Recently, I asked if multiple anecdotes are logically unsound in this thread:

Are multiple anecdotes still logically unsound?

The answer was anecdotes can be used correctly depending on the context.

In debates about female participation in STEM fields, feminists often reject biological evidence in favor of a narrative-based approach. This is used to say that women are discouraged from going into these sectors because they were raised in a patriarchal environment, and that male-dominated spaces reject women. This is not to say that the environment doesn't play a factor, but opponents are often told to listen to cases presented.

Would a collection of feminist stories be sufficient evidence to say that rampant misogyny keeps women out of STEM?


5 Answers 5


Short Answer

It depends on your metaphysical presuppositons. What you are asking is a question regarding the normativity of explanation. So, depending on whether you're inclined towards critical theory, history, or science, one's notion of admissible and persuasive evidence are a function of one's first principles. Let's explicate.

Long Answer

Indirect Answer

Ever hear the expression, when in Rome, do as the Romans do? Well, publishing papers falls under the same dictum. One has to walk the walk, and talk the talk of the locals to get any respect. That means, each language community, has a different understanding of the concepts of 'proof', 'evidence', and 'explanation'. I've done the most reading on the philosophy of science, and the least on critical theory, so I'll start there.

First, the notion of scientific explanation can be contentious even among scientists. Science in the spirit of Comte's postivism has always sought to push for the empirical and objective. Thus, scientific explanation attempts to distance itself from intuition and bias. I'm a proponent of scientism, so it should come as no surprise that I advocate scientific theories of explanation (IEP) of which arguments can become quite technical starting with the deductive-nomological and advancing through alternative formulations, such as those of Cummin's and others. Just what exactly does it mean to explain? (My own biases project from a naturalized epistemology and take into account the psychological need to reduce cognitive dissonance).

While details are many, what is fair to say is that the nature of explanation of critical theorists, historians, and physical scientists can diverge in quite distant ways. So, when you ask does a feminist explanatory narrative that minimizes historicity and maximizes ethical claims prove, offer sufficient evidence, or adequately characterize a causal relationship between biological sex and occupation, you're going to be entering a relativist situation. Such an explanation is absolutely more convincing to that language community, which is why they use it.

Will such an explanation even satisfy a historian? Probably not, though it might have probative value to the historian. A historian, after all is in the business of converting historical artifacts into explanations in a way a feminist may neglect. So, a historian may down play ethical considerations and emphasize facts, methods, and theories conducive to her own community.

And a scientist? Most scientists seek to strip historicity right out of explanation if they can help it. Functional theories of explanations, in biology for instance, may appeal to temporal notions of ontogeny, phylogeny, or natural selection, but the emphasis is usually on more immediate functional or structural claims regarding empirical evidence seeking to obscure agency and reduce the misrepresentations of phenomenological discourse. Hence, Dennett coined heterophenomology to label such communal processes.

So what's going on here? How does one fully account for these different notions of argumentation and explanation? The most reasonable approach is simply to embrace a pluralistic notion of explanation. One easy way to do that is to accept that these distinct language communities are involved in a social process of constructing a social reality. Both Berger and Luckmann's work and Searle's work have conducted philosophical research in this direction, and this might be recognized as social constructivism. Now, with that philosophical springboard, we can respond to your question.

Direct Answer

Does a feminist narrative satisfy explanation? To a sophisticated thinker, at best probably only partially. Why so? Because from an epistemological perspective, there is simply more than one method of arriving at justification, the logical portion of moving from belief to knowledge. If one selects the presumptions of the feminist, than one can devise a strong and cogent feminist argument. The same can be said of a top-notch historian, and a top-notch social scientist. And the question a philosopher must ask herself is, is any one of these views, from a metaphysical perspective privileged? She may find the answer is yes. Or no. For me, the answer is I prefer naturalism and the tools of science. It is not that the feminist or the historian's position is inherently bad, but as a first principle, I believe that activities of feminists and historians and scientists too are driven by psychology, and thus, I partially reduce their explanations to psychological ones to unify them with my worldview. Concepts are simply constructions of the mind. Not everyone agrees!

Is there scientific weight to be found in the feminist's appeals? Certainly, dominance hierarchies, patriarchies, and the suppression of women suffrage are evident in societies today. And historically this is even more the case. And what about appeals of biology? Well, the fact is, that when measures of central tendencies, like the Bell curve, have even very small differences in median values, the extreme ends can manifest extreme imbalances in proportionality. Thus, if men have a slight intellectual advantage in intelligence(s) (very complicated notion itself), then three things are manifestly true:

  1. One cannot conflate the medians of the groups with the probabilities of the individuals in the groups. Any man and woman at random should manifest a near-equal set of permutations regarding an inferiority-superiority pairing.
  2. The two distributions will overlap to a great extent depending on the differences in the median. It may be that the distributions are 99.9999% overlapped.
  3. The extreme ends of the distribution will present as being HIGHLY imbalanced between the two groups. Hence, in a question of upper-body strength, where men enjoy an advantage as a group, the top 0.1% of men and women will be nearly all men. That's the most likely explanation, for instance, of why transgendered women crush the competition in athletics and why competition is segregated in the first place. There are fundamental differences in the anatomy and physiology of top-ranked athletes of the two sexes. Technically put, the procedures to go from cis-male to trans-female don't fully offset sexual dimorphism.

How does one explain the gender gap? The clever thinker will buttress any argument with the best elements of all the explanations. Women are discriminated against and sexually harassed much more than men. There are historical traditions perpetuated through folkways and mores and educational practices. In math education, biases are often found in research of the disparity. And the most weighty factor may be not that average men are better suited for STEM than average women, but that the world's best-suited candidates for STEM are 95% men by a variety of biological and psychological traits in the same way the fastest marathon runners in the world are nearly all men. That last idea grates against certain ideologies, but it is what the science points at.


Yes, anecdotes are a form of evidence as all experience is a form of evidence. When Portuguese travelers came back from Japan in the sixteenth century and told anecdotes about samurai, those anecdotes were real evidence about what samurai were like. Was it accurate? To a large extent yes. Similarly, when Portuguese explorers in the Amazon basin came back with anecdotes about women warriors, that was real evidence of Amazonian warriors in South America. Was it accurate? No. It was either fabricated or mistaken.

Anecdotes are just experience transferred from one person to another. Anecdotes have a couple of additional problems that personal experience doesn't have: first, they can be lies; second, the communication of the anecdotes can be poor. But despite those difficulties, anecdotes can still be good evidence.

Of course anecdotes and personal experience both have to be checked for consistency with other experience and with explanatory power. For example, if someone says, "My garden hose freezes every time it snows", then this is something that you might think is fairly universal--maybe everyone's garden hose is likely to freeze when it snows, because there is a physical explanation behind it. By contrast, if someone says, "my brother calls me every time I see a red bird", then you might take this as a coincidence, not something that you would expect to happen to others, because there doesn't seem to be any explanation behind it.

In evaluating women's anecdotes about the STEM field, you need to take into account the nature of people and society to evaluate how likely it is to be a common experience or whether the anecdote is even true (politically-motivated lies are common). Suppose a woman says that she applied for an internship but the men at the company deliberately discouraged her. Is that likely to be a common occurrence given that most men in STEM fields would very much like to have more women around? Not really. Even if the woman is telling the truth, something else must have been going on. Possibly the woman was very unattractive, and then this is a more likely story, but even then it doesn't sound like something that would be common.

Next, suppose a woman says that a university didn't admit her to a STEM program even though she was qualified. Is that likely to be a common occurrence when there are so many incentives for universities to get more women into STEM fields? More likely, she really wasn't all that qualified or there was something wrong with her application.

On the other hand, suppose a woman says she liked programming but decided to go into marketing instead because she didn't want to hang around with geeks all day or she didn't want to sit in front a computer all day; she wanted more human interaction. That's the sort of anecdote that fits the way young women think and the way that STEM fields are perceived, so that anecdote is more likely to represent a common experience and a significant factor that keeps women out of STEM.

And, of course, even though individual anecdotes can be good evidence, carefully gathered statistical evidence is better.

  • There may not be time to gather data. The plural of 'anecdote' is often 'tragedy'.
    – Scott Rowe
    May 27 at 10:49
  • 5
    This answer starts off well by confirming that anecdotes are a form of evidence, but then immediately claims that most or all anecdotes of women claiming they were excluded from STEM are invalid or unlikely with very little basis other than pure opinion. Claiming that women are not discouraged from STEM and then dismissing hypothetical anecdotes with reasons including "maybe she was ugly" or "women don't even really like STEM anyway" is so ironic that it is baffling. May 27 at 14:18
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    @CriticalFindings, the comment about being unattractive was in support of the woman's position. Your strawman reference to it is dishonest. If you don't have an honest response, maybe it's because you are wrong. You criticize my argument only on the grounds that you don't like the conclusion. You can't say that men in STEM don't want more women around, you can't say that men in STEM aren't widely viewed as geeks, you can't say that women do like to hang around with geeks, you can't say that women don't prefer jobs with more social interaction. You just don't like the facts. May 27 at 19:23
  • 1
    "you can't say that women do like to hang around with geeks, you can't say that women don't prefer jobs with more social interaction" - why can't I say that? What's the evidence for those "facts"? I know plenty of women who like to hang around with geeks and plenty who don't like much social interaction. If you want to say all women, then sure, all women don't like the same thing (kind of obvious, really). But this isn't about all women, it's about those who've specifically chosen to apply to a field with a lot of geeks and limited social interaction, who have anecdotes focusing on neither.
    – NotThatGuy
    May 27 at 21:03
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    @CriticalFindings, my claims about the sociology of women in STEM are all well-documented in the literature. It has been well-documented that women who have more choices chose fields other than STEM. There are lots of Indian women in STEM because they don't have many great career choices, and there are few Swedish women in STEM because they have lots of great career choices. If you really want to know the evidence, look up the memo that James Damore got fired for. He covers the literature pretty well as I recall. However, this isn't a sociology group, so I'm not going to cover it here. May 28 at 4:43

If one anecdotal account furnishes an unsound basis for reasoning, so would a million of them. To extract useful and valid data from one million stories would require careful consistency in asking questions of the story-tellers and careful accounting for the contexts in which the stories originated. And to boil the data into information would require equal rigor and consistency in the data reduction methodology which, for a population of one million test cases, would require very thorough and meticulous application of statistical tools in order to extract any signals and then have confidence that those signals were not the product of random noise, sampling bias, inadequate control samples, or the like.

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    This is what I would think. But a feminist perspective doesn't seem to take this into account.
    – DdogBoss
    May 27 at 3:44
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    @DdogBoss, I agree. Feminist critiques of science are full of references to intuitive processes, so-called wholistic thinking, and "other ways of knowing". I do not know what to do about that. The poison of anecdotal "reasoning" is in no way limited to feminist critiques of science- it was common amongst incompetent engineers during the time I was active in that field as well. May 27 at 5:37
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    @nielsnielsen "Feminist critiques of science" - in my experience many feminist arguments (including those relevant to this question) are quite well supported by science and scientific studies (that are accepted by the wider scientific community, which you may or may not try to argue is biased). The critique of science and reliance on anecdotes (and a whole bunch of fallacies) tend to come from those opposing feminist ideas. The answer is fairly reasonable, but the implication (and explicit words) which say this rigor doesn't exist with feminism is kind of where you seem to lose the plot.
    – NotThatGuy
    May 27 at 13:17
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    @nielsnielsen That statement looks remarkably like anecdotal "reasoning" for dismissing feminism as a whole. To answer you though, what you do about that (in the same way as incompetent engineering) is look at what is and isn't supported by the evidence. And based on that, also decide which criticisms are worth responding to and which are simply sealioning.
    – Graham
    May 27 at 13:59
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    @NotThatGuy, what an uncharitable response. read: Fashionable Nonsense by Bricmont and Sokal, it is brimming with examples and provides copious references. I have fabricated none of this. It is real. For more examples look at the footnotes and references in the end pages of Sokal's Hoax. May 27 at 17:04

Instead of talking in the abstract, let's look at some examples of using anecdotes to identify that problems exist, in practice.

In the article Philosophy is for posh, white boys with trust funds' – why are there so few women?, Professor Jennifer Saul, head of philosophy department, University of Sheffield, linked to her blog where women could submit brief anonymous accounts of experiences. It is surely notable that in the USA there are 12% less female academics in philosophy than the UK. How can that be accounted for except, by differences in work culture that are more limiting of participation in the USA? Differences that can be changed? How can you account for that with what you euphemistically call 'a narrative approach'? The blog anecdotes, can be used to understand what policies can address the things women in philosophy have encountered.

See also Academics Anonymous: sexism is driving women out of science.

And Sexual harassment is a routine part of life, schoolchildren tell Ofsted, which was also based on submission of anonymous anecdotes.

You say

anecdotes of men and whites are invalidated. It’s that the anecdotes of socially leftist women and non-whites are treated as evidence, whereas the anecdotes of socially right-wing women and nonwhites are invalidated

Seems like a straw man to me. This research is driven by data, low or reducing participation by women in philosophy and science, and issues in practice in schools. A really common problem is progressively less women participating at each level of progression, eg less than 5% if CEOs in FTSE 100 companies are female - can you really just declare that isn't an issue?

The anecdotes have to be anonymous, because as soon as women put their head above the parapet the whole machinery of inertia targets them to undermine the validity of their experiences. That's why things aren't changing. I suggest it's you taking the politically ideological perspective, that change is intrinsically suspicious. The conservative stance, which is found endlessly to be about preserving a position of advantage, and put towards justifying a sense of entitlement by advantaged groups.

The prosecution rate for rape is less than 5%. But overwhelmingly more concern goes towards very rare false accusations of men, than the widespread failure to secure justice for raped women. See the systematic way Amber Heard has been undermined for an example of how testimony is treated differently by gender. There is clear evidence for how to increase rape convictions, with several police forces increasing prosecutions to over 15% with specialist units. But the UK government keeps doing the opposite: Rape victims ‘systematically failed’ in England and Wales, report finds.

Women are treated differently, judged far more on appearance, and conformity to social roles. This makes things much easier for rightwing women, who typically uphold conservative and regressive ideas about social roles, and pressure towards maintaining them. It's interesting to look at the hair colour of Fox News presenters in this regard

Fox News presenters, all blonde

To clarify, blonde hair is commonly a juvenile characteristic among those who later have dark, even black hair. This is an anecdote, albeit with a large sample size. And another example of how we can use them to examine wider social conditions.

I get that you aren't going to like this answer. I suggest that knee-jerk hostility to things you don't want to hear, is another valid anecdote about how women's experiences are systematically undermined and dismissed, in support of the status quo.

For a detailed argument of why more female participation is good for everyone, see: Studies exploring the rationale of gender equality

  • 2
    Is the antidote to an anecdote another anecdote? Hmm...
    – Scott Rowe
    May 27 at 10:52
  • @ScottRowe: Anecdotes aren't the end of research, only indications where to begin mire quantative & specific assessments & evidence-based changes
    – CriglCragl
    May 27 at 11:22
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    This is a terrible answer, regardless of whether or not its thesis is correct (I actually happen to agree). The question asked was about how an epistemic principle is applied to a political problem, and this is an ideologically-motivated answer to the political problem, not the question---and one that seems more calibrated to score points than change minds. Attempting to present statistical evidence (the quality of which could have been much better with minimal effort; two were pure opinion and two more were voluntary report studies) of gender oppression is entirely irrelevant.
    – Duncan W
    May 27 at 13:54
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    @CriglCragl "Anecdotes aren't the end of research, only indications where to begin mire quantative & specific assessments & evidence-based changes". This would appear to be the case. The best scenario would be to have anecdotes corroborated with other evidence. In situations when there are only anecdotes, the truth becomes a credibility problem.
    – DdogBoss
    May 27 at 14:06
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    "The conservative stance, which is found endlessly to be about preserving a position of advantage" This is political propaganda. The conservative stance is meritocracy. Read any conservative site and you will see frequent mockery of incompetence, references to the Peter Principle, and calls for incompetent people to be fired. What you will not see is people complaining that some identity group deserves or doesn't deserve a position because of tradition or other non-functional reason. The claim is projection; you are obsessed with identity politics, so you assume your opponents are. May 28 at 4:57

In debates about female participation in STEM fields, feminists often reject biological evidence in favor of a narrative-based approach. This is used to say that women are discouraged from going into these sectors because they were raised in a patriarchal environment, and that male-dominated spaces reject women. This is not to say that the environment doesn't play a factor, but opponents are often told to listen to cases presented.

My background is STEM, with a particular focus on statistics (and btw, I'm a woman - though that shouldn't matter here, IMHO).

From my statistics perspective, both the "biological evidence" and the claim that "women are discouraged" are what I'd consider as factors that potentially contribute to women's decisions to go into STEM.


  • it is possible that both factors do indeed play an important role
    (or only one but not the other, or none of them, or they may even interact)

  • it is extremely likely that there are other important factors

  • evidence that exclusively looks at "patriarchal/male-dominated/misogynous environment factors" (whether anecdotal or other*) cannot possibly allow dropping/disregarding "biological factor(s)"

    Evidence that exclusively looks at "biological factor(s)" (whether anecdotal or other*) cannot possibly allow dropping/disregarding "patriarchal/male-dominated/misogynous environment factors"

    * I hesitate to write well-designed study, since a study that neglects considering potentially important contributing factors is IMHO not well designed...
    One can study one or a subset of factors, but then the conclusions need to be limited accordingly.

  • With unknown (and uncontrolled) important factors (confounders), only very limited conclusions can be drawn, including about the effect size (i.e., how important a given factor is).

  • What is possible, though, is to find sound counterexamples that allow the conclusion that the factor under consideration cannot possibly be the only important factor.

    Two give two examples,

    • For the feminist anecdotes, e.g., one may consider e.g. Tunisia to fulfil the "patriarchal/male-dominated/misogynous" criterion - where, however, more than half of the researchers are female (this would maybe need some more digging into the details of the data, since not all researchers are in STEM - still it's twice the percentage of female researchers than in the Netherlands, Czech Republic, France, Germany.)

    Btw, anecdotes I "collected" from colleagues from Arab contries and Iran suggest that a STEM profession may be seen by women as a way to emancipate themselves in a "patriarchal/male-dominated/misogynous environment". Earning one's own money with a well-paying profession does give power. (But my sample is severely biased - still, it is valid to use such anecdotes for hypothesis generation)

    • For the biological evidence, e.g. differences in spatial cognition are sometimes cited together with the point @JD makes of that possibly leading to strong gender (or sex) imbalance (in favor of men). These abilities are important e.g. for mechanical engineering, where indeed where I am, only about 10 % of mechanical engineering students are female. OTOH, spatial cognition is also highly important in medicine and veterinary medicine. Which are subjects that changed from pretty much male-only to 70 and 85 % female students within the last maybe 70 years. Interestingly, there are also professions, where the change went the other way round: programming used to be a "female profession" and changed to a stereotypical "male profession" in Western Europe and North America.

Would a collection of feminist stories be sufficient evidence to say that rampant misogyny keeps women out of STEM?

As it is, the question is not sufficiently narrow to be answered by logics. However,

  • A collection of feminist stories (unless their truthfulness is doubted, and assuming the stories in question do indeed report misogyny as main cause for the decision) is sufficient evidence to say that misogyny kept some women out of STEM

  • A collection of feminist stories is not sufficient evidence to say that rampant misogyny keeps all women out of STEM
    This would clearly be a false claim.

  • A collection of feminist stories is not sufficient evidence to say that rampant misogyny is an overall important factor in women's decisions to keep out of STEM. This would need a well designed study that accounts for potential confounders and other explanatory factors.

  • For the question whether there are too few women in STEM, a definition of the target proportion would be needed. Which I consider a predominantly political problem.
    Though in scientific studies one may compare observed proportion to expected proportion under such-and-such considerations/assumptions.

    And one can certainly decide that noone should be scared away from the profession of their choice (for reasons other than objectively being unable/bad to perform their professional duties.)

  • (And the [political] decision which contributing factors should be addressed is still a different question.)

  • "For the question whether there are too few women in STEM" - one could also ignore that question completely (and thus avoid trying to set a target proportion) and instead consider whether too many (i.e. any significant amount of) women refrain from pursuing a career in the STEM field they're interested in due to STEM being male-dominated or due to encountering misogyny. Although "the problem is bad enough that a significant amount of competent people go into a different career direction entirely from what they want" doesn't seem to be an argument many find to be too compelling for some reason.
    – NotThatGuy
    May 27 at 17:26
  • This is a great answer. Thank you so much for taking the time to leave a response.
    – DdogBoss
    May 27 at 20:17
  • @NotThatGuy: I for one would consider this a perfectly good reason for saying that something needs to be done. Possibly the more so as to me proportions have several drawbacks, including that it isn't easy at all to find a good target proportion (target 50 % for a group is not going to work well if the proportion of applicants belonging to that group is, say, only 10 %). Plus, target proportion go with an implicit assumption that dealing out some kind of "favor" is a valid approach to offset a possibly entirely different problem - without tackling the problem. But this is politics, not logic. May 28 at 19:31

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