January 24, 2006

Politically incorrect fashion II: Sex

In Part I, we addressed the racial make-up of the fashion design world, which is mostly European and East Asian. A key variable is general intelligence, or g (measured by IQ tests), in particular the visuospatial (VS) "flavor of g," often tested by tasks that require mental rotation of 3-D objects (a crucial part of conceptualizing a garment before constructing it). We now address how sex and VS differences affect the fashion world. But first, let's emphasize that while the g-loadedness of a discipline may make its practitioners more impressive objectively, it doesn't necessarily make their work more satisfying subjectively. We can all agree that master designer Yohji Yamamoto has greater mental agility than a local craftswoman who quilts, but whom to celebrate is of course in the eye of the beholder. I am only interested in the empirical question of why males dominate the visual art & design world.

First, we remain agnostic on sex differences in median IQ. In The g Factor, Arthur Jensen reports no significant such sex difference, though IQ tests are crafted so that no such differences emerge. What no one debates, however, is greater male variance: the male curve is more spread out than the female one, meaning males will be overrepresented at both the high and the low ends. Also, while some sex differences aren't pronounced, the difference in VS ability is the most pronounced of all: Jensen reports only about 25% of women are above the male median (for a 0.67 standard deviation difference in medians), while a 1993 meta-analysis suggests a 0.9 SD difference in medians (19% of females above the male median).

Now, no one knows for sure what cutoff level of VS skills a noteworthy designer must meet, but let's conservatively estimate it at 2 SD above the male median: not insanely high, but enough to weed out the merely above-average. Assuming normal distributions and equal variances, at this level of VS skills the ratio of men to women (M:W) would be at least 6 to 1 (using the 0.67 SD difference) and up to 12 to 1 (using the 0.9 SD difference). This ratio becomes more lop-sided toward men if male variance is greater (which it is) and as we look at higher cutoff levels (which we would for Big Names). This also assumes men and women are, on average, equally likely to pursue fashion (probably not true), so the above ratios are expected for the visual arts & design fields in general (painting, architecture, etc.). As for fashion itself, here are some interesting ratios to ponder:

1) At the most basic Level 1, "students at top fashion design schools," we observe a M:W of about 1 to 13 at Parsons and about 1 to 5.7 at FIT, among the most prestigious schools internationally. So here, women far outnumber men. (See footnote [1] for references throughout this list of statistics.)

2) Moving up to Level 2, "good enough to be showcased," the M:W is 1.29 to 1 among members of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Sartorial encyclopedias Who's Who in Fashion and The Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion -- both edited by women -- show a M:W of 1.5 to 1 and 1.9 to 1, respectively, among those featured. I did some original research on Vogue's website, and there are 151 entries for ready-to-wear labels in Spring 2006. Of these, 12 were designed by a mix of men & women; 50 by women alone; and 89 by men alone (list available by email). Setting aside the mixed category (since it's difficult to tell who does what), the M:W is 1.8 to 1. These four separate ways of calcuating M:W at Level 2 converge on values between 1 to 1 and 2 to 1 -- significantly reversing the pattern of Level 1.

3) At the top Level 3, "fashion's elite," we count those great enough to win top awards, to enter The Canon, etc. The winners of the CFDA's Perry Ellis awards for emerging talent show a M:W of 3.6 to 1, nearly triple the M:W of its membership. I came up with a pretty objective (though as always somewhat subjective) list of the most influential female designers and got 9: Vionnet, Lanvin, Chanel, Schiaparelli, Sander, Prada, Westwood, Karan, and Kawakubo. I then listed the male designers at least as influential and got 24. To save space, see the appendix for the men. This gives a M:W of 2.7 to 1. Let's say, then, that M:W at Level 3 is about 3 to 1.

So, these data confirm that examining higher cutoff levels skews M:W more towards males. But the actual M:W at Level 3 (3 to 1) is half our predicted lower bound for even Level 1 (6 to 1), though still favoring males. Why the discrepancy? Recall one crucial assumption: that visuospatially gifted men & women are equally likely to go into fashion. To foreshadow Part III of this series, in fact very few men so gifted drift toward fashion; most male fashion designers are gay. Most estimates of gay men in the male population range from 1% to 5% -- we'll assume 3%, or 1.5% of all people. However, they represent 54% of all Perry Ellis award winners and 33% of all in my most influential list. Thus, they are from 22 to 36 times more frequent at fashion's Level 3 than they are in the general population. Lesbians are typically estimated at half the frequency of gay men, meaning straight women represent about 49% of the population at large. All females at Level 3 are straight and comprise 22% of Perry Ellis award winners and 27% of my most influential list, meaning they are only about half as frequent here as they are in the general population.

In light of Steve Sailer's observation that unlike straight men, gay men tend to prefer more people-oriented fields (fashion, PR) than thing-oriented fields (mechanical engineering), we interpret the data as showing that males will not dominate a visual art field to the extent expected by VS differences if the field is too people-oriented for the average male (who is typically straight) with high VS skills. Men will still dominate, just not so heavily. However, the corollary is that if a visual art field is quite thing-oriented, thus not turning off straight men with high VS skills, it will be even more male-dominated. Case in point: architecture. The M:W for winners of the most prestigious awards in architecture, the Pritzker Prize and the AIA Gold Medal, are 27 to 1 and 61 to 0, respectively.

Are there other explanations for the male-female disparity? In polite society, the only acceptable one is sex discrimination. Tara Subkoff of avant-garde label Imitation of Christ suggests that " 'Gay men stick together like a band of brothers ... whereas a woman would be threatened' to promote another woman" [1]. Ah, the old Old Boys Network charge. While I'm sure gay men find one another more entertaining than women, just watch Project Runway and see gay men Michael Kors (top designer) and Tim Gunn (Chair of Fashion at Parsons) critique fellow gay men when they screw up and praise straight women when they hit the mark. Plus it's straight women like Anna Wintour at Vogue and PR judge & ELLE fashion editor Nina Garcia who editorially promote some designers over others in their publications.

Moreover, of the 9 elite female designers I listed, only 2 are from time-places influenced by radical feminism (Donna Karan and Vivienne Westwood), contra FIT museum curator Valerie Steele's hypothesis that males took over in the 1950s due to the "feminine mystique" that shackled women [1]. But she has forgotten the history of women's liberation movements in the developed countries beginning in the late '60s. Though Karan and Westwood came of age as designers in rad fem-influenced America and England, respectively, Prada, Sander, and Kawakubo came of age in equity feminist Italy, West Germany, and Japan, respectively. No elite designers hail from feminist bastions in Scandinavia.

Informally I notice that, where there are sufficient numbers to judge (almost no top designers are black), East Asian top designers have a M:W that's the least male-skewed -- part of an apparent pattern of less sexual dimorphism among East Asians (Ctrl F "physical"). Or it could be that their top competition -- gay men -- is less frequent among East Asians, though I was unable to find data for or against this hypothesis. Indeed, all 3 East Asians on season 2 of PR are female. This is despite the greater "gender rigidity" of East Asian cultures. And not to slight Karan and Westwood, but Prada, Sander, and Kawakubo are much more central to fashion history. To be clear, I don't think increased rigidity of a culture's gender roles causes better female designers to emerge; a confounding variable is the real & apparent differences in VS skills between groups.

And anyway, gay men make up a large chunk of influential designers, so why haven't they been discriminated against? After all, gay men have historically been much more fiercely persecuted than straight women have. Why did investors not withhold funds? Why did straight female celebrities not boycott their boutiques? Why did straight female fashion editors not blackout their collections? Evidently the only discrimination is from the Lauren Bacalls and the Anna Wintours, which falsifies the sexist patriarch hypothesis. Again, this is the good kind of discrimination -- by merit -- as when we say that Bacall has "discriminating" tastes.

But fact-free theories aside, what about the sensible alternative that women struggle to balance career and family priorities, the latter weighing more on a woman's mind than a man's? That would keep out deserving women, by personal choice if not by discrimination. I agree and sympathize: to satisfy my softy parental instinct, I prefer teaching cute little kids and adolescents, even if this means that status-wise I'll never amount to anything. Nevertheless, I doubt this accounts for a majority of the variance in visual art accomplishment. For comparison with the Pritzker and AIA Gold Medal, consider the winners of the Booker Prize, an elite literary award given since radical 1969 -- the M:W here is a measly 17 to 12, i.e. still male majority but quite far from the utter domination of architecture prizes. (A cursory look at the Nobel Lit winners shows their M:W is not as pretty, though.) Given that the Pritzker and Booker have been awarded within the same time-places, societal factors alone cannot account for the different patterns. If personal choice is so strong, the prediction is that Pritzker-capable females are much more likely to cave in to their maternal instincts and forego fame, whereas Booker-capable females on the whole are either uninterested in families or are better at silencing their maternal instinct.

However, in The Essential Difference, Simon Baron-Cohen shows the obvious: women on average like people & babies more than men do and have better verbal skills, while men are on average more interested in things and have better VS skills. He argues that a large piece of the puzzle is exposure to testosterone in utero, with male levels making the brain more thing-oriented and VS-friendly. So, the above prediction is likely backwards: Booker-capable females are likely more susceptible to caving in to a need for people, feelings, and family, precluding fame. There's a simple test to check whether elite female visual designers are more masculinized than elite female wordsmiths. The ratio between the lengths of one's index finger and ring finger (the 2D:4D ratio) correlates well with exposure to androgens in utero -- the ratio is typically lower for men (index notably smaller than ring) and more balanced for women. The prediction is that, for female architects vs. female novelists, the average 2D:4D of the former would be closer to the male population mean than the latter's would be to the male mean. It's simple and non-invasive, thus not difficult to conduct.

So, the large sex differences in fashion accomplishment reflect underlying biological differences in VS skills (both in median and variance), and though personal choice may exacerbate this, overt discrimination is an unconvincing and glib explanation. When trying to compare M:W in fashion, we suggest keeping in mind the expected value for men and women, since the actual values alone -- though skewed towards males -- don't take into account the question: well, how many men did you expect to devote their lives to making women beautiful?! For a more satisfying picture, we consider the entirety of the visuospatial design & art world. As of yet, we know of no sub-field where females dominate -- indeed, in one of the most people-oriented sub-fields (fashion), men still rule. And to reiterate: the mental agility required to excel in a field, while it may impress, doesn't necessarily make those who possess more of it any more aesthetically worthy than those who possess less of it. Paraphrasing Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate: sameness in constitution is not a prerequisite for fairness in judgment.

[1] Data from Eric Wilson, "In Fashion, Who Really Gets Ahead?" NYT, 12/8/2005, Sec G p 1 col 5. Unfortunately now in the pay archives. Viewable if you click the 'Cached' option of this google search.

Update: I wanted to focus on the arts, so I didn't mention the Larry Summers controversy, as more eloquent people have said what I think (2nd list). However, I might as well mention that because science and art both require higher levels of g, and because some sciences and arts favor female-typical flavors of g (verbal) and others male-typical flavors (VS), the above discussion is mirrored in the sciences. Females are equally or overrepresented in the most people-oriented and verbal-friendly disciplines (psychology, literature), and shrink as one moves to more thing-oriented and VS-friendly disciplines (mechanical engineering, architecture). While some mech-engin-capable females may opt out due to family concerns, I doubt this accounts for a majority of the variance. Paralleling the faulty prediction that Pritzker-capable females are more swayed by family and feelings than Booker-capable females, the strong version of the personal choice argument predicts that females talented at mech engin are more likely to cave in to their maternal instinct compared to females talented at psychology. Again, this prediction likely has it backwards: psychologists probably feel a stronger need to deal with their own or surrogate families. The 2D:4D test we proposed would work here as well to see whether female mech engineers are more masculinized than female psychologists.


  1. When is Spanish Girls II coming?

  2. I've been meaning to write that one up! God knows they occupy more time of my thinking than science does. Probably after the 3rd & final part of the fashion series...

  3. agnostic -- you should be able to get plenty of women with your particular combination of interests, background, and writing ability.

    you're like the sensitive godlees capitalist, someone who knows about g but actually cares about humanity :)


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