Is the fuchsia female?

Here’s something that made me laugh recently when somebody shared it on Facebook. 83778263_3912267798786914_6847277020674523136_n

It’s from a page called ‘Men’s Humor’, which I initially found surprising, since on the face of things it’s a joke at men’s expense: it’s saying men don’t normally get to name eyeshadow colours because their colour vocabulary is so limited. Once they’ve used up basic colour terms like ‘orange’, ‘pink’ and ‘purple’, they’ll be forced to fall back on unappealing comparisons with meat, ‘spoiled milk’ and (ew) ‘diarrhoea’.

But on reflection that’s only part of what the joke is doing. It’s also indirectly poking fun at the names conventionally given to make-up colours, which are absurd in a different way. From that perspective the joke is on women, who are suckers for a flowery name–they wouldn’t buy an eyeshadow in ‘pork’, but they’d be happy to shell out for one in ‘tea rose’ or ‘autumn sunrise’. When it comes to colour-names, cluelessness is proof of manliness. Real men don’t know words like ‘taupe’; they have more important things to worry about than the difference between ‘lavender’ and  ‘mauve’.

Some readers may recognise that last bit an allusion to Robin Lakoff’s 1970s classic Language and Woman’s Place. Lakoff put non-basic colour terms like ‘taupe’, ‘lavender’  and ‘mauve’ into the category of ‘women’s language’, a register which in her view both derived from and reinforced women’s subordinate status in society:

Since women are not expected to make decisions on important matters, like what kind of job to hold, they are relegated the non-crucial decisions as a sop. Deciding whether to name a color ‘lavender’ or ‘mauve’ is one such sop.

These distinctions are regarded by men as trivial; and once they have been defined as the province of women, any man who does display an interest in them invites questions about his masculinity.

[A] woman may say ‘The wall is mauve’ with no one consequently forming any special impression of her as a result of the words alone; but if the man should say ‘the wall is mauve’, one might well conclude he was either imitating a woman sarcastically, or a homosexual, or an interior decorator.

So in addition to being something men ‘relegate’ to women because they consider it beneath their notice, colour-naming might be something men actively avoid, because they don’t want to be perceived as effeminate or gay.

As usual, though, what got into wider circulation was not Lakoff’s analysis of the cultural conditions that might produce gender differences in colour vocabulary, but just the ‘fun fact’ that women know more colour terms than men. The ‘if men got to name eyeshadow colors’ joke shows that nearly 50 years on, this is still part of our cultural common sense. Does research done since the 1970s bear it out, though? Many of these ‘fun facts’, after all, continue to be repeated long after they’ve been debunked by science. We’ve known for years that the ever-popular ‘Women talk more than men/use x times as many words per day as men’ is just straight-up BS. And other claims, including some of Lakoff’s, have turned out to be more complicated than they originally seemed. So, what’s the story about colour terms?

The short answer is that research done since the 1970s generally has supported the claim that women know more colour terms than men. There are also some finer-grained differences in the kinds of terms men and women produce when their colour vocabulary is tested. But what’s behind these differences is still a matter of debate.

By way of illustration, let’s take a closer look at one fairly recent piece of research in this tradition: an experimental study which was presented at a conference in 2012. It was conducted with 272 English-speaking subjects (159 women and 113 men), who were each asked to name a series of 20 colours selected randomly from a set of 600. The responses were ‘unconstrained’, i.e. participants could give each stimulus colour a name entirely of their own choosing. This procedure produced over 5000 responses, containing 1226 different colour terms. 29 per cent of these were ‘basic colour terms’ (red, blue, green, etc.), 23 per cent were single-word non-basic terms (mauve, scarlet), 42 per cent were two-word descriptions (a one-word term plus a modifier, like ‘bluish green’ or ‘pale yellow’) and 6 per cent contained three words or more (e.g. ‘pillar box red’).

As expected, there were differences between men and women–and there was more to this than the familiar finding that women produce more colour-names overall. Though the two sexes made similar use of basic colour terms, beyond the basics their choices diverged. Women chose more single-word terms like ‘mauve’, whereas men gravitated more to the two-word ‘bluish green’ type. The most frequently-used non-basic terms were also different for each sex. For instance, the top 20 female choices included ‘peach’ and ‘fuchsia’, neither of which featured in the men’s top 20; conversely, the male top 20 included ‘cyan’ and ‘magenta’, which did not make it onto the female list.

In their discussion of these findings the researchers remark that the colour men labelled ‘magenta’ is the same one for which women preferred the ‘fancy’ term ‘fuchsia’. I find this comment interesting, because to me it isn’t obvious that ‘fuchsia’ is any ‘fancier’ than ‘magenta’. On the contrary, I would argue that the two terms are not just equally fancy, they are fancy in exactly the same way. Both are derived from proper names: ‘fuchsia’, the name of a plant genus, honours the botanist Leonhard Fuchs, while ‘magenta’, the name given to an aniline dye invented in 1859, commemorates France’s victory at the battle of Magenta. The dye-colour was inspired by the fuchsia plant, and before its (French) inventor got carried away by patriotic pride he had intended to call it ‘fuchsine’.

We might suspect–in fact, I find it hard not to–that the researchers’ description of ‘fuchsia’, but not ‘magenta’, as ‘fancy’ reflects the pre-existing gender stereotype according to which women, but not men, use fancy colour terms. Similarly, they note that the part of the spectrum which women typically categorised as ‘turquoise’ was segmented by men into ‘turquoise, cyan and light blue’–but they make no comment on the ‘fanciness’ of ‘cyan’, nor on the fact that in this case it was men who made finer distinctions.

You may already have thought of an explanation for men’s more frequent use of ‘cyan’ and ‘magenta’. These terms have a tech connection: they’re two of the four ink colours used in colour printing. ‘Peach’ and ‘fuchsia’, by contrast, are terms you’d be more likely to encounter if you were shopping for lingerie. Such observations might suggest that women’s more extensive colour vocabulary is not a product of nature but an artefact of culture. Men don’t shy away from non-basic colour terms if they belong to a male domain; it’s just that there tends to be more use of elaborate terminology in domains which are coded as female.

Until recently, this cultural explanation was favoured not only by feminists, but also by most scientists. But in sex-difference science generally there’s been a resurgence of interest in biological explanations, and it’s been suggested that women’s more extensive colour vocabulary might reflect their naturally superior ability to discriminate colours visually. This isn’t an easy argument to settle: there’s an obvious chicken and egg problem. For instance, referring to a 1990 study of mail order catalogues which found ‘more variation in the terms describing women’s clothing than men’s’, the authors of the 2012 study suggest that the catalogue producers were ‘taking advantage’ of women’s greater facility for discriminating and naming colours. Yet it could equally be argued that women develop this facility precisely because the products they consume come in a wider range of colours and are described using a wider range of terms.

One way to investigate this further might be to consider variables other than sex/gender. Men and women, after all, are diverse rather than homogeneous, in ways that might be expected to make a difference to their use of colour-terms–especially if this is primarily a cultural thing. Pursuing that line of thought, I discovered a study published in 2007 which found a difference between older and younger men: while the older men, as usual, produced a limited range of non-basic terms, the younger men were far more similar to women. There is more than one possible explanation for this finding, but the most plausible one, arguably, is cultural change, both in gendered patterns of consumption and in ideas about masculinity. I found some indirect support for this in current clothing catalogues. When I looked at a (small) sample it was clear that the colour-terms used in the menswear and womenswear sections were less sharply differentiated than they reportedly had been in 1990. Today’s fashion retailers seem confident that their male customers, like their female ones, will buy shirts in ‘sage’, ‘forest’ or ‘acqua’ rather than just ‘green’.

But another variable that should probably be in the mix here is social class. The catalogues I looked at (which had come unsolicited through my letterbox and ended up in my recycling bin) were clearly addressed to a certain segment of the market, and that was reflected in their language as well as their prices. Words are among the semiotic resources companies use to construct an image that will appeal to, or flatter, their target customer; elaborate or unusual colour terms often seem to be associated with more ‘aspirational’ brands.

Consider, for instance, paint shade-cards. They’re a vast repository of ridiculous colour-names, but if you compare, say, the upscale Farrow & Ball range to B&Q’s more basic house-brand, you will find they are ridiculous in different ways. F&B sells shades called things like ‘Railings’; B&Q offers shades like ‘Pumpkin Pie’. Both might be described as whimsical, but one is–to quote a painter and decorator I once discussed this with–‘poncier’ than the other.

Of course, no one participating in a colour-naming experiment would be likely to produce something as obscure as ‘Railings’. But participants’ choices might still be influenced by the ‘ponciness’ factor. And this wouldn’t necessarily be just a direct reflection of their own class position. As I explained in an earlier post about swearing, there’s quite a strong tendency for middle- or upper-class linguistic norms to be symbolically associated with femininity while working-class norms are associated with masculinity. We might therefore expect men, including middle-class ones, to be more concerned than women about avoiding terms they consider ‘poncy’. This avoidance is central to the humour of the joke eyeshadow palette: in a context where poncy words are standard, the author of the joke has substituted aggressively plain, down-to-earth or crude alternatives.

The maleness that’s both parodied and celebrated in this joke is defined not only in opposition to femininity, but also by contrast with certain kinds of masculinity (for instance, anything too gay or too educated). Colour terms, it turns out, are a great resource for this kind of social symbolism. But precisely for that reason I think it’s hard to know what we can safely conclude from studies which claim to show that women know more colour terms. I’m not disputing the (very consistent) finding that women generally produce more terms; but is that simply because men’s vocabulary is smaller? If men write ‘pinkish-purple’ rather than ‘mauve’, does that mean ‘mauve’ isn’t in their repertoire, or does it mean they’re reluctant to present themselves as the kind of man who uses words like ‘mauve’?

There’s also a more fundamental question, one I always seem to end up asking when I post about any kind of sex-difference science: why does any of this matter in the first place? So what if you say magenta and I say fuchsia? Let’s call the whole thing off!

But while I don’t care about the question itself, I do care about what’s behind it. When a (real or alleged) sex-difference becomes the object of intense scientific and/or popular fascination, that often has less to do with its real-world importance than with the symbolic meaning we project onto it. We seize on certain generalisations because they fit with our beliefs about what men and women are or should be like. Sometimes the generalisations are completely false; sometimes, as in this case, they’re more robust; but either way, they contribute to the patriarchal project of keeping men and women in their prescribed, different-and-not-equal, places. And even when it’s funny, that’s no joke.

 

2019: (not) the end of an era

In a couple of days’ time we’ll be marking not just the passing of another year, but by most people’s reckoning the end of the current decade. All kinds of commentators will be looking back over the last ten years, and many will turn to language (or at least, vocabulary) as a source of insight about what mattered in the 2010s. They’ll remind us this was the decade that gave us ‘Brexit’, ‘fake news’, the ‘gig economy’ and ‘influencers’; it was when ‘climate change’ became the ‘climate emergency’, and when global protest movements formed around the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo.

This approach to documenting social trends—epitomised by the annual ritual in which dictionaries select a Word of the Year (WOTY)—has its limitations. It doesn’t capture the preoccupations of the speech community as a whole (if I quizzed a sample of my neighbours on the vocabulary items listed in the last paragraph, asking ‘have you come across this expression, can you define it, have you ever used it yourself?’, I suspect that only one item—‘Brexit’—would get affirmative answers across the board). It also imposes artificial temporal boundaries on a much messier reality: though some notable linguistic developments can be tied to specific events and dates, most don’t fit neatly into a single year or even a decade. In addition, the search for zeitgeist-defining terms encourages a focus on what’s new or what’s changed, though arguably it’s no less important (and may even be more revealing) to consider what has stayed the same.

That last point will be reflected in my own attempt to summarise the decade. When I look at this blog’s archive (over 100 posts going back to 2015) I see more continuity than change. The specifics differ from year to year, but the same general themes recur; and I’m sure they would have featured just as prominently if I’d started blogging in 2010. So, in this post I’m going to pick out (in no particular order) my top five recurring themes, using the way they presented themselves in 2019 as a starting point for some reflections on what has—or hasn’t—changed during the 2010s.

1. The return of crass sexism

In January this year, after belatedly learning that she had died, I wrote a post about the writer and editor Marie Shear, who will be remembered for her definition of feminism as ‘the radical notion that women are people’. She was also a sharp and uncompromising critic of sexist language, and the author of a widely-read piece which described what she called its ‘daily toll’: a continual insidious wearing down of women’s dignity and self-esteem whose cumulative effects she thought were too often underestimated.

Shear wrote this piece in 2010, at a time when sexist language had become an unfashionable topic. In the noughties some writers had argued that the overt sexism feminists had criticised in the 1970s was no longer a major issue: it survived only among ageing dinosaurs (like the surgeon in Shear’s opening anecdote) who would not walk the earth for much longer. Attention had turned to the subtler forms of sexism that were said to be more typical of the postmodern, ‘postfeminist’ era. But while postmodern sexism is still a thing (particularly in advertising and branding), the 2010s turned out to be the decade in which crassly sexist and misogynist language returned with a vengeance to the public sphere.

I say ‘with a vengeance’ because the crassness was more extreme this time around. In the past, the norms of mainstream public discourse discouraged the grossest expressions of contempt for women—they were reserved for taboo-busting radio shock jocks and men talking among themselves. But the 2010s saw the rise of public figures–most notably populist ‘strongman’ leaders like Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte–whose speech was not constrained by older notions of decorum (or gravitas, or honesty, or any other traditional public virtue). Crude misogyny is part of these men’s brand: I’ll leave aside Trump’s infamous reference to ‘grabbing [women] by the pussy’, since it wasn’t intended for public consumption; but think of his comment, made on CNN in 2015, that the journalist Megyn Kelly ‘had blood coming out of her wherever’ (her offence had been to question Trump about his earlier references to women as ‘dogs’ and ‘fat pigs’). In 2019 Britain got its own imitation strongman leader, Boris Johnson, who specialises in the crass sexism of the public school playground, denouncing his (male) opponents as ‘girly swots’ and ‘big girls’ blouses’.

But you didn’t have to be a political leader to broadcast male supremacist messages to a global audience. The internet gave ‘ordinary’ men with a grudge against women—incels, pick-up artists, MGTOWs et al—a megaphone for their misogyny (and for the violent fantasies which some of them, like Alek Minassian, would go on to enact in reality, making 2018 the year when mainstream, nonfeminist commentators started to talk about  ‘incels’, ‘misogyny’ and ‘toxic masculinity’). Not dissimilar messages also circulated under the banner of ‘harmless fun’. For instance, one of the items I reproduced in a post about greeting cards this year bore the message: ‘Women. Can’t live with them, can’t shoot them and bury them in the garden’. Which brings me to the second major theme of the decade…

2. The linguistic (mis)representation of sexual violence

Any feminist survey of the 2010s will be bound to treat the #MeToo movement as one of the most significant developments, if not the most significant, of the last ten years (the hashtag would be an obvious candidate for the feminist Word of the Decade.) But #MeToo also dramatized what for me was probably the most troubling linguistic trend of the decade: an increasingly marked reluctance on the part of institutions—educational establishments, the criminal justice system and above all the media—to name sexual violence and those who perpetrate it without equivocation, euphemism and overt or covert victim-blaming.

In 2017 and 2018, as #MeToo allegations multiplied, the media converged on a couple of phrases which were repeated ad infinitum: the whole spectrum of abuse, up to and including rape, was now covered (or covered up) by the bland euphemisms ‘inappropriate behaviour’ and ‘sexual misconduct’. This vague, affectless language was a boon to anyone who wanted to argue that the women making allegations were lying, exaggerating, reframing consensual exchanges of sexual for professional favours as abuse, or simply making a fuss about nothing (‘can’t men even flirt now without being accused of misconduct?’)

In 2019 we saw a similar pattern in reports on the case of Jeffrey Epstein, who was charged with child abuse and trafficking (though he killed himself in prison before he could stand trial). Oxymoronic terms like ‘underage women’ were used to describe girls who at the time were 14 or 15; and when attention turned, after Epstein’s death, to the actions of other men the victims had named, the words ‘rape’, ‘assault’ and ‘abuse’ were conspicuous by their absence.

Earlier in the year, most news outlets had even resisted using those words without qualification when reporting on the case of a severely disabled woman who unexpectedly gave birth in the care facility where she had spent most of her life. Though she could only have become pregnant as the result of a criminal assault—her vegetative state rendered her legally and medically incapable of consenting to sex (and also of lying about it)—reporters’ first impulse was still to hedge their statements with doubt-indicating words like ‘alleged’, ‘apparent’ and ‘possible’.

But in the last part of 2019 there were some memorable protests in which feminists harnessed the power of the R-word. In Spain, women who were disgusted by the verdict in a gang-rape case—the perpetrators were convicted only of ‘abuse’, because they had not used physical force against their barely-conscious victim—took to the streets to protest, shouting ‘no es abuso, es violación’ (‘it’s not abuse, it’s rape’). And in Chile on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, women gathered outside the Supreme Court to perform a chant which has since been taken up around the world (its title in English is ‘The rapist in your path’), calling attention to the way individual men’s ability to rape and kill with impunity depends on a larger culture of complicity and victim-blaming.

In acknowledgment of the power of these protests, and because nothing has made me angrier this year than reading about men ‘having sex’ with 14-year olds or police investigating a ‘possible/alleged assault’ on a woman who gave birth while in a vegetative state, I choose ‘rape’ and ‘rapist’ as my words of the year for 2019.

3. Curious contradictions: the case of the authoritative woman speaker

Among the themes which have recurred in each of the four-and-a-half years of this blog’s existence are two that, taken together, embody a stark contradiction. On one hand, women are constantly castigated because their speech allegedly ‘lacks authority’: how can they expect to be taken seriously when they’re forever apologising and hedging every request with ‘just’? On the other hand, women who do speak with authority are constantly criticised for being ‘angry’, ‘abrasive’, ‘arrogant’, ‘bossy’, ‘immodest’, ‘shrill‘, ‘strident’ and generally ‘unlikable’.

This familiar contradiction was on show again this year. We had more of the same old bullshit about ‘sorry’, ‘just’ and other female ‘verbal tics’, and more complaints about high-profile women leaders being ‘strident’ (teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg), bossy and ‘self-righteous’ (Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson), ‘angry’ (Democratic presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris) and ‘unlikable’ (every woman in the race for the Democratic nomination).

More unusually, two women—Marie Yovanovitch and Fiona Hill—attracted praise for their authoritative testimony during the proceedings that led to Donald Trump’s impeachment by the US House of Representatives. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is a sign of things to come. The positive reception Yovanovitch and Hill got was linked to their status as non-partisan public servants, and the same courtesy is unlikely to be extended to any of the female politicians who are still in the running for next year’s presidential election. It’s one thing for a woman to have authority thrust upon her, but actively seeking it is a different matter. Powerful and politically outspoken women will still, I predict, be ‘unlikable’ in 2020.

4. Studies show that women are rubbish

The training course where women executives at the accounting firm Ernst & Young learned that women’s brains are like pancakes and men’s are more like waffles (as reported in October by the Huffington Post) almost certainly wasn’t based on any actual science (or if it was, whoever designed the course should get the Allen and Barbara Pease Memorial Award for Neurobollocks). But while science can’t be held responsible for all the sexist drivel that gets talked in its name, it shouldn’t get a free pass either.

In the 90s and noughties we were endlessly told that women were naturally better communicators than men, but in the 2010s there’s been something of a shift: there are, it transpires, certain kinds of communication in which it’s men who are hard-wired to excel. This year, for instance, a widely-reported meta-analytic study put together the findings of 28 experiments investigating the proposition that men are better than women at using language to make others laugh. The conclusion was that men really do have more ‘humor ability’ than women, probably because this ability is ‘correlated with intelligence’, and as such is a useful diagnostic when females assess the fitness of potential mates. (Ah, evolutionary psychology: a 90s/noughties trend which sadly didn’t die in the 2010s.)

It isn’t hard to pick holes in these studies; but while it’s important to interrogate specific claims about why women are rubbish at [fill in the blank], we also need to ask more basic questions about why so much research of this kind gets done in the first place. What interests are served by this unceasing quest for evidence that sex-stereotypes and the judgments based upon them reflect innate differences in the abilities and aptitudes of men and women?

Another study published this year on the subject of gender and humour found that women who used humour in a professional context were perceived to be lacking in competence and commitment. This had nothing to do with their ‘humor ability’: in this study, subjects watched either a man or a woman (both actors) giving exactly the same scripted presentation, complete with identical jokes. But whereas the man’s humour was perceived as enhancing his professional effectiveness, the woman’s was perceived as detracting from it.

What this illustrates is the general principle that the same verbal behaviour will attract different judgments depending on the speaker’s sex. Judgments about women and humour are similar to judgments about authoritative female speakers, and they embody the same contradiction: women are widely disparaged for lacking humour, but those who don’t lack humour are disparaged as incompetent lightweights. What explains this effect–‘heads men win, tails women lose’–isn’t women’s behaviour or their natural abilities: it’s a consequence of sexism, which science too often reinforces.

5. The War of the W-word

In my round-up of 2018 I wrote at length about the increasingly contested status of the word ‘woman’, whose definition, use, avoidance and even spelling prompted heated arguments throughout the year. This isn’t totally unprecedented: as I’ve said before (beginning in my very first post), the W-word has a longer record of causing controversy than many people realise. But its current contentiousness is linked to something that is specific to the 2010s—the rise of a new politics of gender identity, which has also influenced language in other ways. It’s a development that divides feminists, and the kind of conflict we saw so much of in 2018 will undoubtedly continue in the 2020s.

In 2019, however, the most notable controversy about ‘woman’ was much more old-school. It started when the feminist Maria Beatrice Giovanardi was looking for a name for a women’s rights project she was working on. In search of inspiration she typed the word ‘woman’ into Google, and was shocked when her search returned a series of online dictionary entries full of offensive synonyms (‘bitch’, ‘chick’, ‘filly’) and insultingly sexist examples of usage (‘one of his sophisticated London women’; ‘male fisherfolk who take their catch home for the little woman to gut’). When Giovanardi started a petition calling on Oxford Dictionaries to change their entry, her intervention attracted extensive media interest, and by September the petition had over 30,000 signatures.

This is a good illustration of the point I made earlier—that the advent of new concerns does not mean the old ones become irrelevant. What Giovanardi drew attention to is one of many examples of the quiet survival of ‘banal sexism’, the kind of tediously familiar, low-level stuff whose ‘daily toll’ Marie Shear warned us not to underestimate. In the past five years I have come to agree with Shear. It’s striking to me that many of the most popular posts on this blog have been about things that would never register on any trend spotter’s radar: old chestnuts like ‘should women take their husband’s names?’, and ‘does swearing make women unattractive?’, which I could equally have written about at any time in the last 40 years, are still significant issues for many women. If feminism had started a linguistic to-do list in 1975, it would certainly be a lot longer now, but very few of the original items would actually have been crossed off.

So am I saying the next decade will look a lot like the last one? Yes: though change is a constant, in language and in life, what we mostly see is evolution, not revolution. That was true in the 2010s, and—barring some catastrophe that puts an end to civilisation as we know it—it will also be true in the 2020s. I know that’s not much of a prediction, and maybe not the happiest of thoughts when you look at the current state of the world, but there it is: we are where we are, and all we can do is keep going. I wish readers of this blog a happy new year/new decade (thanks as always to all the other feminists and/or linguists whose work I’ve drawn on in 2019), and I’ll see you on the other side.

Out of humour

I say I say I say, have you heard the one about a new study showing that men are funnier than women? Probably, because every media outlet in the universe has picked it up and rehashed it, from the BBC and Science Daily to Malaysia News and Reddit. Which is no surprise, because it’s a gift to the media, a perfect example of ‘soundbite science’. But if you read this blog regularly you will also have heard the one about why it pays to take a closer look at these sex-difference stories. And guess what, I’m going to tell that one again.

I’ll start by summarising the research itself, as described by one of the researchers, Gil Greengross, in Psychology Today. What he and his colleagues did was a meta-analysis: rather than carrying out their own experiment, they combined the statistical findings of 28 previous studies and calculated the overall size of the effect they were interested in, which was the effect of gender on funniness—or as they called it, ‘humor ability’.

In the studies they selected, one set of experimental subjects had been given some cartoons and asked to come up with amusing captions; another set of subjects then rated the funniness of each caption on a numerical scale. Crucially, the raters didn’t know if the caption they were reading had been written by a man or a woman. If they’d known, their judgments could have been influenced by the stereotype of women as less funny than men. The studies had been designed to investigate whether there was any basis for that stereotype. Would women still be judged less funny by people who had no way of knowing they were women?

The short answer turned out to be ‘yes’. As the Psychology Today piece explains,

In statistical technical terms, the effect size was 0.32, or roughly one-third of the standard deviation. In plain English, this means that 63 percent of men score above the mean humor ability of women. This is considered a small to medium difference.

Evidently aware that such findings often attract criticism, and are frequently misinterpreted, Greengross goes on to assure us that yes, they did look for possible confounding factors (e.g., if there were cultural differences which calculations based on aggregated data were masking, or if there were more male than female raters, which might skew the ratings in men’s favour because men prefer the humour of other men); and no, they weren’t saying that all men are funnier than all women. Some women are very funny, and the most successful female comedians are funnier than 99% of men. Their claim was only that men on average are funnier than women on average.

Greengross then turns to the question of why that might be the case, and tells a story I have discussed on this blog before, in fact more than once, because it features in some accounts of the evolution of human language. It’s about sexual selection, the concept developed by Darwin to explain evolved traits like the peacock’s tail, which can’t have been selected because it made the bird better adapted to its environment (it’s hard to fly away from predators trailing that monster); rather it was favoured because it was attractive to potential mates, ensuring that big-tailed peacocks passed their genes to more offspring.

Peacocks are animals that ‘lek’, display themselves at mating time so that peahens can judge their fitness. The idea is that being funny serves a similar purpose for humans: it’s a form of display put on by men so women can assess how good they’ll be as mates. ‘Humor’, Greengross notes, ‘is strongly correlated with intelligence’. He also reminds us that women advertising on dating sites often mention humour as an important quality in men, whereas men are less interested in whether a woman is funny.  The principle that ‘males do the courting and females do the choosing’ explains why ‘humor ability’ has been selected for in male humans, but not in females, whose reproductive success is not enhanced by it.

This explanation presupposes that ‘humor ability’ has a significant genetic component; but couldn’t being funny be a learned skill which is more common or better developed in men because they get more opportunity or encouragement to practise it? The researchers, it transpires, did consider that possibility, but they dismissed it on the grounds that

There is minimal evidence to support the view that our society suppresses women from producing and exhibiting humor.

Mate, stop it, my sides are going to split—because this has to be a joke, right? You do realise that there’s a long tradition of discourse, both expert and popular, which ‘suppresses women from producing humor’ by telling them that they’re no good at it, it’s unfeminine, and men don’t find it attractive; and you do understand that YOUR OWN STUDY SITS SQUARELY IN THAT TRADITION? Oh, and while we’re on the subject, it presumably hasn’t escaped your notice that saying ‘men have more humor ability than women’ followed by ‘humor is highly correlated with intelligence’ will lead a lot of people to deduce the proposition ‘men are more intelligent than women’—which you wouldn’t be suggesting in all seriousness, would you?

So far I haven’t questioned the central claim made for this meta-analysis: that it confirms the robustness of the effect it investigated (i.e., sex affects funniness and men are funnier than women). Here are a few reasons why I think that claim needs to be at least qualified, and possibly rejected.

First, the studies used in the meta-analysis were chosen because they investigated the same question using a similar experimental design, which elicited evidence of people’s ‘humor ability’ by asking them to write funny captions for cartoon images. Presumably this task was used because it’s something you can get people to do in a lab, and because a written caption does not reveal the writer’s sex (whereas a recording of them telling a joke or a funny story would). But how good a proxy is captioning cartoons for the general ability to be funny?

I would say, not very good. Most everyday humour is produced spontaneously in the course of interaction, typically with people you know, like and have things in common with, and whose reactions guide your performance from moment to moment. The lab cartoon-captioning task reproduces none of these features. It requires subjects to be funny on command (not spontaneously), in isolation (not in a social group) and in writing (not speech), for an absent audience of strangers whose reactions they can only guess at. To me that makes it a dubious basis on which to generalise about ‘humor ability’. At best, the analysis shows that in lab conditions men write funnier cartoon captions than women—not that they’re funnier across the board.

Second, the finding that men are funnier than women is based on averaging the numerical scores given to subjects’ captions by the judges. But what do these numbers correspond to? Clearly, judges’ ratings must reflect their subjective response to a caption, but how, if at all, does that response relate to the caption-writer’s abilities? The problem is that there’s a lot of variation, individual as well as cultural, in what people find funny. If a judge rates one caption as a 2 and another as a 4, is that because of some objective quality of the two captions—the second is simply funnier than the first–or does it just reflect the judge’s preference for certain kinds of jokes over others? In short, can we have any confidence that these numbers are a useful measure of ‘humor ability’?

I’m sceptical, to be honest. I’m not convinced there’s such a thing as ‘humor ability’, and if there is, as I’ve already said, I have trouble seeing the very specific skill of writing funny cartoon captions as a fair test of it. It’s a test most of us would probably fail: back in 2011, in a Psychology Today piece criticising one of these studies, Ben Hayden noted that the commonest score awarded to captions, regardless of the writer’s sex, had been 1, which meant ‘not funny at all’. ‘That indicates’, he comments, that ‘the experimental subjects were not well-matched to the test—they were just swinging wildly’. They were like the proverbial roomful of typing monkeys, only in the field of cartoon-captioning rather than Shakespearean drama.

Third, even if we do trust the numbers, what the meta-analysis reports is only, as Greengross acknowledges, a ‘small to medium difference’. The effect-sizes reported in meta-analytic studies are generally described using a scale that goes from very small/slight to very large, so this effect isn’t even at the mid-point: to put it in context, it’s smaller than the reported effect of sex on spelling accuracy, and much smaller than the reported effect of sex on the distance someone can throw an object. As sex-differences go, it’s not a biggie. (Yet another ‘men are funnier’ study discussed in Psychology Today in 2011 found a difference so slight that even one of the authors described it as ‘just on the edge of detectability’–and he meant, by using statistical methods, not just observation.) Even liberally sprinkled with the words ‘on average’, the statement ‘men are funnier than women’ gives a misleading impression, because what ‘funnier’ means to most people is ‘noticeably funnier’: it implies a difference large enough to be significant in the ordinary rather than the purely statistical sense.

There are, then, a number of reasons to query the presentation of this meta-analysis as  clear confirmation that ‘men are funnier than women’. But my biggest problem with it isn’t the design of the studies analysed, the conclusions drawn by the researchers, or the exaggeration of their significance by the media: it’s the fact that this kind of research is seen as worth doing in the first place.

Think about it: in what other case would anyone design a study to investigate whether there’s a basis for some entrenched negative stereotype of a social group? ‘Is it true that poor people are lazier than rich ones?’ Nope. ‘Are Jews/Scots/Yorkshiremen really meaner than other people with money?’ Nope to the nth power. It would be utterly offensive: no one would fund it and the ethics committee would never approve it. Sex-differences, though, are always potential research fodder. And when the frame, as in this case, is evolutionary psychology, they will always turn out to be explained by the supposed—though in reality often misrepresented–activities of prehistoric hunter-gatherers, and beyond that, by the irreducible difference between the sperm and the egg.

Actually, let me go back a step: it’s not true that all sex-differences are potential research fodder. As Caroline Criado Perez shows in her book Invisible Women, in many areas where women are consequentially different from men, whether it’s the way their bodies respond to drugs or their patterns of travel on public transport, there’s a huge data gap because the differences have not been investigated systematically. Research that would have a positive effect on women’s lives does not get done; yet there’s always room for one more study explaining that women are rubbish at something—maths, map reading, being funny–because biology. (Or alternatively, that women are better than men at something trivial or menial, like nappy-changing or keeping track of people’s birthdays.)

I hope what I’ve just said explains why I think it’s important to challenge claims like ‘men are (on average) funnier than women’. In fact, as I’ve said before, I think the way we talk about who is or isn’t funny matters in its own right: the proposition that ‘Xs have no sense of humour’ has a long history of being used to dehumanise the group in question, and ‘Xs aren’t as funny as Ys’ can also, as noted earlier, be code for ‘they’re not as intelligent’. But even when the difference under discussion really is trivial (for instance, a study once found that female shoppers spend more time browsing than their male counterparts—like their prehistoric ancestors they are natural foragers, whereas men are mighty hunters), it must be seen as part of a larger enterprise, in which the point of cataloguing sex-differences is ultimately to affirm that the sexes are not just different, they are different in ways that make equality a pipe-dream. The meta-message being communicated is ‘women, know your limits’.

Whenever we hear this message we should remember that the whole history of feminism is a story of women refusing to accept the limits imposed by their societies—limits which have always been represented as ‘natural’ rather than man-made. Once, scientists maintained that if women were admitted to universities, the intellectual stress would cause their ovaries to shrivel. Now we recognise that as just self-serving male chauvinist nonsense. The claims made by many scientists today are destined to end up in the same dustbin. Let’s use our intelligence and our ‘humor ability’ to speed them on their way.

Broad men and narrow women: the perils of soundbite science

Last week a few people asked me what I made of a new study that was generating some interest on social media. At the time I hadn’t read it: I only knew Nature had reported it under a headline–‘Male researchers’ “vague” language more likely to win grants’–that made it sound both baffling (why would scientists get points for being vague?) and infuriating (as usual, it seemed to be men who were benefiting and women who were losing out). So I decided to investigate further, and then share my conclusions in this post.

The study was conducted by researchers at the US National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), and their write-up is available as an NBER Working Paper. The data they analysed consisted of 6794 grant applications submitted to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which operates a policy of anonymous reviewing. Because reviewers weren’t told whether applicants were men or women, the researchers assumed that any gender differences in success rates could not be the result of direct discrimination. Whatever was leading reviewers to favour men must be contained in the application itself. And since most of a grant application consists of words, they decided to look for gender-differentiated patterns of word-use.

What their analysis revealed was a tendency for reviewers to give higher scores to applications that contained ‘broad’ words and lower scores to those that used ‘narrow’ words. Since broad words were used more frequently in men’s proposals, while narrow words appeared more often in women’s, this preference for broad over narrow words was also a preference for male- over female-authored applications. The researchers found no reason to think that broad words were associated with better proposals. When they looked at what applicants had gone on to achieve, the words used in their proposals appeared to be a poor predictor of research quality. Overall, then, the study’s conclusion was as infuriating as the Nature headline suggested: men whose research was objectively no better than women’s were receiving more funding from the Gates Foundation because reviewers preferred a particular style of grant writing.

One question the researchers didn’t attempt to answer was why men and women writing grant proposals might favour, respectively, ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’ words. But many people who commented on their findings thought the answer was obvious: simply and bluntly put, men–or at least a higher proportion of men–are bullshitters. Whereas women offer specific, realistic accounts of what they think their research can deliver, men have fewer inhibitions about making sweeping, grandiose claims.

This take is an example of a common interpretive strategy. If you present people with a generalization about language and gender—especially one whose significance isn’t immediately obvious—they will often try to make sense of it by invoking some other, more generic gender stereotype. In this case what they did was map the alleged linguistic difference (‘men use broad words, women use narrow words’) onto a higher-level, more familiar male-female opposition: ‘men are over-confident, women are over-cautious’.

You might ask: what’s wrong with that? Stereotypes aren’t always false: there’s plenty of other research you could cite in support of the thesis that men are over-confident (for instance, experimental studies showing that male test-takers consistently overestimate how well they’ve done, or the fact that men are more likely than women to apply for jobs when they don’t meet the advertised criteria). I don’t dispute any of that: in fact, I agree that ‘men are over-confident and women are over-cautious’ captures a real and significant cultural tendency. But there are, nevertheless, some problems with using it to explain the findings of this study.

One general problem is that you can use the same interpretive strategy to explain pretty much any set of findings, including made up ones. Suppose I told you the study had found that men use narrow words and women use broad words (i.e., the opposite of what it actually found). You’d be able to come up with an equally plausible explanation for that (non) finding just by switching to a different gender stereotype. Instead of ‘men use broad words because they’re overconfident bullshitters’ you might suggest that ‘women use broad words because they’re more attuned to their readers’ needs’; or ‘men use narrow words to show off their expert knowledge’. Since the supply of gender stereotypes is inexhaustible, there’s no statement of the form ‘men do x and women do y’ that can’t be slotted into this explanatory frame.

In the case of the NBER study, though, there’s a more specific problem with explaining men’s use of broad words as a linguistic manifestation of their over-confidence. When the researchers use the terms ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’, they don’t mean what people have assumed they mean (i.e., what the words would mean in ordinary English).

By way of illustration, here’s a list of six words taken from the study: three of them were classified as ‘broad’ and the other three as ‘narrow’. Which do you think are which?

  1. bacteria
  2. brain
  3. community
  4. detection
  5. health
  6. therapy

My guess is that you defined words as ‘broad’ if they were just basic, everyday vocabulary, and ‘narrow’ if they were a bit more abstract and technical. On that basis you probably categorised ‘health, ‘brain’ and ‘community’ as broad and ‘bacteria’, ‘detection’ and ‘therapy’ as narrow. That wasn’t, however, what the researchers did. Their definition wasn’t based on the characteristics of the words themselves, but on their frequency and distribution in the sample. Broad words were those that occurred in proposals on a wide range of different research topics; narrow words were restricted to proposals on a particular topic. By those criteria, ‘bacteria’, ‘detection’ and ‘therapy’ were broad, whereas ‘brain, community’ and ‘health’ were narrow.

If you think these definitions are confusing, I agree: the researchers might have done better to choose a different pair of terms (like, say, ‘core words’ and ‘peripheral words’). But once you’ve understood how they made their broad/narrow distinction and looked at the words in each category, it becomes difficult to argue that what’s behind the gender difference is men’s propensity for writing grandiose bullshit and women’s dogged attention to detail. (Is ‘health’ more precise than ‘bacteria’? Is ‘therapy’ vaguer than ‘brain’, or more grandiose than ‘community’?)

The fact that so much discussion revolved around the question of explanation suggests that most people had simply accepted the findings themselves at face value. This always bothers me: in my view, any claim that men use language in one way and women use it in another should be approached with a degree of scepticism. And that’s especially true if what you’re basing your assessment on is a report in the media. For obvious reasons, the media pay most attention to studies whose findings will make an eye-catching headline or a killer soundbite; this means they have a bias towards research which makes bold rather than cautious claims (stories like ‘men and women fairly similar, study shows’, or ‘we looked, but we didn’t find anything’, are not exactly clickbait). But for feminist sceptics it’s always worth asking whether the finding everyone’s talking about is supported by any other evidence. Have other researchers found the same thing? Or have they asked similar questions and come up with different answers?

There is, in fact, other research investigating the influence of writing style on grant decisions. Earlier this year, the Journal of Language and Social Psychology published an analysis of the language used in a sample of nearly 20,000 abstracts taken from research proposals submitted to the US National Science Foundation. This study considered only successful applications, taking the amount of funding applicants had been awarded as a measure of how positively their proposals had been assessed. It found there was a relationship between the funding researchers received and the language used in their proposal abstracts, but the linguistic features which made a difference were not the same ones the NBER study identified. The NSF gave more money to applicants whose abstracts were longer than average, contained fewer common words, and were written with ‘more verbal certainty’.

But I’m not just lamenting the uncritical reception of the NBER findings on general scientific principles. It also bothers me because I know how easy it is to propagate myths about the way men and women use language. ‘Men use broad words and women use narrow words’ is exactly the sort of thing that gets mythologized–detached from its original context (a study in which, as I’ve already pointed out, it meant something completely different from what most people thought) and repeated without elaboration in dozens of other sources, until eventually it turns into one of those zombie facts–like ‘Eskimos have a lot of words for snow’, or ‘women utter three times as many words per day as men’–that refuse to die no matter how many times they’re debunked.

If it does become part of our collective folk-wisdom on this subject, there’s every chance that ‘men use broad words, women use narrow words’ will also be filtered through the kind of deficit thinking which sees whatever women do with language as a problem in need of remedial intervention. Using ‘narrow’ words could join over-apologizing, hedging and tilting your head on the list of bad habits which are said to hold women back, and which it then becomes women’s responsibility to fix. (I can already imagine the TED talks exhorting women to ‘think broad’, and the workshops for female grant applicants on ‘choosing the right words’.)

To be fair to the authors of the NBER study, that isn’t what they think should happen. As they see it, it’s the reviewers who need training: their bias towards certain ways of writing elevates style over substance and leads to less than optimal funding decisions. But it’s hard for researchers to control what people make of, or what they do with,  findings that have entered the public domain. Even a study that was intended to be part of the solution can end up becoming part of the problem.

This is a dilemma for everyone who researches or writes about language and gender, myself included. Whenever I criticise some questionable claim or mistaken belief, I’m aware that I could be amplifying it just by giving it airtime. Though I’m only repeating it to explain the arguments against it, those arguments won’t necessarily be what people take away. But as you’ll have noticed, that hasn’t caused me to retreat into silence. I do believe that knowledge can set us free–but only if we’re willing to interrogate it critically.

 

Making words count: a review of Christina Dalcher’s Vox

In 2006, a pop-science book called The Female Brain informed readers that the average woman utters 20,000 words a day to the average man’s 7000. This was the latest in a long line of similar male-versus-female-words-per-day claims. Before 2006, one oft-repeated figure was 7000 words a day for women and only 2000 for men. Other sources suggested 12,000 words per day for men and 30,000 for women, or 25,000 for men and 50,000 for women. All these statistics are still floating around the internet, though none of them is backed up by any credible evidence. It’s obvious such wildly varying numbers can’t all be right, but that hasn’t diminished the popular appeal of the basic point they were all designed to make, namely ‘women utter at least twice as many words in a day as men’.

The general belief that women talk more than men is as ancient as it is inaccurate, but this particular variant of it—what the linguist and blogger Mark Liberman once dubbed ‘the sex-linked vocabulary allowance idea’—seems to have originated much more recently. One of the earliest examples Liberman found appeared in a 1993 book about Christian marriage, James Dobson’s Love for a Lifetime, which suggested that God had given men and women different daily word-budgets. The point was (as it usually was in the 1990s, the decade that brought us Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus) that harmonious marital relationships required each sex to accommodate the other’s difference. But there is, of course, another interpretation of God’s wishes in this matter, which is particularly popular among Christian fundamentalists: that a good woman is sparing in her use of words, if not completely silent. And this ultra-patriarchal version of the sex-linked vocabulary allowance idea has now become the premise for a piece of feminist speculative fiction, Christina Dalcher’s novel Vox.

The narrator and main protagonist of Vox is Jean McClellan, a neurolinguist who has made significant advances in the treatment of aphasia. But when we meet her, her career has come to an abrupt halt, following the rise to power of the Pure Movement, which has turned the US into a Christian theocracy. Women have been stripped of their civil rights, placed under male guardianship and sent home to do their Christian duty as full-time housewives and mothers (or in the case of lesbians and other ‘deviants’, shipped off to do hard labour in prison camps).

If you’re thinking this sounds familiar, you’re not wrong: essentially we’re in Gilead without the fertility crisis. The resemblance to The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t stop with the basic scenario (a near-future USA that’s been taken over by religious fanatics). Vox also features a similar cast of characters: there’s the Offred-style heroine who didn’t care about politics until her rights were taken away, the Moira-like BFF (Jackie, a perpetually-outraged feminist who went to graduate school with Jean), the nice-but-weak husband who’s reluctant to rock the boat, and the daughter our heroine would do anything to protect. It’s hard to quarrel with the reviewers who have found the book a tad derivative (one can only hope Margaret Atwood agrees that emulation is the sincerest form of flattery). But what does distinguish it from Atwood’s classic is the use Dalcher makes of the sex-linked vocabulary allowance idea.

In Vox-world, every female over three months of age must wear a bracelet around her wrist which automatically counts the words she utters. Her daily allowance is 100 words (reduced to zero for those sent to labour camps). If she exceeds it by even one word the bracelet will deliver an electric shock, and the higher her word-count climbs, the more intense the shocks become. She cannot get around this by using sign language, which those who monitor the omnipresent surveillance cameras are instructed to look out for. Nor can she resort to writing: books, pens, paper and computers are all locked away, and only the males in each household have access to them. Girls like Sonia, the youngest of Jean’s four children, are no longer taught to read and write. They are schooled only in home economics—cooking, sewing, and as much arithmetic as you need to manage a housekeeping budget.

There is nothing especially startling about a fictional dystopia where women are denied access to literacy, since this is far from unheard of in the real world. Women are also forbidden to read in Atwood’s Gilead. But the rationing of their spoken output to 100 words per day is a much bolder stroke. voxTo put it in context: in 2007, after Mark Liberman had drawn attention to the popular fascination with unsupported and wildly variable words-per-day claims, a team of researchers in Arizona decided to investigate the issue scientifically. They reported that the mean number of words uttered per day was around 16,000. (There were large differences between individuals, but very little difference in the group averages for the two sexes: the female mean was slightly higher than the male one, but the difference was not statistically significant.) If we take this study’s findings as a rough guide, and if we assume people spend eight hours silently sleeping, the average speaker produces about a thousand words per hour. And if you think that sounds like a lot, a normal rate of (American English) speech is somewhere between 100 and 200 words per minute.

Clearly, 100 words is a negligible number: most of us could get through it in less than 60 seconds of continuous talk. Of course it’s true that most everyday speech is conversation rather than monologue. But an allowance of only 100 words a day would rule out any kind of sustained interaction. There would be no chatting with friends, helping the kids with their homework or arguing with your spouse. If, like Jean, you had a husband and four children, you could easily use up your entire daily ration saying things as banal as ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘stop that’ and ‘it’s in the fridge’.  Even then, you’d have to weigh every word with care before you committed yourself to speaking it aloud. When your budgeting could be derailed by a cry of surprise, a false start or a self-correction, spontaneity would soon become an unaffordable luxury. Would this level of self-monitoring ever become second nature, or would women end up feeling that it would be easier not to talk at all?

Though I’d probably have read this book for the same reason I went to see Arrival—just because its central character is a linguist—it was the 100-words-a-day conceit that really piqued my interest. It’s a brilliantly simple ‘what if?’: what if men’s age-old complaints about women nagging and scolding and gossiping and chattering were rendered obsolete at a stroke, using a device not much more complicated than a Fitbit? It raises interesting questions taken on its own terms (how would women cope, and what would the long-term effects be?) while also prompting reflection on our own attitudes to women’s speech. As an idea I still think it’s inspired; I just wish that Dalcher had allowed herself to really run with it.

One theme I think she does handle well is the way women are made complicit by their desire to protect their daughters. Before Sonia is old enough to understand the concept of a word limit, Jean uses behaviourist techniques to train her to stay within it. She models ‘good’ behaviour by speaking minimally or not at all, and systematically rewards the same behaviour in her daughter with praise, affection and treats. But Sonia doesn’t know her mother is trying to spare her the pain of an electric shock. The lesson she is learning is that the less a girl speaks, the more she will be loved. One day she comes home from school bursting with pride because she has won a competition for the pupil with the fewest words on her counter (her tally is a paltry three). She can’t understand why Jean does not seem to share her joy.

There are uncomfortable parallels here with our own world. Our aims may be less explicit and our methods less crude, but as a society we also teach girls to mind their language and reward them for complying with gendered expectations (be quiet, be nice, be a good listener). And while we don’t dole out electric shocks to girls and women who express themselves too freely, we certainly have ways of punishing them, which cover a spectrum from disapproval and shaming to threatened and actual violence.

But other questions you might expect to be explored are either raised and then quickly dropped, or else bypassed altogether. One of these concerns the long-term social consequences of reducing women to near-silence. Following their expulsion from the workforce, women have become, to an even greater extent than before, the primary carers for young children, while conversely fathers have become even less hands-on (getting rid of all the women forces the men to work punishing hours). But normal linguistic and cognitive development does not take place without adequate input, as we know from case-studies of abused and neglected children. How will children acquire language in future if their daily input during the crucial early years is limited to the 100 words their mothers are allowed to utter?  The leaders of the Pure Movement (not unlike most politicians in our own world) overlook the extent to which all functioning societies depend on the unpaid care work done by women, including and especially the work of socializing new humans. Will the attempt to stop women talking end up destroying language itself?

Another question is whether people deprived of articulate speech would develop compensatory strategies and alternative modes of communication. VOX-cover-683x1024The abused child known in the literature as ‘Genie’, who spent her early years in isolation and enforced silence, and whose verbal abilities remained very limited, had a remarkable ability to communicate without words—to the point where total strangers would approach her carers in shops, offering items which they said they had somehow intuited her desire for. The urge to communicate is strong in most humans: it seems odd to me that the women in Vox have not become as adept as Genie at communicating nonverbally, or devised codes exploiting the semiotic resources they do still have access to–like non-linguistic vocalisation (e.g. wordless singing or humming), head movements, or touch.

One reason Dalcher doesn’t follow up on all the questions she might fruitfully have explored is that she doesn’t stick to the conventions of the dystopia genre for long enough. The book gradually turns into a thriller, building up to a climactic showdown between the good guys, a team of scientists led by Jean, and the bad guys of the Pure Movement.  This part of the story begins when the government approaches Jean to work on a secret project that requires her expertise. As the work progresses, she discovers two important things: one is the Pure Movement’s real plan for her aphasia cure (which is, it goes without saying, of the dastardly variety), while the other is the existence of an organised resistance movement. Helped by the latter, she embarks on a mission to foil the former.

The shift into thriller mode is another reason why the book has attracted criticism from reviewers. As the Washington Post commented, the trick with speculative fiction is to maintain plausibility within the parameters of a basically implausible situation, and the final chapters of Vox are not remotely plausible. Characters we thought we knew turn out to have been fooling us all along, unlikely coincidences abound, and science starts to look like magic. I’m not a neurolinguist myself, but I suspect the neurolinguists I know would agree with the Post that ‘Jean’s against-the-clock medical research makes MacGyver look like Francis Crick’.

I’d thought Vox might challenge Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue for the title of Most Memorable Feminist Linguistic Dystopia, but in the event I found it disappointing. Which is not to say you shouldn’t read it: it’s good in parts, and a page-turner even when it isn’t good. It just doesn’t develop its central idea enough to give the reader what I think of as the full dystopian experience–a sense of total immersion in an alternative reality.  As a number of reviewers pointed out, though, the current state of the real world has given this genre a noticeable boost (the Washington Post‘s review was headed ‘Donald Trump has made feminist dystopias great again’). So, while Vox may not have done full justice to its subject, I’m sure it will not be the last word.

 

The year in language and feminism, Part II: selected reading

I created this blog primarily as a vehicle for my own thoughts and opinions, but what I write for it is always informed by other people’s research, and by ideas I’ve encountered in other people’s writing. So, to complement my recent review of the year, I’d like to share ten things I read in 2017 which I found interesting, informative and thought-provoking—and which aren’t too technical to be accessible to non-specialists.

Four books

Mary Beard, Women and Power: A Manifesto. A short book which takes the long view on the silencing of women in patriarchal societies.

Emma Jane, Misogyny Online: A Short (and Brutish) History. An Australian journalist turned academic researcher examines the development and impact of online misogyny, and its characteristic linguistic register ‘Rapeglish’, from 1998 to the present.

Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and tumblr to Trump and the alt-right. Before anyone was talking about the ‘alt-right’, Angela Nagle was investigating the online subcultures from which it emerged, tracking the people involved, the platforms they used, the political positions they espoused and—from a linguist’s perspective most interestingly—the evolution of their distinctive communication style. This isn’t as distinctive as we might think: it has much in common with earlier celebrations of transgression (‘kill all normies’ is reminiscent of Baudelaire’s ‘il faut épater les bourgeois’), and its emphasis on men rebelling against the domesticating influence of women recalls the leftist counter-culture of the 1960s (think Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). What this shows, Nagle argues, is that we shouldn’t equate being transgressive with being politically progressive. She thinks opponents of the ‘alt-right’ need to take a critical look at their own style of discourse.

Jennifer Sclafani, Talking Donald Trump. Another short book in which an interactional sociolinguist analyses Donald Trump’s use of spoken language during the contest for the Republican nomination. Sclafani doesn’t say much about Trump’s performance of masculinity (which became more salient after he won the nomination and was pitted against a female opponent, Hillary Clinton), but what she does do, by concentrating on small but interactionally significant details, is get beyond the linguistically superficial received wisdom (‘he’s inarticulate/ can’t construct a proper sentence/ has a vocabulary as small as his hands’) to show what’s actually distinctive (and effective) about Trump’s style of public speaking.

Six shorter reads

Language, gender and politics

Unsurprisingly, 2017 produced many reflections on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, and one issue some of these reflections addressed was the role played by gendered language in shaping responses to the candidates. Among the most intriguing approaches to the question was a dramatic experiment asking ‘What if Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had swapped genders?

Speaking while female in the workplace

Though working women in 2017 continued to be lectured about their dysfunctional ‘verbal tics’, the idea that inequality in the workplace might not be the result of women’s own linguistic shortcomings appears to be gaining more traction. The research reported in ‘A study used sensors to show that men and women are treated differently at work’ led the researchers to conclude that the problem is ‘bias, not differences in behavior’.

Representing violence against women

Watching the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which was one of the feminist cultural events of the year, prompted Emma Nagouse, who researches Biblical and contemporary rape narratives, to write ‘Handmaids and Jezebels: anaesthetising the language of sexual violence’, about the way language is used to normalise sexual violence and exploitation in the fictional world of Gilead. Later in the year it would become apparent that language serves a not dissimilar purpose in our own world. In ‘The complicated, inadequate language of sexual violence’, Constance Grady reflected on the difficult linguistic choices writers face in reporting women’s experiences of sexual harassment.

Language, gender and artificial intelligence

There was a steady stream of commentary this year on the rise of intelligent machines and what it might mean for the future of humanity. A question of interest to feminists is whether the Brave New World of AI will look any less sexist than what preceded it. In her short but pithy ‘What is a female robot?’, Gia Milinovich asked what it means to treat a  machine as ‘female’. Another memorable piece about the way gender affects human-machine relationships was ‘Siri is dying. Long live Susan Bennett’. Susan Bennett is the woman whose recorded voice was used, without her knowledge, to create the first version of Apple’s virtual assistant Siri. There’s nothing feminist about the writer’s take on her story, but for a feminist reader it contains plenty of food for thought. You could think of it as a Pygmalion narrative for the 21st century, set in a technologically advanced world where women are still seen as raw material to be shaped and improved on by male ingenuity.

Bonus: something to listen to

One of my professional sheroes, the cognitive neuroscientist Sophie Scott, gave 2017’s Royal Institution Christmas lectures for young people. In the run-up to the lectures she made this podcast, which is interesting on a range of frequently asked questions about language, evolution and the brain, and includes some trenchant debunking of  myths about male-female differences.

As Sophie Scott observes, challenging popular beliefs about men and women is an uphill struggle. Though I’ve only mentioned a few by name in this post, I want to salute all those women (and men) who have, nevertheless, persisted.

 

 

 

A memo to my co-workers

To: All staff

From: Jane Demure

Here at Words, Inc.—an acknowledged global leader in the verbal communication industry—we value diversity and strive to be inclusive. That goes without saying, which is why we say it so often. But some of us feel excluded by a left-leaning culture which only values certain points of view, while deeming others illegitimate. Important issues are not being addressed because people are afraid to speak openly about them. We should not be intimidated or shamed into silence by groupthink and political correctness. Honest discussion with those who disagree can highlight our blind spots and help us grow, which is why I wrote this document.

In the field of verbal communication we are regularly told that men have not achieved parity with women because of bias, stereotyping and rigid gender norms. I’m willing to believe there’s some truth in that, but it is far from being the whole story.

On average, men and women differ biologically in numerous ways. These differences are not just socially constructed: they are universal across human cultures, can often be related to the effects of prenatal testosterone, and are exactly what we would predict from the perspective of evolutionary psychology.

Of course, we must remember we’re dealing with averages here. I’m not suggesting that all male individuals exhibit the same characteristics, or denying there’s overlap between men and women.  But at the level of whole populations, their preferences and abilities do differ, in part due to biological causes, and these differences may explain why men are basically rubbish at verbal communication under-represented at Words, Inc.

On average, women are more verbal than men: they talk more, and attach more importance to talking. This is exactly what an evolutionary psychologist would expect, since it reflects what must have been the case while our species was evolving many thousands of years ago. Early human females had plenty of time to gossip with each other as they foraged, whereas men, the hunters, needed to stalk their prey in silence. We modern humans have inherited our prehistoric ancestors’ genes: our lifestyles may be different from theirs, but human nature doesn’t change.

Women favour (on average, of course) a co-operative, rapport-building style of verbal interaction, one which puts group consensus and conflict-avoidance above the pursuit of individual advantage.  Men’s preferred style is more aggressive, competitive and status oriented. This is why a lot of men are not very good at listening, and why they enjoy shouty arguments more than women.

All employees at Words, Inc. have highly developed verbal skills—this world-leading company does not hire the merely average—but we still need to recognise that women have a natural advantage. A large body of research confirms that girls and women on average outperform boys and men on a range of measures of verbal ability. The difference may only be very slight (some experts suggest it’s equivalent to about one tenth of one standard deviation), but when you’re a world-leading verbal communication company you can’t afford to overlook anything that might give you a competitive edge. Lowering the bar so we can hire or promote more men is bad for business, and also demoralising for the company’s female majority.

If we take proper account of all the relevant data, we will surely have to acknowledge that the marginal position occupied by men at Words, Inc. has very little, if anything, to do with anti-male bias. Apart from the fact that more women than men meet the company’s exacting standards, there’s also the question of their differing preferences and life-goals.  A lot of men just don’t want to work with words all day: it’s not where their talents and their interests lie. Of course there are some men who are capable communicators, but even they might well think that it’s easier and less stressful to do something more traditionally male, be it writing computer code or biting the heads off chickens.

Unfortunately, we as a community have allowed our left-leaning biases to cloud our thinking on this issue. In addition to the affinity we feel for underdogs in general, there’s a strong tendency among humans (especially female ones, whose brains tend to be wired more for empathy than logical thinking) to defer to men’s wishes, protect their feelings and overestimate their accomplishments. This tendency most likely evolved because men have a lot of testosterone in their system, and they’re apt to beat the shit out of anyone they think is disrespecting them.

I know some of you will find these observations distasteful or even shocking, but I’m not going to apologise for using the B-word, nor for paying attention to what research has revealed about the unalterable biological differences between the sexes. On average, men just aren’t as good as women at the kinds of things we do here—nor as passionate about the work. Maybe the reason they’re not getting ahead is because they aren’t driven to put in the long hours and the unstinting effort which success at this company requires. No one should blame men for having other priorities—that’s only natural—but nor should the rest of us be blamed for discriminating against them when it’s actually all about their own aptitudes and choices.

Another thing I’m not going to apologise for is circulating this memo to thousands of my co-workers, some of whom will inevitably be men. If you’re a man reading this, I’d just like to remind you that you shouldn’t take it personally, because that would be completely unreasonable. I recognise that some of you may have experienced discrimination in the past: ten years ago, the women who worked at Words, Inc. didn’t even pretend to think that most men were anything but inarticulate gibbons. But today we are far more enlightened. We even force everyone to spend at least two hours a year examining their unconscious biases in diversity training workshops.

That’s a good thing, of course (I value diversity, did I mention that?) but it’s possible to take it too far. Valuing diversity shouldn’t mean abandoning the principles of meritocracy, free speech and common sense. And it certainly shouldn’t mean ignoring the insights offered by science, which deals in objective facts rather than prejudices or feelings. Once we acknowledge that not all differences are socially constructed or due to discrimination, we open our eyes to a more accurate view of the human condition which is necessary if we want to solve problems.

I know a lot of people here at Words, Inc., agree with me, they just don’t dare to say so. I too have felt the fear, but I’ve decided to do it anyway. If it all goes pear-shaped, at least I’ll be remembered as someone who broke out of the ideological echo-chamber and had the courage to stand up for her unfashionable beliefs. [Presses Send and thinks of Galileo]

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Note: this post was inspired by (and in places is directly lifted from) a memo sent to his co-workers by the (now ex-) Google employee James Damore, the text of which is available here.  All the claims made in the post about sex-differences in linguistic behaviour are taken from the published (and sometimes peer-reviewed) work of real scientists, though the phrasing is my own. However, the fact that I repeat certain claims for the purposes of satire should not be taken to mean that I endorse them. (If you want to know what I really think about this body of work, this article lays it out: it also contains references for the sources I’ve used here without attribution. There’s also a (shorter and less ‘academic’) discussion in my book The Myth of Mars and Venus.)

The Google memo has prompted many non-satirical responses: among those I’ve read, the ones I’ve found most enlightening are this piece by the physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, and this one by the computer scientist Cynthia Lee.

Personally speaking

Earlier this month, when Andrea Wulf won the Royal Society’s 2016 Science Book prize for The Invention of Nature, a biography of the scientist Alexander von Humboldt, the Guardian’s John Dugdale wrote a piece headed ‘Why have women finally started winning science book prizes?’  Um, is it because they’re writing more science books than they used to? Is it because the book prize judges are finally recognising their talents? No: apparently women are being rewarded for making science personal. ‘Female science writers’, says Dugdale,

are more likely to focus on people, while their male counterparts are more likely to address a problem, a mystery or an underexplored scientific field.

Men do the difficult, sciencey stuff, while women concentrate on the human angle. It’s yet another iteration of that ancient cliché, ‘men are interested in ideas and women are interested in people’.

Apart from being sexist, this is fundamentally illogical. Why are ‘ideas’ and ‘people’ presented as mutually exclusive options? Don’t most books about science deal with both?  James Watson’s book The Double Helix certainly did: subtitled ‘A personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA’, it’s both a gripping narrative of scientific problem-solving, and a story about, as the blurb on Amazon’s website puts it, ‘brilliant scientists with great gifts, very human ambitions and bitter rivalries’. Yet somehow it’s remained an article of faith that men aren’t interested in personal stuff, and that women are interested in nothing else.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with being interested in people. What’s wrong is the belief that this is a distinctive and universal female trait. That belief persists because it does ideological work: it naturalises the division of labour that makes women responsible for taking care of others’ needs. It implies that women do this because they want to, and because it’s what they’re naturally good at. It’s an argument that’s been used both to confine women to the domestic sphere and to limit their options in the wider world. Women are good with people, so let them do care work and customer service. If they’re journalists, assign them human interest stories while men report the news. If they’re politicians, give them a ‘soft’ portfolio, like education rather than finance. And so on, ad infinitum.

The same stereotype has pervaded discussions of the way men and women use language.  Women, the story goes, talk about people and in order to make connections with people. Men, by contrast (because there’s always a contrast), talk about objects or concepts, to impart information, solve problems or display knowledge. As Deborah Tannen summed this up in her 1990 bestseller You Just Don’t Understand, men do ‘report talk’ and women do ‘rapport talk’.

Evolutionary psychologists have taken this a step further by declaring that the difference is a product of evolution. According to John Locke’s book Duels and Duets, women’s well-known love of gossip reflects the involvement of their early human ancestors in all-female mutual support networks, where they created ‘feelings of closeness through intimate disclosures about others and themselves’. Men, on the other hand, did not form mutual support networks: rather they were rivals, and their ways of talking reflected that.

Since men were selected to aggress and dominate, but could end up killing themselves, they needed a safer way of achieving their goals. Ritualized duels, using words instead of weapons, filled the bill.

It’s an axiom of evolutionary psychology that human nature doesn’t change: that’s why modern women still gossip and modern men still fight verbal duels—‘even’, Locke informs us, ‘when they are merely socializing with their colleagues and friends’.

In these ordinary duels, men denigrate their friends in a humorous way, often before an audience, but they also hold competitive joke- and story-telling sessions that feature verbal artistry.

So, men duel and women duet; women engage in intimate gossip while men engage in competitive banter. Locke presents this as an absolute divide: no bantering for women and no gossiping for men. ‘Women may denigrate themselves’, he explains, ‘but they do not insult their close women friends, even humorously’. (If you’re a woman and you’re thinking ‘WTF?’ I can only say you’re not alone.) Men, conversely, have no use for the female habit of talking about other people behind their backs. ‘If they have something to say to a foe or competitor, they usually go up to him and say it’.

Well, sorry to spoil a nice neat story, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to call bullshit.

Back in 1990, a student in one of my classes recorded a couple of hours of casual conversation in the house he shared with four other men (all were straight, white and in their early 20s)*. He wanted to answer the question, ‘what do male friends talk about?’ Some of the answers were much as he’d expected: they talked about sports, drinking and dating. But there was another topic which occupied more time than anything else apart from sport–criticism of other men. To give you the flavour, here’s a chunk of the transcript (which I’ve simplified a bit to make it easier to read):

BRYAN: uh you know that really gay guy in our Age of Revolution class who sits in front of us? he wore shorts again, by the way, it’s like 42 degrees out he wore shorts again [laughter]

ED: That guy

BRYAN: it’s like a speedo, he wears a speedo to class he’s got incredibly skinny legs

ED: it’s worse you know you know like those shorts women volleyball players wear? it’s like those it’s like French cut spandex

BRYAN: you know what’s even more ridiculous? When you wear those shorts and like a parka on […] he’s either got some condition that he’s got to like have his legs exposed at all times or else he’s got really good legs

ED: he’s probably he’s like he’s like at home combing his leg hairs

BRYAN: he doesn’t have any leg hair though

ED: he really likes his legs

BRYAN: yes and oh those ridiculous Reeboks that are always (indeciph) and goofy white socks always striped tube socks

ED: that’s right he’s the antithesis of man

So, OK, what is this? Is it banter, or is it gossip? It does have some features of what Locke describes as typical all-male talk: the two men I’ve called ‘Ed’ and ‘Bryan’ are talking in a way they evidently find amusing, and they’re doing it in front of an audience (the three other men who share the house). But in other respects it doesn’t conform to Locke’s template for male verbal duelling: it’s more of a collaborative duet. The speakers aren’t ‘humorously denigrating’ one another, they’re talking about someone else behind his back. They aren’t expressing conflicting views—on the contrary, what they’re constructing is very much a shared view of the ‘really gay guy’ as ‘the antithesis of man’.

Why would young men gossip? The short answer is, for the same reasons anyone gossips. People who study gossip (they include anthropologists, sociologists, historians and linguists) say it’s ubiquitous in human cultures–despite the fact that most communities claim to disapprove of it–because it serves a number of important social purposes. One of these is circulating personal information, which enables members of a community to keep track of others’ activities and relationships. Another is the one Locke emphasises in his discussion of all-female talk, namely bonding. When you talk about absent others you’re constituting them as an out-group and yourselves as an in-group: if what you’re sharing is sensitive information–like a secret or a negative opinion about someone–that will strengthen the feeling of intimacy among those present.

A third purpose gossip serves, especially when it’s critical or judgmental, is to affirm the group’s commitment to particular norms and values. That’s clearly one thing that’s going on in Ed and Bryan’s duet. By describing the absent ‘gay guy’ as ‘the antithesis of man’, they’re also bonding around their own, very different code of properly masculine behaviour.

It may seem paradoxical that the vehicle for this heterosexual male bonding is a kind of talk which is stereotypically associated with women (not to mention that the main subject discussed is the very thing these men claim to have no interest in—other men’s bodies). But it’s only really a paradox if you take the stereotype at face value. The fact is that both sexes gossip: one survey conducted in 2009 found that men reported spending slightly more time on gossip than women. And respondents of both sexes gave the same reason for doing it: they said that gossiping made them feel like ‘part of the gang’.

But if everyone gossips, why has gossip been decried for centuries as a specifically female vice? The historical record is full of injunctions to women to avoid gossip, which was variously denounced as idle, frivolous, anti-social, sinful and even a cover for witchcraft.  Noting that the word ‘gossip’ in early modern English meant a close female companion who stayed with a woman in childbirth, Suzanne Romaine mentions one reason why this role prompted anxiety:

Professions such as midwifery allowed women passage between households, largely free of male control, to exchange …knowledge of intimate matters such as contraception and abortion.

Some historians argue that what really worried men wasn’t so much the sharing of arcane female knowledge as the prospect of women talking about them. They feared their wives would share embarrassing secrets, or spread malicious gossip deliberately to damage their reputations. This fear was not unfounded: at a time when women had very limited access to more public forums, gossip provided an alternative channel for influencing the opinions of others. And in a culture that practised quite extensive sex-segregation, it was one channel men couldn’t control.

But it was never just women who made use of this channel. Men also used gossip as a weapon; they still do. A fair proportion of what men like to call ‘banter’ is sexist and sexualised talk about women, and one of its effects (thanks to the sexual double standard) may be to damage a woman’s or a girl’s reputation by branding her a ‘slut’ or a ‘slag’. This kind of so-called ‘banter’ is just gossip by another name. A more forgiving name, too: whereas ‘gossip’ is associated with meanness and malice, ‘banter’ is more often described using terms like ‘good natured’ and ‘light-hearted’.

The idea that women are obsessed with the personal (meaning the trivial, the venial, the commonplace) takes many different forms, and all of them are basically sexist put-downs. They’re a good illustration of the more general principle that whatever women are said to do will be devalued by comparison with whatever men are said to do–even if what they’re doing is essentially the same thing.

*The men involved in this conversation gave me permission to use the recorded data, which I later transcribed and analysed in this article. The names I’ve given them are pseudonyms.

Misogyny by numbers

Last week saw the launch of Reclaim the Internet, a campaign against online misogyny. Both the campaign and the (copious) media reports of it leaned heavily on research conducted by the think-tank Demos,  which investigated the use of the words ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ in tweets sent from UK-based accounts over a period of about three weeks earlier this year. The study identified 10,000 ‘explicitly aggressive and misogynistic tweets’ containing the target words, sent to 6500 different Twitter-users. It also found that only half these tweets were sent by men—or, as numerous media sources put it, that ‘half of all online abusers were women’.

So frequently and insistently was this statistic repeated, the message of the day almost became, ‘look, women are just as bad as men!’ Women like the journalist and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, who were sought out for comment because of their experience of online abuse, got drawn into lengthy discussions about the misogyny of other women.

Of course, it isn’t news that some women call other women ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ (or that women may be involved in the most serious forms of online abuse: one of the people prosecuted for sending death-threats to Criado-Perez was a woman). But ‘who sends abusive messages?’ is only one of the questions that need to be addressed in a discussion of online abuse. It’s also important to ask who the messages are typically addressed to and what effect they have, not just on their immediate recipient but on other members of the group that’s being targeted. But those questions weren’t addressed in this particular piece of research, and it was difficult to raise them when all the interviewers wanted to talk about was that ‘half of all abusers are women’ statistic.

These discussions reminded me of the way anti-feminists derail discussions of domestic violence with statistics supposedly showing that women are as likely to assault men as vice-versa. Feminists have challenged this claim by looking at the finer details of the data the figures are based on. They’ve pointed out, for instance, that female perpetrators are most commonly implicated in single incidents, whereas men are more likely to commit repeated assaults, and to do so as part of a larger pattern of coercive control. It’s also men who are overwhelmingly responsible for the most serious physical assaults, and for the great majority of so-called ‘intimate partner killings’.

Once you focus on the detail, it’s clear domestic violence isn’t an equal opportunity activity. Online misogyny probably isn’t either (especially if you focus on the kind that really does deserve to be called ‘abuse’—stalking, repeated threats to rape and kill, etc). But the Demos study didn’t capture any of the detail that would allow us to see what’s behind the numbers.

In this it is fairly typical of the kind of research which funders, policymakers and the media increasingly treat as the ‘gold standard’, involving hi-tech statistical analysis of very large amounts of information—what is often referred to as ‘big data’, though that term has come to be used rather loosely. Strictly speaking, the ‘big data’ label wouldn’t apply to the Demos study, whose sample of 1.5 million tweets is very small beer by big data standards. At the same time, it’s too much data to be analysed in detail by humans: the researchers employed NLP (natural language processing), using algorithms to make sense of text, and their findings are essentially statistical—figures for the frequency of certain kinds of messages, along with the gender distribution of their senders.

You may be thinking: but doesn’t it make sense to assume that ‘bigger is better’—that the more data you crunch through, the more reliable and useful your results will be? I would say, it depends. I’m certainly not against quantitative analysis or large samples: if the aim of a study is to provide information about the overall prevalence of something (e.g., online misogyny on Twitter), then I agree it makes sense to go large. Actually, you could argue that Demos didn’t go large enough: not only was their sample restricted to tweets which contained the words ‘slut’ and ‘whore’, the time-period sampled was short enough to raise suspicions that the findings were disproportionately affected by a single event (the surprisingly high number of woman-on-woman ‘slut/whore’ tweets may reflect the massive volume of abuse directed at Azealia Banks by fans of Zayn Malik after she attacked him publicly).

What I am against, though, is the idea that the combination of huge samples and quantitative methods must always produce better (more objective, more reliable, more revealing) results than any other kind of analysis. Different methods are good for different things, and all of them have limitations.

The forensic corpus linguist Claire Hardaker knows a lot about what can and can’t be done with the tools currently available to researchers, and she has explained on her blog why she’s sceptical about the Demos study. Her very detailed comments confirm something a lot of people immediately suspected when they first encountered the claim about men and women producing equal numbers of abusive tweets. That claim presupposes a degree of certainty about the offline gender of Twitter-users which is not, in reality, achievable. (This isn’t just because people disguise their identities online, though obviously a proportion of them do; Hardaker explains why it’s a problem even when they don’t.)

Another thing Hardaker is sceptical about is the researchers’ claim to have trained a classifier (a machine learning tool that sorts things into categories) to distinguish between different uses of ‘slut’ and ‘whore’, so that genuine expressions of misogyny wouldn’t get mixed up with ironic self-descriptions or mock insults directed at friends. Her observations on that point deserve to be quoted at some length:

We can guarantee that the classifier will be unable to take into account important factors like the relationships between the people using [the] words, their intentions, sarcasm, mock rudeness, in-jokes, and so on. A computer doesn’t know that being tweeted with “I’m going to kill you!” is one thing when it comes from an anonymous stranger, and quite another when it comes from the sibling who has just realised that you ate their last Rolo. Grasping these distinctions requires humans and their clever, fickle, complicated brains.

When you depend on machines to make sense of linguistic data, you have to focus on things a machine can detect without the assistance of a complicated human brain. A computer can’t intuit whether the sender of a message harbours particular attitudes or feelings or intentions; what it can do, though, is identify (faster and often more accurately than a human) every instance of a specific word. So, what happens in quite a lot of studies is that the researchers designate selected words as proxies for the attitudes, feelings or intentions they’re interested in. In the Demos study, these proxy words were ‘slut’ and ‘whore’, and the presence of either in a tweet was treated as a potential indicator of misogyny.

One obvious problem with this is that it excludes any expression of misogyny that doesn’t happen to contain those particular words. The researchers themselves were well aware that tweets containing ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ would only make up a fraction of all misogynist tweets (one of them told the New Statesman they were ‘only scratching the surface’).  But that point got completely lost once their research became a media story. The media need short-cuts: they’ve got no time for the endless qualifications that litter academics’ prose. Consequently, the figures given in the report for the frequency of ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ soon began to be presented as if they were a definitive measure of the prevalence of online misogyny in general.

The researchers were also aware that in context, ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ aren’t always expressions of misogyny. They may be being used in an ironic or humorous way; they may turn up in feminist complaints about ‘slut-shaming’ or ‘whorephobia’. So after searching for every instance of each word, the researchers used a classifier to filter out irrelevant examples and sort the rest into various categories.

Since the full write-up of the 2016 Demos study doesn’t seem to be available yet, I’ll illustrate how this works in practice using the report of a study which the same research group carried out in 2014, apparently using much the same methodology. In this earlier research they investigated three words, ‘slut’, ‘whore’ and ‘rape’. When they analysed the ‘rape’ tweets, they started by getting rid of irrelevant references to, for instance, ‘rapeseed oil’. Then they used a classifier to distinguish among tweets which were discussing an actual rape case or a media report about rape (these made up 40% of the total), tweets which were jokes or casual references to rape (29%), tweets which were abusive and/or threats (12%), and tweets which didn’t fit any of those categories and so were classified as ‘other’ (it’s possibly not a great sign that 27% of the sample ended up in the ‘other’ category).

This looks like the kind of classification task that computers aren’t very good at for the reasons explained by Claire Hardaker (distinguishing abuse from humour, for instance, calls for human-like judgments of tone). But the limitations of current technology may not be the only problem. As a check on the classifier’s reliability, a few hundred tweets from the sample were classified by human analysts. Some of these manually-categorized examples are reproduced in the report to illustrate the different categories. To me, what these examples show is that once messages have been extracted from their context, there’s often enough ambiguity about their meaning to cause problems for a human, let alone a machine.

Here’s a straightforward case—a tweet the humans categorised as a joke.

@^^^^ that was my famous rape face 😉 LOL Joke.

This is unproblematic because the tweeter has taken a lot of trouble to make its status as a joke explicit (adding a winky face, LOL, and then the actual word ‘joke’). But how about this tweet, which comes from the 12% of rape references which the humans categorised as ‘abusive/ threats’?

@^^^^ can I rape you please, you’ll like it

If you think that’s a repugnant thing to tweet at someone, you’ll get no argument from me. But I don’t think it’s self-evident that this strangely polite request is intended as a serious threat rather than a ‘mock’ or ‘joke’ threat. The original recipient will have decided how to take it by using contextual information (e.g., whether the tweeter was a friend or a random stranger, what if anything the tweet was responding to, whether there was any history of similar messages, etc.) Without any of that context, the significance of a message like this one for its original sender and recipient is something an analyst can only guess at.

The example I’ve used here is a ‘threat’ that might conceivably have been intended and taken as a ‘joke’, but it’s likely there are also cases of the opposite, tweets the researchers classified as ‘jokes’ which were intended or taken as serious threats. So I’m not suggesting that the proportion of actual rape threats was lower than the reported 12%; I’m suggesting that the classification—even when done by humans—is not sufficiently reliable to base that kind of claim on. And that the main reason for this unreliability is the way large-scale quantitative studies of human communication detach individual communicative acts from the context which is needed to interpret their meaning fully.

Whether we’re academics, journalists or campaigners, we all like to fling numbers around. There’s nothing like a good statistic to draw attention to the scale of a problem, and so bolster the argument that something needs to be done about it. And I’m not denying that we need the kind of (large-scale and quantitative) research which gives us that statistical ammunition. But two caveats are in order.

First, large scale quantitative research is not the only kind we need. We also need research that illuminates the finer details of something like online misogyny by examining it on a smaller scale, but holistically, with full attention to the contextual details. There’s a lot we could learn about how online abuse works—and what strategies of resistance to it work—by using a microscope rather than a telescope.

Second, if we’re going to rely on numbers, those numbers need to be credible. In that connection, the Demos study hasn’t done us any favours: I’ve yet to come across any informed commentator who isn’t at least somewhat sceptical about its findings. While some of the problems people have commented on reflect the way the media reported the research—pouncing on the ‘women send half the tweets containing “slut” and “whore”’ claim and then reformulating that as ‘women are half of all online abusers’ (an assertion whose implications go well beyond what the evidence actually shows)—there are also problems with the researchers’ own claims.

‘My issue’, says Claire Hardaker, ‘is that serious research requires serious rigour’.  When research is done on something that’s a matter of concern to feminists, its quality and credibility should be an issue for us too.

School for sexism

This week, it was announced that schools in England are being issued with new guidelines on combatting sexism and gender stereotyping. This initiative follows research conducted for the Institute of Physics (IoP), which found that most schools took sexism less seriously than other kinds of prejudice and discrimination. According to the IoP’s report,

All the schools had policies to counter racist, homophobic and sexist language. However, in almost all cases, infringements in the last case were treated less seriously than the other two. Often, during a visit, the Senior Leadership Team would assert that there was no problem with sexist language, only for the classroom teachers to refer to some cases and the students to report that it was an everyday reality. Such language was often dismissed as ‘harmless banter’, but many of the students, particularly girls, did not see it as such, and, in extreme cases, it verged on bullying.

The IoP’s main concern—one it shares with the government, which co-funded the research—is that girls are being deterred from studying science subjects by the sexist attitudes they encounter in school. Language is only one of the issues the report urges schools to tackle (others include timetable conflicts, poor careers advice and the presentation of subjects like maths as too difficult for most students). But language was the main theme picked up in media reporting on the new guidelines, with many news outlets dramatically proclaiming that children ‘as young as five’ were going to be ‘banned’ from using certain words.

The Sunday Times’s report, for instance, was headlined ‘No more sissies in the playground’. The story continued:

IT’S been banned in the workplace, in universities and from the airwaves. Now children as young as five will be told to cut out sexist language. The days of boys and girls cheerfully baiting each other in the playground with terms such as “sissy” and “cupcake” or issuing orders to “man up” or “go make me a sandwich” may be brought to an end.

The Telegraph’s headline was ‘The “sexist” words your children are no longer allowed to use’, followed by the information that ‘teachers are to be issued guidelines from the Institute of Physics detailing the words which are to be banned from the playground’. The Mail had ‘Saying ‘sissy’ is sexist, teachers tell pupils of five in new government drive to stamp out gender stereotypes’.

I think we can guess why these newspapers were so keen on the language angle. They’ve known since the heyday of ‘political correctness gone mad’ that nothing stirs up the wrath of Middle England like a story about someone trying to ban words. Never mind that no sane parent permits total free expression for the under-fives (think how wearing all those mealtime conversations about poo would get): we can’t have a bunch of feminazis (cunningly disguised as physicists) telling our kids what they can or can’t say. An Englishboy’s playground is his castle, FFS!

This reporting only underlined the point that sexism isn’t taken as seriously as other forms of prejudice. Would any reputable newspaper talk about ‘the days of boys and girls cheerfully baiting each other in the playground with terms such as “Paki” and “wog”’? (And yes, I know those days aren’t over; the point is that most people at least pretend to think they should be.) Rather than being outraged by the idea of telling primary school children to watch their words, shouldn’t we be asking why ‘children as young as five’ are using sexist language in the first place?

We may not want to think that this is happening among children still at primary school, but unfortunately the evidence says it is. In 2006 a study carried out for the National Union of Teachers found that around half of the primary school teachers surveyed had witnessed boys using sexist language to girls, and over a third had witnessed examples they were willing to describe as bullying or harassment. Almost one in five of these teachers had themselves been on the receiving end of sexist verbal abuse from pupils, and two in five had seen colleagues abused in this way.

There is also evidence suggesting that what teachers see and hear is only part of what actually goes on in our schools. Girl Guiding UK publishes an annual survey of girls’ attitudes: the 2015 survey, conducted with a sample of nearly 1600 girls and young women aged between 7 and 21, found that in the week before they were questioned, over 80% of respondents had experienced or witnessed some form of sexism, much of which was perpetrated by boys of their own age, and some of which undoubtedly occurred in school. 39% of respondents had been subjected to demeaning comments on their appearance, and 58% had heard comments or jokes belittling women and girls. (That was in real life: 53% had also heard such jokes and comments via the media.)

By the time they go to secondary school, girls are conscious of this everyday sexism as a factor which restricts their freedom, affecting where they feel they can go, what they feel able to wear and how much they are willing to talk in front of boys. In the Girl Guiding UK survey, a quarter of respondents aged 11-16 reported that they avoided speaking in lessons because of their fear of attracting sexist comments.

So, the Institute of Physics isn’t just being perverse when it identifies sexist ‘banter’ as a problem that affects girls’ education. It’s to the organization’s credit that it’s saying this shouldn’t be tolerated—and it’s also to its credit that it’s offering practical advice. Its recommendations are sensible, and its report contains many good ideas for teachers to consider.

But there are some things about the report that don’t sit so well with me. It’s striking how many of its examples of sexist language are expressions which are typically addressed to or used about boys—like ‘sissy’, and ‘gay’ used as a term of abuse. Many of the news reports quoted a deputy head teacher whose school in Bristol participated in the research:

We used to say, ‘man up, cupcake’. We’ve stopped saying that. Saying ‘don’t be a girl’ to a boy if they are being a bit wet is also unacceptable.

Now, I don’t dispute that the expressions this teacher mentions are sexist: they tell a boy he’s shit by saying he’s like a girl, and that presupposes the inferiority of girls. But it seems odd to put so much emphasis on boys’ experiences of verbal sexism. In reality, girls are the primary recipients of sexist comments in the classroom and the playground, and some of the things they habitually get called are a lot more degrading than ‘sissy’ and ‘cupcake’.

There’s a deeper difference too. Whereas sexist language used to/about boys targets individual boys who deviate from the assumed masculine norm, sexist language used to/about girls targets girls as a class, just because they are female. True, there are specific insults for girls who are judged insufficiently feminine (‘dyke’, ‘lesbo’) or insufficiently attractive (‘minger’), but there are also more general insults for girls which don’t depend on their behaviour or their appearance. ‘Make me a sandwich’, for instance, is something any male can say to any female. It’s an all-purpose put-down, a way of reminding women that their role is to serve and to obey. Similarly, comments on girls’ bodies—admiring as well as derogatory—are symbolic assertions of the entitlement of boys and men to treat girls and women as sexual objects.

When the Sunday Times talks about ‘boys and girls cheerfully baiting each other in the playground’, the implication is that we’re dealing with something reciprocal, a ‘battle of the sexes’ in which the two sides are evenly matched. But they’re not evenly matched. What can a girl say to a boy that will make him feel like a commodity, a piece of meat? What popular catchphrase can she fling at him that has the same dismissive force as ‘make me a sandwich’? (A girl once asked participants in an online forum what they thought would be a good comeback for ‘make me a sandwich’: the most popular answer was ‘well, you’d better come back with a goddamn sandwich‘.)

The IoP report does not seem to grasp that there is more to sexism than gender stereotyping. It falls back on the liberal argument that stereotyping harms both sexes equally: it’s as bad for the boy who wants to be a ballet dancer as it is for the girl who dreams of becoming an astrophysicist. But sexism doesn’t harm boys and girls equally, just as racism doesn’t harm white people and people of colour equally. It is the ideology of a system based on structural sexual inequality: male dominance and female subordination. You can’t address the problem of gender stereotyping effectively if you don’t acknowledge the larger power structure it is part of.