A hopeful note on ability distributions

I read recently (my apologies, I can’t find the link) that in every country where we have reliable testing data, a consistent pattern emerges: girls tend to do slightly better on reading/writing tasks than mathematical tasks, and boys slightly better on mathematical than language-tasks.

This is an interesting dynamic because it creates different “optimal” outcomes depending on what you are trying to optimize for. 

If you optimize for individual achievement–that is, get each student to go into the field where they, personally, can do the best–the vast majority of girls will go into language-related fields and the vast majority of boys will go into math-based fields. This leaves us with a strongly gender-divided workforce.

But if we optimize instead for getting talented people into a particular field, the gender divide would be narrower. Most smart students are good at both math and language, and could excel in either domain. You could easily have a case where the best mathematician in a class is even more talented in language, or where the most verbally talented person is even more talented at mathematical tasks (but not both at once).

If we let people chose the careers that best suit them, some fields may end up sub-optimally filled because talented people go elsewhere. If we push people into particular fields, some people will end up sub-optimally employed, because they could have done a better job elsewhere.

Relatedly, we find that people show more gendered job preferences in developed countries, and less gendered preferences in undeveloped countries. In Norway, women show a pretty strong preference, on average, for careers involving people or language skills, while in the third world, they show a stronger preference for “masculine” jobs involving math, science, or technical skills. This finding is potentially explained by different countries offering different job opportunities. In Norway, there are lots of cushy jobs, and people feel comfortable pursuing whatever makes them happy or they’re good at. In the third world, technical skills are valued and thus these jobs pay well and people strive to get them.

People often ascribe the gender balance in different jobs to nefarious social forces (ie, sexism,) but it is possible that they are an entirely mundane side effect of people just having the wealth and opportunity to pursue careers in the things they are best at.



11 thoughts on “A hopeful note on ability distributions

  1. A more important fact is that the *variance* is higher among boys than among girls, so even in activities that women are generally better at, like cooking and music, the top 0.1% is mostly men. This meshes well with men having a much higher variance in reproductive success than women, which forces men to be more aggressive and competitive at everything they do. This includes staying out of female-majority workspaces, where their “toxic masculinity” is not welcome.

    Another reason for the “strongly gender-divided workforce” is that if men and women are mixed for eight hours a day, non-marital sex is going to happen regardless of the penalties for it, with corrosive effects on the organization and the whole society. Do you really want your office to be a “Love Boat”?


    • Re: wider distribution, I’ve seen evidence of a few men being really damn good at full-time childcare and singing women’s opera roles… It’s kind of depressing, in a way. See also the video of women Olympic gymnastics medal winners watching male college gymnasts performing their routines (that is, men performing women’s routines…)

      And (some) people wonder why some women might get defensive about using gender-neutral terms for pregnancy and breastfeeding… Those are *literally* the only things I can definitely do better than any man…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The only way to fix white demographics and especially smart-fraction demographics is women focusing less on jobs and more on kids. Granted, some can do both. Individual abilities differ. Also, smart people are supposed to be rich and thus hire nannies and servants like the old aristocrats, which would also help with time management. Unfortunately, the modern economy is based on exploiting smart people to carry the rest, so most smart people cannot afford that.

    Generally speaking women who want to be high achievers should do that early. Think Judith Polgar, already a chess star in her teenage years, peaking at 28, first kid in the same year, next kid a few years later when already half-retired. That works. But women who finish college at 23 and that is when their they have their first real job are simply running out of time, it takes 12-15 years to get really good at something, so it will be either career or kids.

    The whole timing of college and career was invented for men with a longer fertility window. Only way for women to have it both is to start really early.


  3. Equality is hope? I disagree. And in any case, if we turn out to be unequal (and we know we are; the debate is about the degree of inequality) — what then?

    Picture a world in which STEM careers are mostly men, and non-STEM careers are mostly women. In both cases, freely chosen. And people accepted that as a way that humans organize themselves when they are free to do so. Is that really so awful? Is hope shattered? I feel like it would be just fine.


    • The hopeful part isn’t equality. The hopeful part is that what people have interpreted as evidence of nefarious, evil bias may just be people going about their business, actually doing things they are good at and want to do.


  4. The money available in engineering was definitely more than enough to persuade me even though I’m a terrible engineer. I wanted to be a history professor, but there’s no money in it. Too much supply, no demand. Being a professor pays well in honor and nothing else.

    I would suspect woman place a higher value on fun and self-actualization.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Research results have also recently shown that, on average, girls are better than boys in both verbal/language domains, AND math/science. (I can’t find that link, either, but you can look it up.)

    But girls’ language skills are still stronger than their OWN math abilities, again always on average. Then, since kids constantly get told ‘focus on your strengths’, and ‘do what you’re best at’, they end up heading to verbal/language based fields. (And let’s face it, for most people, the social sciences are just more fun!)

    I don’t think there would be half as much quibbling about proportions of males/females in different fields, if people could be confident that;

    A) They’d get a truly fair shake, including in the mostly-invisible ways, no matter what field they went in to,


    B) their pay would be directly related to their abilities/skills/usefulness to society/time and energy invested in qualifying, rather than to their gender

    Liked by 1 person

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