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I just finished reading "The Blank Slate", a very interesting book by Harvard (and former MIT) psychologist Steven Pinker. In the book, he argues against the politically correct (but factually incorrect) notion that our minds are infinitely malleable at birth, and that our nature is primarily shaped by culture and the environment. On the contrary, genetics and neurobiology play a comparatively tremendous role in determining who we are. And, like it or not, these physical characteristics may differ across individuals, races, gender, etc.

Pinker devotes an entire chapter of the book to gender, and the first half of that chapter to workplace equality. His thesis here is that a lack of 50-50 gender equality in a given profession isn't necessarily indicative of discrimination or unfairness, unless you believe in the blank slate. That is, unless you discount the possibility that women, on average, are interested in different things than are men. He goes on to present a vast amount of evidence that such differences in preference do exist, regardless of cultural conditioning.

This isn't to say that discrimination is non-existent. Many of us have seen (or heard) enough to know that it's alive and well. The point is that we shouldn't arbitrarily strive for perfect 50-50 equality. There will always be fields in which men and women outnumber each other by large margins, and that's okay. The best we can do is to try and stamp out discrimination wherever possible.

An indication that it is cultural is from looking at other cultures:

If you look globally, there are countries where that isn’t the image, and in fact, their numbers are dramatically better. I was recently speaking with some of our Oracle engineers from China and they pretty much have a fifty-fifty split of men and women. And they think it’s sort of odd that we don’t.


That's interesting, although I'm not inclined to take hearsay of hearsay at face value. It'd be great to see a report with some hard numbers proving that this is the case, and examining the cultural differences that could explain why their numbers are so drastically better than numbers elsewhere in the world.

Also, from a scientific perspective, this is a disastrously imperfect experiment. You cannot rule out the effect of the genes unless you control for that. Looking at a group of people who are physically different AND culturally different , then arbitrarily concluding that any differences are the result of cultures is about as unscientific as it gets.

I actually agree with your first statement - I saw that a few days ago, and I'm keeping it in mind provisionally.

As to the second point, humans are not very genetically diverse. Of course there are enough differences that we can sometimes conclude that a particular person's genes come from an ethnic group, but it's not as nearly as varied as even other primates. Basically, we hit a genetic bottleneck sometime in the past 100,000 years. So it's far more likely to be a result of culture than genes.

You're right about the lack of genetic diversity, but even that limited amount of diversity can result in drastically different personalities, tendencies, etc. For some truly shocking material on just how much of a role genes can play, look into the studies done on identical twins raised apart vs adoptive siblings raised together.

1) The Blank Slate was published 10 years ago by a psycholinguist (albeit Pinker an AWESOME psycholinguist but that's besides the point). There's been a lot of research since then to muddy the nature/nurture debate.

2) who's even suggesting that we need a 50/50 gender balance? Where are you getting this straw man from? All McClure has asserted is that there should be more women in tech, and given our 9:1 M:F ratio... there's a lot of room to move before we even start to discuss whether 50/50 is an appropriate ratio.

It's not surprising that new and enlightening nature-vs-nurture research has come out in the last 10 years. But I haven't personally come across anything significant with regard to asymmetry in gender-based interests.

Also, I'm not attempting to refute Dave McClure or anyone specific. I never claimed that he claimed we should strive for 50-50 equality, so it's unfair for you to accuse me of a straw man. I'm just making reference to an argument that happened to affect my personal view on the matter. This topic has come up again and again on HN and in tech-related blogs, and I think it's a very common viewpoint that any deviation from a 50-50 distribution is attributable to discrimination.

Regardless, I agree with you that that current ratio is overly-extreme, and that we can do better.

Pinker's book has been ridiculed by pretty much everyone who understands statistics or actually studies neurobiology. Even his views on linguistics are proving excessively simplistic as further evidence is gathered.

I recommend against holding up pop-science cults of personality if you would like people to take you seriously.

Pinker's book has been supported by pretty much everyone who understands statistics or studies neurobiology. His views on linguistics are proving increasingly accurate as further evidence is gathered.

See what I did there? Evidence or bust.

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