Sunday, August 28, 2011

Between a rock and a crunchy place

Despite my initial complaints, I've gotten really into Less Wrong. It's refreshing to talk to people who don't write me off as weird/cold/unfeeling for trying to think through things carefully. And yet it's mostly populated by male techy types, which has got me thinking about signalling.

In college when I started going to protests and hanging out with activist kids, I considered ways I could change myself to fit in better with them. I briefly believed that ripping my clothing and wearing a fair-trade head scarf might make me a better activist. One evening I remember going from an activist meeting to a Campus Girl Scouts meeting and realizing there was nothing I could wear that would make me look at home in both groups. The answer, obviously, was that I didn't need to look like either group to do good work.

But the pressure for outward conformity isn't as bad as the pressure for conformity of thought. I was at a women's college when the Larry Summers scandal happened. In class after class, my professors lambasted Summers for suggesting that biological differences between women and men could have anything to do with the maleness of the science and engineering faculty at top universities.

Except . . . there was nothing wrong with what he actually said. He cited a study that did indeed show men's intelligence varying more widely than women's, creating more idiots and more geniuses. In fields that demand extremely smart people, it makes sense that there's a larger pool of good male candidates. And he didn't even list this as the main reason for the disparity - the other factors he listed were discrimination, different socialization, and the fact that the jobs require something like 80 hours a week. Nothing that feminists haven't been saying for decades. But because he mentioned IQ, the feminist community went nuts without, in most cases, even reading what he said.

I'm a feminist. Given the absurd things that have been said about gender and intelligence in the past, I understand getting your hackles up when you hear anything about it. But when you start a ruckus for no good reason, you're embarrassing me. I believe in social justice work. Justice does not just happen by itself. But ignoring truth in the pursuit of justice is not okay.

I refuse to signal less as a feminist so I can signal more as a rationalist. That would be as silly as ripping my jeans to be a better activist. But I expect better of both communities.

Dear rationalists: please welcome people who aren't white male atheist computer programmers under the age of 40. The fact that the site was 96% male at last count is obviously not due only to a longer right tail on the IQ curve.

Dear social justice folks: please be sure your arguments make sense.

3 comments:

ajbc said...

Wonderfully put.

Anonymous said...

"Dear rationalists: please welcome people who aren't white male atheist computer programmers under the age of 40"

Strongly agreed. The question is, how should the community go about attracting outsiders? I suspect part of the problem is that people who are white male atheist computer programmers under 40 (which includes myself) simply don't know how.

Julia Wise said...

Anonymous:
One thing that really helped me stick to Less Wrong after my initial post on the "welcome" thread was that someone emailed me. Specifically, it was a woman in the same field as I am (social work). She said she was interested in thinking more about social work and rationalism, encouraged me to go to my local meetup, and said she was glad to see more women joining.

I think this worked better because it came from someone in some similar categories to mine (female and social worker), but there's no reason someone less like me couldn't have done similar. I've been keeping an eye out for self-identified women in that thread, but there haven't been any in the last month.

Alicorn and others have complained about posts that assume the reader is a heterosexual male, something that irks me also. Avoiding that/pointing it out when others do it would be a good step.