The Female Problem


Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn in their laboratory, 1912

As Pumpkin Person reports, 96% of people with math IQs over 154 are male (at least in the early 1980s.) Quoting from  Feingold, A. (1988). Cognitive gender differences are disappearing. American Psychologist, 43(2), 95-103:

When the examinees from the two test administrations were combined, 96% of 99 scores of 800 (the highest possible scaled score), 90% of 433 scores in the 780-790 range, 81% of 1479 scores between 750 and 770, and 56% of 3,768 scores of 600 were earned by boys.

The linked article notes that this was an improvement over the previous gender gap in high-end math scores. (This improvement may itself be an illusion, due to the immigration of smarter Asians rather than any narrowing of the gap among locals.)

I don’t know what the slant is among folks with 800s on the verbal sub-test, though it is probably less–far more published authors and journalists are male than top mathematicians are female. (Language is a much older human skill than math, and we seem to have a corresponding easier time with it.) ETA: I found some data. Verbal is split nearly 50/50 across the board; the short-lived essay had a female bias. Since the 90s, the male:female ratio for scores over 700 improved from 13:1 to 4:1; there’s more randomness in the data for 800s, but the ratio is consistently more male-dominated.

High SAT (or any other sort of) scores is isolating. A person with a combined score between 950 and 1150 (on recent tests) falls comfortably into the middle of the range; most people have scores near them. A person with a score above 1350 is in the 90th%–that is, 90% of people have scores lower than theirs.

People with scores that round up to 1600 are above the 99th%. Over 99% of people have lower scores than they do.

And if on top of that you are a female with a math score above 750, you’re now a minority within a minority–75% or more of the tiny sliver of people at your level are likely to be male.

Obviously the exact details change over time–the SAT is periodically re-normed and revised–and of course no one makes friends by pulling out their SAT scores and nixing anyone with worse results.

But the general point holds true, regardless of our adjustments, because people bond with folks who think similarly to themselves, have similar interests, or are classmates/coworkers–and if you are a female with high math abilities, you know well that your environment is heavily male.

This is not so bad if you are at a point in your life when you are looking for someone to date and want to be around lots of men (in fact, it can be quite pleasant.) It becomes a problem when you are past that point, and looking for fellow women to converse with. Married women with children, for example, do not typically associate in groups that are 90% male–nor should they, for good reasons I can explain in depth if you want me to.

A few months ago, a young woman named Kathleen Rebecca Forth committed suicide. I didn’t know Forth, but she was a nerd, and nerds are my tribe.

She was an effective altruist who specialized in understanding people through the application of rationality techniques. She was in the process of becoming a data scientist so that she could earn the money she needed to dedicate her life to charity.

I cannot judge the objective truth of Forth’s suicide letter, because I don’t know her nor any of the people in her particular communities. I have very little experience with life as a single person, having had the good luck to marry young. Nevertheless, Forth is dead.

At the risk of oversimplifying the complex motivations for Forth’s death, she was desperately alone and felt like she had no one to protect her. She wanted friends, but was instead surrounded by men who wanted to mate with her (with or without her consent.) Normal people can solve this problem by simply hanging out with more women. This is much harder for nerds:

Rationality and effective altruism are the loves of my life. They are who I am.

I also love programming. Programming is part of who I am.

I could leave rationality, effective altruism and programming to escape the male-dominated environments that increase my sexual violence risk so much. The trouble is, I wouldn’t be myself. I would have to act like someone else all day.

Imagine leaving everything you’re interested in, and all the social groups where people have something in common with you. You’d be socially isolated. You’d be constantly pretending to enjoy work you don’t like, to enjoy activities you’re not interested in, to bond with people who don’t understand you, trying to be close to people you don’t relate to… What kind of life is that? …

Before I found this place, my life was utterly unengaging. No one was interested in talking about the same things. I was actually trying to talk about rationality and effective altruism for years before I found this place, and was referred into it because of that!

My life was tedious and very lonely. I never want to go back to that again. Being outside this network felt like being dead inside my own skin.

Why Forth could not effectively change the way she interacted with men in order to decrease the sexual interest she received from them, I do not know–it is perhaps unknowable–but I think her life would not have ended had she been married.

A couple of years ago, I met someone who initiated a form of attraction I’d never experienced before. I was upset because of a sex offender and wanted to be protected. For months, I desperately wanted this person to protect me. My mind screamed for it every day. My survival instincts told me I needed to be in their territory. This went on for months. I fantasized about throwing myself at them, and even obeying them, because they protected me in the fantasy.

That is very strange for me because I had never felt that way about anyone. Obedience? How? That seemed so senseless.

Look, no one is smart in all ways at once. We all have our blind spots. Forth’s blind spot was this thing called “marriage.” It is perhaps also a blind spot for most of the people around her–especially this one. She should not be condemned for not being perfect, any more than the rest of us.

But we can still conclude that she was desperately lonely for normal things that normal people seek–friendship, love, marriage–and her difficulties hailed in part from the fact that her environment was 90% male. She had no group of like-minded females to bond with and seek advice and feedback from.

Forth’s death prompted me to create The Female Side, an open thread for any female readers of this blog, along with a Slack-based discussion group. (The invite is in the comments over on the Female Side.) You don’t have to be alone. (You don’t even have to be good at math.) We are rare, but we are out here.

(Note: anyone can feel free to treat any thread as an Open Thread, and some folks prefer to post over on the About page.)

Given all of this, why don’t I embrace efforts to get more women into STEM? Why do I find these efforts repulsive, and accept the heavily male-dominated landscape? Wouldn’t it be in my self-interest to attract more women to STEM and convince people, generally, that women are talented at such endeavors?

I would love it if more women were genuinely interested in STEM. I am also grateful to pioneers like Marie Curie and Lise Meitner, whose brilliance and dedication forced open the doors of academies that had formerly been entirely closed to women.

The difficulty is that genuine interest in STEM is rare, and even rarer in women. The over-representation of men at both the high and low ends of mathematical abilities is most likely due to biological causes that even a perfect society that removes all gender-based discrimination and biases cannot eliminate.

It does not benefit me one bit if STEM gets flooded with women who are not nerds. That is just normies invading and taking over my territory. It’s middle school all over again.

If your idea of “getting girls interested in STEM” includes makeup kits and spa masks, I posit that you have no idea what you’re talking about, you’re appropriating my culture, and you can fuck off.

Please take a moment to appreciate just how terrible this “Project Mc2” “Lip Balm Lab” is. I am not sure I have words sufficient to describe how much I hate this thing and its entire line, but let me try to summarize:

There’s nothing inherently wrong with lib balm. The invention of makeup that isn’t full of lead and toxic chemicals was a real boon to women. There are, in fact, scientists at work at makeup companies, devoted to inventing new shades of eye shadow, quicker-drying nail polish, less toxic lipstick, etc.

And… wearing makeup is incredibly normative for women. Little girls play at wearing makeup. Obtaining your first adult makeup and learning how to apply it is practically a rite of passage for young teens. Most adult women love makeup and wear it every day.


Nerd women.

Female nerds just aren’t into makeup.

Marie Curie
Marie Curie, fashionista

I’m not saying they never wear makeup–there’s even a significant subculture of people who enjoy cosplay/historical re-enactment and construct elaborate costumes, including makeup–but most of us don’t. Much like male nerds, we prioritize comfort and functionality in the things covering our bodies, not fashion trends.

And if anything, makeup is one of the most obvious shibboleths that distinguishes between nerd females and normies.

In other words, they took the tribal marker of the people who made fun of us throughout elementary and highschool and repackaged it as “Science!” in an effort to get more normies into STEM, and I’m supposed to be happy about this?!

I am not ashamed of the fact that women are rarer than men at the highest levels of math abilities. Women are also rarer than men at the lowest levels of math abilities. I feel no need to cram people into disciplines they aren’t actually interested in just so we can have equal numbers of people in each–we don’t need equal numbers of men and women in construction work, plumbing, electrical engineering, long-haul trucking, nursing, teaching, childcare, etc.

It’s okay for men and women to enjoy different things–on average–and it’s also okay for some people to have unusual talents or interests.

It’s okay to be you.

(I mean, unless you’re a murderer or something. Then don’t be you.)


24 thoughts on “The Female Problem

  1. Like the mediocre pilot Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie is an early example of, “Look, women can do this too!” She discovered polonium and radium before her husband died in a traffic accident in 1906, which leaves 116 elements discovered by men. 10-12 men surpassed her by discovering at least three elements, but few non-specialists would recognize even one of their names.

    The gender gap is less pronounced among Asians. The greatest scientific discovery by a woman not collaborating with her husband was the Wu experiment, and Ms. Wu was Chinese. So one way to close the gender gap is to invite more Asian women to study at American universities, with the added benefit of depriving China of the wombs that its future scientists and engineers would emerge from. (On second thought, they might marry white men and bear more Elliot Rodgers. White and Asian genes don’t mix well.)

    Women love being “harassed” by attractive men, but male nerds are generally not attractive, even to female nerds. As Kathy Forth grew heavier and her age approached forty, the men flirting with her tended toward being desperate losers, and a diminishing number of them. It’s sad that she wasn’t warned of this harsh reality while still young enough to avoid it.


    • Einstein respected Marie. I consider his opinion definitive.

      Asians are smarter than whites and Asian women probably would succeed handily at US institutions. I don’t know if they have any interest in marrying nerds, though.

      In my experience, nerd women find nerd men attractive, but I may be over-extrapolating from personal experience.


      • Einstein respected Marie Curie because he was told to do so by his Soviet handlers who provided him with a hot young KGB girlfriend. He also thought the Soviet Union was the greatest thing since sliced bread.

        Don’t you think it a little bit odd that the classic example of a supposedly great female scientist just happened to be the wife of a genuinely great scientist?

        History recorded that Pierre Curie discovered radium – until history was retroactively revised and rewritten to give women a larger role.

        Pierre Curie got radiation burns from radium. Marie Curie did not.

        If you compare older with newer sources, you will discover that history get rewritten with alarming speed.

        Today’s science is a whole lot more distorted by religion than biblical history is. You will get more accurate history from the Old Testament than from today’s archaeologists, for today’s archaeologists will deny what they used to know, and reject the archaeological evidence that they used to accept, denying that the cities of Canaan burned, the population of Canaan radically diminished, and was racially replaced by people with more northern Origins.


    • How sure are we that “white and asian genes don’t mix well”?

      > It’s sad that she wasn’t warned

      It’s a much bigger problem than “she wasn’t warned.” I’m pretty sure most women are at least kindof aware that they get uglier as they get older, and they get less sexual attention when they’re uglier. A huge portion of U.S.A. society is geared towards directing women to this kind of fate, even when they are warned. Where were all the people who like to talk like this when I was looking for support for only dating for marriage back in high school, and my mom was making sure I had access condoms and no marriage preparation? I’d seen those fertility and mutation risk charts in biology class. I knew. It’s just weird, the world that claimed to care about me and look out for my best interest as a child didn’t really do anything to prepare me for the most important part of my life, creating a healthy and happy family while I’m young enough to do it best.

      I don’t think women like me and Kathy only have blindspots, or character flaws, or what-have-you. We’ve been actively lead away from prioritizing marriage and family, especially young marriage. And the men who want us to do differently usually seem far more interested in controlling or emotionally manipulating us than in supporting our healthy and well-informed development and choices.

      For me, the big scare is being dependent on a man, because that’s the alternative to prioritizing career. I’m afraid of men. I’ve been taught to be, but I don’t think it’s without reason. My father pressures my mother for sex. My grandfather and grandmother fought even at knifepoint, probably over sex. (She had only one child, despite a young marriage, presumably without access to contraceptives in her day.) My mother did marry young, and her first marriage did not work out. If marriage really is almost always as beneficial for women as EvolutionistX suggests, I’d like to see the information to back it up.

      And if it is, in general I’d like to see support structures for preparing young women well to make that choice, and for supporting them during the marriage, and for helping to help mitigate the risks associated with ending up dependent for survival on someone who mistreats you.


      • >How sure are we that “white and asian genes don’t mix well”?

        Asians are discriminated against in the US, especially Asian and half-Asian men. Asian women seem to have it a little better. I feel genuinely sorry for them, because this sucks and they really don’t deserve it.

        I don’t blame this on their genes, though. On a genetic level I think they’re just fine.

        America, IMO, has gone in some really stupid directions wrt to marriage and children. For example, most conservatives I’ve known (such as my parents and the parents of the other kids I went to church with) did their best to drill into their kids “Don’t have sex, you might get pregnant and that will end your life!”

        Then a few years later they start complaining that their kids don’t want to have babies.

        These sorts also do their level best to make sure their children don’t associate with anyone of the opposite sex (see: baby risk,) and then wonder why their kids don’t bother bringing home their boyfriends/girlfriends anymore.

        We guilt women for having babies and a career at the same time, and then wonder why women with careers aren’t having babies.

        Even divorce is probably something that people should be more accepting of as a thing that sometimes happens, in order to plan for the possibility, in order to make people feel more comfortable with getting married. I have a friend whom I think would be a good husband but won’t get married because he is afraid of getting divorced.

        In the end, humans need other humans. We’re a social species. Loneliness is poison for most of us.


  2. Forth’s letter should be taken with a lot of salt, for another perspective, try this:

    > And if anything, makeup is one of the most obvious shibboleths that distinguishes between nerd females and normies.

    This was true in my NZ university classes. Now in my job at [big us tech company] it seems less reliable. Perhaps half of the genuinely nerdy females here like to wear makeup (as do most all of the non-nerds).


      • Froth’s article was absolutely nuts! This woman likely killed herself due to her schizophrenia. Unfortunately the rationalist community tends to strongly attract the mentally ill. I understand the points you are making in this article but you could have avoided using her example.


      • Well, it’s too late, now. (Though I guess I could edit it.)
        She was likely very delusional, yes. She is not the first delusional person I have encountered.
        Perhaps what the rationalist community really needs is a discussion about helping its mentally ill members receive treatment.
        Unfortunately, “rape” falls under the category of sacred beliefs in our country, so it’s hard to suggest to people that maybe they are hallucinating.


  3. Regarding SAT as a proxy for intelligence and the influx of Asians: if you come from a place where you first saw “x+2=5” in 3rd grade and not 9th, and drilled thousands of gradually harder problems through grade 10 rather than 20 problems on one homework, then most of the SAT math should be reasonable for you and not a sign of your intelligence so much as your infinitely better preparation. The SAT catches you on being fast and on stupid mistakes (you found X but the question asked for X+Y). If you have the basic skills down REALLY PAT these are less of an issue for you.

    If you are highly able in math and spend time tutoring kids in high school at a non gifted high school, you will find basic gaps such as adding fractions, functioning with negative numbers, or multiplying by 7 – this from kids who are otherwise smart and get the concepts.

    Now it might not be worthwhile for society to make everyone still algebra for many hours a day from grade school for other reasons…. But so much of this is preparation, which is your school, upbringing and culture.


  4. A follow-up to women in STEM. You’re not going to make more women nerdy or bookish by teaching them to program, any more than by making more PhDs do you increase the number of true critical thinkers or people truly loving the “life of the mind”.

    You’ll just import more of the broader feminine culture into STEM spaces, and it might no longer be a refuge for non-conforming women. Not a bad thing for many women, but bad perhaps for a subset of women in STEM.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Looking back, I’m glad no one told me that STEM was some sort of hotbed of evil men being sexist against women before I went to college. I might have believed them, and then I might have missed out on meeting so many lovely people (both men and women.)


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