“Why There Are No Women on Twitter’s Board” ~ Your article was bad… and you should feel bad

Stumbling through hacker news, I came across a very interesting blog post.  “Why There Are No Women on Twitter’s Board, and So Few in Technology”  It was an interesting read, obviously begging for debate, but it should serve as a reminder why people in technology should stick to technology, and not posting their opinions on the internet.  In order to preserve the quality of hacker news, I feel it is necessary to point out how terrible the author is at argumentation.  I would like to inform any readers that I am not trying to discourage interesting debates, I am just trying to discourage crappy blog posts.

Let’s look at some of the conclusions Uncommon Sense draws:

“If you look at the profiles of  Twitter’s board members,  you’ll notice that all of them either have educational backgrounds in Computer Science and/or have spent decades in the Silicon Valley tech trenches, clearly developing a deep understanding of technology. These men weren’t selected at random.”

Later in his post he says something very similar.

“There are only a few ways that one gets on a board like theirs. Either you have to have created it, or you have to have worked your way into the right circles through tens of thousands of hours of risk-taking, wealth building, technology building, and knowledge acquisition surrounding the business of technology.”

There are quite a few fallacies made in these two statements.  To start things off, in both sentences the author says that the men on the board had to work their way into circles or were not selected at random.  Getting into circles that are run by men or being selected for a position by a group of men will inevitably give an advantage to men.  

Second, in spite of the authors clear love for statistics, he seems to fail to point out a few important statistics when it comes to company boards. Catalyst found that boards with women have better returns on equity, sales and invested capital all by more than 40%.  Of course, correlation does not necessarily equate to causation, and perhaps the best board for Twitter specifically will be an all male board, we will never know for sure.  But, in Sweden and Finland, 30% of board seats are held by women compared to 16.6% in the US, so if one wants to make the argument that the best people for the board are men, it has to be a cultural argument and not a biological one since there is a significant change over national borders.  

Most interestingly, these two statements really showcase a deep-rooted belief in the just world fallacy, the idea that the world is fair and that you get what you deserve.  Paul Piff at Cal found that not only does being in a situation that has been skewed in your favor make you feel like you deserve it, it also makes you act like an asshole to people who are not in the same power level as you.  So men, who have had a position of power over women for most of western history, really can’t understand how unfair the world is, and they think their power over women is deserved.

Let’s move on.

“The stats show that women create only 8 percent of the venture-backed tech start-ups, according to Astia, a nonprofit group that advises female entrepreneurs. Also, women account for just 6 percent of the chief executives of the top 100 tech companies. Among venture capitalists, only 14 percent are women, according to the National Venture Capital Association.”

All this shows is that there are less women in technology than men.  If we were to use this argument more broadly, we can apply this to race as well. Also, it’s important when we look at arguments created like this, we remember that at one point, the percent of women and minorities taking on roles like this was 0%, or at least close enough to round down.  If anything, the change from 0% to 6% of CEOs in tech over the last hundred years should cause the author some worry that women are biologically advancing at a rate faster than men.  But, if we look more closely at this statistic, we see something that should actually point us in a positive direction for women.  Only 6% of women are tech chief executives, but 8% of venture backed startups are women.  So women are creating startups at a rate higher than they are currently present as chief executives.  And, even better for women, 14% of venture capitalists (who are primarily successful entrepreneurs) being women means that women startups are succeeding at a higher proportion than their male counterparts.  

“One argument you’ll hear is that girls are taught to “play dumb” in school, which stunts their intellectual growth. There’s no evidence for that, though. Girls actually get better grades than boys in virtually all classes. However, on standardized tests, boys do better than girls. This pattern is the exact opposite of what you’d expect if they were playing dumb (Browne, 2006).”

This sentence just shows a complete misunderstanding about what “playing dumb” actually means.  It is more of a social attitude than an academic one.

The rest of this part of the opinion has no real conclusions.  It is interesting to note the last paragraph where the author points out that women in STEM haven’t budged too much in decades.  Of course the point of the article is supposed to be why this is happening, not that it is happening, which brings us to the next part of the essay:

“Guys love competing. Girls don’t” “Men take more risks” *

He provides many excellent statistics about men being more competitive than women, but the entire argument hinges on the idea that competitiveness is indeed a genetically linked trait versus a learned trait.  Thanks to a 2009 study, researchers found that not only are women more competitive than men in a matrilineal society, the women in the matrilineal society are more competitive than men from a patriarchal one.  This study coupled with the statistics provided by the author should be sufficient to show that clearly our society is very patriarchal and that there are systemic barriers in place to prevent women from high achievement even in STEM and even at a very young age.

“Throughout the world, it is women who are the primary caretakers of the young, the sick, and the old (Geary, 1998)”

This means women should be better at serving on boards as “care takers” of the company.

A lot of this paragraph goes back to personal reflection and more statistics about what is the case now, but little reflection as to why that is the case.  And then there is still the question of nature versus nurture. While many things that the author says are true, would they be true in a vacuum? This we cannot know.  Many of his statistics could be results of a patriarchal society just as easily as the cause.

“A study of attrition of women in engineering and science programs found that frequently cited barriers were isolation, lack of self-confidence, and lack of interest in the subject matter (Brainard & Carlin, 1998). That’s hardly the stuff of societal discrimination.”

Isolation and lack of self confidence for women could both be attributed to the same societal pressure that has lead the author to cleverly add “bro” into multiple words in this article (brogramming, brogrammer), but even if that’s not the case, he forgets to mention that stereotypes and preconceptions about women’s roles and abilities are the No. 1 barrier, closely followed by lack of role models.

Our author next goes on to say men are just better than women at math, and he provides a lot of nice statistics showing men outperforming women in many different levels of math. Just a quick google search of the term “men are better at math” shows that this is alot deeper than he lead us to believe.  Here are some other interesting findings:

When boys do better, they are usually also doing worse.   Boys are also more likely than girls to get nearly all the answers wrong.  So they overpopulate both tails of the bell curve; boys are both better, and worse, than girls at math.

How you decide to test math ability is … political.  Even though boys outperform girls on the SAT, it turns out those scores do not predict math performance in classes.  Girls frequently outperform boys in the classroom.

And, since girls often outperform boys in a practical setting, math aptitude (even measured at the levels of outstanding instead of average performance) doesn’t explain sex disparities in science careers (most of which, incidentally, only require you to be pretty good at math, as opposed to wildly genius at it).   In any case, scoring high in math is only loosely related to who opts for a scientific career, especially for girls. Many high scoring girls don’t go into science, and many poor scoring boys do.

Boys do better in only about ½ of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations. For nearly all the other countries, there were no significant sex differences. In Iceland, girls outshine boys significantly.

In Japan, though girls perform less well than the boys, they generally outperform U.S. boys considerably.  So finding that boys outperform girls within a country does not mean that boys outperform girls across all countries.

- Nathalie Angier and Kenneth Chang

And, there are studies that show incredibly high correlation between the gender gap in math and the level of gender inequality in the society as a whole.

This article is really, very poorly written and poorly researched.  Things that get voted highly on hacker news reach a huge array of people, and can be very influential.  We cannot let shitty articles with nonexistent connections between warrants and impacts get voted so highly.  HN is a force for good only if we let good discussions take place.

TL;DR “Why There Are No Women on Twitter’s Board, and So Few in Technology” was a really shitty article and as a community we should strive for higher quality writing and thinking.

PS sorry for the lack of cites, if there is enough demand I will do them properly later :)

*I grouped these two together because the way the author addresses risk is very similar to the way he addresses competing, and the study I am about to bring up addresses both if you read the whole paper