The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues

Sound Science, Sound Policy

Few Women in Tech

Is nature or nurture the cause?

Posted Aug 17, 2017

by Alice Eagly, Ph.D.

James Damore’s internal memo at Google arguing that biology causes the lack of women in tech not only caused him to be fired from his job but also has created public controversy. These events illustrate the difficulty of thinking complexly about complex human phenomena. Many who comment on the matter make the mistake of assuming that scientific evidence that may favor biological causes for the dearth of women in tech invalidates sociocultural causes, or that evidence for sociocultural causes invalidates biological causes. These assumptions are far too simplistic because the skewed sex ratio is no doubt due to some mix of nature and nurture causes. I wrote about this matter in a recent article, "Does Biology Explain Why Men Outnumber Women in Tech?"

Scientific evidence does suggest that biological sex differences foster some psychological differences, especially through the effects of early androgen exposure. However, biology has multiple pathways by which its influence may be exerted on human psychology. Scientists have not yet explored many of these pathways in relation to human psychology. There are many unknowns.

Social scientists, especially social psychologists and sociologists, for the most part argue that prejudice and discrimination are the main causes of the lack of women in tech. Much evidence suggests that these factors do play an important role, but their effects do not discount other causal factors.

Psychologists have also the scrutinized abilities and preferences that may be relevant to choosing a tech career, regardless of whether they reflect mainly nature or mainly nurture. One such attribute is spatial ability, especially tests of the rotation of objects in three-dimensional space. On this ability, males have substantial advantage, and it appears to be relevant to careers in tech.

Another aspect pertains to a dimension of interests known as people versus things. On a relative basis, women are more interested in people, and men in things. Many but not all tech specialties would be more attractive to thing-oriented than people-oriented individuals, thus being more attractive to men. Similarly, women also tend to have more communal life goals—that is, wanting to work with and help people—which generally strike people as not being satisfied as much in tech as in other types of jobs.

My conclusion is that multiple causes underlie the lack of women in tech jobs. To understand, complex thinking is required. Unfortunately, people tend to argue in a simple way for either nature or nurture. And the discourse is further compromised as the debate becomes politicized. Arguing for sociocultural causes seems the more progressive and politically correct stance today. Arguing for biological causes seems the more conservative and reactionary position. Fighting ideological wars over what is a scientific issue pertaining to evidence distracts from figuring out what why there are so few women in tech and whether and how this situation might be changed.

Dr. Alice Eagly is a past president of The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues. 

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