Trending Tendencies: An Empirical Parable

You read one day in the paper that more women are now enrolling in college than men. Not only that, but the gap is widening.

What, you wonder, could be driving this trend?

You consider a few possibilities.

It could be because admissions committees discriminate against men, giving preference to female candidates.

It could be because male candidates are less qualified overall, by whatever standards colleges use.

It could be because men are less likely to apply in the first place, leading to lower numbers of men in the applicant pool.

Of course, all three factors might contribute to the trend. Or some combination of factors. It might be true, for instance, that admissions departments are biased in favor of men, but not enough to make up for a small pool of qualified male applicants.

To make matters worse, the different factors interact.

Suppose men are, on average, less qualified for college.

Over time, you reason, admissions officers might pick up on this. They might fall into the habit of moving male applications to the bottom of the pile. They might rush through male applications, giving them less attention because, after all, the admissions officers simply know that men are less scholarly than women.

In time, male applicants might sense that there’s a bias against them. They might give up applying, thinking to themselves, “Why bother–we probably won’t get in anyway.” They might internalize the stereotype, coming to believe that they’re innately less diligent and less studious, that college simply isn’t for them.

Or suppose men are much less likely to apply to college in the first place. Because of this, admissions departments might develop a bias towards men. They might admit male students instead of qualified women. As time goes by, female students might pick up on the bias, realizing they need to work even harder to compete with their privileged male peers. Colleges might find themselves inundated with overqualified women and underqualified men. To maintain gender parity in their student populations, admissions officers might become even more biased towards men, driving female applicants to work even harder, and so on.

You realize these questions will be extremely difficult to analyze, much less answer. Bias can drive low applicant rates. Low qualifications can lead to bias. Low application rates can drive down qualifications. Each factor affects the others. They interact in real time. It can be all but impossible to untangle the causal relations.

But you go ahead and crunch the numbers, and you tentatively conclude that, for whatever reason, men are less likely to apply to college in the first place.

This might explain why men are less likely to be in college. If they don’t bother to apply, they’re hardly likely to be accepted.

But you still have to ask, why are men less likely to apply?

Well, you reason, it could be because society as a whole is biased against men, and men pick up on the bias and get discouraged.

Or it could be because college-age men are less qualified for college, know they’re less qualified, and don’t bother to waste time applying.

Or it could be because men–even when qualified, and even in the absence of bias–choose not to apply because they’d rather be doing something else.

As before, these factors interact. Lack of interest can drive down qualifications. Low qualifications can lead to lack of interest. Both factors can lead to bias against male students–because people come to think of men as less studious–or bias towards male students–because people become desperate to boost male achievement.

And bias, whether towards or against men, has unpredictable effects. Men might work harder to overcome bias. Or they might give up and succumb to it.

But you persevere. You do a survey of college-age men, and the men tell you that they’re simply less interested in enrolling in college, even the ones who are qualified.

Now you have to ask, why are men less interested in going to college?

Motivations are complex. Maybe men think college is for sissies. Maybe men think that other people think college is for sissies. Maybe men have problems with authority; they’re tired of being bossed around by teachers. Maybe men hate studying. Maybe men would rather get a job right now than go into debt for the chance of a better job later. Maybe something about the culture of college turns men off. Maybe it’s all of the above.

These are subtle and highly subjective questions. But you do a follow-up survey, and you conclude that men are less likely to apply to college because they hate doing schoolwork. Now you have to ask, why do men hate doing schoolwork?

Once again, you run through several hypotheses. It could be that men have less self-control. It could be that men are less tolerant of sitting still. It could be that men are less conscientious. And so on.

All these terms are rather fuzzy. It’s hard to nail down rigorous definitions. Not only that, but even if you distinguish among several discrete traits–discriminating, say, between restlessness and laziness–you still face the challenge of linking those traits to behavior. Men’s relative lack of studiousness might be due to a mix of traits: restlessness plus impatience plus irresponsibility. Or it could be due to one critical trait–short attention span, maybe–that explains the whole difference.

So you do another study, and you tentatively conclude that men hate schoolwork because they’d rather by physically active. They don’t want to sit around hitting the books all day.

Now you’re faced with another question. Why do men have this psychological tendency?

Well, you reason, it could be because men are trained to think and feel in certain ways, shaped and guided by the dominant culture.

Or it could be because genetic differences–changes on the Y chromosome–predispose men to have certain traits.

But now you have a whole new set of problems, because biology shapes culture and culture shapes biology. If men are genetically predisposed to be rambunctious, society might pick up on that tendency and reinforce it. If society teaches men to be rambunctious, this cultural reinforcement will have an influence on men’s physical development. And this nature-nurture interaction is ongoing, starting with the ascription of gender to a fetus or infant and continuing through a boy’s childhood. How do you sort out the interactions?

You decide to focus on culture. Soon, more questions crop up. Will you look at parental influences? Peers? Media? Schools and institutions? Medical professionals? Like everything else, these cultural factors interact; media influences peers, institutions influence parents, parents influence access to media and medicine.

In despair, you switch your focus to biological factors. But the same problem comes up again. The body is a complex system, swarming with countless hidden interactions. Even the genome interacts with itself over time, some genes affecting the expression of others.

You decide to focus on one particular gene, or rather, one sequence of base pairs. Through careful statistical work, you establish that this sequence of base pairs might be correlated with an increased incidence of certain kinds of restless behavior. You publish your work, indicating that it’s a tentative finding that will have to be subject to further study.

Women Biologically Destined for Drudgery, the headlines read, Men Genetically Hardwired for Failure. There’s a massive public outcry, and you get fired for being sexist.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply