Sunday, February 14, 2016

Scott Alexander Unpacks The Latest "Sexism In Tech" Study

I hadn't been over to Scott Alexander's blog, Star Slate Codex, in quite some while, but Cathy Young pointed me at his latest, an essay about sexism in tech that starts with a study done on GitHub change submitters.
They find that women get more (!) requests accepted than men for all of the top ten programming languages. They check some possible confounders – whether women make smaller changes (easier to get accepted) or whether their changes are more likely to serve an immediate project need (again, easier to get accepted) and in fact find the opposite – women’s changes are larger and less likely to serve project needs. That makes their better performance extra impressive.

So the big question is whether this changes based on obviousness of gender. The paper doesn’t give a lot of the analyses I want to see, and doesn’t make its data public, so we’ll have to go with the limited information they provide. They do not provide an analysis of the population as a whole (!) but they do give us a subgroup analysis by “insider status”, ie whether the person has contributed to that project before.
The bias comes in — and the media, of course, has latched onto — the part where outsider women get their changes accepted at a lower rate than outsider men. Yet, as Alexander further notes, nobody in the study bothered to control for approver gender (emboldening mine):
A commenter on the paper’s pre-print asked for a breakdown by approver gender, and the authors mentioned that “Our analysis (not in this paper — we’ve cut a lot out to keep it crisp) shows that women are harder on other women than they are on men. Men are harder on other men than they are on women.”

Depending on what this means – since it was cut out of the paper to “keep it crisp”, we can’t be sure – it sounds like the effect is mainly from women rejecting other women’s contributions, and men being pretty accepting of them. Given the way the media predictably spun this paper, it is hard for me to conceive of a level of crispness which justifies not providing this information.
 Indeed. The conspiracy theory of patriarchy doesn't have a lot of substance behind it, but keeping it well inflated is a full-time job, one that requires a great deal of artful dodging.

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