Aug 2 2009

How to get your project in the news around the world: say that women are a bit crap at something

[Hunter from Neverwhere. Female]

This is one of the worst articles on gender and brains I’ve seen in a long time. A piece was written by an AFP agency journalist, has been cut n’ pasted into news sites across the globe. As far as I can tell, its only appeared in The Telegraph in the UK, but has made it to Russia, India, Spain, Australia, Japan and Playboy (and many many more).

It is a terribly written article about a yet-unpublished paper on a study of 48 people by an A Level teacher.

Now, I’m not being dismissive about the researcher from Hammersmith and West London College, but this study has got more coverage than most research from the most eminent professors in the country.

The article gives the impression that men are better at judging distances than women and that this is because of our hunter-gatherer past. Men would hunt and therefore have to throw spears long distances, women would gather berries and whatnot at close quarters. (And yes before all the archaeologists and anthropologists start jumping up and down on me, I know this is simplistic rubbish too, but that’s another story).

Firstly, men being better at judging distances than women wasn’t really the finding of the ‘paper’ (i.e. what was contained in the abstract of the yet to be published paper). The article in fact contradicts itself internally:

Men were more accurate than women when the target was placed far away at a distance of 100cm.

And then

In a second study, volunteers were asked to carry out the same tasks using a stick rather than a laser pointer. This time women were significantly better than men at judging both distances.

Secondly, this is a study of just 48 people (24 men, 24 women) presumably from one locality (probably Hammersmith or West London) and unlikely to have been controlled for other factors (age, occupation, experience of archery etc). But I don’t know, and nor does anyone else, because the paper hasn’t been published.

Thirdly, in a study about spacial awareness, comparing abilities over 50cms to 1m is fair enough. To define it as hand-reach (near space) and beyond hand-reach (far space) is clear. But leap from 1 metre being called ‘far space’ to the distance over which a ‘hunter’ would throw a spear at a mammoth, is more than a little ridiculous.

Fourthly, as a psychology experiment on visomotor performance why is there an urge to link this randomly and in an ill-informed way to primitive human society and evolutionary biology?

But lastly, this is an experiment conducted at a further education college which is about to be published in the Journal of Psychology. My problem is not with Stancey, seriously well done (as long as you take from this experience the media manipulation of science and how best to give comment to a journalist).

My problem is with a media that doesn’t check its facts, that doesn’t do anything but cut n’ paste a poorly written article into their newspaper. Stancey is quoted as “Psychologist Helen Stancey, from Hammersmith and West London College”. Googling Hammersmith and West London College you realise it is a further education college that runs A Levels, BTECs and the like.

So how does this happen? We live in a world of lazy gender stereotypes: women can’t read maps, men take risks, girls like pink etc. When ‘science’ journalists come across a crappy story about women not being able to judge distances (which cognitively signifies women not being able to drive/play sports/walk past a shoe shop…) because they ‘were gatherers’, it makes culturally sense to us. Not scientific sense, but it fits in with society’s general assumptions, stereotypes and bullshit common-sense.

This is why I think these kinds of reports are so damaging, they serve as the wallpaper of patriarchy. The constant mundane assumptions about male and female differences that support gender inequality.

And for the record, I’m a dab hand at archery.

Jun 23 2009

Men, no women, are responsible for rape

The whole ‘she was asking for it’ line has almost become a cliche when talking about rape. Unfortunately, it’s still a prevalent attitude. Back in 2005, Amnesty International launched the results of an attitude survey into rape which found that a third of people felt that a woman was wholly or partially responsible for being raped if she was being flirtatious.

This survey has been replicated by various different organisations including the Scottish Government and the findings are pretty consistent.

It is in this context that you should see if you can spot any differences between the headline from a press release from the University of Leicester:

And the story that resulted in the Daily Telegraph:

Notice any difference? Go on, look really hard.

In the study, psychologists at Leicester Uni asked men to consider themselves in various scenarios with a female acquaintance and find out if or when they were more likely to coerce a woman into sex. The scenarios differed with the acquaintance wearing different clothes, drinking alcohol, being aware of her previous sexual partners or her being assertive.

The main finding was that men who considered themselves sexually experienced were more likely to coerce women into sex. These men found resistance from a woman sexually arousing. Interestingly, alcohol had the opposite effect than expected with men more like to coerce sober women rather than those that were drunk.

Yet Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent, states that alcohol has a bearing on whether men will coerce a woman into having sex. He also says:

Sophia Shaw at the University of Leicester said that men showed a “surprising” propensity to coerce women into sex, especially those that were considered promiscuous.

Now, this is not in the press release and may have come from a phone interview. But it does look like he has mixed up women’s promiscuity with men’s. Remember, the Leicester Uni headline was “Promiscuous men more likely to rape”.

So what’s going on here? We already know that a large proportion of people will happily admit that under certain circumstances women are responsible for being raped (let alone those who think it but wouldn’t admit it in a survey, it being a rather despicable view). So does Richard Alleyne in the Daily Telegraph just think that maintaining that belief is more palatable for his readership? Is he intentionally playing into our woman-blaming culture? He is the ‘science correspondent’ so you’d think he would know about study design and, you know, the results. So, he seems to have willfully misrepresented this study to again make women feel responsible for their own rape or sexual assault.

This has also been blogged on here, but they seem to have just worked from the Telegraph article rather than the press release or original study. As the headlines show above, that is never a good idea…

[And thanks to @CliveAndrews for sending the articles]