Podcast Digest (August 5th, 2016)

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Freakonomics Podcast: Gender Barriers

I do not listen to the Freakonomics podcast as much as I used to as the number of episodes with both Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner has fallen off sharply as the former is an extremely busy UChicago economics professor whilst the latter has used the Freakonomics brand to advance his career (and there is nothing wrong with that of course). Still, there are some episodes which do peak my fancy, and this week’s about Gender Barrier’s was quite interesting. This is actually the second interesting podcast they have done regarding the economics of sex discrimination, and earlier this year they had a great episode about how we should think about the pay gap. The key takeaways from this episode were:

  • Behavioral analysis shows that we can make small policy or cultural changes in institutional or workplace settings that can significantly reduce gender barriers as measured by the change in the number of participating women.
  • Myra Strober tells her story of coming out to California in the 1970s and being unable to find an assistant professorship position, and instead being only offered teaching positions.[1] However, Stanford’s business school decided on the progressive policy at the time of simply hiring women on equal terms and broadcasting that they were wanted. In Strober’s view, sometimes encouraging women to participate is just as easy as signalling that they are equally valued![2]
  • Iris Bohnet a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy school of government discusses the Heidi/Henry phenomenon, which was found by giving business students identical case studies and asking about their perception of the company’s founder. Heidi, unlike Henry, was seen to be less likeable, as we subconsciously penalize women who are aggressive and assertive. The important implication is that using Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘leaning in’ strategy has costs to women because of how we view assertive females, and therefore it’s not just a woman’s fault is she doesn’t act enough ‘like a man’.
  • Katherine Coffman, a professor at Harvard Business School, talks about how subtle behavioral differences between men and women can lead to differing outcomes. She uses the example of the SAT, which used to give 1.0 point for right answers, -0.25 points for wrong answers, and 0 points for no answers. Women are far more likely to leave a question unanswered than men are, which is almost certainly a bad strategy from a statistical perspective.[3] Coffman’s work showed that removing the option to skip questions removed the performance gap on the Math section of the SATs.
  • Meghan Sumner, a linguist at Stanford, has research which that how we integrate and process identical sentences of information differs depending on the accent that it is said. For example, in word association games (i.e. state the first word that comes to mind) when a male voice says ‘academy’ the impulse to say ‘school’, but when a woman says ‘academy’ the impulse is to say ‘awards’.

While all of the forms of gender bias that the various experts have highlighted appear to have superficially easy fixes in the sense that they do not require significant institutional changes, because the problems are latent the challenge will come in identifying what the barriers exactly are. For example, who would have a priori guessed that the answer/skip design of the SAT would disadvantage women? That being said, Claudia Golden, one of the foremost researchers of the gender gap in the labour market outcomes suggests that the pay gap has actually closed significantly since the 1970s. Her definition of the pay gap is if we include every conceivable variable and still have a difference in outcome, this ‘residual’ is a good measure of the gender gap. Golden has also shown that the use of ‘blind auditions’ has increased the number of female musicians in elite orchestras. Sometimes the only way to remove our biases is to anonymize our decision process!

However the “women make 77 cents to the male dollar” is not an accurate assessment, and current research suggests its in the low 90s. What is most interesting about Golden’s work is that differences in male/female pay are not driven by inter-professional differences (men become doctors, women become nurses), but rather intra-professional differences (men become neurosurgeons, women become family doctors). Anne-Marie Slaughter thinks that if we want to level the playing field we have to remove the “care penalty” from women’s life-cycle which should be thought of as more than just children but also caring for elderly parents. However some professions do not allow for “temporal flexibility”,[4] and hence the care penalty is likely to remain. Instead, what would be needed is stronger social expectation that men will take care of sick family members and young children.

On Being: Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, Pro-Dialogue

This is the first On Being episode I have listened to, which I saw linked from S Anukriti’s great blog Gender Matters. The podcast describes itself as:

On Being opens up the animating questions at the center of human life: What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live?

In this episode, the Baptist theologian and minister David Gushee discusses his pro-life stance with the Catholic scholar and activist Frances Kissling who was at one time president of the organization Catholics for a Free Choice. Both guests have views on Christianity which are far from the mainstream of their respective denominations. For example, Gushee supports same-sex marriage, a view that only held by 23% of white evangelical baptists:

What is the sexual ethics standard that applies to followers of Christ? Celibacy outside of lifetime covenantal marriage, monogamous fidelity within lifetime covenantal marriage. That norm, as I argue in my book, applies to all Christians. It is demanding, countercultural, and essential to the well-being of adults and children. I now see that this same covenantal-marital norm should apply to that particular minority, 1/20th of the human and Christian population, whose difference from the majority relates to sexual orientation and gender identity. They too should be held to the same standard as every other Christian. Celibacy outside lifetime covenantal marriage, monogamous fidelity within lifetime covenantal marriage.

Gushee’s views remind me of Michael Coren’s which he talked about on a recent Agenda segment.

Frances Kissling is on an even more extreme outlier, and Catholics for Choice has been described as “an arm of the abortion lobby” by other Catholic groups. Overall though, it was an excellent and civil discourse. As one of the guests pointed out: Don’t go into dialogue unless you’re looking for ways to change your views, an even somewhat stronger idea that the principle of charity in debating.[5] Each guest had some great points about the abortion debate:

  • Frances Kissling
  • Both the pro-life and pro-choice have a tendency to be unnecessarily crass in different ways: for the former it is about women (sexually denigrating females and calling them sluts), and for the latter it is speaking about the fetus (analogizing it to a parasite).
  • Self-identified Catholics can continue to hold this identity even if they disagree with the Holy See on certain topics because the “Church asks the right questions, but just has the wrong answers”.[6]
  • Frances and David’s disagreements stem from different underlying assumptions about sexual expectations: David’s view holds that as an unmarried woman, Frances should have ideally lived a celibate life.

  • David Gushee:
  • The pro-life movement’s desire to repeal Roe v. Wage (1971) without a change in other social policies would be a disaster
  • Every policy that would encourage a woman to go through with a pregnancy either because of ease of adoption or support for raising a child should be enacted if we actually want to be pro-life.
  • Sex education needs to be wide spread and abortions and condoms should be thought of as negatively rather than positively correlated in the Evangilical community.


  1. In academia, an assistant professor is the step before before one receives tenure, whereas a teaching position is not on a tenure track. 

  2. Simply not appearing to hate/despise other people is something the Republican party seems incapable of doing, despite the postmortem from the Romney debacle put out by GOP insiders in the Growth and Opportunity Project, which tried to explain how you can win the electoral college in the 21st century. 

  3. With five multiple choice questions, if you’re equally unsure of each possible answer, than the expected value of the two are identical of course: \$(1.00*\frac{1}{5} - 0.25 \frac{4}{5}) = 0 \$, but if you think that any one answer is less than 20% likely you will have a positive expected value by guessing. 

  4. It is inconceivable that a politician for instance could have temporal flexibility. Indeed any position which requires immediate responses to changing daily events, such as politics, puts a huge premium on having individuals ready to fully integrate their lives into the job. However, there are some places which can actually afford temporal flexibility but continue to value the appearance of work over actual outcomes. 

  5. The idea that you should be able to not only state your opponents case in a way they would accept as a valid summary but also in such a way that strengthens their argument and makes it the most challenging for your to respond (also known as steel-manning instead of straw-manning). 

  6. I find this line of reasoning totally unconvincing as there are so many other denominations whose official views would be more closely aligned with Kissling’s. 

Written on August 5, 2016