Strumia’s lament

October 6, 2018

On September 28, 2018, Professor Alessandro Strumia gave a talk at CERN at a conference on “High Energy Physics and Gender.” In the talk, he took the unpopular view that the reason that there are fewer women than men in physics is primarily because of inherent differences between men and women (on average) as far as talent and interests are concerned, and not because physics is oppressive of women.

The organizers promptly distanced themselves from his talk, and removed the video recording and his slides from public access. CERN, where he is a research leader, suspended him, and his home university of Pisa put him under investigation. The ERC is considering to retract Strumia’s 1.9 million euro grant. While his talk is not available for viewing, his slides can be found online. The media have reported a general outcry and wide condemnation of the talk. A collection of physicists published an open letter, signed now by over 1600 people, in which they express their anger, and state that Strumia’s ideas are unsound.

I should mention that the impression that the media give that the whole of the scientific world condemns Strumia is incorrect. I examined some of the twitter feeds which followed the talk, and I found that besides a minority which vocally condemns Strumia and another minority which vocally supports him, the reasonable middle states that Strumia presented facts, and that they would like to see counterarguments against either the facts or Strumia’s interpretation of them, before dismissing Strumia’s statements.

What I find striking about all of this, is that most people who condemn Strumia have not witnessed his talk. For instance, the open letter starts with “[t]he statement here is based upon widely reported events, publicly available slides, and eyewitness accounts.” I.e., the only input that the writers used which is not hearsay are Strumia’s slides. I find that a weak basis for publicly raking someone over the coals.

It has to be said that Strumia’s slides give the impression that he has an axe to grind, and that rather than limiting himself to objective facts, he spent a considerable portion of his talk on his personal experiences, on politicizing his ideas, and on insulting his audience which consisted for the majority of young female physicists.

Within the slides, however, there is also some solid research. Basically, what Strumia does is examining scientific quality based on an objective measure, namely number of citations. Using a very large dataset, he makes comparisons between men and women in physics in relation to citations, and shows that with regards to citations on average women underperform compared to men. You may rightfully argue that citations do not give a complete picture of scientific quality. However, there are few other objective measures which you can use for such research, so at least he provides a factual starting point for a discussion. The question is: how do you explain the observations which Strumia makes?

Strumia compares the “mainstream” explanation (“all the differences between men and women are culturally determined and thus physics is oppressive of women”) with the, what he calls, “conservative” explanation (“women are inherently less interested in physics, and the people with the most talent for physics are predominantly men”). Neither of these explanations can be shown to be “the correct one,” but Strumia at least gives some indications on why the mainstream explanation can be considered faulty. The most damning argument against the mainstream explanation is the “gender equality paradox,” which entails that the more a country does to erase the cultural differences between men and women and the more it does to erase the barriers that women face to make free choices in their careers, the fewer women choose a career in science and technology. This observable fact falsifies the notion that there are no differences between the interests of men and women.

Strumia also rightfully wonders why people are so concerned about the fact that men form the majority of the people in the STEM fields, while nobody cares that women form the vast majority in education, psychology, the humanities, and medicine. He also notes that “equal representation of women” in a field that is dominated by men is demanded where it concerns STEM, but as soon as it concerns jobs that are dirty or dangerous (such as construction, firefighting, or mining), the fact that almost no women are found in these jobs is not seen as a problem at all.

Unfortunately, these sensible statements are overshadowed by Strumia’s wailing about his personal experiences, his suggestion that physics is a men’s job, his complaints about the way institutes tend to assume that men have no issues and that all women are oppressed everywhere, his annoyance with the widespread support that women get but men lack, and his explicit mocking of domains such as gender studies. Mind you, there are grains of truth in his wailing, but he should not have included it in his talk as it undermines the other things he says.

Strumia should simply have presented observable facts, and then either leave the interpretation up for debate, or weigh his own arguments against the arguments of “the other side.” While simply ignoring counterarguments is something that a majority position can do without penalties, Strumia is talking from an underdog position (especially at this conference), and as such he has to be much more careful about how he explains his ideas.

The open letter I referred to does provide some interesting counterarguments to Strumia’s statements. Some of these are convincing (in particular where they concern Strumia’s obsession with citations), others much less so (for instance where they refer to “unconscious biases” and where they attempt to dismiss the “gender equality paradox” by stating that oppressive countries have more women in STEM because of a lack of choice, which only underlines Strumia’s statements).

But is does not matter whether your sympathies lie with Strumia or the open letter (or neither): the point is that both Strumia’s statements and the statements of the open letter should be up for debate. And that debate is not going to happen because (a) CERN tried to erase all of Strumia’s materials, making it impossible to know what he actually said, and (b) Strumia immediately got punished so harshly for expressing his ideas that few people will be willing to examine his statements objectively, as they know that they face similar punishment if they publicly reach the same, “abject” conclusion.

The open letter, in the first paragraphs, states in bold font: “We write here first to state, in the strongest possible terms, that the humanity of any person, regardless of ascribed identities such as race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, disability, gender presentation, or sexual identity is not up for debate.” I find this text rather unworthy of serious scientists.

The statement makes clear that the authors of the text want the reader to believe that Strumia was attacking the humanity of women in physics. As far as his slides are concerned, there is absolutely no evidence of that, unless you assume that stating that there are inherent differences between men and women amounts to attacking someone’s humanity. You will find that most people believe that there actually are inherent differences between men and women, and rightly so, as these differences can be observed. Claiming that such differences do not exist is dogma and not science.

Now, the statement gives the strong impression that it considers a number of topics as “not up for debate” at all. Because as soon as you bring one of them up, you are probably going to be condemned for attacking someone’s “humanity,” and such topics may not be debated. To declare a topic so sacred that it cannot be debated is as unscientific as you can get. You may find a person’s statements despicable, but if they are supported by falsifiable claims, then your responsibility as a scientist is not to dismiss them outright (and penalize the perpetrator), but to have the debate, offer counterarguments, and if possible falsify the claims.

Unfortunately, Strumia is a proponent of reason and free speech that we could have done without. He is a man who let his frustration with certain trends in science and society get the better of him. The best thing you can hope for with a talk like this is that at least certain topics are opened up for debate rather than being untouchable. However, the steps his opponents took, making him suffer personally for daring to speak his mind, ensured that fewer people will be willing to speak up about these topics in the future.

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Terechte klachten

May 5, 2018

(This post is in Dutch as it relates to several articles in Dutch.)

Aleid Truijens is schrijver, recensent, biograaf, en voornamelijk bekend als columnist bij de Volkskrant. Ze schrijft over diverse onderwerpen, waarvan “educatie” er een is. Ik lees haar columns altijd met interesse. Meestal ben ik het eens met de strekking van haar verhaal. Zo ook met het stukje dat ze schreef in de Volkskrant van 27 april 2018, getiteld “Ik hoop dat de universiteit een intellectuele vrijplaats is, maar ik ben er niet zeker van.” De conclusie die ze met haar betoog bereikt, onderstreep ik volledig. Maar ze maakt een aantal bochten waar ik grote vraagtekens bij zet, en waarvan het me verbaast dat ze kennelijk de betreffende denkwijze omarmt. Bij deze mijn commentaar.

Aleid’s aanleiding voor haar betoog is een hetze van een aantal studenten van de Universiteit van Amsterdam tegen hun nieuwe “diversity officer,” Anne de Graaf, gepubliceerd in Het Parool als antwoord op een interview met De Graaf in Trouw. De Graaf, die veel ervaring heeft met het thema “diversiteit” binnen Amerikaanse universiteiten, is onder andere aangesteld naar aanleiding van een fel rapport over de “diversiteit” binnen de UvA. Dit rapport, opgesteld onder leiding van activiste Gloria Wekker, schuift “witte mannen” allerlei vermeende misstanden binnen de universiteit in de schoenen, en pleit voor quota. De studenten eisen op hoge toon dat De Graaf afstand neemt van bepaalde uitspraken, zoals haar weerzin tegen quota. Ze is ten slotte aangesteld om inhoud te geven aan de bevindingen van het rapport, nietwaar? Dus waarom stelt ze zich niet net zo op als de activisten die het rapport in eerste instantie hebben geschreven?

Kennelijk hadden de studenten verwacht dat ze met hun “diversity officer” eindelijk de betreurenswaardige slachtoffers van het witte, mannelijke schrikbewind aan de macht zouden kunnen brengen. Dat De Graaf een objectief en realistisch beeld van de werkelijkheid heeft, stoort hen in hoge mate. De studenten meten “rechtvaardigheid” af aan “percentages gemarginaliseerde groepen,” terwijl De Graaf expertise voorop wil stellen. En hoewel de studenten zeggen dat “quota een laatste redmiddel zijn,” stellen ze ook fijntjes dat “er voldoende bewijs is dat quota werken” (waarbij ik denk: natuurlijk, als je enige doel is dat er meer medewerkers van een bepaalde demografie zijn, en je niet geïnteresseerd bent in andere gevolgen van je maatregelen, dan is het instellen van quota ongetwijfeld effectief).

Aleid Truijens begint met een kort historisch overzicht. “Drie jaar geleden stelden de Maagdenhuisbezetters terecht dat de universiteit te wit en te mannelijk (de docenten) was, en het curriculum ‘te westers’. Wat er wordt gedoceerd is voornamelijk wat witte mannen eeuwenlang hebben bedacht.

Daar gaat mijn eerste alarmbel af. Wat bedoelt Aleid met dat woordje “terecht?” Is zij het eens met de Maagdenhuisbezetters? Je kunt stellen dat het op zijn minst opvallend is dat de wetenschappelijk staf gedomineerd wordt door mannen, terwijl de studentenpopulatie gedomineerd wordt door vrouwen, maar dat is onder andere een gevolg van het verleden waar veel minder vrouwen studeerden en van het feit dat mannen gemiddeld (met nadruk: gemiddeld) ambitieuzer zijn in hun werk dan vrouwen. Je kunt eventueel beargumenteren dat het belangrijk is dat er een redelijk percentage vrouwen in de staf vertegenwoordigd is, in ieder geval als rolmodel voor de ambitieuze vrouwelijke studenten die een toekomst in de wetenschap willen. Ikzelf denk dat dat percentage er al is, maar je kunt er een discussie over voeren. Dan blijft over “te wit” en “te westers.”

Hoezo “te wit?” De overgrote meerderheid van de Nederlandse bevolking is “wit.” Dan kun je dus ook verwachten dat de overgrote meerderheid van de staf op universiteiten “wit” is. Dat gezegd hebbend: als ik om me heen kijk op de universiteit waar ik werk, zie ik medewerkers van een groot aantal verschillende nationaliteiten. Goede staf is heel moeilijk te vinden, en er zijn in het buitenland veel wetenschappers die graag aan een Nederlandse universiteit werken. Aangezien expertise bij selectie voorop staat, is het geen wonder dat het percentage stafleden van niet-Nederlandse afkomst veel groter is dan je op grond van bevolkingspercentages zou kunnen verwachten. Okay, misschien is het percentage “medewerkers met een donker kleurtje” wat lager dan de bevolkingspercentages (velen komen namelijk uit Oost-Europa, Azië, of het Midden-Oosten), maar er is geen aanwijzing dat zij minder vertegenwoordigd zijn vanwege “structureel racisme.” De studentenpopulatie immers reflecteert ook niet de maatschappelijke demografische percentages.

Tenslotte: hoezo “te westers?” Nederland is een westers land, dus mag je verwachten dat aan de universiteiten de westerse normen voor educatie gevolgd worden. Deze normen zijn gebaseerd op het wetenschappelijk benaderen van kennis. Deze benadering is dermate succesvol, dat overal ter wereld universiteiten deze aanpak volgen. Kennis wordt gedeeld over de wereld als geheel (uitgezonderd bepaalde landen waar Internet sterk aan banden is gelegd). Kortom, vrijwel alle universiteiten ter wereld volgen een “westers curriculum.” Wat is er “terecht” aan het curriculum als “te westers” beschouwen? Moeten we onze gedachten over wat feiten zijn gaan laten bepalen door religieuze inzichten, zoals we zien in bepaalde niet-westerse landen? Of wellicht door politieke stromingen, wat in bepaalde Aziatische landen gebeurt? Moeten we, zoals ik een aantal zwarte studenten heb zien verkondigen, voodoo-rituelen serieus gaan nemen?

Of slaat het “te westers” zijn op die tweede zin, dat de stand van de wetenschap het gevolg is van “wat witte mannen eeuwenlang hebben bedacht?” Wetenschap is niet wetenschap omdat het bedacht is door witte mannen. Wetenschap is wetenschap omdat het gaat over falsificeerbare feiten. Wetenschap is zelf-corrigerend. Als iemand een bewering doet zonder er argumenten voor aan te dragen, wordt de bewering niet serieus genomen. Als er falsificeerbare argumenten worden aangedragen, die ontkracht worden, wordt de bewering verworpen. Wat overblijft is een bouwwerk van feiten waarvoor de bewijsvoering zo sterk is dat we erop voort kunnen bouwen. En als er nieuwe feiten worden aangedragen, of feiten ontkracht worden, wordt het bouwwerk aangepast.

Zelfs al zou het zo zijn dat, historisch gezien, witte mannelijke wetenschappers oogkleppen op hadden en daarom de wetenschap in een bepaalde richting duwden, dan is het al heel lange tijd het geval dat wetenschap internationaal en inclusief is. Iedereen, waar ook ter wereld, ongeacht geslacht, ras, of afkomst, kan wetenschappelijke vindingen doen, bekritiseren, of onderuit halen. Een wetenschapper die een tegenargument poogt te ontkrachten door te verwijzen naar het geslacht of het ras van degene die het tegenargument brengt, wordt weggehoond en verguisd. De natuur van de wetenschap is dat het blind is voor de demografische kenmerken van wetenschappers. Daarmee getuigt de uitspraak “wetenschap is niet goed want het is gebaseerd op wat witte mannen gedaan hebben” van een dermate onwetenschappelijke houding dat degene die hem maakt slechts minachting verdient.

Kortom, het minder “westers” maken van het curriculum staat gelijk met het afbreken van de wetenschappelijke integriteit, en dat kan niet worden aangeduid als “terecht.”

In dezelfde paragraaf gaat nog een tweede alarmbel af, zij het iets minder luid dan de eerste. Aleid stelt: “Er zijn beschamend weinig vrouwelijke hoogleraren of hoogleraren en onderzoekers met een migratieachtergrond.” De alarmbel klinkt bij het woord “beschamend.” De rest van de zin is een feit. Aleid vind dit een “beschamend” feit. Mijn vraag is “wie moet zich hiervoor schamen?”

Ik heb het sterke vermoeden dat Aleid vindt dat universiteiten of de Nederlandse samenleving zich hiervoor moeten schamen. Maar waarom? Onze samenleving biedt mensen een grote keuzevrijheid, en universiteiten doen dat ook. Als je je kapot wilt werken om een hoogleraarspositie te verwerven, dan mag dat. Als je het liever rustiger aandoet, een leuke baan hebt en daarnaast gezellig met je gezin veel tijd thuis doorbrengt, of een rijk sociaal leven erop na wilt houden, dan mag dat ook. Vrijheid, blijheid. Dat die witte mannen (en een enkele witte vrouw) zo nodig statusbelust moeten zijn, hun gezin verwaarlozen, hun vrienden verliezen, maar wel veel subsidies binnenhalen en veel publiceren, is hun zaak. Dat moeten ze zelf weten, de sukkels. Zitten ze daar tot diep in de nacht op kantoor, hun gezondheid naar de knoppen te helpen, een leuk salaris binnenslepend dat hun partner vervolgens kan spenderen. Lachwekkend, maar ze willen het zelf.

Als het werkelijk een beschamende zaak is dat er relatief weinig vrouwen en weinig mensen met een migratieachtergrond zijn die carrière maken op een universiteit, dan moet die schaamte gezocht worden bij degenen die te weinig hun best doen om te concurreren met de hardwerkende carrièremakers. Maar ik persoonlijk vind er niks beschamends aan dat mensen ervoor kiezen te doen wat hen gelukkig maakt. Het is een van de grote verworvenheden van onze maatschappij dat dat mogelijk is.

Na het korte historische overzicht geeft Aleid aan dat het weinig zinvol is de samenleving in groepen te verdelen waarbij mensen met bepaalde demografische achtergronden op één hoop worden gegooid. Ze hoopt dat het niet de bedoeling is dat alle geledingen “divers” worden samengesteld, “keurig van alles wat,” want het gaat tenslotte om professionaliteit. Ze geeft aan dat de gedachte van De Graaf dat er meer smaken zijn dan “racist” en “slachtoffer” niet vreemd is (een understatement), en dat studenten per definitie gepriviligeerd zijn. Je kunt beter de grote uitval van migrant-studenten aanpakken (of de grote uitval van mannelijke studenten, zou ik daaraan toe willen voegen), of de eenzijdige samenstelling van selectiecommissies (wat ik nooit geobserveerd heb, dus ik zou daar graag eens objectieve feiten voor zien). Al met al geeft Aleid hiermee aan een redelijk gezonde kijk te hebben op maatschappelijke fenomen.

Dan gaat een derde alarmbel af bij de volgende paragraaf: “De Graaf is een tegenstander van quota voor vrouwen en minderheden, omdat ze het ‘vernederend’ vindt om ergens binnen te komen omdat je vrouw bent of een kleur hebt -– ik kan me daar iets bij voorstellen. Maar de studenten in Het Parool hebben ook gelijk als ze stellen dat ‘vanwege structurele discriminatie achtergestelde groepen vaak niet worden aangenomen, ondanks hun expertise’.” De eerste zin van deze paragraaf komt overeen met wat ik veel vrouwen heb horen zeggen, dus daar heb ik geen problemen mee. Maar de tweede zin doet mijn nekharen overeind staan.

De tweede zin is een beschuldiging van crimineel gedrag. Het is in Nederland verboden om te discrimineren op basis van demografische kenmerken. Er rusten straffen op. Dus als het objectief is dat iemand de geschiktste persoon is voor een open positie, maar niet wordt aangenomen op grond van het feit dat de persoon tot een minderheidscategorie behoort, dan is er een strafbaar feit gepleegd en moeten juridische maatregelen worden genomen.

Waar komt die bewering dat universiteiten structureel discrimineren vandaan? Zijn daar objectieve feiten voor? Zo ja, dan zou ik dit graag voor een rechtbank uitgezocht zien. Of zijn dit slechts roddels? Is er iemand niet aangenomen op een plek, en roept die persoon dat dat duidelijk vanuit racistische motieven is, zonder dat hard te kunnen maken? In dat geval kunnen we deze bewering rustig naast ons neerleggen, en stellen dat de studenten in Het Parool uit hun nek kletsen.

Maar ik vermoed dat ik wel weet wat er achter deze uitspraak zit. Het is de gedachte: “als er geen racisme zou zijn, zouden we hogere percentages mensen met een donkere huidskleur aangenomen zien worden, en omdat dat niet zo is, is dat het bewijs dat er racisme is.” Deze gedachten klinken sommigen redelijk in de oren, maar zijn het niet. Ze gaan er namelijk van uit dat er tussen groepen mensen geen andere verschillen bestaan dan alleen demografische attributen. Ze houden er bijvoorbeeld geen rekening mee dat Nederland geen homogene samenleving is waar iedereen in alles gemixt is. Demografisch onderscheidbare groepen trekken zich vaak terug in “eigen kring,” met hun eigen culturele normen en waarden. Bijvoorbeeld: moslims in Nederland worden vaak religieus opgevoed, waarbij wetenschappelijke inzichten worden afgedaan als “in tegenspraak met de Koran.” Is het verwonderlijk dat we minder moslims aan universiteiten zien dan het percentage moslims onder de Nederlandse bevolking? Dat is verklaarbaar vanuit de moslim-cultuur, en er hoeft geen verklaring gezocht te worden in “discriminatie.” Een soortgelijk verhaal kun je uiteraard ophangen over de autochtone Nederlanders die met de Bijbel in de hand geboren zijn.

Kortom, zolang er niet aannemelijk kan worden gemaakt dat racistische motieven spelen in de aanstelling van medewerkers, is het lasterlijk om te beweren dat dit toch gebeurt. Het feit dat Aleid expliciet stelt dat de uitspraak van studenten op waarheid berust, vind ik griezelig.

Het verdere verloop van Aleid’s stukje kan ik alleen maar van harte onderschrijven. Haar laatste paragraaf start met de volgende zinnen: “Natuurlijk moet de universiteit een veilige plek zijn. Ik hoop dat het voor iedereen dít is: een intellectuele vrijplaats. Een plaats waar afkomst, sekse of voorkeuren niet tellen, maar waar je die onderwerpen onbedreigd aan de orde kunt stellen.” Bravo.

Ik heb de laatste jaren in diverse landen, waaronder de Verenigde Staten, Canada, Australië, en meerdere Scandinavische landen, verontrustende ontwikkelingen gadegeslagen waarbij bepaalde universiteiten veranderen van wetenschappelijke bolwerken in instituties waar vooral gestreden moet worden voor “sociale rechtvaardigheid,” met programma’s waar geen wetenschappers maar activisten worden opgeleid. Ik heb gezien dat studenten veranderen van zelfstandige, weldenkende, kritische mensen die beseffen wat voor een gepriviligeerde positie ze innemen, in watjes die menen dat zij slachtoffers van maatschappelijk onrecht zijn, en die alle kritiek op hun gedrag afdoen als racisme, seksisme, genderisme, ableisme, of een ander neologistisch -isme. Ik zie studenten die zich gedragen als verwende kleine kinderen die door hun plaatsvervangend ouder, de universiteit, beschermd moeten worden tegen de boze buitenwereld.

Gelukkig heeft dit soort ontwikkelingen in Nederland nog niet veel aan momentum gewonnen. We zijn doorgaans een nuchter en realistisch denkend landje. Maar we gaan dit soort onverkwikkelijke zaken, waarbij eisen gesteld worden op basis van vermeend slachtofferschap, steeds meer zien. Wat de studenten van de Universiteit van Amsterdam in Het Parool zeiden, geeft me het ongemakkelijke gevoel dat ze in Nederland hopen te imiteren wat in de Verenigde Staten en Canada een aantal universiteiten aan het ondermijnen is. Het verheffen van slachtofferschap tot het hoogste goed, en het toepassen van “social engineering” om mensen macht en posities te geven die ze niet verdienen op basis van hun prestaties, moet bestreden worden teneinde de wetenschappelijke kwaliteit van universiteiten te waarborgen.

Redelijk denkende mensen met een platform, zoals Aleid Truijens, kunnen daarin een leidraad bieden door deze ontwikkelingen kritisch te beschouwen. Het feit dat Aleid termen als “terecht” en “gelijk hebben” gebruikt waar ze spreekt over sommige van de slecht-gefundeerde gedachten die de activistische studenten koesteren, kennelijk zonder het nodig te vinden enige twijfel over die gedachten uit te spreken, vind ik daarom beangstigend.


Diversity IX: Google’s wage discrimination

April 8, 2018

Last year, Google was accused by the US Department of Labor of discriminating against female employees as far as salaries are concerned. This is surprising, as Google is known for being a company which is overtly committed to, what they call, “equal pay practices.” It is also striking that the accusation came without any supporting data.

Eileen Naughton, Vice President of People Operations, wrote a memo explaining how Google determines wages. In general, this is how it works:

First, they determine what the compensation should be for a person at a certain job level, with a certain role, at a certain location, with a certain job performance. That determines the basic compensation for a person in a certain job category. The salary can be adjusted a bit by an employee’s manager, provided that the manager can provide a legitimate rationale. This procedure is blind with respect to gender.

Then, for every job category they compare the average of the compensation of men and women. If they find that there are statistically significant differences between the genders, they adjust the compensation at a group level, regardless whether this favors men or women. As Naughton states, they tend not to find any gender pay gap, so in practice such adjustments need not be made. They also do a similar comparison based on race, and no race pay gap is found either. (I do wonder why they do not also do an analysis for nationality, age, physical ability, level of education, height, and other attributes that are said to influence salary, but perhaps they get to those in the future.)

Overall, I do not fault Google for doing such an analysis. As a high-profile tech company, they tend to bear the brunt of the accusations regarding sex and race discrimination, and it is only wise that they have their defenses in order. It just gives me an uneasy feeling that the last step of their comparison methodology, adjusting salary based on which group one belongs to, is rather discriminating.

Considering how they set up their compensation plan, where they determine objectively what a person should earn with a certain job level, role, location, and performance, regardless of race, gender, or other personal attributes, there cannot be differences between the sexes by definition. So it is no wonder that their comparison procedure never finds them. The whole comparison feels completely superfluous.

The problem is what happens when their procedure does find some differences. Where did these come from? Evidently these point out that either an error was made somewhere in the original determination of earnings, or that the individual adjustments that managers make — with legitimate rationales, mind you — end up rewarding on average one gender a bit more than the other. If this then leads to an increase of the salaries of one gender, that amounts to gender discrimination.

For suppose you are a woman who does a good job but not so exceptional that her manager proposes to give her a slightly higher reward, and you are surrounded by women who do get their salaries positively adjusted. If this then leads to an average difference between the salaries of the sexes, you will see all the men who perform exactly like you getting their salaries increased, while yours stays the same. Basically, you are punished because some other members of “your group” perform exceptionally well.

In my view, Google’s initial determination of earnings, based purely on what an individual does within the company, with some individual adjustments possible for exceptional performance, is the ultimate meritocratic way of rewarding employees. Doing a check at a group level, partly to ward off accusations and partly to see if the system works as intended, is only smart. Incorporating a step that bluntly adjusts salaries at a group level if the check points out that there are significant differences between certain groups, rather than finding out how these differences came about, is just discriminatory.


Diversity VIII: Fly to the top

March 9, 2018

This week we could read in Dutch newspapers that the new CEO of the national airport Schiphol (one of the biggest and busiest airports in the world) will be a man. The reason given is: “At the moment the board consists of two men and two women. We want to maintain that balance.” This reason is ridiculous and I was surprised that the board presented it in this way.

Suppose that they start looking for a suitable candidate and find a good man for the job. As is the norm nowadays, the media and some politicians will ask “Why not a woman?” as if being a woman would make someone more suitable for the job. At that point, the board could say “We already have fifty percent women on the board, so we decided not to use affirmative action for this vacancy, and we simply picked the best candidate regardless of gender.” Nobody could fault them for that. But, by their statements, they deliberately set out to appoint a man, i.e., they used affirmative action in favor of males this time.

In my view, using affirmative action is always wrong, regardless of which gender it favors. For any job, what any company and the whole of society really should want, is that the most qualified person is appointed. Rarely does gender by itself make someone more or less qualified. For top positions, such as being CEO of Schiphol, the pool of suitable candidates tends to be small, due to requirements of experience, network, availability, and willingness to spend one’s whole life at their job. Partly for historic reasons this pool is mostly filled with men, so it is understandable that you will probably end up with a man if you do not specifically let gender weigh in. But who cares if it turns out that the board of Schiphol gets filled with only women? If they are the most suitable for the job, that is the best guarantee for optimal decision making!

Maybe, just maybe, the board of Schiphol tries to be smart and hopes that society will respond in exactly this way to their statements that they will only appoint a man for gender-balance reasons. Because if society predominantly responds with “but gender should not matter, you want to hire the best person for the job,” for the next round of hires they may be able to throw affirmative action out of a plane without a parachute.

If their goal is to ensure that the quality of their board members is the sole selection criterion for the future, making such blunt statements at this stage might be just one of the tactical maneuvers you can expect from a good CEO.


Diversity VII: Red vs. green

February 12, 2018

In discussing the wage gap (the average difference in per-hour earnings of men and women), the main statement I see being brought up is “The fact that on average women earn less than men per hour is unfair towards women.” The general rebuttal is: “You have to look at the underlying reasons for that difference,” to which the response is: “You can talk about underlying reasons until you are blue in the mouth, but at the end of the day women earn less than men, which is unfair.”

The wage gap appears to be not unfair, however. It is the result of individual decisions which people make. The correct characterization of the wage gap is not “women earn less than men,” but “people who make choices A, B, and C earn less than people who make choices D, E, and F.” Because on average women tend to make life choices which give them less earning potential than men, on average women earn less than men — however, on an individual basis a woman who makes particular choices earns just as much as a man who makes the same choices (actually, there are indications that at present, especially in the younger generations, women earn a bit more than men with the same choices).

You do not have to believe me in this respect: you just have to study the reports of the official institutions which examine the differences between men and women in the job market, such as the reports of the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) and the United States Department of Labor, which point out that there are many clear reasons for the observed average differences in earnings, but that gender discrimination, if it even is one of them, has an unnoticeable effect. Thus, since it is not gender discrimination at work, the wage gap is not unfair.

Because all of this is rather abstract, I thought I would illustrate it with a highly simplified example. Imagine that there is a country called Bicoloria, where there live red and green people. There are only two industries in Bicoloria, which are of about equal size, namely a food industry which feeds the Bicolorians, and an art industry which provides the Bicolorians with entertainment. All Bicolorians work in one of these industries. The food industry, which has fairly unpleasant work circumstances, pays 200 credits per hour. The art industry, in which the work is much more pleasant, pays 150 credits per hour. The majority of red Bicolorians prefers the pleasant, artistic work in the art industry, while the majority of green Bicolorians is more interested in getting the high wages (and thus status) of the food industry. The net result is that 70% of the workers in the food industry are green, while 70% of the workers in the art industry are red.

Someone calculates that on average, a green Bicolorian earns 12% more than a red Bicolorian. “That’s unfair towards red Bicolorians!” is the outcry. Red Bicolorians say: “It is systemic oppression of the reds by the greens!” and “How are we going to explain to young reds that over the course of their lives they will earn significantly less than greens?” But is this 12% difference in earnings really unfair? Because reds have a preference for jobs that pay less per hour, and choose jobs that they prefer, on average they earn less per hour. However, an individual red who decides to work in the food industry, earns just as much as an individual green who works in the food industry.

Moreover, what would be the effect of trying to solve this illusion of injustice? I have heard several possibilities, all of which have very negative consequences. Here are three ideas (each of which I have derived from actual discussions on the wage gap, and some of which have been implemented by particular governments and industries):

Idea #1: Increase the salaries of all reds by 12%. While this will make sure that the average salaries of reds and greens are equal, in every industry reds will earn 12% more than greens for doing exactly the same work. That is unfair.

Idea #2: Stimulate reds to work more in the food industry, and greens to work more in the art industry. This can be implemented using social engineering programs, which try to push people in particular directions. Many of such programs have been tried out in Western countries (e.g., stimulating men to take part-time jobs, and stimulating women to go into STEM fields). If these programs have the desired effect, they will indeed erase the wage gap. However, in general, it is found that the effect of such programs is negligible, as long as people are still allowed to follow their own preferences. Naturally, they can be made more effective by actually forcing people in different fields than they prefer, which leads to an overall significant decrease in happiness. I assume that nobody thinks that a good policy encompasses giving up freedom of choice.

Idea #3: Equalize pay between jobs, i.e., let both the food industry and the art industry pay 175 credits per hour. Overall, the same amount will be spent on salaries, thus this can be implemented with higher taxation on food and giving subsidies to the art industry. Again, the initial result will be that the wage gap between reds and greens will be eradicated. This is a typical socialist or communist system, in which there is no link anymore between what you do and what you earn. The natural follow-up will be that most people will no longer want to work in the unpleasant food industry, as the higher salaries of the food industry were the compensation for the work being less pleasant. The net result, which is common to any socialist or communist system, is that people can no longer be free to take a job of their choosing, and that most people will not be motivated to do a good job anyway (as you do not get rewarded for doing a good job), leading to poverty, unhappiness, hunger, and corruption.

In summary, “solutions” to the wage gap either unfairly give bonuses to individuals of particular groups just because they belong to those groups, or take away freedom of choice. Both these directions are infringing upon the core Western values of equal treatment of all people and individual freedom for all people.

The wage gap is the result of a system which allows individuals, with their individual differences, to follow their own preferences in making life choices. It does not affect individuals; it is no more than a statistic which you can attach to a group. It is the necessary consequence of there being differences between preferences of the sexes in general and a beautiful system which honors individuality.


Diversity interlude 2

August 24, 2017

Fired up by the publishing of Forbes’ list of actor salaries, the yearly wailing about top male movie actors earning more than top female movie actors is up again. It must be the patriarchy at work.

The complainers are focusing on the wrong issue, however. What they should be wondering is why top movie actors (male and female) earn yearly salaries which are tens to hundreds of times higher than the salaries of us working Joes. Actresses like Jennifer Lawrence, Charlize Theron, and Natalie Portman, who every year get tens of millions of dollars in their accounts, come over as childish whiners when they complain that “it is not enough.”

The answer to why top actors earn a lot of money is, of course, that movies make a lot of money because they are in them. Actors are not paid because their profession is “movie actor,” but according to what they are worth. This means that if a movie tends to bring in much more money if Mark Wahlberg is on the credits than if Emma Stone is on the credits (which they do), then Wahlberg is worth a lot more than Stone, and thus Wahlberg’s agent can sell him for more money than Stone’s agent can sell her.

The simple truth is that actors who are worth more for their movies are earning more than actors who are worth less. That the actors who are worth more tend to be male is incidental. Have you ever wondered why top male football players earn more than top female football players? That is because male football matches bring in much more advertising money than female football matches. And it is not always in favor of males, by the way. Female porn actors earn six-figure salaries which are five to ten times higher than the salaries of top male porn actors. That’s not because they are female, but because that is in accordance to what their presence brings in.

An actor who feels that they earn less than they are worth, should get an agent who is able to sell them for more. And if they cannot find such an agent, then they are probably mistaken in what they are worth.


Diversity VI: Normal discrimination

August 22, 2017

As a final follow-up to my previous post on the issue of enforced diversity in the workplace, I wish to expand on the criticism that I gave on those scientists who deny the notion that biology has an influence on the different roles of men and women in society. The main argument that is given by these scientists is that the biological differences between the sexes, while existing, are smaller than is generally assumed. From this notion they derive that, based on biology, you should see only small differences between behaviors of men and women. Since this is not what can be observed, they conclude that men and women are treated differently because of (only) cultural influences.

These scientists do not understand the normal distribution.

We may assume that most characteristics of men and women, both physical and mental, are approximately normally distributed. For the sake of argument, let’s say that due to biological causes, men on average have a slightly higher aptitude for abstract thought than women, while women on average have a slightly better social sense than men. If you then give a large bunch of men and women an IQ test (which measures abstract thinking) and an EQ test (which measures social thinking), then perhaps on average men have an IQ of 100.5 and women an IQ of 99.5, while men on average have an EQ of 99.5 and women an EQ of 100.5 (I am pulling these numbers out of thin air, they are just examples). The 1-point difference shouldn’t be noticeable in everyday behavior.

However, the 1-point difference is for the average. At the extremes of the normal distribution, the differences are much more noticeable. If the shapes of the Bell curves for men and women are the same, but with a difference of 1 point for the averages, and we look at the 5% highest scorers for both groups, the average of them differs a lot more. Looking at it in another way, if you are only checking those with an IQ or EQ higher than 150, the 1-point difference for the average can easily translate to 80% of the people with an IQ higher than 150 being men, and 80% of the people with an EQ higher than 150 being women.

The fact that companies and institutions want to hire “the best” for crucial positions, entails that they discriminate to look for the high-end tail of the Bell curve which describes the population distribution for the traits which they need the most. Even if on average there is little difference between the aptitudes of men and women to do particular jobs, when you discriminate to get the best, you will generally end up with a severely skewed distribution of the sexes.

This effect is magnified by the fact that for many traits, the variance differs for the sexes. In particular, it has been reported that men tend to have a higher variance than women. This means that men fit a flatter Bell curve than women for many traits, which translates to there being a denser population of men at both extremes, even if there is no difference between the averages. In layman’s terms: if in a particular area there are more genius men than genius women, then this is offset by there being more moronic men than moronic women (though there will, of course, still be both genius women as well as moronic women).

Even if the aptitudes of men and women for a particular job are the same, fitting the exact same Bell curve, then there is still the fact that the interest for them to do that job may differ. Again, if interest in tech is normally distributed over the population, and there is on average little difference between the interests of men and women for tech (which might be the case: most people are not really interested in tech jobs), then you might still find big differences between the number of men and the number of women who are highly interested in tech, i.e., whose interest is at the high end of the Bell curve. Which means that even if women are equally able to do a tech job, that does not mean that you will find many women actually preferring to do it over some other job.

Note that the same may be noticed in high-end jobs which see a dominance of women, such as medical specialists. At a time when few women entered the job market, physicians were usually male. Nowadays, when about 40% of jobs are held by women, physicians are predominantly female — either because being a physician requires a skill set for which the best candidates tend to be women, or because it is a job that women have, on average, a higher preference for than men. Regardless, being a physician is a high-end profession where women rule — which makes mincemeat of the notion that some kind of male oppression is keeping women out of high-end jobs.

Enforcing an equal distribution of the sexes for those positions for which high skills and/or high motivation are needed, leads to either lowering the quality of how the work is done, or appointing people who would rather be doing something else.

By the way, the discussion above does not mean that there actually are only small biological differences between the sexes. In my previous post I gave three reasons to suspect that the biological differences are quite significant. However, even if you assume that there are only small biological differences between men and women, distribution of the sexes in high-end jobs will usually be unbalanced.


Diversity V: Nurture vs. nature

August 11, 2017

I feel the need to make a few more statements about the firing of James Damore by Google, which I discussed before, in particular insofar it concerns his claim that biology may be partially responsible for observed differences between the interests of the average man and average woman in society, and how this claim seems to be interpreted.

As Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote on the reason for Damore being fired: “to suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.” I read Damore’s treatise, and nowhere in it I can find him saying that his female colleagues are less biologically suited for their work — he only states that the biological differences between men and women may make the average woman less suitable for tech and leadership than the average man. He is not saying that his female colleagues are less suitable than his male colleagues. He only says that these biological phenomena may explain why we see less women in tech and leadership, and that trying to enforce an equal representation of the sexes in tech jobs in Google may be misguided.

The only way that someone can interpret Damore saying something about his colleagues is if you assume that what he says about the average woman holds for all women — and he quite clearly says the opposite; he even spends a considerable portion of his treatise discussing that it is a mistake to regard each individual as representative for their sex. That, however, is what is done when you treat women differently than men just because they are women (which is what Google does). You might think that a CEO who fires a person would at least check whether the reason that he gives for the firing holds water, but it looks like Damore’s firing was not because of what he factually said, but because many people found him offensive — the numerous tweets and responses on the Internet suggest as much.

So what could people find offensive about his text? It cannot be the statement that people should not be equated to the average of their sex — only the opposite could be found offensive. Considering Pichai’s statement, and what I read in many of the comments on Damore’s text, what is found offensive is Damore’s suggestion that the cause for observed behavioral differences between men and women may be partially found in biology.

If you examine literature, you will find that there are certain scientists who state that, while there are definitely biological differences between men and women, they are much smaller than generally assumed, and that all behavioral differences between men and women are the result of culture. If you believe that what these scientists say is undeniably true, then you may feel offended by anyone who is merely suggesting that there are innate differences between men and women. In comparison, if you believe that the Bible speaks holy truth, then you will probably feel offended by anyone who says that there are indications that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old. Such a person is an infidel and should be burned at the stake.

However, what these scientists say is not scientific consensus. Other scientists state that, while culture obviously has an influence on behavior, there are clear, experimentally demonstrable, indications that the innate biological differences between men and women influence interests and behaviors, which partially explain the differences that we observe between the averages of men and women on a population level. Even without running any experiments, I’d say that there are numerous easily-observable indications that biology influences behavior. I give three of them:

  • In most animals, mammals in particular, there are clear behavioral differences between the sexes. Animals do not have cultures, so these differences are all biologically driven. I see no reason why humans would be exempt from these biological influences.
  • Biological differences between men and women result in the production of different quantities of particular hormones. We know that hormones not only influence physical development, but also behavior. In particular, in puberty, when the hormonal production starts to get radically different between men and women, the behaviors of men and women start to diverge extensively. Moreover, if you feed people particular sex-related hormones, their behaviors change too. Again, this shows that biology influences behavior.
  • In western countries, people have been given a lot of freedom of choice. In north-western Europe, the cultural pressures on men and women to stick to particular roles in society have been mostly eradicated. If the theory that all behavioral differences between men and women are the result of culture would be correct, the differences in interests between men and women would dwindle away. This has not happened. Women have entered the job market, but on average choose more people-oriented jobs than men; for instance, 50 years ago there were many more male physicians than female physicians (as few women had a job), but these roles are reversed now. However, 50 years ago there were many more male engineers than female engineers, and these roles have not changed. Also, 50 years ago it was not common to have a part-time job for men or women, but nowadays women predominantly work in part-time jobs, while men do not. If release of cultural pressure increases differences in behavior, that is a clear indication that the differences are at least partially caused by something else than culture.

Moreover, the arguments that I read on why some people believe that only culture plays a role in determining differences in interests between men and women seem faulty to me. For instance, it is pointed out that the roles of men and women are not innate, as there is an African tribe that has a matriarchal structure in which women have the role that is traditionally associated with men, and vice versa. To me, it seems that the existence of such a tribe is the exception that confirms the rule: everywhere in the world, one tiny place excepted, men take a particular role and women another, which shows that these roles are nearly universal. The fact that the exception exists only shows that culture may overrule the traditional roles. Now, I am not an expert on this topic, and thus I might have missed some very convincing arguments for assigning all responsibility for behavioral differences to culture. However, I think that if convincing arguments would exist, the scientific world would have reached consensus by now, and that clearly is not the case.

The claim that only culture influences behavior is much, much stronger than the claim that behavior is partially the result of culture and partially the result of biology. If you want to make the first claim, you have to come up with strong evidence that biology does not play a role. I have not seen that evidence. And since there are no ethical experiments that you can perform to exclude biology as a partial cause for observed differences between men and women on average, it will be very hard to come up with it.

I am not saying that it is definitely false that only culture is responsible for behavior. It might be true, though considering the observations that we can make, it is unlikely to be true. The problem is that just like you cannot prove that biology has no influence on behavior, you cannot disprove that only culture is responsible for behavior. However, claiming that biology has no influence means upholding a belief in the face of observable facts that point in a different direction. It is a belief that has to resort to shaky claims like “unconscious biases” to explain why certain observable facts exist. And since it is hard to use factual arguments to defend this belief against grounded criticism, believers may feel a need to attack the credibility of non-believers by accusing them of being reprehensible sub-humans, i.e., “sexists.”

James Damore’s statements seem innocent to me, but to someone who upholds an ideology that is based on the premise that there are no biological differences between the sexes, they are dangerous, and must be attacked. Labeling him a “sexist” is an easy way of making him harmless.


Diversity IV: Google ideology

August 8, 2017

Senior Google engineer James Damore wrote a memo criticizing the Google mantra that the underrepresentation of women in tech and leadership is solely caused by biases. He poses that there are scientific indications that biological traits may make women on average less interested or even less suitable for such roles. Note that he is very careful in underlining the “on average,” explicitly stating that there is an enormous overlap between the populations of men and women in all their attributes, and that people should not be assessed as the average of their groups, but on an individual level. He also explicitly states that he does not deny that sexism or biases exist, and that he values diversity and inclusion. His main issue is that he found that he is working in a psychologically unsafe environment, since even suggesting that anything but biases are the cause for different representations of men and women in the tech industry is cause for shaming and misrepresentation, and risks being fired.

Google promptly confirmed his statements by firing him for “perpetuating gender stereotypes.”

Contrary to many of those who accused James Damore of sexism, I read his 10-page document and examined the links he included (which, unfortunately or maliciously, were removed by Gizmodo when they republished his memo). It is a well-spoken treatise, in which the only sexist statement that I could find amounts to the suggestion that there are biological differences between men and women, and providing scientific support for that statement. I know that in many circles such a statement is considered sexist, but that means that in these circles scientific facts are considered sexist.

I do not agree with everything that Damore states, as I think some of the underlying science is oversimplified. But the point is not whether Damore is correct in everything that he says. The point is that bringing up viewpoints which challenge the reigning ideology should lead to an open discussion, not be a reason for getting fired.

There is overwhelming scientific evidence that there are biological differences between men and women (it feels weird to even have to make such a statement — I mean, most people know how sexual reproduction works, right?). There is evidence that these biological differences lead to some innate differences in interests and aptitudes between men and women on average (emphasis on the “on average”). Even if you wish to marginalize the biological causes for the average differences in interests and aptitudes between men and women, these differences can be observed. That means that yes, the stereotypical man differs from the stereotypical women. It does not mean that every person is like the stereotype of their sex. It just partly explains the differences that we can observe on a population level. To what extent are these differences caused by biology, and to what extent are they the result of cultural biases? We don’t know. And if we are not allowed to have a discussion about it, we will never know, and we can never come to diversity programs which tackle the biases in an effective manner.

I have argued before that some of the enforced diversity programs that I have observed are misguided. I have been cautious in expressing that opinion, as I know it can lead to fast accusations of being sexist, which is a label that you better avoid. However, I still felt sufficiently safe in expressing that opinion as I think that I am working in an environment where people are at least willing to examine and discuss evidence rather than condemn automatically. Having to work in an environment where expressing a well-founded idea can lead to getting fired seems horrifying to me.

Science stops where ideology takes over. It seems to me that a company such as Google, which is founded on technical and scientific research, is doing itself a great disservice by trying to silence those who hold a contrary opinion or are trying to challenge ideas.


Diversity interlude

April 24, 2017

I don’t know if I am yet done with the topic of diversity. The discussions about diversity are currently rather intense, and I feel I still have to say quite a bit about it. In general, I have noticed that my position is that diversity is based for at least a considerable part in biology, while those who are on the side of social engineering are of the opinion that it is all culturally determined. In that respect, I discovered a fascinating series of documentaries by the Norse comedian and sociologist Harald Eia, called “Hjernevask“. I haven’t yet completed watching them, but up to now I am pretty surprised about some of his discoveries. The two things that stand out to me are: (1) the role of biology in determining differences between genders and races is much bigger than I had previously assumed, and (2) evidently in “enlightened” western countries such as Norway the thought that differences can be the result of biology is actively shunned even by people whose job it is to know better. Heartily recommended.