Cornered by Gender?

Tanya Khovanova, writing at her math blog, plays a variation on a theme introduced by her guest blogger, Rebecca Frankel, about three weeks ago. Frankel, as I note in “Sexist Nonsense,” wants to redefine gender to exclude two things that make a big difference between males and females: testosterone and estrogen. By Frankel’s logic, males and females would be equal in ability, if only it weren’t for that pesky matter of gender. As I put it in “Sexist Nonsense,”

So “ability” now has a new definition. It is a hypothetical state of equality that is disturbed by a natural difference between males and females. And the fact that this natural difference has an influence on performance is somehow “proof” that males and females are born equally able. By that kind of reasoning, the fact that I cannot see well enough to hit a major-league fastball proves that I belong in the Hall of Fame, along with Babe Ruth. If you’re looking for “sexist nonsense,” look no further than Rebecca Frankel’s hypothesis.

In “Math Careers and Choices,” Khovanova laments that some women choose not to pursue academic careers because they are “cornered” into making such choices. She gives as evidence the cases of three women, plus her own case (described in an earlier post to which she links).

These are the main features of the cases:

  • All four women (including Khovanova) had academic ambitions.
  • In the all cases except Khovanova’s, actions by husbands (pursuit of their own academic careers) made it difficult or impossible for the women to pursue their own academic careers. (Khovanova’s description of her own situation suggests that she, in effect, abandoned her husband by choosing not to return to Israel with him at the end of their family’s visit to the U.S.)
  • Financial considerations and parental responsibilities led all of the women to drop out of academia.

How were these women “cornered”? And if they were in some sense “cornered,” why is it any more lamentable because of their gender?

As far as I can tell, they entered freely into marriage or freely abandoned it (in Khovanova’s casse), and (in this day of “a woman’s right to choose”) bore their children willingly.

Although one husband allegedly played a psychological power game to get his way, that kind of game-playing (as almost any husband can tell you) is far from the sole province of ambitious male academics.

That the husbands had better academic prospects should come as no surprise, given the findings that Frankel attempts (and fails) to refute in the post I discuss in “Sexist Nonsense.”

In each case (except Khovanova’s) the woman and her husband made a joint decision that furthered their family’s financial security. Khovanova made a similar decision, in order to advance her son’s education.

That is to say, the women were not “cornered.” They were acting in ways that seemed best in view of the circumstances in which they found themselves as a result of preceding choices, which they made freely.

If any of the women (including Khovanova) was “cornered,” then so are the countless men and women who are unable to pursue their fondest dreams because ugly reality intrudes.

Who promised us a rose garden? Who promised women (or men) an academic career, a career as a major-league baseball player, or a seat in a space shuttle? No one, that’s who.

Khovanova — a mathematician who loves logic puzzles — has committed the Nirvana fallacy:

the logical error of comparing actual things with unrealistic, idealized alternatives. It can also refer to the tendency to assume that there is a perfect solution to a particular problem.