Friday, December 4, 2009

The Answer is in the Question

Elaine McArdle in her Boston Globe article (May 2008) writes about research in economics and the social sciences which shows that smart and highly educated (in math and science) women choose jobs other than those in IT, physics, and engineering. They self-select jobs in which they deal more with organic substances and language, and less with tools and inorganic substances.

These data apparently surprise researchers who sought the reasons for such choices in physiology, education, or at the door or glass ceiling of the workplace. But they found that it’s not about brains, aptitude, ability, or out-and-out barriers; it’s mostly about choice, they say. Women choose freely.

Yet, McArdle reports that researchers don’t know why women choose as they do. They don’t know how experience and socialization work in shaping women and their choices.

But doesn’t the answer about selecting jobs lie exactly there, in the answer to the question of how culture shapes women and their choices from infancy?

We have a willful and collective blindness, in certain quarters at least, about the role of ideology in shaping people’s choices, especially when it has to do with the role and place of women in our society.

We are not so blind when it comes to subcultures, though. It’s interesting that last year in Texas, with the FLDS cult, we seem to have no such trouble understanding how constant exposure to certain ideas from infancy shapes women’s beliefs and makes them accept behavior that is harmful to themselves and to their children.

I am frankly pessimistic that researchers will even look to see the results of exposure to beliefs about what it means to be a woman in a dominant culture. If they did, they might have to admit that women actually have less choice than they “find” in the research McArdle reports.

Researchers will continue to look everywhere but where the truth lies. The real answer to the Freudian question about what women want is that it’s only a rhetorical question.

Elaine McArdle is a writer in Cambridge, Mass. She has co-authored a book with Dr. Carolyn Bernstein called The Migraine Brain.

I would like to invite Elaine McArdle to my soiree.


askcherlock said...

I do believe that certain women are at risk of becoming part of subcultures, such as the one you mentioned. I wonder if childhood abuse plays a role in that? And, to be honest, we are still expected to follow the lead of the men in our lives. If a woman was raised with a domineering or abusive father, she may look for that in later relationships. It is all very complex, isn't it?

ChrisJ said...


It is complex, but always angers me when researchers almost willfully assume/insist that it isn't.

Claire said...

Did the researchers really ask the right women/any women in their research? As you said, from infancy things are set in motion, who still gets the dolls and who still gets the science sets as gifts?

Totally off topic, but the little picture of the girl doing an experiment appears in the daft brain age game I have been playing.

I thought it was odd, so had to share :)

This is the game is you want to see

ChrisJ said...

I wouldn't be surprised if the researchers didn't ask any women. We had someone at our college who did research about why students drop out after first year; he didn't ask any students!!!!

I will check the game. Not sure where I found the pic (probably same place the game people did!).

Claire said...

That doesn't surprise me at all, cheeky buggers.

More positive women role models in these areas would be a great start, people that go into schools and capture the interest early on. That way if they are lacking in strong female role models at home, they have them somewhere else.

About the game:
It took a while for me to get my brain age the same as my own lol :)

ChrisJ said...

At least you perservered with the game; I'd probably give up.

Pearl said...

not surprising. one can spend life fighting or come to terms with a peaceable reconciliation and call it choice. women behave according to the systems they are in, and men their own ways, under most conditions invisible as air.

ChrisJ said...

Pearl, You are right, and those invisible conditions are really powerful.