Sunday, January 23, 2005

Talking to Steven Pinker

Not really. I'm just pretending to talk to him. Pinker is this linguist who wrote a famous book called The Blank Slate, and lots of people think that he is the bees knees in genetic research into various group differences, such as the difference between men and women. In fact, he's a linguist. Quite a few of the other men who study gender sciences have their training in fields such as political science or law, I've noticed. Which makes it perfectly fine for a goddess to comment on these things, too.

Anyway, Pinker's book is really well written. It is so astonishingly well written that I suspect he was born a woman. Or I would suspect that if I was Pinker. It is so well-written that it takes very careful reading to see how very little he actually has as the proof of his various arguments. But notice that though he has a specific chapter on gender differences, he puts violence elsewhere. Pinker seems to view "gender" as synonymous with "female", and this is not unusual in the field in general. I'd say that if any form of human behavior shows strong gender differences in our current society, it's the way we express aggression, and yet violence is not in the gender chapter. Little things like this often help me to see what a person is really after. And I suspect that Pinker is after putting women in the proper place.

Which is not in the kitchen for him, but as a sort of an assitant manager.

His use of economic evidence in The Blank Slate is something I'm admirably able to criticize. Here's what I say about his discussion on the gender wage gap in another context:

Pinker appear to imply that economists haven't studied the gender gap or sex discrimination using proper econometric techniques such as multiple regression analysis. But in fact there is an extensive field of research of just this kind, easily accessible in peer-reviewed journals such as The Journal of Labor Economics and The Journal of Human Resources. I am a little surprised that he didn't place more reliance on this source material, but rather chose to focus on research done by right-wing think tanks. Politically motivated research, both from the left and the right, has an advocacy role and is rarely subject to the same quality guarantees as peer-reviewed research.

A good basic summary of the actual economic research done on some of the issues he addresses is in Joyce Jacobsen's text The Economics of Gender or alternatively in selected chapters of almost any textbook on labor economics, for example Bruce Kaufman's The Economics of Labor Markets.

I'd like to discuss three examples in Pinker's chapter on gender which are problematically interpreted due to insufficient economic sources. The first concerns the IWF study it refers to which found the salaries of men and women in one age group to be practically equal, the second concerns the question why more male than female physicians are independent entrepreneurs and the third the use of the term 'choice' in the context of women's occupational choices.

The IWF stands for the Independent Women's Forum, a conservative group. The IWF study is an empirical study of the wage gap which found that women and men at the beginning of their careers earned essentially the same salaries in the same jobs, and that differences in salary appeared later in the career paths of the individuals. The IWF interprets these findings to mean that the firms in the study do not discriminate on the basis of sex, for they appear not to be doing so with their new hires. That women's earnings lag later in this career the IWF sees as proof that these differences are caused by women's different choices, especially that of choosing to take time from work to have children.

This is one possible interpretation, and Pinker whole-heartedly accepts it. But economists have known for a long time that entry level salaries (which the salaries in the IWF study are) rarely show much difference between women and men or workers of different races, partly because the Equal Pay Act makes paying different amounts for the same work illegal. It is later in the workers' careers that the differences appear. What this means in theory is not always clear. One possibility is that workers reveal true productivity differences over time and are rewarded accordingly. Another for male-female comparisons is that women's greater domestic responsibilities make their labor market participation more sporadic which, in turn, affects their long-term earnings prospects negatively due to, for example, lower probabilities of promotion. Yet another one is that employers who want to discriminate are able to do it only through promotion and other placement decisions (because of the Equal Pay Act and other legislation hampering differential treatment of workers in the same jobs). (The combination of near equal starting salaries and later discrimination is called the Lazear effect.) Empirical research has tried to disentangle these effects from each other in a long list of studies. Some support has been found for all of them.

Pinker uses the statistical fact that male physicians are more likely to be entrepreneurs as evidence of a (possibly innate?) sex difference in risk-taking behavior. This should be interpreted much more carefully, given that recent changes in the US health care sector have made entrepreneurship very unattractive for most physicians. The majority of physicians who are entrepreneurs began their practise some time ago, at a time when few women entered medicine. Both women and men graduating today are much more likely to become salaried workers than entrepreneurs, simply because of the way health care is now financed.

Even more generally, differences in women's and men's entrepreneurship rates can't be assumed to reflect only sex differences in risk-taking behavior without first controlling for other factors which are relevant. These include women's traditionally much more limited access to the financial capital that is needed for starting a firm and women's greater responsibility for caring for children. The latter factor might make women more likely to be salaried workers in order to benefit from shorter and regular working hours, or it might make them more likely to be entrepreneurs in order to benefit from the flexibility of the owner's power in setting hours of work.

In fact, women's general rates of entrepreneurialism are rapidly rising in the United States.

As Pinker points out, it is indeed true that women might choose the traditionally female occupations which also traditionally pay less. It is equally true that women might not do so, but instead are constrained from choosing alternative better paying occupations due to various barriers to entry (such as potential for sexual harassment in traditionally male blue-collar occupations). It is incorrect to assume that the first possibility is true without first presenting the empirical evidence that is supposed to support it.

Moreover, Pinker's (and the IWF's) meaning of the term 'choice' needs to be clarified. Most economists assume that if women indeed do choose such jobs they do it at least partially because traditionally female occupations tend to provide the flexibility required to combine caring for children with paid work. So the 'choice' here is not a societally unimportant one (say, like choosing chocolate ice cream over vanilla) and benefits not only the woman's family but the wider society. The costs, however, tend to fall squarely on her and her family alone.

Pinker argues that the reason why so few women choose, say, engineering may be in women's lesser desire for such a career. It is not clear to me why this desire can't be affected by environment as well as genes. During the Afghanistan war, several interviews with young Afghan schoolgirls were broadcast and the interviewees were routinely asked about their career dreams. I was surprised to find that engineering was mentioned almost as often as medicine by these girls. It is unlikely that Afghan girls would have different innate desires from those held by American girls. What is different is probably the cultural emphasis, i.e. we all learn what is expected from us by our culture or religion.

It is not the existence of the gender gap which makes women uncomfortable with the discussion of innate sexual differences, but the fact that such differences, whether real or imaginary, have often been used to restrict women's opportunities on an apriori basis. The history of psychology and medicine are full of examples of this. Because of the possible dire consequences of biased research in this area it seems to me especially important that the source materials one uses are not selected to represent just one point of view.

I'm going to talk to him a little more in my next post.