Saturday, October 24, 2009

Mike Treder - Women, Men, Logic, and Emotion

Here is an article that builds on (sort of) my recent post about women outperforming men at identifying emotions. This article examines the predominance of males in the transhumanist and technology/scientific communities.

This article comes from the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies site - a great if slightly biased resource on transhumanist and singularity thinking.

Women, Men, Logic, and Emotion

Mike Treder

Mike Treder

Ethical Technology

Posted: Oct 22, 2009

How different are men from women? And how much could those differences affect your future?

It’s been noted before that there is a significant gender imbalance among those who subscribe to transhumanist and/or technoprogressive ideas. The most recent Singularity Summit came in for quite a bit of criticism when their initial speaker list included no women at all. As it turned out, only one of the 25 speakers was female.

But it’s not only the singularity crowd that is dominated by men. Among the IEET’s nearly one thousand Facebook fans, for example, 71% are male and 27% female (as for the remaining 2%, well, who knows). The IEET has 12 interns, and four are female. Of our 15 IEET Fellows, four are women. And this is, unfortunately, a typical pattern. Attend nearly any gathering of futurists or science fiction enthusiasts and you’ll see a lot more male faces than female.

So, is this disparity mainly a result of societal conditioning? Or is there an evolutionary explanation for the differences between how men and women perceive the world and in what areas they take the most interest?

It’s been conclusively shown, of course, that girls are every bit as capable as boys in learning science and math. Some people are even starting to worry now about a reverse disadvantage, as it’s discovered that girls today are outperforming boys at every level in education.

For some reason, though, in the field of engineering the disparity remains especially prominent:

Among U.S. engineers there is an indisputable gender gap—fewer than 20% of engineering graduates are women, according to the National Science Foundation. . . Women have succeeded in larger numbers in fields such as physiology, biology, and social sciences, and they are having increasing success in starting small businesses. Increasingly, engineers and technologists have an advantage in reaching the top, yet in these fields women constitute the smallest minority.

And the difference is also acute when it comes to computer science:

If the attitudes of high school students are a good predictor of eventual career choices, the future will continue to see computer science fields dominated by males. According to new research released by ACM and the WGBH Educational Foundation, compared with girls, more than twice as many boys see computer science as a “good” or “very good” choice as a college major. What’s more, four times as many boys cited computer science as a “very good” career choice.

Perhaps part of the explanation can be found in the results of a recent study done in Canada:

Next time your wife or girlfriend accuses you of not being attuned to her feelings or those of the people around you, just smile and nod.

A study by researchers from the Université de Montréal Centre de recherche en neuropsychologie et cognition (CERNEC), published in the journal Neuropsychologia, says that women are better than men at picking up emotional clues in people’s facial expressions.

The team, headed by Olivier Collignon, set out to examine the long-held belief that women generally do a better job than men in understanding what a person’s expressions, statements and body language says about how they feel.

Collignon, who also works as a researcher at the Université catholique de Louvain’s Institute of Neuroscience in Belgium, says “the aim of such a study isn’t to prove the superiority of men or women. . . These gender studies are necessary for researchers to better understand mental diseases which have a strong gender component. That means they affect men and women differently. Autism is a good example, because it affects more men than women and one of its features is the difficulty in recognizing emotions.”

Could the different levels of interest between men and women in engineering and computer science be related to this? And could this difference also manifest itself in the futurist gender gap? Perhaps so. Consider this description of Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder fairly common among high achievers in certain areas:

In the social world there is no great benefit to a precise eye for detail, but in the worlds of math, computing, cataloguing, music, linguistics, engineering, and science, such an eye for detail can lead to success rather than failure.

It’s all well for these people, predominantly males, to succeed and become accomplished in their areas of focus. But maybe we should be concerned about a possible deficiency among some transhumanist leaders in understanding and appreciating emotional states. I, for one, would certainly not relish living in a post-Singularity world designed by such men.

Mike Treder is the Managing Director of the IEET, and former Executive Director of the non-profit Center for Responsible Nanotechnology.

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