Joking aside

Do you use humour at work? Have you ever cracked a joke to liven up a boring meeting, or kicked off a presentation with an amusing anecdote? Would you agree that the ability to make people laugh is a useful professional skill?

If your answer to these questions is ‘yes’—and if you also happen to be a woman—then I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you. According to a recently-published article in the Journal of Applied Psychology, using humour at work enhances men’s status, but for women it has the opposite effect. Whereas men’s humour is seen as ‘functional’, a tool for producing all kinds of positive outcomes (defusing tension, reframing problems, bonding team-members), women’s is more likely to be seen as ‘disruptive’, a sign that they’re lightweights who lack focus and dedication.

How, I hear you ask, did the authors of the article reach that conclusion? The answer is that they conducted an experiment: they recruited a sample of judges and asked them to evaluate a presentation made by a store manager named Sam (in fact the presenter was an actor and the presentation was scripted). Some judges watched a male Sam, others a female one; in each case half of them saw a presentation in which no use was made of humour, while the other half saw a version of the same presentation that included five humorous statements. Their article doesn’t specify what these were, but in a write-up for the Harvard Business Review they do reproduce the first one:

So, last night, my husband/wife gave me some good advice about this presentation. He/she said, whatever you do don’t try to be too charming, witty, or intellectual… just be yourself!

It’s not exactly side-splitting stuff, but subjects did judge both versions of Sam funnier when their presentations included it. However, those who had watched the female Sam rather than the male one were more likely to agree with statements like ‘the humor distracted from the purpose of the presentation’. And when they were asked about Sam’s career prospects (‘in your opinion, how likely is it that Sam will advance in the organization?’), the judges gave higher scores to the funny male Sam than either the non-funny male Sam or the funny female Sam. Female Sam did better on these questions when she was not funny (though she still did less well than her unfunny male counterpart). When she was funny, the judges accused her of, as one put it, trying ‘to cover up her lack of real business acumen by making little jokes’.

The authors explain their findings as the product of gender bias: their study shows, for the n millionth time, that even if the behaviour of men and women is identical, it is liable to be interpreted in different ways and judged by different standards. He is ‘direct’ and she is ‘abrasive’; he uses humour to get things done and she uses it to ‘cover up her lack of real business acumen’. That’s why, as I have pointed out in other posts about language in the workplace, advising women to imitate men’s behaviour is unlikely to solve their problems. These researchers agree, warning that

The potential for women to advance in the workplace may be harmed by the use of humor. Thus, recommending the use of humor to women leaders may in fact reduce their perceived effectiveness and opportunities for career advancement.

But this is not very helpful either, because avoiding humour also has costs. The humourless, po-faced boss or co-worker is not, generally speaking, a popular figure; if she’s female, her refusal to lighten up is likely to prompt the judgment that she is arrogant, or—that cardinal female sin—’unapproachable’. It seems women are damned whatever they do: if they’re funny they’re seen as disruptive, but if they aren’t they’re seen as unlikeable.

The authors say they’re not suggesting women should stop being funny at work, they’re just drawing attention to the problem in the hope  that ‘increased awareness of prejudice can help to reduce its occurrence’. I can’t say I share their optimism: many people have raised doubts about the effectiveness of interventions based on this principle, like unconscious bias training.  As with all discussions which start by asking how women’s behaviour might be holding them back at work, I think the main effect of ‘increased awareness’ will probably be to make women even more anxious and self-conscious than they are already. It’s predictable, depressing and infuriating—but before we throw up our hands in despair and look for new careers as self-employed spoon-whittlers, we should pause to ask if this study tells the whole story about gender and humour.

As the authors themselves acknowledge, their methodology had some obvious limitations. If you ask subjects to judge a scripted presentation delivered by a person they have never seen before, you are maximizing the probability that their judgments will rely on stereotypes: what else, after all, have they got to work with? In real life we usually have information about people that goes beyond obvious characteristics like sex, race and age. Also, in our real working lives our judgments aren’t abstract and decontextualized: rather we assess behaviour in relation to the whole situation—one which we are not just observing at a distance, but are actively involved in ourselves. The question arises, then, of whether the reactions of the judges in the experiment tell us anything very useful about real workplace situations.

As it happens, the use of humour was one of the issues examined in a large qualitative study of gender and workplace talk that Janet Holmes and her colleagues carried out in New Zealand. This study found that although the amount and type of humour people used varied in different workplaces, humour itself was a ubiquitous feature of working life, and its uses were similar for employees of both sexes. In Holmes’s words, ‘Both women and men crack jokes, exchange jocular abuse and tell funny stories at work’. Her account did not suggest that engaging in these behaviours reduced women’s perceived effectiveness. In fact, it suggested that women could use humour as a means of asserting or maintaining their status.

One function of humour is to soften criticism (and other acts that might cause hurt or offence) and reduce the risk of provoking conflict. Making a joke of something renders it both less overtly threatening and more difficult to take issue with (since if you object you risk coming across as humourless). This is what makes humour such a useful resource for sexists: when women protest about jokes or comments they find offensive, they can be met with the time-honoured ‘just banter’ defence (‘we weren’t being serious–can’t you feminists/PC-types take a joke?’) In the New Zealand data, however, there were cases where women used humour as a resource for either contesting sexism or turning the tables on men. For instance, at one project team meeting a woman initiated a humorous exchange that traded on a well-known stereotype of male incompetence:

Clara: he wants to get through month’s end first. He’s –  he can’t multi-task
[Other women laughing]
Peg: It’s a bloke thing
[General laughter]
Clara: [laughs] yeah yeah

The ‘softening’ effect of humour can also make a woman’s authority more palatable. Clara is noted for her direct, decisive and not especially collaborative management style; but one way in which she maintains good relationships with colleagues is by taking it in good part when they jokingly refer to her as ‘Queen Clara’. This nickname, which likens her to a monarch issuing commands to her subjects, is itself evidence of the way women are judged by a sexist double standard. I did once know a man whose workplace nickname was ‘King X’, but he wasn’t just direct and decisive, he was a tyrannical megalomaniac whose subordinates lived in fear of him. But Clara’s willingness to go along with the joke serves a pragmatic purpose: she gets what she wants from her team, while also deflecting the criticism to which all powerful women are vulnerable, that she’s an overbearing stuck-up b****.

The New Zealand study presents evidence that workplace humour is a complex phenomenon which serves a range of different purposes, and that in real-life work situations gender is only one of many factors that shape its use and interpretation. Other contextual variables, such as the culture of the organization, the roles of individuals and their relationships with colleagues, are more significant influences than gender in and of itself. By stripping out all that other stuff, the experimental study almost certainly amplified the gender difference it was investigating, potentially leading women to overestimate the risk that using humour in the workplace would harm their careers.

Methodological limitations aside, studies like this one also prompt the more basic question of why a certain issue is being investigated in the first place. The researchers didn’t pluck their hypothesis from thin air: there’s a long tradition of scientific (or ‘scientific’) discourse on gender and humour, and its starting point has always been that there’s something anomalous about women being funny.

When feminists took up the subject in the 1970s, one of their goals was to challenge the sexism of previous accounts, both scientific and popular, which essentially argued that being funny was a guy thing and women were just no good at it. They were either seen as innately humourless (an accusation commonly levelled at feminists, and even more frequently at lesbians), or else as too dim and ditzy to do humour well. If they tried to tell a joke they’d get confused and forget the punchline; if they embarked on a funny story they’d keep going off at tangents until their listeners lost interest. This thesis came in various theoretical flavours: Freud was popular in some quarters, Darwin in others (the Darwinian argument—that men use humour to attract mates, whereas women don’t need to be funny, they just need to be physically attractive—survives to this day).

One possible response to this argument was to call it out as sexist bullshit. Another, however, which was popular among some feminists, was to say that men didn’t find women funny because they defined ‘being funny’ in a way that excluded women’s distinctively female style of humour.

Descriptions of this style will remind anyone who knows the work of Deborah Tannen of her ‘difference’ or ‘two cultures’ approach, which posits a fundamental contrast between status-oriented and competitive men and rapport-building, collaborative women. Well before Tannen popularized it, this contrast had been invoked to make generalizations about the kinds of humour that were typically favoured by women or men. For instance: whereas men compete to top each other’s contributions, women collaborate to produce intimacy through shared laughter. Whereas men like jokes that climax with a punchline, women prefer less structured personal anecdotes. (If this one reminds you of another much-discussed sex-difference, I can only say you’re not alone.) And whereas men tend to make others the butt of their humour, women are more likely to poke fun at themselves.

A number of linguists I respect have used this framework, and I don’t dispute their observations about the way humour was used by the women and men they studied. But it’s a mistake to generalize about half of humanity from such a limited body of evidence–one that’s heavily skewed towards a particular subset of women, often talking in contexts where you’d expect to see collaborative, rapport-building behaviour (e.g. long-established female friendship groups, feminist ‘rap groups’, and support groups for mothers with young children). Even in the 1970s there were cases that didn’t fit this template—such as Rayna Green’s 1977 study of women’s bawdy talk in the US South, which included one woman’s riposte to a comment from her granddaughter on the sparseness of her pubic hair: ‘grass don’t grow on a racetrack’.* Some later research noted that both women and men used different kinds of humour in single-sex and mixed-sex groups. The New Zealand workplace study documented both ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ styles of humour, but it didn’t find that either style was used by one sex exclusively.

The more examples of humour we look at from different communities and settings, the more difficult it becomes to argue that there are clear-cut gender differences. As usual, there’s a gap between the actual behaviour of men and women, which shows more overall similarity than difference (along with a lot of variation inside each of the two gender groups), and our cultural beliefs about their behaviour, which are much more consistent—largely because they’re not derived from observations of what men and women do, they are expressions of our deeply-held convictions about what men and women are or should be like.

The authors of the study I began with suggest that what’s behind the prejudice against women being funny at work is our belief that men are more agentive, rational and goal-oriented than women. That’s why men’s workplace humour is interpreted as functional, deployed by rational agents as a way of achieving their goals, while women’s is seen as disruptive, signalling a lack of dedication to the business at hand. But this doesn’t really account for the fact that the prejudice isn’t confined to situations like the workplace where humour can be seen as ‘functional’ or ‘goal-oriented’. I can’t help thinking it skirts around some much more general points about humour, gender, sex and power.

Being funny is, in a number of key respects, incompatible with conventional femininity. For one thing, it involves putting yourself centre-stage: when you embark on a joke or a funny story you’re saying ‘pay attention to me’, and when you finish you’re expecting some sort of acknowledgment, like laughter or applause. That kind of attention (and the feeling of power you get from it) is still widely seen as a male prerogative: women who usurp it are not only displaying a lack of feminine modesty, they are also failing to play their prescribed role as supporters and cheerleaders for men. (Some studies have reported that women laugh more at men’s jokes than vice versa; and anecdotally it’s been suggested that when men advertise for a female partner with a good sense of humour, what they’re looking for isn’t a funny woman, but a woman who will tell them they’re funny.)

For another thing, it’s fairly difficult to make people laugh while also projecting the kinds of feminine qualities our culture defines as sexually alluring—like elegance and glamour, or innocence and grace. Funny women and sexy women are frequently presented as different ‘types’. That’s why so many films and TV shows pair a sexually attractive female protagonist with a less attractive best friend/sister/roommate: the sexy woman gets the guy, while the plain, fat or dowdy one gets the laughs. Behind this division of labour is the old idea that humour unsexes or de-feminizes women, and that those who make a speciality of it are trying to compensate for being ugly and unattractive.

Nevertheless, women persist in being funny—and so they should, whatever studies show. What studies mostly show is that women can be criticized however they behave, particularly in the workplace. And if the critics are never going to like what you do, you might as well just do what you like.

 

*I haven’t linked to Green’s study, ‘Magnolias grow in dirt’, because the source isn’t available if you’re searching from a location in the EU–but it’s discussed in this generally useful review of 20th century gender and humour research. 

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A woman’s (shit)work is never done

In Láadan, the fictional women’s language created by the feminist sci-fi writer Suzette Haden Elgin, there is a word, ‘radiidin’, which means ‘a non-holiday: a time allegedly a holiday but actually so much of a burden because of work and preparations that it is a dreaded occasion’. In the season that most likely inspired this term, the thoughts of feminists will inevitably turn to all the invisible labour performed by women: the endless shopping and cooking and cleaning, the planning and managing that’s been described as ‘the mental load’, and the emotional labour of spreading seasonal good cheer.

Of course, invisible female labour is not just for Christmas. It’s a source of perpetually simmering discontent which comes to the boil at regular intervals. In 2015 a Guardian article predicted that it would be the next Big Feminist Issue; this year a similar suggestion has come from Gemma Hartley, author of a book entitled Fed Up: Women, Emotional Labor and the Way Forward. A condensed version of her argument, published as an article in Harper’s Bazaar (‘Women aren’t nags—we’re just fed up’) was shared an astonishing two billion times.

Clearly this is not a ‘problem with no name’. Different aspects of it have been given different names–‘unpaid care work’, ‘wife-work’, ’emotional labour’, ‘the mental load’, ‘the second shift’. And though these terms are not interchangeable, the kinds of activity they name are all cases, to quote the sociologist Pamela Fishman, where

The work is not seen as what women do, but as part of what they are.

This observation points to a subtle difference in our ideas about ‘women’s work’ and ‘men’s work’. Though it is often assumed that ‘men’s work’ harnesses qualities associated with the male of the species—like aggression, toughness or a willingness to take risks—it is rarely suggested that a man who works on an oil rig or trades on the stock exchange is doing nothing more than being a man, using skills he didn’t have to learn to carry out tasks that any other man could do just as well. With ‘women’s work’, by contrast, whether it’s done in the home or in ‘pink collar’ jobs like nursing, teaching and secretarial work, the assumption has often been that women are just doing what comes naturally, using their maternal instincts or their innate ability to empathize to take care of other people’s needs. And since what’s ‘natural’ is assumed to be effortless, requiring no conscious thought or special skill, it is not seen as ‘real’ work–or in some cases, seen at all.

The sentence I’ve just quoted from Pamela Fishman appears in an article which identified a specifically linguistic form of invisible female labour. Fishman called this ‘interactional shitwork’ (though the most readily available version of her article appeared under the more decorous title ‘Interaction: the work women do’). The article is a fascinating historical document: brief and unapologetically angry, it’s written in a style that owes at least as much to the 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement as to the academy (though it has frequently been cited, and sometimes anthologized, in more conventional academic sources). And it wasn’t only of interest to academics: when Fishman presented an early version at a conference in 1977, it was reported in the New York Times under the headline ‘Woman Speaks Up: Men Control Conversation’.

Fishman’s analysis was based on 52 hours of conversation recorded by three heterosexual couples in their homes. She did find that ‘men control conversation’, but she also found that to do it they depended on women’s support. Whereas men’s attempts to initiate talk were taken up enthusiastically by women, women’s own efforts were more likely to receive either very minimal acknowledgment (for instance, an unenthusiastic ‘yeah’ or ‘mm’ followed by the man changing the subject) or none at all. In fact, women received so little encouragement to talk, they often resorted to the attention-getting techniques young children use, like saying ‘d’you know what?’ (a formula which demands an answer like ‘what?’, or ‘no, tell me’, thus allowing the first speaker to respond to the ‘question’ she has essentially forced the second speaker to ask).

By way of illustration, here’s an extract from one of Fishman’s transcripts: the man (M) and the woman (F) are both graduate students (as was Fishman herself when she did this research), and the exchange takes place in their apartment while she is studying and he is making a salad.

fishman

The woman wants to share something she’s reading, and to get her partner’s attention she asks a question prefaced with ‘you know’. He doesn’t seem very interested: he allows two seconds to pass (more than one second is a noticeable silence in casual conversation) before he produces a (hesitant) answer signalling that what she’s just said is new information. Encouraged, she continues with the next chunk of discourse. This time he allows five seconds to pass before making a substantive point. Once again, she responds straight away (that’s what the = sign means), agreeing with his point and adding a related one. But then his attention shifts elsewhere: it turns out he’s looking for oil to make salad dressing. She responds immediately to his observation that they’ve run out with the information that there’s another bottle. His next utterance comments on the salad dressing, and invites her to agree that it looks good. This time she doesn’t answer immediately, and he repeats his last move (‘see, babe?’) until she acknowledges his point with ‘it does yeah’. She doesn’t try to resume the conversation about what she’s reading until more than a minute later.

Fishman claimed that what we see in this extract was a recurring pattern in her data. Men talk about what they want, when they want, and women do the work of supporting them. They pay continuous attention to their partners, respond promptly when a response is called for, and stop talking when it clearly isn’t. They provide on-topic answers to men’s questions and tokens of agreement when men express opinions. Men evidently expect this from women, but they don’t feel obliged to do it for women. When women talk men pay less attention, produce delayed and unenthusiastic responses, and change the subject if something else is more important to them.

This study has been criticized for generalizing from a tiny sample; a number of researchers who have tested its claims using other data have failed to replicate Fishman’s findings. But many of these ‘replications’ have used data which isn’t comparable to Fishman’s–for instance, recordings of non-intimate male/female pairs talking in a lab, or of colleagues talking in a professional setting. The researchers involved seem to have missed the point that the focus on couples wasn’t incidental: what Fishman set out to investigate was, by her own account, ‘the interactional activities which constitute the everyday work done by intimates’. She also explained why this was of interest to a feminist sociologist: because

It is through this work that people produce their relationship to one another, their relationship to the world, and those patterns normally referred to as social structure.

Fishman examined linguistic patterns in heterosexual couple-talk as a way of shedding light on the underlying power dynamics. There’s no reason to expect the same patterns to appear, or the same dynamics to be in play, in every other situation where women and men converse. The significance of gender, and indeed its relevance, may be different in different contexts and kinds of talk.

Many years ago, I co-authored an article about tag questions (interrogatives of the form ‘nice day today, isn’t it?’).  At the time tag questions were a big deal in language and gender research because, like uptalk today, they were widely believed to be used by women who were so unconfident about expressing their opinions they found it necessary to turn statements into questions. My co-authors and I didn’t believe that: we knew tag questions have a range of functions, and one of them is facilitating interaction. Adding a question tag to a statement is a way of inviting someone else to talk. Some researchers had suggested that the real reason women used more tag questions than men was because they did more facilitating. Our study showed, however, that what men and women do, and indeed what tag-questions do, will depend on various features of the context.

There are some kinds of talk where asking questions is the prerogative of the person who has institutional power (e.g. the teacher in a classroom or the lawyer in a courtroom). In these contexts asking questions–including tag-questions–is not a sign of insecurity: it’s an assertion of authority and a way of controlling the interaction. There are also contexts where facilitating interaction is a professional skill, associated with a high-status occupational role. Not only lawyers and teachers, but also (for instance) doctors, psychotherapists and media interviewers, must master the art of getting others to talk. Some of our data came from contexts of this kind, and in those cases it was the professionals who used more tag questions. Most of them were men, but that’s by the by: this pattern isn’t about gender, it’s about the speaker’s institutional role.

In complete contrast to these institutional encounters, the conversations Fishman analysed were personal exchanges in a domestic setting between people who knew each other intimately. In that context, the division of labour she observed (women doing the facilitating and men treating that as a form of service) raises the same questions feminists have asked about housework and the mental load. In a situation where there’s no institutional hierarchy, where the participants have equal status and have chosen to live together, why isn’t facilitating interaction a reciprocal obligation? Why do women do so much and men so little?

Fishman’s answer is that the participants in heterosexual couple-talk (a context where gender is highly salient) don’t really have equal status. They agree that the man’s interests come first.

Both men and women regarded topics introduced by women as tentative; many of these were quickly dropped. In contrast, topics introduced by the men were treated as topics to be pursued; they were seldom rejected.

They also agree that the woman is ultimately responsible for the success of the conversation–and for intuiting what that requires of her in any given situation.

Sometimes women are required to sit and “be a good listener” … At other times, women are required to fill silences and keep conversation moving, to talk a lot. Sometimes they are expected to develop others’ topics and at other times they are required to present and develop topics of their own.

At all times, however, women must avoid giving the impression that they are, or would like to be, in control.

Women who successfully control interactions are derided…terms like “castrating bitch,” “domineering,” “aggressive,” and “witch” may be used to identify them. When they attempt to control situations temporarily, women often “start” arguments.

The picture Fishman paints is bleak–and still depressingly recognizable more than 40 years on. Women are still expected to ‘sit and be a good listener’ (if you doubt it, have a look at this piece, based on the replies the writer got when she tweeted a request to get in touch ‘if you’ve ever been on a date with a man who asked you zero (0) questions about yourself’); and they still get identified as aggressive bitches if they aren’t sufficiently self-effacing (remember #ImmodestWomen?)

What makes the problem of invisible female labour such a tough nut to crack (no matter how many times or ways we name it) is that the obvious form of resistance–refusing to do it–has such negative consequences for women themselves. What hurts our loved ones hurts us too: few women want to get into conflicts with the people they care about, or to forego the tangible benefits their unseen efforts produce (like comfortable homes and meaningful conversations). In many situations it costs less to maintain the status quo than to challenge it. (Not all, though. We could surely put an end to the phenomenon of dates where men ask women no questions. Someone should design a card for women to hand to their date as they leave after 15 minutes.)

I’m aware that this post has been a bit short on festive spirit, but I hope your Christmas, if you celebrate it, will be less a radiidin than a season of peace and goodwill. Go easy on the shitwork, don’t let the bastards grind you down, and when it’s all over, look out for my round-up of the year in language and feminism.

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.

 

 

 

One word, two words, pink words, blue words

girl words

Once upon a time, someone had the bright idea of making sets of fridge magnets for young children learning to read and write. All the children were following the same school curriculum, but since the designers knew they came in two distinct varieties–some were girls and some were boys–they decided to make two different versions of the product. The girls’ version featured words like ‘make-up’, ‘bunnies’ and ‘love’, while boys were given words like ‘money’, ‘car’ and ‘dirt’.  boy wordsTo make sure everyone would know which words were suitable for which children, the designers mounted the magnets on colour-coded pink and blue card.

Parents expressed their gratitude in the reviews they posted on Amazon. ‘Thank goodness for this product!’ wrote one:

For a while now I’ve been concerned about my little girl – she has been showing an increased interest in things which are clearly just for boys, such as monsters and climbing. I have even seen her on occasion use money, ride a bike or go swimming. This product has been a godsend as it has allowed me to say to her once and for all: “These are boys’ things and they do not concern you.”

Another declared himself ‘relieved that the [boys’] set excludes any words that might relate to any form of intellectual pursuit or emotion (other than fear)’.

Not all the reviews were so sarcastic, but almost none of them were positive: most people who left comments were critical of the magnets, and some called on Amazon to stop selling them. The crude stereotyping struck many as particularly out of place in a product that was meant to be educational. As one commenter put it, ‘Words are universal. Vocabulary is not gender-specific unless we make it so’.

But in reality, of course, we do make it so. By repeatedly using certain words about certain kinds of people, we create patterns which are more or less strongly gender-marked. The words are not ‘gender-specific’ in the sense that they can only be used by or about girls and women or boys and men. It’s more that we’ve learned to associate them with either femininity or masculinity. The adjectives ‘feisty’, ‘petite’ and ‘shrill’, for instance, are so strongly coded as ‘feminine’ words, applying them to a male may be taken as a comment on his (lack of) masculinity. In most cases the gender-coding is subtler, but it’s still part of our tacit knowledge.

You can test this out for yourself by looking at the wordlists I’ve reproduced below:

List 1

active, adventurous, analytic, assertive, battle, boast, challenge, champion, confident, courage, decision, decisive, defend, determine, dominant, driven, fearless, fight, force, greedy, headstrong, impulsive, independent, individual, intellect, lead, logic, objective, opinion, outspoken, persist, principle, reckless, self-confident, self-reliant, self-sufficient

List 2

agree, affectionate, collaborate, commit, communal, compassion, connect, considerate, cooperate, depend, emotional, empathy, enthusiasm, feel, gentle, honest, inclusive, interpersonal, interdependent, kind, kinship, loyal, modesty, nurturing, pleasant, polite, quiet, responsible, sensitive, submissive, support, sympathetic, tender, together, trust, understand, warm

There are no words on either of these lists which could not, in principle, be used in reference to either sex. But the words on List 1 have more masculine associations, while the ones on List 2 are more associated with femininity. If I described some gender-unspecified person as ‘dominant, driven and fearless’ you would be likely to imagine a man; if I described them as ‘nurturing, pleasant and polite’ you would be likely to imagine a woman.

One striking difference between the two lists is that a lot of the ‘masculine’ words seem to be describing leaders, achievers and rugged individualists, whereas most of the ‘feminine’ words describe helpers, supporters and carers. This contrast figures so prominently, you might suspect me of taking the words straight from the pages of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. But in fact, I took them from a webpage explaining a piece of software called the Gender Decoder for Job Ads. And the source from which the software designer took them was a 2011 article in a psychology journal, entitled ‘Evidence that gendered wording in job advertisements exists and sustains gender inequality’.

The authors of this study began by looking for gender-marked vocabulary in the job ads on two popular Canadian listings sites. Their sample included ads for both male-dominated occupations like plumbing, engineering and computing ,and female-dominated occupations like nursing, early childhood education and HR. Their analysis showed that the male-field ads used significantly more masculine-coded words.

So far, you might think, so unsurprising: but the kicker is in the second stage of the research, which involved presenting male and female subjects with ads for various positions (they included male-dominated, female-dominated and ‘neutral’ fields) which had been manipulated to make the wording either strongly ‘masculine’ or strongly ‘feminine’. For instance, one version of an ad for an administrative assistant stated that the company was looking for someone ‘dependable and reliable’, while the other specified that the applicant should be ‘independent and self-reliant’. Subjects were asked to say how appealing they found each position, and whether they felt they belonged in the role.

The main finding was that women saw jobs as less appealing, and were less likely to think they belonged, when an ad relied heavily on masculine-coded vocabulary. (Men’s perceptions were less affected by the choice of words: they did find ‘feminine’ ads less appealing than ‘masculine’ ones, but the effect was very slight.) The researchers concluded that the wording of job ads is a factor affecting women’s willingness to apply. The issue isn’t just that women see themselves as unsuited to particular kinds of work: even when they have the right qualifications, the perception that they won’t fit in cropped-c47620c5e92a01104c2e9b60258cc3fb.gif is reinforced by ads that use masculine-coded language (e.g. ‘we are looking for a self-reliant individual who is driven to achieve results’), and can be countered by ads that substitute more ‘feminine’ terms (e.g., we are looking for a committed, responsible team-member who is sensitive to clients’ needs)

This finding prompted the development of the Gender Decoder for Job Ads, a tool designed to help organisations avoid gender bias in recruiting. It works rather like the Gender Genie, which I discussed in an earlier post: if you paste the text of a job ad into it, it will calculate the relative proportions of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ words, and on that basis tell you whether your ad has an overall bias. I came across it on a blog maintained by the UK Parliamentary Digital Service, which published a guest-post earlier this year entitled ‘Breaking the bro code‘. The writer argued that ‘removing masculine words from job adverts is a quick and easy step to attract more women’. This view seems to be gaining ground: Iris Bohnet, for instance, the author of an influential book called What Works: Gender Equality By Design, describes the wording of job ads as ‘low-hanging fruit’ for those who want to reduce bias and build diverse, inclusive workplaces.

My own feelings about this approach are mixed. I certainly don’t dispute that there are bits of the ‘bro code’ which we could and should dispense with: they hang so low their knuckles are dragging on the ground. For instance, according to the Harvard Business School’s recruitment blog, the use of ‘ninja’ as a job title in the tech sector increased by 400% between 2012 and 2016.  By all means let’s stop advertising for ‘ninjas’ (unless they’re being employed as role-players in an exhibit about feudal Japan). And while we’re at it, we could cut out the kind of meaningless guff which so many job ads are full of–corporate clichés like ‘we strive to be competitive in a demanding global marketplace’, which increase the masculine vocabulary quotient without adding anything of substance. cropped-job_ad_buzzwords2.jpg

But while I’m all for getting rid of what’s unnecessary and offputting (or in the case of ‘ninja’, idiotic), I’m always wary of approaches to sexism which treat changing language as a panacea. Language is rarely the root cause of the problem: it’s the outward and visible symptom of a deeper cultural disease. In this case, for instance, the problem that has to be tackled isn’t just that the language of job ads is inadvertently alienating women. The deeper problem is the gender-code itself: it’s the fact that words like ‘analytic’ and ‘logical’ are generally understood (by women as much as men) to denote ‘masculine’ qualities. That’s got nothing to do with the words themselves, and everything to do with our cultural beliefs about what men and women are like (‘these are boys’ things and they do not concern you’).

Just substituting ‘feminine’ for ‘masculine’ words in job ads does nothing to address this deeper problem. Even if it persuades more women to apply for jobs in male-dominated fields, it does so in a way that leaves the codes themselves intact. It says to women, in effect, ‘you may think you don’t belong in this job, but actually you do, because it isn’t really about leadership and competition, it’s about stuff women are good at, like teamwork and collaboration’. Is that challenging gender stereotypes or is it pandering to them?

Iris Bohnet, the author of What Works, might respond that I’m missing the point here. The evidence suggests that changing the language of job ads ‘works’: it helps to diversify the applicant pool for jobs. So what if people still mentally put words, and the attributes they denote, into pink and blue boxes? ‘It’s easier’, Bohnet says, ‘to de-bias organizations’ practices and procedures than to de-bias mindsets’.

As I said before, my feelings about this are mixed: it’s not that I can’t see the force of Bohnet’s argument. But in the end I think feminism does have to be about changing mindsets rather than just devising procedures to work around them. And while I realise there’s no quick fix for sexist thinking, I’ve been alive for long enough to know that change is possible. Back in 1962, when I was learning to read, no parent would have objected to those pink and blue fridge magnet sets. Today, many parents find them objectionable. It’s been a long, slow process, and it isn’t finished yet. But if researchers 100 years from now discover that ‘logical’ is still a blue word and ‘compassionate’ is still a pink word, my ghost will be seriously disappointed.

 

 

 

Mind the respect gap

There’s a woman I know who does a lot of broadcast interviews, because she’s an expert on something that’s often in the news. And she’s noticed something annoying: the interviewers she talks to—not all of them, but quite a few—are in the habit of addressing her with just her first name, whereas the male experts on the same programme are typically given an academic title. ‘Thank you, Dr Jones. Now Sarah, if I could turn to you…’.  ‘I’m not usually precious about titles’, she says, ‘but I’ve got a Ph.D too’.

Sarah’s experience is not unusual. I regularly get emails from students which hail me as ‘Ms’ or ‘Mrs’ Cameron, though my official title (‘Professor’) is on everything from my office door to the university website. Do the same students address my male colleagues as ‘Mr’? I have no way of knowing, but I doubt it happens very often. The writer and university teacher Rebecca Schuman agrees, reporting that she often hears male faculty members referred to as ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor’ by people who routinely address her as ‘Ms Schuman’. ‘It happens all the time’, she emphasises, ‘and I often hear a sneer in the “izzzzz”’.

This isn’t just an issue in academia. It’s also been noted in another titled profession, medicine. In a study published earlier this year, researchers analysed video-recordings of a medical ritual known as Grand Rounds—a sort of regular mini-conference where hospital doctors present recent cases to their colleagues and medical students. They focused on the part of the proceedings where presenters are introduced by a colleague, and recorded, for each introduction sequence, whether the introducer named the presenter as ‘Dr X’, ‘Joe/Joanne X’ or ‘Joe/Joanne’. Then they crunched the numbers to see how the choice was affected by the sex of the introducer and the presenter. They found a clear pattern: in a context where every speaker is by definition ‘Dr X’, women were significantly less likely to be referred to by that title.

Actually, that wasn’t the only noteworthy finding, so let’s just unpack some of the details. The researchers found that women performing introductions at Grand Rounds nearly always introduced presenters, of both sexes, as ‘Dr X’: they used first names in just four cases out of a total of 106. Male introducers had a much lower overall usage of ‘Dr’ (which suggests that in general they favoured a more informal style), but the sex of the presenter made a significant difference. Men used ‘Dr’ far more frequently when introducing other men (72%) than when introducing women (49%).  DQYiq1EUMAEOlaL.jpg largeIt’s true that factors other than sex might play some part in this: we know, for instance, that the use of titles is influenced by age and professional status/seniority (variables which unfortunately this study did not investigate). But while those variables might account for some proportion of the male/female difference, at this point in the history of medicine it seems unlikely they could explain it all. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there’s a tendency for men to withhold professional recognition from women, because subconsciously they don’t regard women as equals.

The pattern revealed by this study is reminiscent of some other patterns I’ve discussed in earlier posts, like the tendency for men to dominate discussion in professional contexts and their habit of using endearment terms like ‘honey’ and ‘sweetheart’ to female co-workers. It’s more evidence of what we might call, by analogy with the gender pay gap, the gender respect gap: other things being equal, women get less respect than men. But what I want to talk about in this post isn’t just the title-vs-first naming pattern itself–I’m sure that will come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog. It’s also my own (and I think, many other feminists’) ambivalence about it.

When I first read the Grand Rounds study, I thought: ‘yes, that’s happened to me’—and then I thought, ‘and actually I’ve been complicit in it’. I don’t think I’ve ever asked a media interviewer or the person introducing me at a conference to use my academic title rather than my first name. If students send emails to ‘Ms Cameron’ I normally let that pass too. And if I do ever feel moved to say something, I have the same impulse Sarah had to preface my complaint with a disclaimer: ‘I’m not usually precious about titles, but…’.  I don’t think this is because I suffer from that much-discussed female malady, impostor syndrome (‘don’t mind me, I shouldn’t really have this title anyway’). It’s more that, on the question of professional titles, feminists are caught between a political rock and a hard place.

As I’ve explained before, what address terms convey depends not only on which terms you choose, but also on whether or not they’re used reciprocally. Reciprocal usage of titles signals mutual respect between equals, along with a degree of social distance and formality; non-reciprocal usage (e.g., you call me ‘Professor’ but I call you ‘Susie’) suggests a status hierarchy in which one person must defer to the other. With first names and endearment terms, reciprocal usage signals intimacy or solidarity, whereas non-reciprocal usage, once again, implies a hierarchy. This dual-axis system (status versus solidarity, hierarchy versus equality) is what makes professional titles potentially a difficult area for feminists to negotiate. We may resent being addressed as ‘Sarah’ when the man beside us is ‘Dr Jones’, but we also tend to be uncomfortable demanding deference from others. We’re in favour of equality and reciprocity, not hierarchy.

This isn’t just a feminist thing. For people of my generation (I was born in the late 1950s), the use of first names rather than titles was one symbolic expression of the egalitarian values championed by progressive social movements in the 1960s and 70s. By the time I went to university in 1977, our teachers divided neatly along generational lines. The old guard maintained the traditional etiquette of distance and deference (we called them Dr/Professor, they called us either by our given names, or in some cases Mr/Miss), while the young Turks marked their cool, lefty credentials by telling us to call them ‘Bob’ (obviously they weren’t all named Bob, but they were, almost without exception, men).

Of course, this didn’t mean there was no hierarchy—the Bobs were marking our exams, not vice versa—but we liked the idea that they were treating us as equals, and encouraging us, as we also used to say, to ‘relate to them as people’. So when I became a lecturer myself, I found it natural to ask my own students to use my first name. As I saw it, insisting on a title meant you were old and out of touch, not to mention self-regarding and/or socially conservative. I wanted to make clear that I was none of those things.

The trouble is that, like so many symbolic gestures, this one doesn’t work for women or minorities the same way it works for white men—a point made forcefully by the Australian academic Katrina Gulliver, who explicitly takes issue with the young Turk tendency:

In most departments there is the species of (white) male professor, who wants to be seen as “cool” (you know the one, who shows up dressed like he’s come to mow the lawn), who invites all the youngsters to “call me Dave,” resting safely in the comfort of assumed male authority. If you’re one of these guys: you are not helping the rest of us.

Gulliver got a lot of flak for this, with many commenters telling her that she just didn’t understand Australian culture (she mentioned in the piece that she had previously worked in Germany). We’re more relaxed here, they said, we don’t go in for all that stuffy formality. But while it’s true there are cultural differences, we should be suspicious of the claim that first-naming is just about informality. Findings like the ones reported in the Grand Rounds study show that this isn’t the whole story: there really is a gender respect gap, and the ‘let’s not fixate on titles’ argument is too often trotted out on autopilot by people who don’t want to acknowledge that or to think about its real-world consequences. People like Will Miller, whose response to Gulliver was this:

I worry about making sure I deserve the respect of my students rather than expecting my title or position to simply demand it. I want students to respect me as an individual, not solely for my role, title, or degrees.

This pious sentiment is hard to argue with, because today it is a truism that people should be respected for what they do rather than who they are, what they wear or what title they go by (whether that’s ‘Lord Muck’ or ‘Professor Miller’). But while in principle feminists also subscribe to this belief, we have reason to know that in practice respect, like money, is not distributed purely on the basis of individual merit.

Rebecca Schuman’s answer to Miller was scathing: ‘It takes a particularly privileged individual’, she commented, ‘to insist, though he commands unearned respect when he walks into a room (even in jeans), that respect must be earned’. Her point was that the Bobs, Daves and Will Millers can have their cake and eat it too. As members of the social group that provides our cultural template for authority, they can expect to retain students’ respect while also getting extra credit for not insisting on the deference to which their status in theory entitles them. Women, on the other hand, have often discovered that a symbolic display of humility from them is interpreted less as principled egalitarianism and more as a confirmation of their assumed inferior status. When it comes to authority, Katrina Gulliver suggests, a woman must either use it or lose it:

So, I’ll keep insisting on formality from my students, even if they make comments about my being pedantic or bossy on their student evaluations.

But that ‘if’ clause points to a further complication. A woman who is—in Sarah’s words—‘precious about titles’ does risk being labelled bossy (not to mention arrogant, unfriendly and uncool). She can easily be cast as one of the stereotypical ‘nasty women’—the schoolmarm, the nagging nanny or the hideous old battleaxe—who turn up with such monotonous regularity in cultural representations of powerful women. All her options have costs as well as benefits; for her there is no magic ‘get out of jail free’ card. So what, in practice, should women do?

What I do myself is what I’ve always done: I ask students to use my first name, and—since language is my subject—I take a moment to discuss with them what this might communicate in the specific context of higher education (not that I want to be their friend, but that I recognise them as fellow-adults and expect them to act accordingly). I have never, personally, had much trouble with students being openly disrespectful: the sexism I’ve encountered has been more the ‘she’s a scary old battleaxe’ variety. At my advanced age and career stage, I can live with that (which is not to say I like it or think it’s fair). But when I read about other women’s experiences, I do wonder if I’m doing a disservice to my colleagues—especially the young women and women of colour who are likely to encounter a more extreme version of the respect gap.

I’m under no illusion that language on its own can close the gap. As I’ve said more than once on here, patterns of language-use do not arise in a social vacuum: ultimately I don’t think there is any kind of sexism which can be effectively addressed using purely linguistic measures. But language is part of the bigger picture. Is it incumbent on all of us to be ‘precious about titles’ so that the larger message about equality comes across more clearly and consistently? So that a title like ‘professor’ will stop automatically conjuring up a picture of a middle-aged white man in a tweed jacket?

I’m not sure what the answer is, and to be honest I can’t see myself changing the professional habit of a lifetime. But writing this has prompted me to make one new resolution. The next time I hear a woman expert being treated like Sarah—first-named by a media presenter who uses formal/deferential address terms with the male experts on the programme—I’m going to complain. And before you ask, yes, I’ll be signing the complaint ‘Professor’.

The comic book image in this post shows the 1940s character Jill Trent, Science Sleuth.

 

 

Men behaving inappropriately

In Britain we are currently in the grip of an epidemic of something called ‘inappropriate behaviour’.  Stories about this worrying disease were all over this week’s newspapers. The Sun reported that Deputy Prime Minister Damian Green had been accused of ‘inappropriate behaviour towards a woman 30 years his junior’. The Independent informed its readers that Conservative Party aides had compiled ‘a list of three dozen Conservative MPs accused of inappropriate behaviour’. ITV news, meanwhile, quoted Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins, who ‘absolutely and categorically’ denied allegations of, you guessed it, inappropriate behaviour.

It wasn’t just politicians: this infection originated in the entertainment industry (with Harvey Weinstein as Patient Zero), and a week before things kicked off at Westminster, the British theatre director Max Stafford-Clark had issued a statement in which, according to The Stage, he ‘wholeheartedly apologised for any inappropriate behaviour towards members of staff’ at the theatre company he previously ran. As the virus spread, another theatre, the Old Vic, was accused of ‘turning a blind eye’ to the inappropriate behaviour of its former director Kevin Spacey.

Clearly there’s a lot of it about. But what exactly is ‘inappropriate behaviour’?

According to one website I consulted,

Inappropriate behavior is any behavior that is not in line with societal standards and expectations.

Really? Murder, torture and terrorism are ‘not in line with societal standards and expectations’, but we would hardly describe them as ‘inappropriate’. A murderer who tried to express remorse by saying ‘I wholeheartedly apologise for my inappropriate behaviour towards the person I stabbed to death’ would display a total lack of understanding of the gravity of the crime. The thing about ‘inappropriate’ as a criticism is that it has little, if any, moral force. Being ‘appropriate’ is a matter of decorum, observing the correct social forms for a given setting or occasion. ‘Inappropriate’ is what you call a solecism or a breach of etiquette, like turning up to a formal dinner in running shorts when the invitation specified black tie.

The definitions given in dictionaries for ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ reflect this association with what’s ‘good manners’ or ‘good taste’. Merriam-Webster’s illustrative examples for ‘appropriate’ are things like ‘red wine would have been a more appropriate choice with the meal’; its list of synonyms includes the words ‘applicable’, ‘apt’, ‘befitting’, ‘becoming’, ‘felicitous’, ‘proper’ and ‘suitable’. ‘Inappropriate’ is illustrated with ‘her informal manner seemed totally inappropriate for the occasion’. But my intuitions tell me that the usage exemplified by the news reports I’ve quoted, where ‘inappropriate’ doesn’t just mean ‘indecorous’ or ‘unsuitable’, has become a lot more common in recent years.  When did we start using the word this way, and why? How did bad behaviour become ‘inappropriate’?

I can’t claim to have done a comprehensive analysis, but one thing I did do was search COHA, the Corpus of Historical American English (a large sample of authentic US texts spanning the period 1810-2009), looking for the phrase ‘inappropriate behavior’. This search returned no examples earlier than 1988. At that point, and continuing into the 1990s, the examples begin to proliferate: they turn up in a range of text-types including fiction and journalism as well as academic or scientific writing. And what they suggest is that ‘inappropriate behavior’ belongs, or originally belonged, to the register of psychology and therapy.  Here are a few examples taken from different kinds of sources:

At the time I thought he was displaying inappropriate behavior, Jason said. I thought he was paranoid and delusional (source: fiction)

This variable assesses the extent to which the parents have to exert external control…to reduce the child’s level of activity, negative emotion, inappropriate behavior, and misconduct (source: academic text)

Ask yourself whether your anticipated discomfort stems from your sister’s inappropriate behavior as your guest in the past (source: magazine problem page)

Notice that none of these quotes refers specifically to sexually ‘inappropriate behavior’. The first (and in fact, the only clear) example of that usage in COHA comes from a 2004 academic article on sex addiction:

We should also consider the possibility that this self-description may be reinforced through the culture of sex addicts groups providing a form of excuse, if not justification, for their inappropriate behavior.

For academic psychologists and therapists, the attraction of the term ‘inappropriate’ lies precisely in its avoidance of overt moral judgment. Though it isn’t entirely nonjudgmental (calling behaviour ‘inappropriate’ is clearly a negative assessment), it is less loaded than, say, ‘deviant’ (let alone more everyday evaluative terms like ‘bad’, ‘disgusting’ and ‘sickening’), and this allows the user to maintain the appearance of scientific objectivity (‘I’m not making my own judgment on this behaviour, I’m just pointing out that it is “not in line with societal standards and expectations”‘).

But when this language gets taken up in other contexts, from news reporting to everyday conversation, its deliberate blandness has a different effect. ‘Inappropriate’ becomes a euphemism, a way of downplaying or concealing what is really going on (which in many recently reported cases is physical and/or sexual assault). And because of the word’s long association, outside therapy-speak, with matters of etiquette or decorum, the description of sexual harassment as ‘inappropriate behaviour’ reinforces the idea (unselfconsciously expressed by a number of men who have been interviewed on the subject this week) that calling a woman ‘sugar-tits’ or touching her body without her consent is nothing more than bad manners or poor taste. It’s a breach of proper workplace etiquette rather than a breach of the other person’s rights.

Recent media reports have been full of expressions which trivialise the issue of sexual harassment and–let’s not mince our own words here–sexual violence. ‘Sleaze’, for example. And the tone-deaf tabloidism ‘sex pest’.  But to my mind, ‘inappropriate behaviour’ is the worst, most insidious offender.  Because it isn’t just a tabloid cliché. In fact, it’s more like the opposite– a formula that makes its user sound educated, serious, and disinterested–untouched by the combined prurience and moralism with which the tabloids approach anything to do with sex.

Of course, it’s not just journalists who use the phrase ‘inappropriate behaviour’: often they’re quoting other sources, like the political parties’ announcements that yet another MP has been suspended, or the statements made by MPs themselves. It’s also a common formula in workplace policies and guidelines. It’s become established across a whole range of expert discourses (scientific, therapeutic, educational, managerial), because it’s both usefully generic (covering the proverbial multitude of sins) and emotionally flat. It conjures up no vivid picture, evokes no visceral response: it isn’t exactly neutral, but it’s bloodless and bureaucratic.

Yet if recent events have shown us anything, they have surely shown us that the bureaucratic approach to sexual harassment has got us precisely nowhere. All the policies and procedures and guidelines and hotlines have not delivered justice to the complainants who tried to use them, or curbed powerful men’s enthusiasm for behaving ‘inappropriately’. By contrast, the stories which have circulated under the banner of #metoo have been specific, visceral, and shocking–and they have forced at least some organisations to take decisive action.

There are many things we will need to change if we are to make endemic sexual harassment a thing of the past. But we could start by changing our language: in particular, we could stop calling harassment ‘inappropriate behaviour’. It isn’t ‘inappropriate’, it is wrong, unjust, abusive and harmful. In its most serious forms it’s also criminal. I said earlier that no one ever describes murder as ‘inappropriate behaviour’; actually that’s just as true of less serious and non-violent crimes like burglary or embezzlement. The fact that we do habitually describe even the most egregious cases of sexual harassment in this bland, euphemistic, minimizing language is a sign of how little regard we have for those who suffer it, and how much we are (still) willing to concede to the perpetrators.

In the last few weeks, to be sure, a lot of individual perpetrators have been publicly named and shamed. But we also need to name and shame the larger phenomenon–or institution–which they are part of.  People don’t lose their jobs, their reputations and at the extreme their liberty, because their behaviour was ‘inappropriate’. Even low-level harassment is a misuse of power, and the kind that attracts sanctions causes serious harm. The language we use should not deny, diminish or excuse that.

Are women over-emojinal?

To mark World Emoji Day on July 17, the Empire State Building was lit up in emoji yellow, and Leah Fessler wrote a piece for Quartz* about why feminists should stop using emoji. She’d realised, she explained, that larding your messages with smiley faces, love hearts and thumbs-up signs (as well as exclamation points, which she treats as honorary emoji) is yet another form of emotional labour the world demands from women.

From childhood, women are conditioned to smile and nod to ensure that others feel comfortable and confident. This dynamic translates in digital communication through emoji and exclamation points.

Fessler was determined to break her emoji habit, but initially she found it hard; she felt ‘rude and awkward’ replying to messages with a simple ‘OK’ or ‘sure’ rather than a cheery thumbs-up or an enthusiastic ‘absolutely!’ But a few days in, she found she was starting to reap the benefits. Ditching the emoji, she reports, ‘wasn’t just a relief—it was empowering’.

Ah, the E-word–so often the canary in the coalmine of language-policing bullshit. Despite its use of sociological terms like ‘conditioning’ and ’emotional labour’, this is still basically an example of the formula I’ve analysed in previous posts about ‘just’, ‘sorry’, uptalk et al. First, you identify something women do, or are believed to do, more than men; next, you explain why that’s a problem for women; finally, you exhort women to empower themselves by changing their behaviour. Embellish the basic argument with some personal anecdotes, finish with an Uplifting Thought (‘even the smallest changes can alter the way others view you, and more importantly, the way you view yourself’)–et voilà, job done.

But enough of the snark: let’s try to unpick the argument.

Since emoji came into widespread use, their merits or otherwise have been extensively discussed, and opinion has been divided. On one hand they’ve been lauded in pieces (misguidedly) proclaiming them a new universal tongue, ‘the world’s fastest growing language’; on the other they’ve been belittled in comments like this one from the New York Times:

Given their resemblance to the stickers that adorn the notebooks of schoolgirls, not to mention their widespread adoption as the lingua franca of tweens and teens everywhere, some people wonder whether grown men should be using [emoji] at all.

This has something in common with the popular response to other linguistic innovations, like uptalk and vocal fry, which are associated with young women. When a linguistic form is stereotyped as a ‘girl thing’, you can bet that people will disparage it–and also that they will project a meaning onto it which reflects their ideas, or prejudices, about girls. Uptalk, for instance, has persistently been interpreted as a sign that the speaker doesn’t know what she really thinks, and/or is desperate for others’ approval–a story we’d find less intuitively plausible if it were told about something middle-aged men did. (If you want to know why linguists who’ve studied uptalk don’t buy this interpretation, see here).

By likening them to the decorative stickers young girls put on their school notebooks, the writer quoted above implies that women’s enthusiasm for emoji is of a piece with their more general fondness for frivolous embellishments. In scholarly discussions you’re more likely to encounter a different stereotype: women use emoji more than men because they’re more ’emotionally expressive’. Apart from being suspiciously circular (is there any evidence that women are more emotionally expressive apart from the kinds of emotional expression which their emotional expressiveness is meant to explain?), this argument presupposes that expressing emotion must be the function of emoji. Which might seem to be self-evident (isn’t the clue in the name?), but is actually an oversimplification.

That emoji are neither purely decorative nor all about the expression of emotion becomes clearer if you know something about their history. The precursors of emoji, emoticons (the earliest of these were smiley and winky faces made by combining ASCII characters, and they were invented by a grown man, or so he claims) were taken up by participants in early online forums to address a problem in what was then a new communication medium. Written language offers fewer resources than speech for signalling how you intend your message to be taken. In speech you’ve got the pitch, tone, loudness and quality of your voice (plus in face-to-face contexts facial expressions and body language), but in text-based interaction you’ve got none of these. This was leading to conflict when messages that were meant to be ironic or humorous prompted angry reactions from others who read them ‘straight’. Emoticons were ‘meta’ devices which enabled writers to signal their intentions more explicitly.

Today’s emoji are more diverse than emoticons in both their forms and their functions. They do provide resources for emotional expression, but that isn’t the only thing they’re used for. They’ve retained their usefulness as indicators of ironic or humorous intent, and they can also serve as tools for managing the mechanics of text-based interaction. On Twitter, for instance, the heart is often used simply as an acknowledgment token, to let someone know you’ve seen a tweet rather than to express your feelings about its content. In that case its affective meaning (‘heart = love’) is irrelevant, and competent users understand that. The same applies to the office conventions Leah Fessler complains about, like acknowledging meeting reminders with a thumbs-up emoji. Though the thumbs-up gesture conventionally symbolises enthusiasm, in this context it’s no more likely to mean ‘I’m really excited about this meeting’, than the Twitter heart is to mean ‘I’m in love with this tweet’. Using it is less a form of emotional labour than a labour-saving device (it’s quicker and easier than composing a verbal acknowledgment).

But if emoji aren’t just about emoting, or decoration, how do we explain women using them more than men? Actually, let’s go back a step: do women use them more than men?

Some of the evidence presented to support this claim should be approached with caution, because it comes from studies which asked people to report on their emoji use rather than analysing their actual output. Self-reports vary in accuracy, and they’re liable to be influenced by the subjects’ beliefs about who uses what kind of language (if a form is associated with women, that in itself may lead men to under-report their use of it). However, the generalisation that women use emoji more than men does have some credible research evidence to back it up. One frequently-cited study was done in Texas in 2012: researchers analysed 124,000 real text messages produced by subjects who granted access to their phones without knowing what the research was about. Women in this sample were twice as likely as men to include emoticons in a text–though their overall frequency was low for both sexes (only 4% of the texts sampled contained any).

But research also shows that gender is not the only variable affecting how, and how much, emoji are used. You can’t easily generalise across genres, platforms and devices–text messages aren’t the same as emails, and what goes for Tinder doesn’t apply to Twitter. Nor can you sensibly talk about ‘women’ or ‘men’ as homogeneous categories, without reference to intersecting variables like age and social background. It can also make a difference who the messages are addressed to. One early study of emoticon use in newsgroups (which were important online forums before Web 2.0 and smartphones) found that women in all-female or female dominated groups used more emoticons than men in all-male or male dominated ones. In mixed newsgroups, however, there was no significant difference: women used emoticons at much the same rates as they did in all-female groups, but men used them much more frequently when they were participating in a mixed group. This is not an unusual observation. Masculinity and femininity are often performed differently in single-sex and mixed sex interaction, where people are responding to different kinds of peer pressure, and where they may also be having different kinds of conversations.

In sum: ‘women use emoji more than men’ is probably true as far as it goes; there’s also plenty of evidence showing that certain emoji are used more by women and others are used more by men. However, these descriptive generalisations (like all statements about ‘men’ and ‘women’) mask significant variation within each group. And no descriptive generalisation (if you’ll forgive me for stating the obvious) constitutes an explanation of the facts it describes.

As I’ve already said, there’s a tendency for researchers to go straight for the ‘women are more emotionally expressive’ explanation. But as I’ve also already said, this is not entirely satisfactory. And there are other possibilities which fit at least as well with things we know about gender and communication in other contexts. For instance:

The difference might be a matter of style (a word which shouldn’t, in the context of language, be taken to denote something trivial). Online and offline, language is one of the symbolic resources which people draw on to create a distinctive persona, and to mark themselves as members or non-members of particular social groups or subcultures. Many small differences in pronunciation do this job: different variants of the same sound may be used to differing degrees or in different ways by speakers of different ages, classes, ethnicities and genders. The same principle might explain why men and women use an overlapping but non-identical range of emoji, and why women use them more frequently overall. You could compare it to the way we style our clothes or our hair: with emoji as with clothes, it seems that mainstream masculinity is less flamboyant than the feminine equivalent. (Interestingly, a study that investigated the perceived gender of the most popular emoji found that the ones ranked most ‘feminine’ included ‘face throwing a kiss’ and ‘face with tears of joy’, while the most ‘masculine’ were the more prosaic ‘thumbs-up’ and ‘OK’ symbols).

The difference might also be a by-product of the fact that men and women, if we insist on considering them as aggregates, tend to be members of different social networks in which they have conversations about different things. This is a point demonstrated in many tedious Big Data studies of vocabulary: I wish I had £10 for every article I’ve read which announces that ‘men and women use different words’, when all the research really shows is that people generally use words which pertain to the subject under discussion. Amazingly enough, women posting family news on Facebook tend to use more words relating to kinship and family occasions (like ‘grandma’ and ‘wedding’) than men debating current affairs or the performance of Arsenal Football Club. Most emoji are less subject-specific in their application than most words, but it’s still reasonable to think that which and how many of them you use might have something to do with who you’re talking to and what about.

It’s also possible that women’s more frequent use of emoji exemplifies the common pattern where innovations which are destined to spread through the whole population become visible first among young women. Because of that, we start out assuming they’re a ‘girl thing’ and looking for explanations which connect them to femininity; but as they spread it becomes apparent that they weren’t so much a girl thing as a new thing that girls got onto first. This is what has happened with uptalk: once a Valley Girl signature, it’s now heard among young and even middle-aged speakers, of both sexes, in many parts of the English-speaking world. Maybe the emoji gap between men and women will also narrow over time, making the question of why women use more emoji redundant.

This is not a multiple choice test where there’s only one right answer: the social life of language is too complex for one-size-fits-all explanations. And that’s an especially important point to bear in mind when you’re trying to explain gendered behaviour, because the categories ‘men’ and ‘women’ are so internally diverse–different subsets of men and women may be using or not using emoji for different reasons. I know I keep on saying this, but it really can’t be over-emphasised: no single thing can explain the behaviour of every member of a group which comprises half of humankind.

Do I think Leah Fessler is describing a real phenomenon? Yes. I think the pressure to be relentlessly upbeat and positive is a feature of many workplace cultures, and I also think there are good reasons to be critical of it (if you’re interested, this is the subject of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Smile or Die). But do I think it follows that women should stop using emoji? No. Emoji are not the problem here. Like other attempts to ’empower’ women by changing their behaviour rather than the conditions it’s a response to, the ‘feminist case against emoji’ is fundamentally a pile of poo.

*Thanks to Mercedes Durham for drawing my attention to the Quartz piece.