Tale of two Johns

4 min read

There has recently been a flurry of articles with a nice soundbite recycled from 2015. The title of the Observer’s version of the article is:

Men Named John Outnumber All Women in Most American Industries.

The New York Times writes:

Fewer Republican senators are women than men named John — despite the fact that Johns represent 3.3 percent of the male population, while women represent 50.8 percent of the total population. Fewer Democratic governors are women than men named John. And fewer women directed the top-grossing 100 films last year than men named Michael and James combined.

This is presented as convincing evidence that women are greatly underrepresented in the top of society. What does the New York Times say about the reasons for this inbalance?

One of the biggest reasons women are so outnumbered at the top, studies show, is discrimination

A man called Larry

In 2005 Larry Summers was forced to resign his position at Harvard for speaking about the Greater Male Variability Hypothesis.

The hypothesis, in brief, states that because the evolutionary payoff for exceptional performance is much greater in males than in females (consider that leaders like Genghis Khan are said to have had one thousand offspring), the distribution of skill in males is much more variable than in women.

If this hypothesis is true, it may be the case that men outnumber women at the top of politics, business and the entertainment industry because men are more likely to have exceptional abilities than women. It would also follow however, that at the very bottom of society men also outnumber women.

It does not imply that men are more able than women on average, but rather than men are on average further away from the average than women. Nonetheless, it sounds controversial and Larry Summers was forced out. I believe James Damore also brought this hypothesis up in his controversion memo.

I decided to test this hypothesis. If the Greater Male Variability Hypothesis is true, and it is true that there are more men called John than women at the top of society (CEOs, governers and senators), then there must be more Johns than women at the bottom of society too.

The other John

I do not know what the very bottom of society is, but I would argue that people on death row are likely close to the bottom.

According to this list, there are currently 63 people on death row in the United States. Men outnumber women 62 to 1. If we want to create our own clickbait headline, we’d write:

Men Named David Outnumber All Women on Death Row

However, the sample size of 63 people on death row isn’t very large.

If we look at the pool of people executed since 1977 we see that there were 1465 men and 16 females who were executed. Using the same methodology, we can now craft the following headline:

Men Named Robert, John, James, Michael, David, William, Richard, Kenneth, Joseph, Larry, Ronald, Charles and Thomas Outnumber All Women Executed in the US since 1977

Of course, no self respecting journalist for The Guardian, The New York Times or The Observer would ever use this title. Its is far too long.

John vs John

The New York Times argues that the “biggest reason” why there is a gender imbalance at the top of society is due to discrimination. Would it be sensible to argue that the biggest reason for gender imbalance at the bottom of society is discrimination?

I don’t think so. I think it is likely that men are innately more likely to commit violent crimes. It is also possible that women are less likely to be sentenced to death. Things are complicated, discrimination likely plays a role, but there are many other reasons.

In all fairness The New York Times also pays lip service to the argument that there might be the reasons for gender imbalances at the top other than discrimination.

Women earn more college degrees than men and increasingly work in occupations that used to be male-dominated, and yet their progress to positions of power has been slowed or stalled. There are many reasons for this, researchers say. Women are more likely to take breaks from their careers to raise children. Men at the top are more likely to mentor and promote people like themselves.

So what is the point? My argument is not that the Greater Male Variability Hypothesis is true. I don’t believe there is no discrimination against women in the workplace. I think that having more female leaders is a good thing.

My argument is that it is counterproductive, myopic and elitist to talk about gender inbalances by raising the examples of John the CEO and John the Senator without mentioning John the Bum and John the Inmate.

As put by The Economist, in their far more nuanced article:

The fact that the highest rungs have male feet all over them is scant comfort for the men at the bottom.