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.)