Category Archives: feminism

Okay, Men and Women are Different. Now What?

I was browsing through the back catalogue of Language Log today (because I enjoyed their latest releases, so to speak), and I found an article from October 2010 describing a study that purported to provide evidence to the effect that women are more apologetic than men. The paper, by Karina Schumann and Michael Ross, was described in detail by Mark Liberman in his post so I won’t bother to reiterate what he said in too much depth. In a nutshell, the researchers had thirty-three female and thirty-three male participants complete daily online questionnaires related both to instances that occurred each day in which they were transgressors of apology-worthy acts and to instances in which they received apologies for others’ transgressions. They found that members of the female cohort reported being subject to more apology-worthy transgressions, receiving more apologies, committing more apology-worthy transgressions, and giving more apologies than the males. They suggest that this is because males have a higher threshold in determining which actions and behaviours are worthy of apology–in other words, it will take a more egregious transgression to prompt a male to apologize than it will for a female.

I don’t have any particular qualms with the study itself, and I’m inclined to believe that the study was conducted as carefully as Dr. Liberman says it was (he knows more about statistics than I do, after all); it appears that among the participants they selected, the females really did exhibit a lower threshold for apology-worthy actions than the males did. And it’s very possible that the authors’ speculations about the sources of this disparity, namely “that women might perceive more offenses because they are more focused on the experiences of other people and on maintaining harmony in their relationships,” or “that men have a higher threshold for both physical and social pain,” could be the case. My problem in particular has to do with why we find this kind of study interesting, and what we hope to do with the knowledge that we derive from it.

If we compare this study to a hypothetical study that includes blondes versus brunettes, or black people versus white people, or people from San Francisco versus people from New York, we might find that the San Franciscans, the black people, or the brunettes apologize more than their counterparts, and we could speculate that San Franciscans are more apologetic because they have a lower threshold for physical and social pain than New Yorkers, or because they are more focused on the experiences of others and on maintaining harmony in their relationships. But why, when we search the scientific literature for research dealing with differences between groups of people, do we find a paucity of articles comparing New Yorkers to San Franciscans or blondes to brunettes? What is it about men and women that makes people so motivated to systematically codify all the differences between them? I don’t know the answer to this question, but I imagine that it’s either a response to or an assertion in favour of the idea that men and women should be differentiated from one another. And a political will apparently exists to promote this type of differentiation–a research study comparing New Yorkers to San Franciscans would likely be rejected by NSERC or its American equivalent as frivolous, but a study comparing men to women is worth a few thousand tax dollars.

Liberman acknowledges that studies dealing with differences between groups generally have a bad track record in terms of their role in perpetuating harmful stereotypes.  He hints at this by noting at the end of his post that the study does not include information about within-group differences so that a comparison can be made with the across-group differences. This track record arises from a tendency for people to slide into generalizations about the group members. When looking at populations, statisticians can say that on average, this population is so-and-so, even while acknowledging that the individuals within the group are different  from one another. But when looking at results of a well-done and careful scientific study that talks about men and women as discrete groups, it’s still hard not to apply the results, which refer to an imaginary entity (the average or prototypical member), to all of the members as individuals. Schumann and Ross do this, to some extent, when they speculate about the causes for their findings. When Liberman suggests that it would be good for the papers to pick up this story because it’s not the usual stereotyping fluff, he overlooks the role of this article and others like it in producing a conception of gender that posits men and women as categories of people with more across-group differences than within-group differences, and this conception of gender is what makes gender stereotyping possible (just like it makes it possible to stereotype blondes or New Yorkers). Liberman helpfully indicates as much in another post of his that he links to as part of a warning against misinterpretation of generic plurals:

Most members of the general public don’t understand statistical-distribution talk, and instead tend to  interpret such statements as expressing general (and essential) properties of the groups involved. This is especially true when the statements express the conclusions of an apparently authoritative scientific study, rather than merely someone’s personal opinion, which is easy to discount.

His injunction against “the use of generic plurals to express statistical differences” was presumably intended for discussions of statistical differences in public arenas, because the article in question–which, remember, he would have liked to see picked up by the press–uses generic plurals with aplomb: “The diary data suggest,” the authors write, “that women offer more apologies than men do […].”

When I talk about “discrete groups,” I’m referring to the problems of clearly delineating who is a man and who is a woman. A hundred and fifty years ago scientific researchers had no problems differentiating between black people and white people, but nowadays we’re more aware of the fact that categories of race aren’t as clear-cut as they claimed they were (even at the genetic level). A lot of work has been done to show that the same is true with categories of gender and sex, but this work is hampered by actively malicious treatments of sex and gender differences (like what Liberman refers to as “gender-stereotyping fluff”) as well as by uncritical acceptance of gender as a set of two distinct categories (like the study in question). Both types of research make gender stereotyping possible, because they are both used for that purpose.  Clearly, this study, as much as it is exemplary in its execution, is still treading on the wrong side of the problem / solution divide.

Potent Quotables

“The functioning of sex-differentiated organs is involved, but there is nothing in this functioning that biologically recommends segregation; that arrangement is a totally cultural matter…toilet segregation is presented as a natural consequence of the difference between the sex-classes when in fact it is a means of honoring, if not producing, this difference.”

Erving Goffman, “The Arrangement between the Sexes”

Clothing affects performance on math tests

I stumbled across an interesting article recently, entitled “The Swimsuit Becomes You: Sex Differences in Self-Objectification, Restrained Eating, and Math Performance” by Fredrickson et al. (1998). In the article, the experimenters describe how they attempted to measure the effects of clothing on self-objectification, or the tendency for an individual to appropriate the perceived opinions of others regarding their appearance. They randomly divided their participants into two groups, one of which would try on a swimsuit, and one of which would try on a sweater, and while each individual regarded themselves in a full-length mirror, they were asked to complete several questionnaires and do some other tasks. Not surprisingly, they found that the female cohorts who tried on the swimsuits experienced increased shame about their bodies, and those participants with high body shame scores tended to eat less when presented with an “unlimited” amount of food (i.e. they could eat as much as they wanted of what was presented). Men tended to experience significantly less body shame, and they showed much less restraint when eating than did the women.

More interesting, however, is their finding that wearing a swimsuit affected women’s scores on standardized math tests. Each participant did a fifteen-minute math test while wearing either the sweater or the swimsuit, and after the test scores were adjusted for each participant’s score on prior tests of math (i.e. the SAT or ACT), the overall tendency was for the women who were wearing the swimsuit to do much worse on the math test than the women wearing the sweater. This effect was not seen in the male group; in fact, the males who were wearing the swimsuit did slightly better than their counterparts in sweaters.

While I’m hardly qualified to judge the soundness of the methodology or the statistical analysis in this paper, I find this result fascinating in the context of, for instance, Leonard Sax’ and others’ arguments for sex segregated education, where the knee-jerk tendency is for people to attribute gender differences in scores on tests of cognitive abilities to some kind of biological or genetic factor. Clearly, the ability of a standardized test to capture some “absolute” measure of intelligence is not so cut and dried when the clothing that the test-taker is wearing can have such a remarkable effect. This seems especially relevant in the context of the increased sexualization of young girls, where the pressure to wear certain outfits might affect more than just socialization practices.

The National Post on women’s studies

About a week ago the National Post published an article about how many women’s studies programs in Canada are changing their names, and then followed it up with an editorial claiming that a “goodbye and good riddance” to women’s studies would be, regrettably, premature. The original article includes this gem:

Even the punctuation has deeper meaning: “The apostrophe can imply that the discipline belongs to women rather than has women as its object of study,” says Simon Fraser University’s recent proposal to change the name. “The program at SFSU chose to identify women as our object of study, not as the owners of the field.”

I call this quote a gem because it demonstrates the painfully deficient level of journalism that fills the pages of the Post. They attribute this statement about the punctuation to SFU, even though the statement itself refers to SFSU, a somewhat far-removed analogue located in San Francisco. Perhaps the Post is stricken by that same lack of copy editors, proofreaders and fact checkers that plagues most print media these days, but it took me all of ten seconds to google the quote and determine its correct source, which is presumably what Kathryn Blaze Carlson was paid to do in the first place. Their inability to distinguish Simon Fraser University from San Francisco State University belies the quality of reporting that informed their editorial, which is chock-full of easily falsifiable claims and unattributed scare quotes:

feminist legal scholars convinced the Supreme Court to permit preferential treatment for “traditionally disadvantaged groups”

Women’s Studies scholars have argued all heterosexual sex is oppression because its “penetrative nature” amounts to “occupation.”

They have…even put forward the notion that the only differences between males and females are “relatively insignificant, external features.”

Interestingly, but not particularly surprisingly, this last unattributed quote regarding the differences between men and women comes from a letter James C. Dobson wrote in response to the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women that was held in Beijing. Dr. Dobson is founder of the evangelical non-profit organization Focus on the Family, which is unequivocally anti-abortion, anti-evolution, anti-homosexuality, anti-pornography, anti-feminism, anti-Palestine, and all those other antis that American conservative Christians seem to be about. Focus on the Family supported the McCain-Palin ticket, but only after Palin was brought on board; they funded ads equating the United States under Obama and the Democrats to Nazi Germany; and they spent two and a half million dollars to run a pro-life television ad during the upcoming Superbowl. In the letter, Dr. Dobson refers to the Beijing conference as the “most radical, atheistic and anti-family crusade in the history of the world”; he claims that China serves human fetuses in restaurants; and he claims that the conference’s mandate is to “do away with family, impose 50/50 quotas on all activities, eliminate motherhood, and institute polymorphous perversity.” See here for the actual mandate, which includes such radical ideas such as ensuring women access to health care, education, political representation, and employment.

Not only does the Post use this man, of all people, as an authority on women’s studies, but they couch his quote as if it originated from an actual women’s studies scholar. If ever there was an example of embarrassingly, shockingly piss-poor journalism, this is it. Get a grip, National Post.

[h/t Echidne]

Humans and men: there are differences

The tendency to equate men with humankind is an old one, evidenced by little things like the age-old icon of evolution seen here:


Bob McDonald, on his CBC show Quirks and Quarks, did a masterful job of talking about humankind without ever mentioning or speaking to a woman on his August 22nd “best of” show, which was a re-broadcast of his show from April 25th, 2009 (available in full here). In attempting to answer the question “Are we inherently violent, or are we a naturally peaceful creature trapped in a violent culture?” Mr. McDonald, not surprisingly, seeks out academic sources who support the former option.

The first person he talks to is Dr. Richard Wrangham, professor of “biological anthropology” at Harvard University and coauthor of the book Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. Dr. Wrangham describes to Mr. McDonald the incident in chimpanzee research that led to the idea that chimpanzees may be inherently violent; prior to 1974, the bulk of chimpanzee observation, primarily constituted by Jane Goodall’s work with the Gombe chimpanzees in Tanzania, had revealed that chimpanzees are only mildly violent, with most altercations being only minor (with the exception of one incident in which they stole and killed a human baby). In 1974, a group of chimpanzees was observed to silently approach a male member of a neighbouring chimpanzee community and then ambush and brutally kill him.  Since then, the same behaviour has been observed a number of times, and is in fact featured prominently in the popular BBC series Planet Earth. Prof. Wrangham explains that this behaviour is evolved as a way for groups of chimpanzees to expand their territory so as to have more resources to support more children.

The second person Mr. McDonald speaks with is Dr. David Carrier, a comparative physiologist at the University of Utah. Dr. Carrier points out that there is an energy cost to bipedalism, which suggests that there must be some evolutionary advantage to standing upright. This advantage is the ability of bipeds to use their forelimbs as weapons. Dr. Carrier rejects the notion that there might be other uses for one’s forelimbs that might offset the mechanical disadvantage of being two-legged, based on the two facts that a) Australopithecines had short legs, which would have given them a stabler base for hand-to-hand combat, and b) human hands are better-proportioned for forming fists than those of any other primates. [He really said this! I recommend to Dr. Carrier that he punch someone, and see how well-evolved his  metacarpals are.]

The third person invited on the show is Dr. Aaron Sell, an evolutionary psychologist from UC Santa Barbara. Dr. Sell did an experiement where he took male participants to the gym and had them lift weights to determine their level of strength, then they photographed the participants’ faces and had other participants look at the photos to see how well they could judge the strength of these people by their looks. As it turns out, “at least with men,” people were generally able to determine the strength of a person by looking at their face. Dr. Sell suggests that facial structures such as the brow and the jawbone are determined by testosterone, which is the same hormone that makes men big and strong; thus, men with low brows and big jawbones are more likely to be strong. That’s why, when someone makes an angry face, the muscles they use tend to accentuate the brow and the jawbone.

The fourth and final guest on the show is Dr. Craig Kennedy, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He noticed that trained male mice are able to learn a complex task (in this case, pushing a button) in order to get the chance at fighting with another male mouse. The same mice, with their dopamine receptors disabled, do not exhibit the same behaviour; this suggests that the mice’s brains release dopamine – the “pleasure chemical” – when they experience aggression. Dr. Kennedy wanted to see if humans were the same way, so he designed an experiment that involved young men watching things such as hockey fights and scantily clad young women. He found that watching a hockey fight and ogling a scantily clad woman had similar effects on the dopamine receptors in these men’s brains, thus supporting the hypothesis that watching violence is pleasurable. [He conventiently declined to remark on the effects of partaking in violence.]

Although they all have their flaws and quirks, these particular experiments and hypotheses are not what I have a problem with. I have a problem with the fact that Bob McDonald had four men on his show and used their observations about male behaviour as grounds for the conclusion that “humans are inherently violent.” It shouldn’t take a university degree to notice that the guests on Quirks and Quarks were only talking about half of humankind. Using evidence from a small and non-representative sample to make conclusions about a whole population is known in philosophy as a hasty generalization, the bane of inductive reasoning. It’s a scientists job to avoid making generalizations by using as representative a sample as  possible; with the exception of Dr. Carrier, who appears to have his own set of problems, all of these scientists do their job very poorly in this regard, as does Mr. McDonald.

Hohle Fels Venus reveals more about modern times than ancient ones

A 35 ooo-year-old ivory figurine discovered in a small cave in Germany this past September has proven to be the oldest known piece of figurative art in the world, beating the previous record-holders by 5 000 years. Disappointingly, but not unsurprisingly, the archaeologists who made the discovery revealed their modern prejudices by describing the figurine as ancient porn. Violet at Reclusive Leftist elaborates:

…the Science Now article, the archaeologist who found the figurine is talking about pornographic pin-ups: “I showed it to a male colleague, and his response was, ‘Nothing’s changed in 40,000 years.’” That sentence needs to be bronzed and hung up on a plaque somewhere, because you couldn’t ask for a better demonstration of the classic fallacy of reading the present into the past. The archaeologist assumes the artist who created the figurine was male; why? He assumes the motive was lust; why? Because that’s all he knows. To his mind, the image of a naked woman with big breasts and exposed vulva can only mean one thing: porn! Porn made by men, for men! And so he assumes, without questioning his assumptions, that the image must have meant the same thing 35,000 years ago. No other mental categories for “naked woman” are available to him. His mind is a closed box.

Sad, but true.

Prolegomena to any future dumb questions about Women’s Studies

Someone asked me the other day, with a straight face, if there are women’s studies conferences. Being the diplomat that I am, I said, “Yeah, of course”; in response to his comment that perhaps women’s studies would be better off if there was a man teaching courses along with the “five” women professors, I feebly replied, “our department has like 30 professors!” I would have liked to pursue an extended diatribe about the ignorance that it takes to completely overlook the contributions of the forty-year-old department not just to academic knowledge but to real women’s lives all over the world,  about how our department receives a yearly $1 000 000 endowment for the Ruth Wynn Woodward chair, has eight full professors and 18 additional faculty members, and joins 44 degree-granting Women’s Studies programs in Canada, 900 Women’s Studies programs in the United States (this many that offer graduate degrees alone) and 250-odd programs worldwide to teach tens of thousands of students every year, how the Canadian Women’s Studies Association is a member of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, and American Women’s Studies programs are overseen by the National Women’s Studies Association, which has been around since 1977, that a professor from my department recently published a column in the Georgia Straight, that everyone should read, about the ongoing importance of Women’s Studies .

It did get me thinking, though, about what the hell is wrong with the modern university that would allow one department to be so oblivious about what is going on just down the hall, or just across the quad, or on the other side of the student union building. And unfortunately I don’t have any good answers that extend beyond woebegone sentiments. I do have a theory, though, that I’m hoping has been taken up in detail by some clever scholar, and that I will one day stumble across in a thick tome dug up from the back corner of a used bookstore that will answer all of my questions once and for all. My theory is that the humanities and social sciences, especially the humanities, somehow project a perception toward laypeople that no special training is required in order to achieve proficiency. This is not to say that people aren’t aware that there is the possibility of graduate and post-graduate education in the humanities, or that people can and do devote their lives to studying things like “power” or theorists like Bourdieu. Rather, there seems to be a perception that even though this is the case, a layperson can still engage in a conversation with a humanities scholar and assume that they have all of the knowledge and competence that is required to formulate an argument about a topic in the humanities to a degree that is appropriate to engaging the arguments of the scholar on a peer-to-peer basis.

There is a stark contrast, then, between how laypeople approach the sciences versus how they approach the humanities, and more importantly, how people in the sciences versus those in the humanities regard these laypeople who are trying to interpret the work done in their fields without the necessary competence. Let me give a quick example. A quick Google search of blogs coming out of the sciences reveals a vast distaste with the way that science journalists handle science topics (Language Log, Bad Science, and Neuroskeptic, for instance, are highly critical of science journalists misinterpreting science stories). While some of their complaints can be attributed to laziness on the part of journalists, many of them can be more accurately attributed to science journalists having poor or deficient knowledge of the subject matter, which leads to them misinterpreting things that would be obvious for anyone proficient in the field. The humanities, on the other hand, don’t have a well-embedded and -accepted body of critique of the way that laypeople (e.g. journalists) misinterpret humanities topics, even though such misinterpretations happen all the time.

I think this is for a couple of reasons. First, there is no clear demarcating line between academic humanities topics and non-academic ones: academics talk about ideology, for example, but so do Republican talk show hosts. To a layperson, there is no reason to assume that what the academics are talking about is any different from what Rush is talking about, even though the difference is enormous. Similarly, academics talk about feminism, and so do our hippy moms; to the layperson, there is no recognition of the vast gulf that exists between the meaning of the term as it is used by academics and the meaning of the term as it is used by your mom (let alone the differences between academics). The second, related reason is that humanities jargon is often homonymous or heteronymous with everyday words. There is no reason for a layperson to assume that the word subculture has a different meaning in a cultural studies context than it does in an MTV context, or that the word competence has a different meaning in a literature studies context than it does in a Starbucks conversation context, or that the word problematic has a different meaning in a conversation about Althusser than it does in a conversation about a leaky faucet, or that the word imaginary has a different meaning in a sociology context than it does in a Disney context. Thus, when laypeople hear humanities scholars using the words problematic and imaginary as nouns, they get accused of being opaque for the sake of appearing erudite, when they are actually using terms of jargon that have decades-long histories of definitional specificity. Third, the humanities and social sciences, by their very nature, do tend to deal with issues that come up in people’s everyday lives, topics that are often dealt with by laypeople in Starbucks conversations and Disney movies (to some degree). However, scholars tend to use different tools and approaches to analyse these topics, and they often come at them from different approaches and have different goals than the laypeople. And not surprisingly, the approaches they use, and the arguments they formulate, require a great deal of training and specialized knowledge to create and comprehend. A person in the welfare lineup might have a lot to say about poverty, but they are not going to be saying the same things as someone in a graduate-level seminar about the same topic.

Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is a topic of much debate, but it is a thing nevertheless. The salient difference between the natural sciences and the social sciences/humanities is that the natural sciences are known to be “private” for the most part, in the sense that the inner workings of science tend to take place behind closed laboratory doors rather than out in public, and they deal with issues that are usually only of interest to specialists in the field; the humanities deals with issues that are public to begin with, so the divide between public issues and “closed door” social sciences/humanities is hard to distinguish, and thus specialist knowledge is considered, or appears to be, public property.

This is both fortunate and unfortunate at the same time. It is fortunate because many social science/humanities types are wary of the way academic institutions separate scholars from the people and situations that they are studying. It’s hard to feel good about capitalizing on the experiences of the person in the welfare lineup by writing a thick dissertation on poverty and getting a cushy, well-paid tenure track professorship while the welfare recipient keeps receiving welfare. At the same time, this disparity between the natural sciences and the social sciences/humanities is unfortunate because we live in a world where institutional legitimacy goes a long way; it’s tough being in a department that has limitless potential for improving people’s lives, and seeing that potential go down the drain because academic success is so incumbent on the pretense that quantitative knowledge is unassailable. But I digress. The meat of my theory here is that people ignore the legitimacy of the social sciences/humanities because of a fundamental difference in the way that the two poles are conceptualized by laypeople. Science is considered Scientists’ Business, and humanities is considered Everyone’s Business; this dichotomy erases the existence of the specialized knowledge and training that forms the basis of research in the humanities and social sciences. What’s the solution? More education for everybody.

Now where’s that book?