Just Because You Always Hear It, Doesn’t Mean It’s True: Gender Difference Explanations For Disparities in Tech Are Not Supported by Science

Unfortunately, we continue to hear it time and again: people perpetuating a misguided belief that innate gender differences –- whether in terms of ability, interests, or preferences -– are the primary cause for underrepresentation in computing (or other gender disparities). Despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary, these misunderstandings persistently circulate in popular culture and the public conversation.

Making matters worse, media coverage often implies that these are issues of legitimate debate. Sadly, this only serves to further confuse the public and hinder progress. As Yonatan Zunger writes, it is important to understand, “the difference between ideas that are up for debate and ideas that have been disproven… not all ideas are the same, and not all conversations about ideas even have basic legitimacy.”

In line with that thinking, we would like to be very clear: the claim that current patterns of occupational segregation can be mostly, largely, or anywhere close to adequately accounted for by innate gender differences is not a question of legitimate debate among qualified social scientists. Experts in the field may “debate” some small nuances or differences in their perspectives or among different studies —after all, that’s what social scientists do. Indeed, social scientists also lament the fact that some individuals seem to think that they are experts because they did a little -– or even a lot –- of side reading or self-guided “research.” But, on the larger question, experts are in agreement: gender differences are small, and even the ones that do exist are decidedly influenced –- even themselves shaped by, social factors; and they are not an adequate explanation for the patterns we see today.

So, that’s the short story. Let’s also be clear that this is not about shutting down conversation, but it is about not pretending to “debate” when we should instead “educate.” In a similar vein, we wouldn’t, for example, waste our time endlessly debating the merits of brushing your teeth with syrup.

While it is tempting to ignore these misinformed, misguided perceptions when they rear their ugly head, time and time again in public discourse, we also know that many well-intended people with a true spirit of inquiry become unnecessarily confused by these conversations and are not sure how to respond. For those who would like to dig deeper into the specifics, continue reading below for more detail, as well as for links to research summaries, original research, and additional thought-provoking responses to these questions.

First Problem: Misunderstanding the Research on Brain Differences

While some small gender differences in brain activity have been found in specific and limited contexts, qualified gender science experts from a variety of disciplines widely agree that there is virtually no evidence demonstrating that these are “hardwired” differences. There is, however, a wealth of evidence documenting how even brain activity is not set in stone but is, in fact, shaped by a variety of social factors. Contrary to popular opinion, biology is most decidedly not a one-way street. Experts also overwhelmingly agree that these differences in no way come anywhere close to accounting for the patterns of job segregation that we see today. 

For just a sampling of research related to this topic, check out these sources:

Second Problem: Misunderstanding the Research on Gender Differences in Interests or Aspirations

While some studies also find gender differences in "interests," "preferences" or so-called "choices," no evidence demonstrates that these are innate differences; meanwhile, plenty of research documents the profound effects social factors play in shaping these interests and career aspirations. We also know beyond a shadow of a doubt that women’s and men’s interests change and evolve over time and that people make different, so-called “choices” when other options become available or presented to them.

People sometimes ask, "Well if there are no consistent, predictable differences between women and men (e.g., if women don’t as a group bring something 'special'), then why do we need diversity in the first place?" The answer: People identifying as women and men experience life in different ways and are therefore often attune to different problems and solutions, but this does not play out in any neat, predictable way. This variability is further compounded by the fact that women and men are not homogenous groups; their life experiences also differ in terms of other social identities, such as race, class, sexual orientation, ability, and other kinds of differences. Bringing together people with diverse life experiences (and yes, how we are treated or experience the world based on these social identities is a large and significant part of this) improves problem-solving, innovation, and decision-making. The moral of the story is that diversity is beneficial but in indeterminate – not predictable or preordained – ways.

Of course, the other reason to address the social factors influencing women's and men’s interests, aspirations, and career decisions is because we know –- again beyond a shadow of a doubt –- that currently a number of otherwise highly talented people are being overlooked or not thriving in certain fields or occupations. If subtle biases and barriers are preventing people from achieving their full potential, it is of course worthwhile to attend to these.

And, another often overlooked fact is that addressing gender (and other) biases and expanding these social norms stands to benefit those identifying as men as well, allowing them also to thrive in ways they currently often find difficult (e.g., spending more time with their children or pursuing nontraditional careers themselves).

Find additional summaries of and references to original research addressing these topics:

Third Problem: Misunderstanding the Nature of Computing, Engineering, or Work in General

Those who resort to biological arguments to explain the gender gap, not only seem to misunderstand gender, they also seem to misunderstand computer science and engineering. Much has been researched and written about false, artificial, or exaggerated characterizations of professions as technical vs. artistic, math vs. verbal, or as being "people-" or “thing”-oriented. Historical and contemporary research clearly shows that many professions are characterized in evolving and contradictory ways, depending on the era and sociocultural context. In fact, most professions contain a mix of these skills and can be characterized in myriad ways. And, this is certainly true of computing and engineering. As Zunger, a software engineer himself, recently put it

"Engineering is not the art of building devices; it’s the art of fixing problems… Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers. If someone told you that engineering was a field where you could get away with not dealing with people or feelings, then I’m very sorry to tell you that you have been lied to. Solitary work is something that only happens at the most junior levels, and even then it’s only possible because someone senior to you — most likely your manager — has been putting in long hours to build up the social structures in your group that let you focus on code." ~Zunger

You can check out his full piece here.

Also, an NCWIT Summit plenary talk, The Glass Slipper: Leaning in……to the Evidence on Gender and the Professions, gives a thorough look at decades of research on how the characterization, perceptions, and status of professions change and evolve over time; how gender is used to shape the very nature of professions themselves; and how this shapes diverse participation in these fields. This research is also published in an award-winning article in Academy of Management Review.

In the end, these recent public discussions reinforce the old adage: just because you always hear it, doesn’t mean it’s true. For a field that claims to be “data-driven,” it’s time to stop the so-called “debate." But, as long as these “debates” continue, our commitment to using evidence-based research to educate and to correct these misunderstandings and fallacies must also continue.