Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

A few thoughts on role-models

leave a comment »

Disclaimer: The below borders on free association, even by my standards.

In a recent text on math and “college material”, I mentioned the Feminist fallacy of demanding specifically female role-models for young women in various fields, especially the STEM ones—is it not better to pick someone worthy of admiration, while ignoring sex?

Since then, I have spent some time thinking on role-models*, both with regard e.g. to Feminist calls for 50–50 representation of the sexes in math books and to my own experiences:

*Used in an approximate sense on two counts: Firstly, I have mostly seen such calls in Sweden (“förebild”) and Germany (“Vorbild”), and I am not certain what the ideal translation in context is. Secondly, the words in all three languages are unnecessarily strong and imply more than is warranted in context. (This, however, is not unusual with everyday use of these words.)

Let us start with a question: If sex requires such special treatment, why then not e.g. height and hair color?

In a Feminist world-view, which almost invariable denies significant inborn differences between the sexes, these three criteria make comparably little sense.

On the other hand, for those of us who believe that there are inborn differences, e.g. that men tend to be naturally more interested in STEM topics or that they tend to dominate the high (and low) extreme of I.Q., there might be some justification—that young women see that there actually are opportunities for women, should they have the interest, the ability, and the dedication needed. In this manner, the role-models could serve as a counter-weight to the other young women in their circles who show no sign of interest or ability; the female relatives who have trouble telling the difference between Internet Explorer, Google, and the Web; etc.*

*Note that if the feminist world view was correct, such a counter-weight would not be needed, implying that this argument does not apply in their case.

However, here specific examples of (true or faked) great women in the STEM fields give the wrong impression and group statistics would be much more helpful, e.g. what (true) percentage of professionals in a certain field are women. This way, a more correct impression is created and better choices can be made than if e.g. a math text book is arbitrarily filled with 50 % male and 50 % female mathematicians.* Women should know that there are opportunities (subject to the aforementioned constraints) and that they are not carbon copies of other women, but not be led to believe that the field is naturally 50–50, and certainly not led to believe that anyone who has a degree in X is actually good at X**.

*Even such problems aside as smart young women seeing that the women are included on lesser merits or being aware of the debate (bright young women have been known to read the news papers…) that led to the 50–50 proportions—either would not only defeat the purpose, but could actually back-fire though the impression that women are only included through “affirmative action”, never through actually being worthy. More generally, many Feminist, PC, Leftist, whatnot groups appear to be working under the assumption that people are so stupid that they must be manipulated into having the “right” opinion; however, whatever might or might not hold in the overall population, people lacking in intelligence and the ability to think for themselves have no place in e.g. math. Simply put: Someone susceptible to or “benefiting” from such manipulation is unlikely to be a good candidate for the STEM fields in the first place…

**Another common fallacy—and a much worse one at that: A degree is worth little more than the paper it is printed on, should the the right understanding, the right abilities, or the right brain be absent. More often than not, at least with today’s graduates, they are absent… (And, yes, that applies to the men too.)

More: Too much discussion of e.g. top mathematicians can create a very wrong impression and lead to great disappointments, faulty expectations, or undue pressure for members of either sex.* The simple truth is that the likes of Leibniz, Newton, Gödel, or (to pick the likely strongest female candidate) Noether are very rare birds. The chances are overwhelming that no-one, male or female, in this AP math class, this Calculus 101, or this graduate course on Riemann geometry will be comparable to Leibniz et al. Such perceptions of standards was one** of the reasons why I, myself, did not pursue math/academics beyond the master level—I saw what these rare birds had accomplished, measured success against them, and feared that I would fail to make a truly noteworthy contribution, e.g. founding a new field, solving one of the major open problems, or finding a theorem of fundamental importance.*** Today, I realize that even a more modest (and realistic) career as a metaphorical made-the-NFL-but-not-the-Hall-of-Fame mathematician would have been an accomplishment to be proud of.

*But likely especially for women, who are often exposed to a simplistic message of great success being inevitable (at least, unless the “Patriarchy” interferes), despite such success being a rarity and requiring at least one, more often two, and even more often three out of great ability, hard work, and luck.

**Others include my time as an exchange student and a wish to remain in Germany afterwards, a wish to make a bit of money, and having become over-satiated with math the first few years of college: I am not telling a sob story about how someone would have been an NFL Hall-of-Famer, had it not been for that knee injury the last year of high school—I merely caution that we should avoid knee injuries…

***In high school and the first one or two years of college, I did well enough that such aspirations originally seemed plausible to me. A little more detail is present in some sections of an older text on issues relating to education ([1]).

Excursion on other issues:
In a more complete analysis of the calls for female role-models (this text is more geared at the issue of impressions caused by role-models vs. reality) other arguments can be relevant, including the inherent unfairness towards the people featured in math books (deserving men “quota-ed” out; undeserving women “quota-ed” in) and the myth of sex being irrelevant gaining a greater foothold in the overall population.

Excursion on differences:
A common problem in discussions like these is misrepresentation or, conceivably, misunderstanding of opinion by e.g. Feminists, notably in the form of statements about groups being distorted to exceptionless statements about individuals. (The equivalent of “every single man is taller than every single woman”.) Here I stress the importance of understanding the difference between the individual and the group, individual and group characteristics, and individual and group outcomes. This especially when areas with a high selectivity, including elites, is concerned. Cf. e.g. parts of [2] (search for/scroll to “Thoughts on comparisons and the effects of variation:”).

Excursion on fear of failure:
One of the negative things ingrained in me through school was a fear of failure, sometimes even a fear of not being perfect*, that I have only overcome through time. This fear of failure was not an obstacle** as long as I succeeded with ease, but when things got tougher it could be a problem. During my college years, my “brute force” approach (cf. [1]) eventually brought me a few unnecessary failures, I learned that I had limits, and I caught enough of the history of math to understand that the best-of-the-best had often already made major contributions*** at my age. To some degree, I fell victim to a “if I do not try, I cannot fail” thinking. (But, again, this was only one of the reasons for my not pursuing a math career.)

*Not to be confused with a tendency towards perfectionism, although there might be some causal overlap.

**But it did lead to e.g. some cases of undue test anxiety and the odd nightmare in the extended why-was-I-not-told-that-we-have-a-test-today family. On the positive side, I have never had a I-forgot-to-put-on-my-pants-before-going-to-school nightmare.

***In all fairness, they had often been helped by having less mandatory schooling, giving them more time for an actual education and for their own thinking.

Interestingly, this type of thinking is one those sometimes alleged special problems of strong female students, especially when society is too be blamed for women’s problems—and, as usual, this “female” aspect is flawed. It might or might not be more common among female students (group differences again), but in reality, it appears to be a reasonably common problem among strong students (strong performers generally?) of either sex. A notable “named” example of a similar type is the “impostor syndrome”, originally alleged as a problem of accomplished women, but which has less to do with being a woman and more to do with being accomplished.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 5, 2018 at 3:52 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s