Building a sex is harder than most people imagine

Now will you believe me? I keep saying that sex and sex determination are far more complex than just whether you have the right chromosomes or the right hormones or the right gonads, and now here’s a lovely diagram that illustrates some of the steps in sex determination.

The biology is set up to favor driving an individual to one side or the other, but there are so many detours that can be taken en route that it is ridiculous to ignore all the people who end up following a more unique path.

Dunning-Krueger and evolutionary biology fandom

A graphic designer, Katherine Young, redesigned a girls’ magazine cover to highlight the implicit assumptions we all tend to make about women:

I ran across this on Facebook, where someone posted it approvingly, and I agree — why shouldn’t girls and boys be reinforced for a wide range of abilities? You can be pretty, or you can be smart, or you can be strong, or you can be brave, or you can be sensitive…or you can be all of those things at once, even, although then I’ll hate you for being so much better than me. No! That’s not it! We should give everyone opportunities to be all those things, and others as well, and avoid channeling them down a single acceptable path.

But then someone commented on that post, and it was fascinating. I’m used to criticizing creationist for appallingly bad reasoning abilities and misuse of scientific theories, but here’s a magnificent example of someone babbling pretentiously in favor of some narrow scientific concepts, and applying them as a justification for his gender biases. It’s kind of horrifying. It’s also painfully common.

So this person (all names removed to protect the guilty) asks for a clarification. He doesn’t get one, but that doesn’t matter, he’s on a roll.

it seems to me that you are suggesting that is immoral or at least somehow improper for females to be evaluated using physical characteristics that highlight fertility such as facial symmetry, skin texture, hip to waist ratio, etc. and that instead they should be judged on mental abilities that enable them to have a career. is my understanding of your intent correct?

The implication being that the females should be judged on the basis of their potential fertility, where fertility is the most desired quality, but things like intelligence make no significant contribution to their maternal abilities.

I wonder if he’d make the same demands on boys: we should be evaluating them on symmetry, penis length, sperm count, and combat ability, because those contribute to men’s purpose in life, which is to crush their competitors and impregnate females. I didn’t ask, because I was afraid that he’d say yes, and also think those are good things.

Because of course what he claims to be driving his ideas is an objective position on evolution.

given the great demands placed on the female body during homo sapiens’ lengthy gestation and lactation period, would it be wrong for me to suggest that encouraging males to select mates based on characteristics that enable the female to generate wealth independent of a mate rather than on their ability to bear children may have long term negative effects on the species. or is that just the crazy in me talking?

Oh, man. A couple of problems here: evolution doesn’t care what’s “good” for the species. It’s all about short term responses for individuals and their progeny, and different strategies work for different individuals. One size fits all is not a smart plan for a diverse population.

Humans have complex lives and a difficult maturation process. It also wouldn’t benefit us if females were reduced to a shapely, symmetrical uterus perched atop some wide, sexually attractive hips. Maybe benevolent evolution should be shaping men to be uxorious and devoted stay-at-home fathers so their mates can focus on that beauty thing, for the good of the species?

I should also point out that this idea that we men, from our limited perspective, can actually assess what traits are “good for the species” has an unpleasant history. That’s the basis of eugenics, the idea that we can control the complex genetic interactions involved in our development, physiology, and behavior, and that we can predict what traits will be directly beneficial for future generations. We can’t. That we can’t doesn’t stop people from over-simplifying the problem and pretending that they know exactly what’s best for everyone else.

It’s pointed out to him that he’s making the fallacy of composition. Does he care? Of course not! Because evolution. And because he cares about these girls <shudder>.

that may be true but i would caution throwing the baby out with the bath water and ignoring the evolutionary reasons behind our obsession with beauty, not just because of the long term impact on the species as a whole, but also because of the individual impact on the mental well being of young girls

Again with the “species as a whole” argument! How does he know what’s good for the species as a whole? For example, right now we’re seeing a long term pattern of decline in sperm counts in many human populations. Would he favor artificial selection for fecundity in boys for the “good of the species”?

He also seems to think he knows best what is good for the mental well being of young girls, and that is to focus on beauty and appearance and fashion. Some girls will be happy with that, and of course they can follow that course…but others are not. What are we to do with them, for the good of their mental health? Tell them to shape up and memorize cosmetics brands, so they’ll be happy and well-adjusted? I never faced that specific pressure, but I was told as a kid by my peers and teachers that I, as a boy, was supposed to like sports, and should turn out for baseball and football. I was judged because I wasn’t good at sports (maybe some of you experienced the same phenomenon), and it wasn’t good for my emotional well-being. I liked to read books instead. All I needed in my life was some jerk trying to explain to me that my interests in science were not good for the species, and that they had an evolutionary justification for why I needed to butt heads with the big boys on a grassy field.

But now we get into the religious argument. This is an example of uninformed religious dogmatism.

it seems to me that you always turn the natural order of things upside down! sometimes i am not sure if you are serious or just playing with me :)

not everyone can be smart and win the google science fair. suggesting to young girls that they have to be smart in order to have a meaningful and successful life might not be the best way to go.

natural order of things is a dead give-away. How do you know? Why is it that the natural order of things is always a matter of a guy informing girls that they are supposed to make themselves attractive to him?

And that last line…has he considered that suggesting to young girls that they have to be pretty in order to have a meaningful and successful life might not be the best way to go? Probably not.

One last quote…

when i was young and naive, the vanity of women frustrated me. especially because i was a slob, i could not understand their obssession with adorning themselves with all kinds of paints and bows and ribbons and shiny trinkets, but now that the passions of youth that blind objective contemplation have been reduced a few dimly glowing embers buried in a pile of ashes, i understand there are evolutionary forces behind these obssessions and i can accept them as the natural order of things.

The hypocrisy…he was a slob, but he knows best what women should do. He thinks women as a whole are vain. But now that he has found Jesus evolution, he understands the reason why women should be working so hard to make themselves beautiful — it’s to enhance his ability to reproduce, and theirs, too, because the only way a woman can improve their fitness is with a good hip-to-waist ratio, while he can get away with being a pompous slob.

I am not fooled at all. This is a man using poorly understood sciencey buzzwords to justify his culturally supported biases.

Why I am a biologist rather than a physicist

I’ve never written my name in the snow. I’ve never participated in a competition to see how far I can urinate. These are apparently serious deficits in my experiences that affected my ability to visualize three-dimensional trajectories, according to some sad academics.

But the academics argued that ‘playful urination practices – from seeing how high you can pee to games such as Peeball (where men compete using their urine to destroy a ball placed in a urinal) – may give boys an advantage over girls when it comes to physics’.

Oh, no! I never even heard of “Peeball” before! But according to these wankers, it’s an important life lesson in physics.

This self-directed, hands-on, intrinsically (and sometimes extrinsically, and socially) rewarding activity must have a huge potential contribution to learning, resulting in a deep, embodied, material knowledge of projectile motion that’s simply not accessible to girls.

Where did this nonsense come from? It was published in the Daily Mail, so I felt a momentary relief — that rag is all garbage, so it’s not surprising that they gave it some credit. But where did they get it? The Times Educational Supplement. Christ.

The authors argue that there is a serious problem here. I agree.

The gender gap in physics, and other related subjects including engineering, has long been a cause for concern. This has led to both educational innovations as well as policy interventions such as Change The Equation, Sage and Wise. However, there is little evidence that such campaigns have much effect. For example, Wise was set up in the UK in 1984. In that time, the fraction of female students studying physics in the final two years of school has hovered around 20 per cent.

Therefore we have to ask: why don’t young women perform as well in physics?

Then they acknowledge that there are a whole lot of social forces biasing women’s opportunities and choices. Also true.

Of course, there are likely to be a number of complex, interacting reasons, some of which can be changed more easily than others. The majority of physicists are male, and this reinforces a masculine culture. Historically, logical and mathematical ways of thinking have long been associated with masculinity (although all three of us would argue that such modes of thinking are not particularly masculine or feminine). Most physics teachers are male, so there aren’t many female role models for physics students.

There may also be cultural effects outside the discipline – parents may offer boys more encouragement to study physics as it leads to later study of, for example, engineering (another field that struggles to recruit and retain women).

Knowing all that, they then hare off after this wacky idea that boys learn physics by peeing up to five times a day, so by 14, boys have had the opportunity to play with projectile motion around 10,000 times. Good god. They haven’t done any serious analysis; they watched some youtube videos of people peeing in the snow, they heard a few anecdotes about pissing contests. They did no experiments. They did not propose any tests of their hypothesis. They don’t even suggest possible controls. They make a few jokes about peeing. And they get that published.

There are probably a few people who will take this bullshit seriously, because we know one thing for sure: there are guys who will seize upon any biological basis for their supposed superiority.

I had no idea dresses were encoded in our DNA

Well, your DNA, ladies. Not mine. I have manly DNA that makes me incapable of wearing a skirt.

This fellow, Nigel Rowe, yanked his kid out of school and is planning to sue the school for discrimination…because they allowed another little boy to attend classes wearing a dress. They are just outraged! This is unnatural! It confuses their child, because mommy and daddy say boys can’t wear dresses, but there he is, acting as if it is perfectly reasonable to flaunt how wrong mommy and daddy are!

His reasons are fatuous.

There’s a distinct difference between male and female, not just in what you wear but also within our DNA, the way that we are as boys and the way that we are as girls.

We feel that there’s a political agenda that’s driving and pushing this. Remember we’re talking children that are six years of age.

A six-year-old is not really able to, does not have the mental capacity to work out those kinds of things. It’s such a young age and we’re concerned about that.

We can distinguish biological sex in a number of ways: you can look at the chromosomes, for Barr bodies, for hormones, at anatomy. These are usually, but not always, concordant. But as we look at phenomena like behavior, personality, sexual orientation, it’s not uncommon to find the situation to be far more complicated and for mismatches to arise. And when we look to cultural signifiers, like what clothes you wear or how you style your hair or even how one behaves in public, there is no DNA bias at all — those differences are entirely imposed by culture. To bring up DNA here is try and falsely imply a scientific justification for bigotry. It’s a lie to insist that molecules define your identity.

It’s also obnoxious to disrespect the autonomy and intelligence of six year olds. I remember my kids at six — and they weren’t stupid, unthinking little drones. But then, they weren’t fundamentalist Christians, either.

Yeah, he’s also lying when he claims his objections are driven by scientific evidence. They’re religious nuts.

As Christians, we believe that all people are loved by God. But the school’s behaviour has created a clash between our family’s rights and the imposition of this new ideology.

Allow me to remind you: the school is not imposing anything on their child. The school is allowing someone else’s child to reasonably express their identity, and the Rowes are accusing them of having a political agenda, as if being an intolerant Bible-walloping dorkbag is no agenda at all.

Something rotten in Rochester

The cognitive and brain science department at the University of Rochester had a good reputation, but one rotten apple, a computational linguist named T. Florian Jaeger seems to be spoiling the whole barrel.

Seven current and former professors, including Kidd and Aslin, as well as another former graduate student, have submitted identical EEOC complaints claiming that Jaeger, the University of Rochester, and several administrators violated laws that ban discrimination in the workplace and in federally funded education, and stating their intent to sue if the EEOC does not take up their case. The charges, laid out in a detailed 111-page document, allege that over a span of 10 years Jaeger contributed to a “hostile environment” for some graduate students, postdocs, and professors in the department, causing at least 11 women to actively avoid him and lose out on educational opportunities.

Charges were made and investigated, and the university ended up dismissing them and supporting Jaeger. I want to say that a procedure was followed and we should abide by the decision of the reviewers, except something is funny here. The results of the investigation weren’t exactly an acquittal.

The investigation into Jaeger’s behavior took about three months. In her final report, UR investigator Catherine Nearpass concluded that Jaeger had had a sexual relationship with at least one graduate student in the department, as well as a prospective Ph.D. student; that parts of his behavior were inappropriate; and that he “liked to push boundaries with students,” the EEOC complaint alleges. Still, the university ultimately found that Jaeger had not violated the university’s policy against discrimination and harassment, and that there was not enough evidence to conclude he sexually harassed Kidd or any other student in his lab. An appeal was unsuccessful.

Whoa. They confirmed that he was having inappropriate relationships with students, but did not find the complaints of 11 women credible? Something is seriously wrong with that investigation.

Also disturbing: these accusations were made before Jaeger was tenured, and he was tenured anyway. You’ve got a junior faculty member who can’t even keep it in his pants for the few years needed to earn tenure, and this wasn’t throwing red flags everywhere? Heck, this is a bonfire on the beach, flares and rockets being fired upwards, and it was just overlooked in the review?

It seems that the chair of the department, Greg DeAngelis, took Jaeger’s side, and is now retaliating against the faculty he accused of “smearing” Jaeger. The star of the department, Richard Aslin, has resigned in protest, and other faculty are trying to find jobs elsewhere.

Now here’s a statement from someone who knew Jaeger.

I went to graduate school with Florian Jaeger. He was a couple years ahead of me. I am not shocked that he’s been called out for sexualized behavior. I am shocked that he’s been called out for non-consensual behavior. It is totally okay to be a sexual being. It is utterly deplorable to be a sexual bully. His actions are not only morally reprehensible, but they are damaging to our entire academic community, and harmful to academic progress. Because I might have once called him a friend, it’s all the more disappointing and frankly frustrating that he has behaved in this way. (And yes, I am intentionally using active language here because we know that the default in discussions of sexual harassment is to use passive voice to protect the aggressor.)

Florian and I had lunch not too long ago, where he gave me some genuinely good advice about, ironically now, how to foster collegiality as a graduate supervisor. I’m not writing this blog post to demonize him, although he should clearly be held accountable for his actions. The point is not to shake our heads at one person, and then totally give up on that person, and just chalk it up to an isolated incident, and move on with our lives as if it has nothing to do with us. The point is that we are all complicit. This is a systemic problem, and has been for a long time. I believe the only way we’re going to change it is if we academics take responsibility for ourselves, and have hard discussions with one another, and try as much as possible to listen humbly and fully and not get defensive. Especially those of us with relatively more power. Especially men.

This is a system that doesn’t consider an abuse of power to be a reason to not give more power to the abuser, so this is exactly correct.

The SJWs are taking over Science Fiction!

I’m not particularly fond of circular logic, but it sure gets used a lot. Here’s an example: there are more men working in tech than women, therefore men are better at coding than women. It’s easy to find people who accept that reasoning without a qualm.

But those same people balk at another example: more women than men are getting published in science fiction now, therefore women are better writers than men. They go to extraordinary lengths to rationalize away the current difference. Why, the SJWs must be actively discriminating against men! I can prove it using math, because men are also naturally better at math than women!

I have found the most remarkable example of this “proof”. This fellow has gone through back issues of various magazines and tallied up the number of male and female authors published — and also the number of “not real sex” authors, which sort of tells you right there what kind of regressive asswipe we’re dealing with. He comes to the conclusion that there’s a huge discrepancy in the numbers of F&SF stories getting published by men and women, and that it’s the product of a conspiracy by SJWs to actively harm men. Really!

It’s been obvious for a long time in publishing that men need not apply, you’re not welcome. But now in the 2% where men were actually allowed to compete, it’s been completely taken over by social justice warriors who don’t care in the least about equality, but want to actively harm men both as professionals and readers.

In order to demonstrate this, he engages in some amazing cherry picking and distortion of the statistics. He plugs numbers into a spreadsheet and then does some weird analysis. For example, here’s the month-by-month counts for a podcast, the Escape Pod. The thing is, there are huge numbers of podcasts out there — why is he selecting this one? Is he going to exhaustively summarize the state of the podcast genre (no, of course not, because that would be a huge undertaking), or is he selecting this one because it will support his claim? You know it’s the latter. I looked it up, and here’s one of the criteria for entries in the podcast:

We are especially interested in seeing more submissions from people of backgrounds that have been historically underrepresented or excluded from traditional SF publishing, including, but not limited to, women, people of color, LGBTQ or non-binary gender people, persons with disabilities, members of religious minorities, and people from outside the United States.

If you identify as part of these or other underrepresented groups, we welcome and encourage you to indicate so when you send us your story. We acknowledge the reality of unconscious bias and will make our best efforts to account for it during the editorial review process. Our goal is to publish fiction that reflects the diversity of the human experience.

So yes, they intentionally are casting a wide net, and are trying to bring in diverse writers. They aren’t discriminating against men at all.

So let’s see the numbers.

So a podcast that is actively encouraging diverse submissions still includes 20 stories from men, vs. 30 stories from women. That’s not bad at all. But wait: what’s that number? He’s saying that there are 50% more stories by women than men? That’s odd. How does he get that?

Looking at several of his examples, it becomes obvious: he’s taking the difference in the number of stories by men and women, and then dividing, not by the total number of stories, but by the number of of stories by men. It’s a way to amplify and exaggerate the differences — it allows him later to claim that some magazines publish 247% more women! 306% more women! Aaaiee! It’s a bullshit statistic, though.

And then there’s this interesting table: these are the long-standing big names in SF publishing: Asimov’s, Analog, and F&SF. There are more men getting published in the established magazines than women! You would think this would be a troubling statistic for his thesis.

So magazines that encourage diversity in their authorship get fewer submissions from men, which is totally unsurprising. What is odd is that a couple of magazines buck the trend. Why? Our intrepid investigator has an explanation.

The oldest of the old guard of magazines still seem to be a safe place to submit if you’re a man. Now the numbers look very skewed in men’s favors and a feminist might cry foul here saying that these magazines actually discriminate against women. This is where they’re wrong. A source that will remain nameless told me that the editor of Asimov’s, Sheila Williams, prints male to female stories in the ratio of submissions she receives. Even though the monthlies look a little suspect, if these periodicals still work in an old way of proportionate representation of submissions, this is probably an accurate picture of what Science Fiction authors make ups are overall, and what one should expect were that more the case.

Uh, wait. This is actually a bit bothersome. I expect the role of the editor is to select the best quality stories for publication, without regard for the identity of the author. This guy is actually saying that this is not true for Asimov’s — that they have a quota system. If 60% of the submissions for that month are from men, they decide that, regardless of quality, 60% of the published stories for that month have to come from that pile? So all the guys have to do is throw lots and lots of trash at the magazine, and they’ll effectively squeeze out stories from women authors?

Excuse me, but I don’t really believe that. If true, though, that works both ways, and all the women have to do to break the male hegemony at Asimov’s is to submit, submit, submit stories. Fish the crappy stuff out of the wastebasket and send it in anyway — it probably won’t get published, but it will enable more of your sister writers to get in.

Which is why I don’t believe this story.

But then take a look at his conclusion.

If you’re a man, even with the skewed results of the legacy three magazines of Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF, that are vocal about the fact that they’re proportionate in representation of submissions, you’re hosed. An analysis of all the markets that accept these submissions on a monthly basis (I left out Lightspeed Magazine which has dead even results), the total discrimination against men is big. The totals of all stories published in this market survey over a year are:

Men: 426

Women: 487

Which means women have a 14.3% advantage just in sheer numbers of stories published. If the industry holds with ratios of 4:1 submissions, and say the accepted represents about 1% of all submissions, it means there’s about 91,300 submissions in the industry. Rough estimates puts men at 73,040 submissions and women at 18,260 submissions.

First look at that bit I highlighted: he threw out a data point because Lightspeed Magazine happened to have equal representation of men and women authors — that is, he discarded data that didn’t fit his hypothesis. You don’t get to do that! He doesn’t even seem to be aware that this is a great big flaming no-no in data analysis. Of course, given how he chose to inflate numbers throughout, it’s not surprising that he’s clueless here.

Second, he’s claiming that discrimination against men is big, yet all he’s got to show for it is a difference of 426 to 487? What’s the statistical significance of that? Wait, scratch that: his methodology means that at best he’s confirming a bias he favored with his process, which isn’t particularly interesting. He intentionally selected magazines that are trying to acquire a diverse audience, so of course he sees some underrepresentation of men. It doesn’t say there’s a conspiracy, or that men are being harmed.

Third, to amplify his claim of discrimination, he brings in this other statistic: men submit more stories than women with a ratio of 4:1, so there’s even more invisible bias! To back up that claim, he mentions a submissions tracker and market database called The Grinder. I poked around in there, but didn’t see a way to pull up stats on women’s vs. men’s submissions — maybe someone could explain how you do that. But the thing is that in his one specific example of Asimov’s, Analog, and F&SF, he claims that the proportion published is representative of the proportion submitted, and it’s nowhere near 4:1. I also rather suspect that those magazines that encourage submissions by underrepresented groups also tend to get relatively fewer stories from your traditional white male engineering types, so the 4:1 doesn’t hold.

But given that 90% of everything is crap, I don’t find submission rates to be particularly compelling, so that line of argument is also crap.

But here’s my bottom line: of course there is bias! It’s everywhere! Some places will favor women, others will favor men. Go to your supermarket and look at the magazine racks: there are magazines “for men”, and magazines “for women”, and they tend to propagate some ugly stereotypes. In a field like science fiction that tends to encourage innovation and change, and that like all literary fields goes through waves of new emphases, there will be times when people are trying to shake up the old staid tropes, and that means that the previous beneficiaries of convention will fall out of favor, and will find it harder to publish. People are looking for new twists and interesting ideas in their fiction, and of course if you want to write stories exactly like the ones you read 30 years ago, you’re going to be discriminated against.

Or you’ll find a niche publishing market.

Really, I don’t choose my preferred reading material by the color of the author’s skin, or what genitals are slung under their pants. I read Nnedi Okorafor, or Scott Lynch, or Ann Leckie, or NK Jemisin, or China Mieville, because they challenge me with new ideas and good writing. Sometimes to get new ideas you have to encourage new perspectives, which tends to disrupt the Old Guard.

But here’s another factor that influences what authors I favor. The good ones (even the white male authors!) will read those new authors, too, and praise what they like and grow and change themselves to value those novel approaches, and their writing will get better.

The bad ones will read stories by authors different from themselves and resent it, and run away from the challenge, blaming others for their lack of adaptability and talent.

But don’t worry, White Men! You’re just as capable of writing great stories as people who are not White Men, as long as you don’t get tangled up in your persecution complex.

Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood? Jebus, just from the name you know it reeks

The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood has released something called the Nashville Statement. The name of the organization tells you everything you need to know about it. Here’s their first statement:

Yeah, no, no thanks. It’s just another homophobic, ant-transgender group of theocrats who want to deny the right to love and be happy to people who don’t fit their rigid dichotomy.

I was relieved about one thing: I first read it as the Council on Biological Manhood and Womanhood and was briefly horrified. Then, though, I realized that the people who argue for strict gender roles on ‘scientific’ grounds were no different, and Biological and Biblical have become practically the same thing to dogmatists, and I was horrified again.

At least the good people of Nashville are protesting the appropriation of their name for this poisonous document.

About Trump’s transgender military ban

I like this blunt statement by Robert Bateman on the subject.

These people are American patriots, they’re U.S. citizens, they’re willing to put their lives on the line, and they shouldn’t be forced to hide anything. Citing costs which are in reality utterly negligible, President Trump made a broad and sweeping announcement of this ban, 140 characters at a time. It is not only stupid, it is counter-productive.

Also relevant is this cartoon about real courage.

Perhaps, though, what Trump really wants is that “ass-licking acquiescence to power”.

Why choice must be supported

Kate Deloz’s grandmother died long before she could know her. And then she found out how she had died.

I was twelve years old when she finally told me the truth. Some friends and I had got into a long after-school discussion about abortion, prompted by the gruesome posters that a protester had staked in front of the Planned Parenthood in our Vermont town. I had already begun reading my mother’s Ms. magazines cover to cover, but this was the first time I’d encountered a pro-life position. When I hopped into my mom’s car after school, I was buzzing with new ideas. I had almost finished repeating one friend’s pro-life argument when I saw the look on Mom’s face. That’s when she told me: the “household accident” that had killed her mother had, in fact, been a self-induced abortion.

Her hands were tight on the steering wheel as she spoke. I realized later that it wasn’t the topic of abortion itself that made her so uneasy—she was a nurse and a Roe-era feminist who usually responded straightforwardly to even the most embarrassing health questions. Rather, her anguish arose from sharing a truth that she’d been brought up believing was too terrible to speak.

Sitting beside her in the passenger seat, I struggled to absorb the meaning of what she’d told me. I had only just grasped what abortion was a few hours earlier, and was still trying on this new pro-life idea. “O.K.,” I said, “but what about the uncle or aunt I never had?” Mom whipped toward me, face taut with a rage and fear that I somehow understood had nothing to do with me. “What about the mother I never had?” she said.

Read the whole thing. We learn that her grandmother, Winifred Haynes Maye, was an intelligent, well-educated, lively person who made a conscious decision to plan her family, and died because there was an absence of appropriate medical help. How many good people will we lose now and in the future because of the politics of ignorance?

The wage gap and women’s work

You’ve heard all the excuses to wave away the wage gap between men and women: it’s because men work harder, work longer, don’t get pregnant, and choose to work in more prestigious, higher paying fields. The people who make these arguments seem to be completely oblivious to the fact that the values that define the worth of kinds of work are entirely socially constructed (they deny the worth of the concept of social construction, for one thing). I just like to point out that if these claims were valid, and there was an objectively earned reward for hard work and time, then my father, who worked two jobs and came home exhausted with the grime of manual labor ground into his hands, should have been a billionaire.

But another point they evade is that there is an instant devaluation of a profession as soon as women begin to populate it. It’s useful to take a historical perspective and see how work is demeaned when it’s percieved as “women’s work”, as in this criticism of James Damore’s memo.

Damore seems to have bought into the conclusions of the worst kinds of evolutionary psychology. As a discipline, “evopsych” too often depends on inventing biological explanations for observed reality, rather than considering influences from culture and society. In the memo, Damore argues that “science” shows men are evolved to be more suited to computer programing. Science, of course, shows nothing of the sort. People who actually study the neuroscience of gender disagree with Damore’s conclusions. Moreover, as many folks quickly pointed out, women were the first coders. Programming was initially regarded as an extension of secretarial work, but men took over when the profession’s status (and pay) began to rise. “Computer girls” were replaced by “computer geeks” thanks to social factors, not biological ones. So much for Damore’s ideas.

There are other examples I did not know about! When men took over brewing (or when brewing became more profitable), the value of the work shifted.

Take brewing. In 14th-century England, women did most of the brewing, as Bennett first explores in a 1986 article on the village alewife. These brewsters made ale, which spoiled quickly after the cask was broached, so they would keep some for their family and sell the rest. Often, the small profits from these sales would enable them to buy ale, in turn, from other women while they waited to make a new batch. But then beer arrived in England from the Low Countries. Thanks to the preservative power of hops, it could be brewed and sold at commercial scale. The village alewife was gradually replaced by larger and larger brewing enterprises, requiring access to capital. Although there were exceptions, men had much easier access to capital than women. By the end of the 15th century, men dominated medieval English brewing.

And then there’s weaving.

One could tell a similar story about weaving, only in reverse. In the 14th century, weaving was a high-status, high-profit trade. Most weavers were men. Industrialization turned weavers into a lower-status occupation, so early-modern textile weavers in factories were generally women. It would be a mistake, as Bennett argues in her book History Matters, to merely observe the change in occupation—women become weavers—and thereby argue that women’s material or cultural status had improved. Change in occupation, she writes, does not mean transformation of status.

What I find odd is how often critics of these facts are painfully naive and ignorant about the complexity of the field they’re denying. See, for instance, this debate between Kristi Winters and Sargon of Akkad: right out of the gate, he claims the wage gap doesn’t exist at all (he also denies that campus rape is a problem…or rather, because rates are higher elsewhere, it’s a waste of time to work against it), and most significantly, just flat out rejects all of the social sciences. Which is weird, since his arguments against feminist ideas require distorting social science evidence while simultaneously claiming all social science is bogus. How does anyone know anything if you think all the disciplines that study a particular phenomenon are completely invalid?