Posted by: Chris | June 6, 2012

Who Invented Statistics

The NY Times has a piece on gender discrimination in the male-dominated tech industry, a recommendable look into the perversities inherent in having one gender severely overrepresented for so long.  A female writer at BoingBoing decided that the best response would be to obtusely dispute the premise:

Here’s the opening graf (bold-ing, mine):

MEN invented the Internet.And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolized Mr. Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died. Nerds. Geeks. Give them their due. Without men, we would never know what our friends were doing five minutes ago.

You guys, ladies suck at technology and the New York Times is ON IT.

Radia “Mother of the Internet” Perlman and the ghosts of RADM Grace Hopper, Ada Lovelaceand every woman who worked in technology for the past 150 years frown upon you, sir. Women may have been invisible, but the work we did laid the groundwork for more visible advancements now credited to more famous men.

“Men are credited with inventing the internet.” There. Fixed it for you.

Its quite telling when the three heroines cited here (as well as, presumably, the anonymous “every woman”) had contributions that were either unrelated or negligible.  But even accepting Ms. Jardin’s argument that these three women had significant and relevant roles to play in the formation of the internet, the original point still holds.  Men predominated in virtually all elements of the early tech industry and the few women contributors were outliers not the norm.  It does not matter whether this disparity was caused by path dependencies or, as Julian Sanchez argues, harsh sexism and constraining gender roles.

But certain people are adverse to even acknowledging these trends.  Part of this, as I am liable to push in these parts, is a lack of probabilistic or statistical familiarity more broadly.  But I suspect something deeper going on (amusingly, though, the hunch just based on anecdotal evidence).  Ms. Jardin, for instance, concludes:

I have no special knowledge about the truth, or lack thereof, in the Pao lawsuit. I know only what you and I and everyone else can read in the court documents, in the context of what I’ve experienced as a woman who has worked in the technology industry for about 20 years. I can’t speak to the merit of this case. But, Earth to dudes: yes, this stuff is real and normal, and so are we.

Lucky for Streitfeld, and the rest of the world, that the Women in Technology conferencehappens to be under way today in Santa Clara. Stop by and get a clue.

Oh, and? I, too, cried when Steve Jobs died. And I still idolize Mr. Spock.

This sentiment reverberated through the previous series of examples as well, that the only source of anecdotal evidence that matters in the end is oneself and truths that conflict with personal experience are necessarily suspect.  I wish I had a more satisfying explanation (identity politics? Millenial narcisissm?), but it is a connection worth keeping an eye on.


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