Friday, November 1, 2013

Unequal Sex Distribution in IT and Other Careers – Is It a Problem?

There has been a remarkable amount of recent discussion about the share of women working in information technology.  According to the U. S. Department of Labor, 25% of the 3.6 million Americans employed in computer and mathematical occupations in 2011 were female.  Articles about the percentage of women in that field appeared in Slate, The New York Times, and other major publications last month, and BBC News Hour spent almost half of one broadcast discussing it.  These pieces share a common assumption, that this sex distribution and by extension others are problems which need correction.  That is incorrect.

To see why, let us go back to 1948.  Despite jobs being plentiful, women’s labor force participation was only 32.7%, compared with 86.6% for men.  A lot of working women were nurses, secretaries, elementary school teachers, or in other heavily female occupations.   The idea of feminism had not made it into the mainstream, and girls were routinely taught that their real occupations were to support their husbands.   Many American families could do that, since 1948 was into the Winning by Default Years, with great prosperity and little foreign competition, and salaries for even remotely middle-class people were well higher, in constant dollars, than they have been for decades since. 

Fast forward to 2010 and 2011.  Sex discrimination in employment is illegal.  Education levels for women are passing those of men.  Most families need two breadwinners.  Women’s labor force participation has risen to 58.6%, and for men it has fallen to 71.7%.  Many jobs once held almost exclusively by men have substantial shares of women, such as 31.9% of lawyers and 33.8% of physicians with newcomers to both roughly evenly split.  Most physical positions still have high male percentages, but some imbalances seem to defy logic.  Why are registered nurses and mechanical engineers 91.1% and 5.5% female respectively?  Why are 97.5% of dental hygienists women, but only 4.8% of truck drivers?  

Now, on to 2013.  After Harvard president Larry Summers’ comments eight years before suggesting that women’s underrepresentation in some technical fields might be because of statistically lower aptitude, the idea of men and women having brain arrangement differences has been discredited in both academia and the popular press.  Yet otherwise inexplicable gaps in attitudes and outcomes keep popping up.  The “opt-out revolution,” in which many times more women than men leave high-powered jobs to support their families at home, has continued, ten years after it was first publicized.  Debates on whether women can “have it all” and whether they should “lean in” by pursuing their career advancement more aggressively have precipitated much debate and commentary, much of it on whether women can be expected to be as competitive, and distant from their children, as men. 

Most of these changes have been favorable.  There is no doubt that equal rights for women are a good thing.  The problem is when equality of opportunity withers into a need for equality of results.   Author Warren Farrell documented a quarter-century ago that women tended to choose career paths less risky and more comfortable both physically and emotionally, and that explained why pay for librarians, usually required to have master’s degrees, was about the same as that of garbage collectors, many of whom did not even finish high school.  If librarians’ pay were doubled, the field would draw an excess of people attracted to its pleasant work settings.  Likewise, in order for much more than 2011’s 1.1% share of roofers to be women, their pay would have to increase well beyond the amount needed to fill available positions.

Yet this view is incomplete.  It does not explain why nurses, on their feet and dealing with life and death, are so rarely male, or why engineers, usually in nice offices, almost always are.  Something else is happening.  I worked in information technology, in large offices, for twenty years.  The jobs at AT&T, while well sought after, required enough intelligence, aptitude, and specialized education, the first two measured by testing before hiring, for only a limited set of people to be considered acceptable.  There were plenty of women overall, but it was noteworthy that the most hard-core technical positions, such as those requiring hexadecimal dump debugging or intensely abstract system programming, were almost always filled by men.  There was no sign of any sex discrimination around those jobs – there as elsewhere, people were given opportunities based on how well their skills and interests matched the needs of the business.  The environments, fine settings with no physical strain and the only emotional stress coming from office politics, were essentially identical to those of similarly-paying positions at which women predominated.      

It may be that we are near a high-water mark for considering the sexes equal in all aspects of aptitudes, preferences, and what they want from their jobs.  Eventually we may be able to accept that some groups of individuals making choices will never be demographically identical.  For now, we need to at least consider the possibility that some careers will attract more of one sex than the other.  The real problem we face is the job shortage, as shown by the 20 million positions that could be quickly filled if available, the 4.1 million officially unemployed for over six months, and much more.  Distracting ourselves by confusing equality of opportunity, which is the well-enforced law in America, with equality of results, which even our descendants may never see, is the wrong way to go.        

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