Monday, September 25, 2017

Old Pink In New Bottles: Caroline McCarthy's Failed Bromides

Caroline McCarthy's Medium piece rings every klaxon almost immediately. Her complaint that Damore doesn't use collaborative work as an attraction to women is possibly reasonable, but the underlying justifying link to the National Coalition of Girls' Schools is so full of cant and repeatedly failed approaches, it's impossible to take seriously. "Seeing women’s historic contributions inspires today’s girls", we are told, yet does no one remember the beatification of Ada Lovelace? Of Grace Hopper? And yet, since the mid-1980s, the overall fraction of women in CS has been in decline. She accuses Damore of using research that "was perhaps informed by the agenda-driven pseudoscience that permeates the deepest dregs of Reddit and 4chan "; if you can't attack the man's footnotes, why not manufacture a fantasy list of enemies he's in bed with? (She does correctly mention his bizarre tweets about the KKK, but they weren't on the scene here.)

She states, without any justification, "There’s no question that we need more female computer scientists." As ever, my reaction to this is, why? Why should we have to tailor entire curricula to the needs of people who have no apparent interest in the subject? She cites Stuart Country Day high school as an all-girls' program that has tailored their approach to women in computer science, but what is their track record there? That is, have they had any actual success getting girls who otherwise are not interested in computer programming into the field? Or did they end up like the author, who found it "so un-engaging and isolating and boring that I dropped it before it could bring down my GPA"?

Eventually, she confesses that "there was merit to quite a few of the points James Damore raised, and discrediting the research he cites (rather than simply disagreeing with his conclusions) will hurt rather than help women’s advancement in computer science." Coming late as it does, this seems like so much belated and minimal acknowledgment of the obvious; it recalls Cordelia Fine's sleazy tactics in Testosterone Rex. The lure and futility of pink lacquer continues.

Update 2017-09-26: I didn't spend a lot of time digging through her links, but I want to focus on her cite of the National Council of Girls' Schools in reference to this passage:
The world is desperately seeking to plug the leaky STEM pipeline from its shortage of women, and girls’ schools are playing a critical role. Girls’ schools lead the way in graduating women who become our nation’s scientists, doctors, engineers, designers, and inventors. Girls’ school graduates are six times more likely to consider majoring in math, science, and technology and three times more likely to consider engineering careers compared to girls who attend coed schools. Why? Because girls’ schools support collaboration and all-girl classrooms foster female confidence and aspirations.
The underlying link about considering engineering careers (see p. 38) says that "Engineering also produces the largest single-sex/coeducational differential when it comes to career choice, where 4.4 percent of women from single-sex independent schools aspire to become engineers, relative to 1.4 percent from coeducational schools." In other words, whatever boost such education may yield, it comes nowhere close to reversing the 20% female matriculation rate in CS and engineering disciplines, or the ten times figure needed to surmount female frustrations in the university and subsequent job search process (assuming we take results as representative, which they may not be). And as McCarthy observes, this solution does not scale, for the simple reason that Freddie deBoer raised: terrific outcomes in education almost invariably stem from selection bias. In this case, the kinds of girls who can afford to go to all-girls schools have families with means to afford tuition.

But ultimately, it seems to me that the most salient test of Damore's thesis is and remains the fact that the work is compelling unto itself for men, but not for women. If, as McCarthy suggests, she's only ten years away from her collegiate days, why not have a go at it again? The world isn't lacking for outlets for talented coders; yet she stays out of the business. Why? The answer seems obvious: either the work is its own reward, or it is not. For McCarthy, and many women, it is not.

The second thing at the NCGS website is a discussion of "growth mindset", a topic that has had a rather difficult and muddled empirical and philosophical history; one recent (n=624) study even shows
Children’s own mindsets showed no relationship to IQ, school grades, or change in grades across the school year, with the only significant result being in the reverse direction to prediction (better performance in children holding a fixed mindset). Fixed beliefs about basic ability appear to be unrelated to ability, and we found no support for mindset-effects on cognitive ability, response to challenge, or educational progress.
 From the outside, "growth mindset" looks like a smoke and mirrors foundation upon which to build such dubious concepts as "stereotype threat", which itself has had problems with reproduction. In the end, these have little explanatory power next to the simple story McCarthy herself tells: disinterest.

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