Survivorship bias for women in men’s fields
I like this essay written by Annie Gosfield, a self-described “composeress”, which is her word to mean a female composer. She finds it slightly absurd to be singled out for her femaleness. Her overall take on being a woman in a man’s world is refreshing, and resonates with me as a woman in math and technology.
From her essay:
I’ve never considered myself a “woman composer,” but I suspect that over the years being female has helped more than it’s hurt. Being a woman (and having high hair) has made me easier to recognize, easier to remember and has spared me from fitting into the generic description of a composer: “medium build, dark hair, glasses, beard.” I will admit to liking the invented honorific term “composeress.” (It sounds archaic, grand, and slightly ridiculous, just as a gender-specific title for a composer should.)
So, great for her, and wonderful that from her perspective she feels propelled rather than suffocated by her otherness status. To some extent I agree from my own experience.
But having said that, it doesn’t mean that other women, possibly many other women, haven’t been squeezed out, or have selected out, because of their female status. After all, we hear way more from the people who stay and “succeed”, which tends to give us massive survivorship bias.
Indeed, and to be nerdy and true to form, we can almost think about measuring the extent to which there is a weeding-out effect of women by asking the survivors the extent to which they identify as “women” versus the population at large. I think we’d find that the women who survive in nearly all-male environments have developed, or were born with, coping mechanisms which allow them to ignore their own otherness.
I know that was true of me – when I was in grad school at Harvard, I went through a distinct phase of wanting to wear men’s clothing, or at least gender neutral clothing – so jeans, t-shirts, leather shoes, never dresses – to be externally more consistent with how I felt inside. Not that I was sexually identified with men, but that I didn’t want to be seen as primarily feminine. Instead I wanted to be seen as primarily a mathematician.
Does it make me a freak, to wear men’s clothing and (sometimes) wish I could grow a beard? Possibly, although over time it’s changed, and nowadays I take pride in my femininity, and in fact I think much of my power emanates from it.
But it does give me pause when I hear successful women in men’s fields talking about how great it is to be a woman and how surprising all the attention is. We still seem to be contorting ourselves in an effort to not seem too womanly, and this makes me think it’s entirely un-coincidental, and possibly a crucial part of what allows us to succeed. Besides talent and hard work, of course. And I don’t think it’s undue attention at all – I think it’s just something we train ourselves not to consider because focusing on it too much could be paralyzing.
By the way, I’m not doing justice to Annie Gosfield’s essay, which you should read in its entirety and has nuanced things to say about otherness in the field of composing.