The Gap and the Wall

Last week APM’s radio program, Marketplace, did a story with Freakonomics about the patent gap between men and women. Women are responsible for only about 7.5% of patents in the US. That doesn’t surprise me. What is interesting about this story is that the presenter points to research that shows that when women compete with men they tend to perform worse (not just in comparison with men) than when they compete with women only. He casually recommends that companies like Google allow or encourage women to segregate themselves so that they can attain their full potential without being affected by the gender interaction.

Does this sound familiar? This is the case being made for sex segregated education. Women passionately defend girl’s schools and women’s colleges as safe and nurturing spaces for young women to learn and grow, and I am sure that they often are. My concern is, specifically, with engineering. To my knowledge, there is no women’s college in the US which grants a bachelor’s degree in engineering. I know that some women’s colleges cooperate with a neighboring university so that their students can attend engineering classes, but when women students attend classes at a coed school, they are no longer participating in a women only program. Women may perform better when they are segregated, but the truth is that the real world isn’t segregated and I don’t want it to be. Sooner or later men and women are going to have to work together. I would prefer we change the things that contribute to poor performance by women when working in the presence of men instead of removing all the men.

Do you think you would do better work if you could work in Lady-Land without the Male Gaze? If we are open to segregation why not also look at quotas? Both systems are interfering with “supposed” pure merit systems in an effort to even the playing field.

If you accept that the composition of the community affects the performance of the individual members and you are willing to change the composition of the community to allow some members to perform better then why not move the community to parity as opposed to segregation? Why not require that women need to make up a certain percentage of management and the workforce? I would like to see how women perform when they are represented equally at all levels of an organization.

17 thoughts on “The Gap and the Wall

  1. Becky

    I’m always interested by defenses of sex-segregated education. In high school and college, I was far more intimidated by the other women than I was by then men, so I think I would have done much worse in an all-women’s high school or college.

    On the flip side, although I’ve always had a lot of male friends, it took me a while to get into the study groups that had formed among my mostly-male classmates in the physics major. Some of that might have been my personality, though — I prefer to work alone — rather than the gender makeup of my classmates.

  2. ascendingPig

    Smith College actually has a fairly prestigious engineering degree from its Picker Engineering Program. I believe there are other counterexamples to your belief, but that’s one noteworthy one. There’s also evidence that the experience advantages for women from women’s colleges persist in business after graduation, for alumnae who go into business.

  3. Mrs Dragon

    The problem is that it always breaks down at some point. I am a female mechanical engineer, I work for a consulting company. Invariably, when I work with clients who are engineers working for established engineering firms they are men. I do, occasionally, have female clients but they tend to be female entrepreneurs. The projects are much smaller and much less “serious” than the larger, more visible projects with male clients. Say I went to an all female school and was hired by an all female company…do I then limit myself to only female clients? Then fact that my company would then work on less prestigious projects would lead to less industry acnowledgement, a wage gap, and a self perpetuating problem as the engineers in my firm would never gain experience on the more complex projects. In other words, it would create a second class citizenry of engineers.

    1. Meg

      Is there any evidence that women from all-women’s colleges only work with other women?

      Education is different than employment.

  4. antimonysarah

    Smith College has an accredited Engineering program. But it’s the or one of the only ones.

    As a woman who went to an all-girls middle and high school, and then a co-ed college for Engineering — I don’t know. There wasn’t an infinite supply of different middle/high schools for me to pick from; the all-girls one had several other things going for it. I don’t think a man telling women they’d be better off in a segregated environment is useful; I can see some benefit to women saying “I want to face one challenge at a time; today, partial differential equations, tomorrow, sexism in the workplace” and choosing a single-sex school.

    1. Beth

      Smith, in general, was awesome, but tended to provide less support to highly-technical professions than humanities. I believe this was because it attempts to address the imbalances in educational and academia over-all, where humanities, and especially feminist or women-focused humanities, are given fewer resources and less respect than technical or “hard” sciences.

      The engineering program at Smith does not just seek to provide a world-class engineering education, it also focuses on traditionally-neglected components such as community impact, cross-disciplinary collaboration and hands-on applied learning:

      I would not be the person I am, and I don’t think I’d be as resilient to the all-male environments in which I work, if I hadn’t had the chance to experience freedom from gender at Smith. Returning to the land of ubiquitous misogyny was hard, but I don’t ever think the problem is me and I am confident enough to be apart from the culture in which I live. I know how to fight, but I don’t have to in order to survive.

      The problem is that it is not a different environment that changes individual performance: it is the exclusion of men that changes individual women’s performance. I have never yet seen any environment with men present that was free from gender enforcement the way my all-women’s college was. It really is just fundamentally different. Until someone shows me at least one example where it is possible to incorporate men in such an environment, I will continue to believe that all-women’s environments are vital for humanity to realize its full potential.

      I would love to see an all-women’s technical school, especially one that continued the work Smith does to break down disciplinary barriers. What I don’t think we should expect is for it to look like MIT minus the men.

  5. Crissa

    The world isn’t sex-segregated, so doing so in education won’t be a magic solution.

    Also, how does removing women from interaction with guys teach guys not to harass women?

    1. Meg

      I really don’t think it’s women’s job to teach men not to harass women. If they haven’t learned by college they aren’t going to learn by giving them handy targets.

      Men learn not to harass by having other men tell them pre-school on up that girls are no different from them and they are to treat them with respect. If that fails, it is incredibly unfair to force women to have a substandard education in the hopes that men will magically learn.

      The real problem I see is that segregation is often accompanied by women getting fewer resources than the equivalent male-dominated areas (Title 9, for example, has failed spectacularly in the world of sports.)

      1. Catherine

        “I really don’t think it’s women’s job to teach men not to harass women.”

        On one level, I see your point, but, truly, who else but women have the impetus to teach men not to harrass women? It’s not that women are responsible for men’s bad behavior, but that we can’t expect to get the changes we want unless we make them happen ourselves.

        One question I have about sex-segregated education is this: are male-only educational environments going to be good for women? If the majority of female education is female-only, then I think it follows that the majority of male education will be male-only. Unless we stop educating men, which certainly has precedent for women, but which I don’t think anyone is advocating for.

        I don’t think there will be a single answer that works for everybody, and having a variety of types of educational opportunities available is a good thing. But I don’t think segregated education is going to solve our problems.

        1. S.P.Zeidler

          “On one level, I see your point, but, truly, who else but women have the impetus to teach men not to harrass women?”

          Well, if women could (and would) walk away from men who harassed them, the respective men would have the choice between exclusively male company or mending their ways. Either way, greater happyness for the world. Alas, circumstance usually makes this a lot less simple. :}

  6. Elizabeth G. Post author

    Sorry, It appears that I did miss the program at Smith. I was under the impression that it was a program that allowed students to take classes at another university but that was incorrect. I found a source that says it was ranked 17th for general engineering programs in 2008. Sorry.

  7. S.P.Zeidler

    I think that segregating the sexes for a time while teenagers are trying to find their gender roles may be useful, so they don’t do crutches like “I’m a girl so I mustn’t like science” or “I’m a guy so I have to be bad at languages”. Usually, by ~16 students will have learned which subjects they like and are good at and will be a lot less prone to give up what they like just because it doesn’t fit some stereotype. At least I didn’t stop liking physics and math coming from an all-girls school to a mixed one at that age, even though all the properly gender-stereotype infused students there treated me like a cow with 2 heads (and some of the teachers, too).
    At the all-girls school, me being good at science was just me being good at science, not me failing to be properly feminine. Of course, that’s anecdata. Less anecdata: Studies in Germany say that of female non-biology science university students, 35% come from an all-girls school, where these schools only account for 4% of girls gaining the right to attend university.

    1. mappings

      Can you comment on the effect that non-consensual (coercively-assigned-)gender segregation during high school would have on trans and gender-variant students, both those who are still questioning their identities and those who are quite sure of their identities but are in a cisnormative corridor that causes their certainty to be scorned by the adults around them?

      1. Elizabeth G. Post author

        Don’t mean to step on any toes by responding to someone else’s question but it has been a few days.

        I think that it is important to point out that with any education plan it is usually being applied to help the majority not the minority, and sometimes to the detriment of the minority. This is a big problem because we end up with schools that are designed for the average student but no one is the average student. I didn’t mention the consequences to trans or gender queer individuals because that is a post in and of itself but I am glad it came up in the comments. I have heard a lot about “how girls learn” and “how boys learn” as an argument for sex segregated education and that always seemed a little like BS to me. There will, inevitably be a girl (trans or cis) who doesn’t learn the “girl” way and then what?

      2. Beth

        There were both male and genderqueer students at Smith and continue to be. Some choose to transfer, but many others stayed. The administration had serious issues, and there was tension while I was there, so I wouldn’t say it’s all roses, but it was one of the free-est atmospheres I had come across to explore.

        When the segregation is about shared cultural norms rather than about enforcing gender identity, the freedom from coercive enforcement of gendered behavior benefits genderqueer and trans* students as well. In cases where the adults continue to enforce gender, few if any of these benefits would be present anyway. In cases instead where students are allowed inhabit the full range of human expression, many had the opportunity to come to a more complete understanding of their relationship with gender, regardless of coercive gender assignment.

  8. Beth

    I’m curious, what about Girl Scouts/Boy Scouts? Do you see them as a positive force, or as an escapist fantasy?

    1. Elizabeth G. Post author

      I hope it doesn’t seem like I am against women’s organizations, I am not. I even wrote a love post about the Society of Women Engineers, which also has male members but is primarily focused on women. I am specifically talking about school and work. These are places where people spend a great deal of their waking hours. For most children in the US, school is where they define themselves. For most adult work is a huge part of their identity.

      I have nothing against the girl scouts. I have a very complicated relationship with thin mints. I have serious problems with boy scouts but not because they focus attention on boys, mostly because of the horrible anti-LGBT stuff.

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