Friday, March 16, 2012

Where are the women?

Women donate more than men. They are more likely to give, and they give more money. So why is the smart giving/effective philanthropy/whatever-you-want-to-call-it movement so skewed male?

About a quarter of the members of Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours are women. At any kind of discussion on efficient giving, I'm usually either the only woman or one of two women there. This doesn't bother me in itself, but it means we're missing people who could have a lot to give to the conversation. I don't believe women are more selfish than men or that they want to help people less than men do. So where are they?

Some of my guesses:

A lot of this movement came out of university philosophy departments. At least in the US, only 1/3 of philosophy PhD students are female - that's more skewed than math or almost any of the sciences. Apparently not that many women want to sign up for five years of having their ideas ripped apart.

There's a good bit of finance and math involved in finding the best charities. I have very little math background, and while I think posts like this are very important, I can't get through them. A lot of women also didn't do much with math or economics. Until recently, there was never anything I wanted to understand that required me to know much about math or money, and I was disheartened to realize I was going to have to learn some.

Lately, there's also an increased emphasis in this movement on careers and choosing a career that will let you do the most good (usually through high pay). I think boys get the message early on that they should optimize for high pay because this is what will impress other men, attract mates, and support their families. As a girl, I never got the message that I needed money to do these things. The emphasis was more on personality, beauty, and accommodating other people. Unfortunately, these things are not especially helpful to me now in reducing child mortality.

As a child I, at least, was told that my interest in helping strangers was somehow unnatural if it wasn't preceded by being extra nice to people around me. Ordinary childhood squabbles with my sister often brought on the question from my mother, “How can you care so much about strangers and so little about your family?” I think I was about as selfish in my everyday activities as other children and teenagers I knew, but to this day if I hurt someone's feelings I get the hypocrisy accusation from my mother. If I were a boy, I'm not sure if this would have happened. I think there's less pressure on boys to make nice, and it's considered more normal for them to care about the big picture more than household emotional politics. Girls get stronger approval if they focus their energy on being nice to those near them.

(To be fair, my parents also tell me they're proud of my giving. But they seem to regard writing a check and refraining from snarky comments as the same skill, and in fact I'm better at the former than the latter. Working on it, though.)

In adulthood, women are still primarily responsible for the emotional wellbeing of the household. In most families I know, the mother is more financially permissive with the children than the father is. Women understand that they will be in charge of distributing family money and time to keep everyone happy. It may be emotionally harder for them to not buy the kids all 17 of the Christmas presents they asked for, or to decide to have fewer kids in the first place, or to work long hours and serve frozen dinners. A man who chooses not to have children, or to raise his children on a voluntarily low budget, probably won't get the same flak a woman would. So the choice to give more may be harder for women.

Non-efficient charity (the food drive, the house of worship, the Girl Scout cookies, the solicitations from the children's hospital and the animal shelter, the cousin who needs a loan) is largely about community connections. Women are often in charge of maintaining these connections on behalf of a family. I think this is why you see higher donations from women. It's true of woman-headed households and not just women acting on behalf of a joint household, but I expect that's because we continue in the patterns we were socialized to even if our later home life doesn't match the conditions we were expecting.

My message to my female readers (there are some? Right?) is: you can do this. You can have a happy family life. You can be analytical and argumentative. You can learn statistics. You can do what you know is the right thing rather than what will make you seem most normal.

Your mother might be annoyed with you, but that's pretty much inevitable.


  1. Thanks for a great post, Julia! (Yes, you have the odd femail reader :p)

  2. Great to see a post on this - it's been a hot topic of conversation recently! Some great ideas here, and I also reckon that there are another couple of challenges to solving this problem aside from overcoming the reasons that caused the problem in the first place: (1) optimal philanthropists / effective altruists seem to have less social skills on average than the general population, which makes solving a social problem that bit harder ;) (2) the fact that currently the movement is male-dominated is probably putting women off from joining, just because of the institutional culture it creates.

    (ps. "femail", Shell, really? :p)

    1. Oh no, I just looked back at this post - one line and I managed an egregious spelling mistake :s

  3. Huh, I hadn't thought about the social skill thing. I do think the movement attracts cerebral types, who tend to be lacking in the social skill department, but do you think women are more put off by that than men? I guess if social skills have been emphasized to girls all along, they may value them more.

    1. I'm wondering whether what Holly meant was that when there is a social problem in general, where lack of women is just an example, it's more difficult to put right if the people in the group aren't super socially skilled.

  4. I think a big part of it is that the idea of joining a club or a group and talking about philanthropy seems foreign and uncomfortable. I don't know that that's because I'm female, although I do think that things like humility and privacy (is that the word I'm looking for?) are taught as "feminine graces".

    I go to school at Rutgers (which has a GWWC group) and live in Princeton (where there is also a GWWC group), but it's been difficult for me to get excited about joining either. Again, while I recognize the importance of spreading the message, I'm not really comfortable being part of a club. I want to just work hard and quietly give my 10% each month.

    I am quite comfortable with giving; I plan to give a good deal more once I have a household budget that isn't powered by a grad school stipend. It's the publicity that I really don't want.

    On the other hand, my [male] partner is also committed to effective giving, and equally uncomfortable with joining a group - so perhaps in our case, it's simply that we're both hermits.

  5. Megan,
    Thanks - I hadn't thought about that.

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  7. I appreciate the sentiment, and I agree with the overall point of this entry, but I find the tone a tad condescending (and perhaps even a little sexist?). I really don't want to be rude or something, I just want to express my opinion honestly.

    About the philosophy PhD students - maybe its not that women don't want to go into a philosophy PhD, maybe they are discriminated against and just not admitted into universities, or maybe they are admitted and feel so discriminated against that they tend to quit more, etc. About the math - empirical studies suggest that women are as good in math as men, and they also seem to enjoy it as much, even if many women are discouraged from pursuing these interests as a profession out of gender prejudices. About frozen dinners - you seem to assume that women are the ones who feed the family (and this may be descriptively true, for the most part), but men can also cook, and the answer is dividing household chores, not frozen dinners.

    I agree with your general observations about women's emotional education and think this kind of education (about caring for others' emotional wellbeing, for example) should be extended to men.

    Maybe women don't participate in the organizations you are mentioning because the men in them are not facilitating women to participate. Men tend to be enamoured with their own voices and tend to (mostly inadvertently, but not always) quiet women's voices - and it is quite likely that men philosophers are particularly prone to this bad habit. Given that women are discriminated against in almost all spheres of life - and in academia this is obviously true (e.g. women earn about 75% the amount men earn) - I think that Giving What We Can and 80,000 should be ACTIVELY trying to include women in their ranks (this is specially true for men in these organizations).

    1. Carol,
      Thanks for writing.

      I didn't mean to make normative statements about who should be cooking or studying math, but to acknowledge the current reality that women are less likely to study math and more likely to feel guilty about dinner. I would love to see more women in STEM, more men competent in housework, and more people caring about each other's feelings.

      Giving What We Can or 80,000 Hours seem to be trying to bring in any interested person they can. The featured members on their websites are already disproportionately female (that is, half men and half women, so disproportionate to the actual membership). You stress that they should be actively welcoming women - do you have ideas about how to do that?

      I think any kind of overt "we want women to join" campaign runs the risk of, as you put it, sounding condescending or sexist.