Sup­pose that Less Wrong is too dis­agree­able—that rel­a­tive to the ideal, just-right, perfectly-ra­tio­nal amount of dis­agree­ment, we have a lit­tle more dis­agree­ment than that. You can imag­ine that to the men, this seems nor­mal, for­giv­able, take­able in-stride—wrong, per­haps, but not re­ally all that an­noy­ing. And you can imag­ine that con­versely, the fe­male-dom­i­nated mir­ror-image of Less Wrong would in­volve too much agree­ment rel­a­tive to the ideal—lots of com­ments agree­ing with each other—and that while this would seem nor­mal, for­giv­able, take­able-in-stride to the fe­male ma­jor­ity, it would drive the men up the wall, and some of them would leave, and the rest would be grit­ting their teeth. (This ex­am­ple plays to gen­der stereo­types, but that’s be­cause I’m spec­u­lat­ing blindly; my brain only knows half the story and has to guess at the other half. Less ob­vi­ous hy­pothe­ses are also wel­come.) In a case like this, you be­gin by check­ing with trusted fe­male ra­tio­nal­ists to see if they think you’re do­ing any­thing char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally male, ir­ra­tional, and an­noy­ing.

(2) The above points a finger at the ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity, and in par­tic­u­lar its men, as mak­ing a mis­take that drives away ra­tio­nal women. The com­ple­men­tary ex­pla­na­tion would say: “No, we have ex­actly the ra­tio­nal amount of ar­gu­ment as it stands, or even too lit­tle. Male new­com­ers are fine with this, but fe­male new­com­ers feel that there’s too much con­flict and dis­agree­ment and they leave.” The true Way has no gen­der sig­na­ture, but you can have a mis­take that is char­ac­ter­is­tic of one sex but not the other, or a mis­take that has been cul­turally in­cul­cated in one gen­der but not the other. In this case we try to sur­vey fe­male new­com­ers to see what as­pects seem like turn-offs (whether nor­ma­tively ra­tio­nal or not), and then fix it (if not nor­ma­tively ra­tio­nal) or try to soften the im­pact some­how (if nor­ma­tively ra­tio­nal). (Ul­ti­mately, though, ra­tio­nal­ity is tough for ev­ery­one—there are parts that are hard for any­one to swal­low, and you just have to make it as easy as you can.)

(3) It could be some in­defin­able differ­ence of style—”in­defin­able” mean­ing that we can’t pin it down tightly enough to du­pli­cate—whereby male writ­ers tend to at­tract male re­cruits and fe­male writ­ers at­tract fe­male re­cruits. On this hy­poth­e­sis, male writ­ers end up with mostly male read­ers for much the same rea­son that Ja­panese writ­ers end up with mostly Ja­panese read­ers. In this case I would sug­gest to po­ten­tial fe­male au­thors that they should write more, in­clud­ing new in­tro­duc­tions and similar re­cruit­ing ma­te­rial. We could try for a mix of au­tho­rial gen­ders in the ma­te­rial first en­coun­tered on-site. (By the same logic that if we wanted more Ja­panese ra­tio­nal­ists we might en­courage po­ten­tial writ­ers who hap­pened to be Ja­panese.)

(4) We could be look­ing at a di­rect gen­der differ­ence—where I par­en­thet­i­cally note that (by con­ven­tion in such dis­cus­sions) “gen­der” refers to a cul­ture’s con­cept of what it means to be a man or woman, while “sex” refers to ac­tual dis­tinc­tions of XX ver­sus XY chro­mo­somes. For ex­am­ple, con­sider this in­spira­tional poster from a 1970s chil­drens’ book. “Boys are pi­lots… girls are stew­ardesses… boys are doc­tors… girls are nurses.” “Modern” cul­tures may still have a strong dose of “boys are ra­tio­nal, girls are un-self-con­trol­led crea­tures of pure feel­ing who find logic and in­deed all ver­bal ar­gu­ment to be vaguely un­fem­i­nine”. I sup­pose the main rem­edy would be (a) to try and cor­rect this the same way you would cor­rect any other sort of child­hood dam­age to san­ity and (b) pre­sent strong fe­male ra­tio­nal­ist role mod­els.

(5) The com­ple­men­tary hy­poth­e­sis is a di­rect sex differ­ence—i.e., the av­er­age fe­male hu­man ac­tu­ally is less in­ter­ested in and com­pel­led by de­liber­a­tive rea­son­ing com­pared to the av­er­age male hu­man. If you were mo­ti­vated to cor­rect the sex bal­ance re­gard­less, you would con­sider e.g. where to find a pre­filtered au­di­ence of peo­ple com­pellable by de­liber­a­tive rea­son­ing, a group that already hap­pened to have good gen­der bal­ance, and go re­cruit­ing there.

(6) We could be look­ing an in­di­rect gen­der differ­ence. Say, boys are raised to find a con­cept like “tsuyoku nar­i­tai” (“I want to be­come stronger”) ap­peal­ing, while girls are told to shut up and keep their heads down. If the mas­culine gen­der con­cept has a stronger en­dorse­ment of as­piring to self-im­prove­ment, it will, as a side effect, make a stronger en­dorse­ment of im­prov­ing one’s ra­tio­nal­ity. Again, the solu­tions would be fe­male au­thors to tai­lor in­tro­duc­tions to fem­i­nine au­di­ences, and strong fe­male role mod­els. (If you’re a woman and you’re a tal­ented writer and speaker, con­sider read­ing up on an­tithe­ism and try­ing to be­come a Fifth Horse­woman alongside Dawk­ins, Den­nett, Har­ris and Hitchens...?)

(7) We could be look­ing at an in­di­rect sex differ­ence. The ob­vi­ous evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy hy­poth­e­sis be­hind the im­bal­anced gen­der ra­tio in the icon­o­clas­tic com­mu­nity—the athe­ist/​liber­tar­ian/​technophile cluster—is the idea that males are in­her­ently more at­tracted to gam­bles that seem high-risk and high-re­ward; they are more driven to try out strange ideas that come with big promises, be­cause the ge­netic pay­off for an un­usu­ally suc­cess­ful male has a much higher up­per bound than the ge­netic pay­off for an un­usu­ally suc­cess­ful fe­male. It seems to me that male teenagers es­pe­cially have some­thing like a higher cog­ni­tive tem­per­a­ture, an abil­ity to wan­der into strange places both good and bad. To some ex­tent, this can be viewed as a prob­lem of au­tho­rial style as well as in­nate dis­po­si­tions—there’s no law that says you have to em­pha­size the strangeness. You could start right out with pic­tures of a happy gen­der-bal­anced ra­tio­nal­ist unchurch some­where, and ban­ner the page “A Re­turn To San­ity”. But a differ­ence as ba­sic as “more male teenagers have a high cog­ni­tive tem­per­a­ture” could prove very hard to ad­dress com­pletely.

(8) Then there’s the hy­poth­e­sis made in­fa­mous by Larry Sum­mers: Male var­i­ance in IQ (not the mean) is higher, so the right tail is dom­i­nated by males as you get fur­ther out. I know that just men­tion­ing this sort of thing can cause a web­page to burst into flames, and so I would like to once again point out that in­di­vi­d­ual IQ differ­ences, whether de­rived from genes or eat­ing lead-based paint as a kid, are already as awful as it gets—noth­ing is made any worse by talk­ing about groups, since groups are just made out of in­di­vi­d­u­als. The uni­verse is already dread­ful along this di­men­sion, so we shouldn’t care more whether groups are in­volved—though of course, thanks to our poli­ti­cal in­stincts, we do care. The reme­dies in this not-ac­tu­ally-any-more-awful case are (a) con­tinue the quest to sys­tem­atize ra­tio­nal­ity train­ing so that it is less ex­clu­sively the pre­serve of high-g in­di­vi­d­u­als, and (b) re­cruit among pre­filtered au­di­ences that have good gen­der bal­ance.

(9) Per­haps women are less un­der­rep­re­sented on Less Wrong than may at first ap­pear, and men are more likely to com­ment for some rea­son. Or per­haps women are less likely to choose visi­bly fem­i­nine user­names. The gen­der ra­tio at phys­i­cal mee­tups, while still un­bal­anced, seems no­tice­ably bet­ter than the visi­ble gen­der ra­tio among ac­tive com­menters on the In­ter­net. Not very plau­si­ble as a com­plete ex­pla­na­tion; but we should con­sider hy­pothe­ses that in­volve un­bal­anced par­ti­ci­pa­tion/​visi­bil­ity rather than un­bal­anced at­trac­tion/​re­ten­tion.

Part of the se­quence The Craft and the Community

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