Jan 3 2010

Cancer is Awesome!

I’ve been reading a lot recently about the new book from Barbara Ehrenreich, Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America And The World, and it looks fascinating. I first have to admit to not reading it yet – it’s published in the UK at the end of the week and on pre-order. But the extracts I’ve read have been interesting, disturbing and depressing in equal measure. I’ll do my first book review as soon as I’ve got through it. But here are a couple of my initial thoughts about some of the issues Ehrenreich raises.

Firstly, I’m genuinely very interested in her views on chemotherapy and the science and medicine behind the development of breast cancer treatment. Its not my area of expertise, but I’ll follow up on her sources from the book. If any readers know more please link to studies in the comments. But in summary, here is Ehrenreich talking about her book and why if she ‘had her time again’ she wouldn’t go through chemotherapy:

Plus, she believes (probably rightly) that it was the HRT that she was on that ‘caused’ or increased her risk of getting breast cancer. Certainly, there is increasing evidence for a link between HRT and breast cancer.

The two things that really struck me from the extract from her book in the Guardian was a) the devaluing of negativity and b) the particular reliance on a narrow definition of ‘ultrafemininity’ in breast cancer campaigning.

Ehrenreich’s whole book is about how alienating and divisive the positive-wash that cancer is given can be, how she was encouraged to view her cancer as an ‘opportunity’ or even ‘gift’ and how her anger and frustration were often scorned by others. This kind of approach is something that pisses me off on a far less extreme or important level than Ehrenreich – but I think is part of an approach within Western cultures to gloss over the shite in life.

I agree we shouldn’t wallow in negativity and if we focus on all the bad things in life we become insular, boring Emos, or worse, Goths. But sometimes we need to call a spade a fucking useless piece of shit shovel. Sometimes negativity is a good thing, a real emotion, actually brings perspective to what is positive and denying the steaming piles of turd in life can be hugely damaging.

Ehrenreich points to a few studies in the Guardian column*:

* See some writers can link to primary sources!!

These studies show that at best “positive thinking” does not affect cancer survival but at worse that it can lead to the “tyranny of positive thinking” which can conceal distress and leave patients feeling worse. So if you’ve got cancer – its alright to feel shit, angry and frustrated. That doesn’t mean you’re allowed to be a full-time arsehole but you can let rip once and while.

The second point that I found striking was the specific type of femininity attached to breast cancer and breast cancer awareness/campaigning and again I don’t think this is a wholly positive thing. Breast cancer campaigning has been incredibly successful, has turned around society’s perception of what was once a hidden and shameful disease and with that has raised phenomenal amounts of money for breast cancer research. But, as Ehrenreich points out, this has been inextricably linked to stereotype of ultrafemininity which is pink, fluffy, appearance-focussed and somewhat reductive of womanhood to boobies.

Possibly the worst example of this, which I have linked to before, is this breast cancer awareness advert for a ‘BoobiBall’ fundraiser:

Breast cancer awareness tends to promote the notion that women are and indeed should be obsessed with their appearance and that the loss of a or both breasts is the worst possible thing that could happen to a woman. Not to mention the hair loss, weight gain or loss, effect on skin etc.

Now there is no doubt that hair loss and mammectomy hugely affect a number of women with cancer and alter their sense of identity or femininity. My concern would be that this emphasis on the femininity of those going through cancer treatment may exacerbate this impact. Ehrenreich talks about the breast cancer marketplace with the prominence of cosmetics and jewellery and websites that talk about chemotherapy helping you to lose weight and smooth out the skin.

What is significant here is that this same femininity is not associated with lung cancer or heart disease – both huge killers of women as well as men. It is associated with uniquely female breasts** and therefore with women’s bodies being the be-all and end-all of their identity.

** I’d be fascinated to know how men with breast cancer relate to breast cancer campaigning.

Breast cancer is seen not only as a disease attacking part of the body but attacking a woman’s identity because women’s identity is so dominated by their physical appearance and attractiveness (with a special focus on breasts). Unfortunately, as with many things, this focus on ultrafemininity is couched in feminist empowerment language and indeed, in America at least, feminism seems to have been replaced by a breast cancer cult.

Maybe less of a focus on how a woman looks during treatment for a life threatening disease is the least we can offer them?

Jun 6 2009

How to get your research in the Daily Mail

[From Lolcats]

Many years ago I used to work for a press cuttings agency and would therefore read most of the papers every day. One of the most interesting things about this job was seeing how the same story was retold by different papers through different ideological lens. You didn’t think you were getting unbiased news did you? And if that was what people wanted, they would read AP or PA everyday.

No, news is given to us with the light or heavy spin of political opinion. And research is used to enable this in the mainstream press.

This can be well demonstrated by this story about an interview with Sir Stuart Rose by the Observer (trailing the full interview in their Magazine) and in the Daily Mail. The story is that Sir Stuart Rose gave his personal opinion on women and the ‘glass ceiling’. He is the Chief Executive of Marks & Spencer, one of the biggest retailers in the country, and so we are expected to care what he thinks.

Now the Observer pad this article out by getting reactions from other organisations namely the Fawcett Society and Refuge. Fawcett gives stats on the number of women in senior positions in various sectors and Refuge gives a fairly meaningless quote about changing expectations.

The Daily Mail rehashes this article (rather than the original interview) and adds in it’s own bit of ‘new’ research about female happiness. Couple of interesting points about the Daily Mail piece:

  1. It leaves out key pieces of information
  2. Edits the quotes from Fawcett and Refuge in a way that I think distorts their meaning
  3. And throws in a piece of research on female happiness as a way of directly linking the concept that ‘women have crashed through the glass ceiling’ and ‘women are less happy because of it’.

Key information left out – the Fawcett stats on women in top positions in different sectors.
By leaving this information out the fundamental assertion that Sir Stuart makes goes unchallenged in the Daily Mail article. It would be a sentiment that the Daily Mail would agree with “How can there be gender inequality when we’ve had a female Prime Minister/CEO/fighter pilot” etc. You don’t need a GCSE in statistics to work out the significance of this statement. You don’t even need to have gone to primary school.

‘Interesting’ editing of quotes.
I was at first surprised to see Refuge quoted in this piece, given that I think it is fair to say they are a feminist organisation. That was until I realised the Daily Mail hadn’t included the whole quote given to the Observer:

“There has been a subterranean war between men and women, which has largely been won by women who don’t understand what they’ve lost. The hard-won freedom of choice has imprisoned women. I just see an exhausted generation trying to do it all.

Only the highlighted text made it into the Daily Mail article. For more on judicious misquoting, watch this video. WARNING: Contains Ann Coulter.

But most interesting of all, the Daily Mail leads on a “new study”, The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness (pdf), that the Daily Mail says claims women are “less happy nowadays despite 40 years of feminism”. Sigh. I know you can probably guess what is coming but I think it needs to be spelt out for posterity.

Firstly, this is not a new study. In fact the Daily Mail has already covered this piece of research at least FIVE times, the first back in 2007 (see here, here, here, here (all pdfs) and here).

As an aside, notice the picture they use of a WOMAN on a COMPUTER with her back turned on a LITTLE BLOND GIRL. How could she?

Secondly, the study is an attitudinal one and the researchers themselves point to many of the problems with their study design: different data sets, shifting expectations, increased ‘emotional intelligence’. This is not a longitudinal study, this is not a cohort study, this is not a study using the same parameters or methodology for each survey.

What concerns me more is the fact that the study has yet to be peer-reviewed (only being accepted into the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, but not yet published and still no link to their data-set) and yet has obviously been widely press-released and the authors proudly boast their media coverage which includes; The New York Times, CBS News, Financial Times, Guardian, Daily Pennsylvanian and the Western Mail (Wales).

Is this science? The study itself has merit bearing in mind the limitations it points to. Knowledge is a good thing, I don’t think this is a particularly enlightening piece of research but I wouldn’t say it was worthless.

What I do have a problem with is what seems to be the authors’ prioritisation of sensationalised press coverage over academic peer-review. They have for the past 2 years seen the fruits of their labours; wide coverage in the mainstream press and links to stories hinting that perhaps, you know, feminism has gone too far.

The Daily Mail is not particularly pro-women, they are always going to write this kind of guff and find some study or other that will back up their ideological position. Researchers however, should be aghast at the manipulation of their work and should be ashamed of the reactionary articles that reference them rather than proudly linking to them on their website. Unless, this is what passes for academic success these days.

May 17 2009

The Bad Feminist

[picture from the fab Jackie Fleming]

OK, this isn’t exactly about science, although it does have relevance, but I have to blog about this rather than just have drunken rows with feminists in the pub about it. The Observer today has an article representing an ongoing debate/discussion/all-out war within British and American feminism at the moment, one which is regularly crudely characterised as ‘old’ second-wave feminism against ‘young’ third wave/post feminism.

Firstly, to divide feminism up like this is crude, simplistic, adversarial and damaging. Feminisms have always existed, it is not a monolith, there are not keepers of the flame, if you don’t believe me ask any black feminist, Marxist feminist, Feminist Marxist, liberal feminist, Muslim feminist, postmodern feminist, eco-feminist, anarcho-feminist, etc etc yawn etc.

I agree that sexual liberation does not equal emancipation, this is as true for gay politics as for women. I agree that we have a pornification of Western culture (I use that word for US/UK as I can’t speak for Europe etc). I agree that sexual objectification has been packaged, branded and resold to women by a sophisticated Western Capitalism. And I agree that selfish individualism is damaging for feminism which is built on solidarity, activism and an analysis of power whether cultural, economic, religious, social etc.


I am deeply suspicious of feminists telling women that they are not feminists. Firstly, there are not enough of us and we are not winning, so let’s not become arrogant, superior and exclusionary. Secondly, sexual liberation is a very important part of emancipation and sex is a very important part of life for most people. And yet feminist sexual liberation has mutated into looking at what you’re doing and how you’re doing it rather than what you want and your freedom to choose.

Some feminists have become deeply chauvinistic towards, often younger, women who define themselves as feminists. I think this is really exposed by Julie Bindel referring to them as “lazy, bone-idle women” who “can’t claim to be a feminist simply because you’re a woman”. There is nothing lazy or bone-idle about calling yourself a feminist, it is still a difficult thing to do as evidenced by the fact that the vast majority of women in this country do not want to associate themselves with that word. I have no time for the idea that women ‘can’t claim to be a feminist’ as though there is a governing body of feminism that you have to apply to be let into the old boy’s girl’s network. Aren’t we replicating male forms of power here? Are we continuing to tell women what to think, how to dress, how to have sex and what to say? That isn’t why I’m a feminist. I want women to be emancipated not simply live, dress and fuck in a way I want them to.

I am also particularly concerned by the false generation divide that is being created which is deeply patronising and alienating. I have personally encountered this – older feminists dismissing me as young and naïve and not respecting their god-given right to dictate the rules of feminism to me. This is particularly stinging for me given how much I have educated myself in the feminist canon. Given that at 16 years old I was reading Kate Millett while my friends were getting fingered. This is the ultimate adoption of patriarchal power-dynamics and will lead to young feminists rejecting feminism rather than critically engaging with it.

You cannot fossilise political discourse. Feminism is not an ideology it is an analysis of power. And attempting to stop women calling themselves feminists because they are revelling in their sexual promiscuity is as redundant as the Christian Right trying to enforce chastity. That genie is out of the bottle, so how are we going to engage in it. Call these women traitors? Or think how can sexual liberation can continue to be a force for further emancipation?

But let’s not lose sight of the fact that while we’re all having this little inter-feminist war the rest of the world is not listening. Girls are still acid attacked in Afghanistan for going to school. Women and girls are still being raped in shocking numbers in South Africa. As uncovered in the New Scientist, female foetuses are being sex-selectively aborted in Vietnam. Now is not the time to push feminists out of our ever-decreasing circle. If you don’t think sex-feminists are feminist enough, why don’t you tell them to get involved in women’s rights in the global South, raise money for their local rape crisis shelter or stand for election – that will be far more helpful than calling them tarts and traitors. There are enough men out there to do that for us.

Yet again, it is the bloggers at the F Word that make the best contribution to this debate. Do you think that’s because bloggers engage in debate and embrace the principles of open discussion, the free-flow of ideas and encourage arguments to be picked apart, dissected and put back together again? I think so.

May 4 2009

Attracting Women: U iz doin it rong

Great article from Allyson Kapin entitled: Is the Tech World Really Sexist? Not only does it point out that yes it is along with most other industries, but she gives practical advice to women who work in tech and want to break through the digital ceiling.

It is important for women to challenge social norms in this way and indeed we wouldn’t have the vote without the women who protested and were forced to eat tar or Emily Wilding Davison throwing herself in front of a horse. However, men can do their bit too. And not being utter fuckwits would be a start.

Kaplin made reference to Matt Aimonetti’s presentation at the Golden Gate Ruby Conference. Here’s a few stats from the slideshow:

  • There are 32 slides with images on them (including photos, logos and graphics)
  • 17 of the slides have images of women, 7 have images of men and 2 have images of Viagra which I would argue evokes a certain image of men
  • Of the images of women; 10 were overtly sexualised (women in micro skirts, naked arses, pr0n scene with 1 man 4 women etc), 2 were primarily demeaning (i.e. ‘funny’ pictures of an old woman and a fat woman), 2 included Jen, the female character from the IT Crowd, and the remaining three although not overtly sexualised (I’m being generous here) would have been chosen to be titillating (woman being massaged, woman’s mouth and women boxing).
  • Of the images of men: 2 were of Dr Manhattan (drawing attention to his godlike power and penis), 2 were of men surrounded by sexually available women, 2 were the other members of the IT Crowd and one was of Sting (fully clothed and to my mind deeply unsexual, although he is there to reference tantric sex – something to do with ‘performance’, geddit?)
  • Eight of the slides contain the logo for CouchDB which I presume is linked to whatever Aimonetti is peddling. This logo is a graphic representation of a ‘slacker’ bloke on a couch.

Now I can understand that this was probably an incredibly boring talk and Aimonetti thought the only way to engage what would have been a predominantly male audience would be to come across as blokey and use demeaning and objectifying images of women to ‘spice it up’. I also acknowledge that the demographic of the audience for this presentation (whether physically or online) would be one that consumes online pornography and so would identify with the imagery of naked women’s arses, women writhing around in simulated orgies, pole-dancers, thigh-high boots etc.

And therein lies the problem. This is what alienates women, this is what has led to the mainstreaming of images once the preserve of girlie mags now proudly boasted as pr0n. Not only does it stereotype Techy men as sexually-repressive, social misfits who can only conduct a ‘relationship’ with an animated Japanese teenager, it also makes the women who work in Tech, use it, and consume it (increasingly the majority) hate you.

You might think of yourselves as terribly intellectual but there is no difference between this kind of presentation and having a titty calendar up in a garage.

So yes, women can start promoting themselves within Tech and speaking out more. But the men in Tech are going to have to stop being such sad wankers and stop with the lame lame lame Tech porn.

Disclaimer: I know the title of this post and some comments are terribly heteronormative – but then so is most porn. I’ll post some other time about sexuality and science reporting. Although have done some here.

Apr 28 2009

May The Open Source Be With You

(image from the fabulous xkcd)

Righty ho. I’ve been tardy at blogging of late, well blogging here anyway as I do also blog for work here. But I came across this very interesting study via Women Who Tech about the numbers of women who use Open Source software. OK, when I say interesting you’re going to have to bear with me…

I was first exposed to OS (and by that I mean enforced) by a dear friend, Patrick Harvie MSP. He would go on and on and on and on and on about it and I would smile and nod (because I was brought up correctly) while actually thinking about what I was going to drink that night. It went a bit far when he tried to get me to watch a DVD of Eben Moglen.

Then I started my Masters in global healthcare financing and got more and more into pharmaceutical financing and intellectual property rights. I had a eureka moment – this was what Patrick was droning on and on and on and on and on about, now I get it, now I care!

To be honest, software doesn’t float my boat. But the principles are incredibly important and they are important for women. Which brings me back to this study which explores the reasons why a tiny 1.5% of F/LOSS community members are female and many of these reasons are as equally applicable to other scientific/skeptical arenas as to OS. Some reasons summarised here:

  • Women are actively (if unconsciously) excluded rather than passively disinterested. The exclusion happens among people who often do not mean to appear, and who do not interpret their own actions, as hostile to women.

  • F/LOSS communities actively perpetuate a ‘hacker’ ethic, which situates itself outside the ‘mainstream’ sociality, but equates women with that mainstream seen in a contrast to the ‘technical’ realm ascribed to men. Women are treated as either alien Other or (in online contexts) are assumed to be male and thus made invisible.
  • F/LOSS rewards the producing code rather than the producing software. It thereby puts most emphasis on a particular skill set devaluing other activities such as interface design or documentation which women often engage in.
  • F/LOSS production and infrastructure is designed and built assuming contributors have a long history with computers, but women tend to engage later in their lives with computers. In order to join women have a larger amount of catching up work to do, which they must do in an environment that almost exclusively values independent discovery.
  • Inflammatory talk and aggressive posturing (‘flaming’) is accepted within many F/LOSS projects as a key means of developing reputation. This is often off-putting for newcomers and less experienced contributors who are not yet familiar with the community, its norms, or its real hierarchy and is therefore particularly pronounced in the case of women.

These reasons such as exclusion through an imposed hierarchy of skills, advancement through aggressive posturing and equating dynamism against a mainstream that is identified as feminine are all eerily familiar to most spheres of life, be it work, politics or the family.

I’ve spoken to many many male bloggers who are really interested (or pretend to be) when I talk about a feminist analysis of science and mainstream media reporting but then say “Yeah, as a bloke I don’t really do or understand gender.” This is the same as people saying they don’t really have an accent. It is not just women’s responsibility to engage with science and scientific reporting (which in fact they are doing and have done in increasing numbers for decades). Men have to acknowledge the extent to which they are excluding women, however unconsciously this is claimed to be.

This isn’t just women harping on about wanting to be involved in your little subculture, it will actually benefit the F/LOSS community, lead to a richer understanding of the power dynamics involved in media reporting and foster greater creativity and energy. And who knows, you might even get laid more often.

Sep 1 2008

A Womb of One’s Own

Who can blame pregnant women for being confused and infuriated by the ‘health advice’ they get bombarded with from the moment they announce through tears and gritted teeth that they are up the duff? Women have for a long time had to deal with their bodies being considered public property and no one feels more sanctimonious than pooh-poohing the behaviour of a pregnant woman. “This is not just about you CONSIDER the baby!”

Of course a lot of the advice that women get ranges from the eminently sensible to the morally bigoted and the tales of old wives. Taking drinking for example, the British Medical Association last year recommended that pregnant women should not drink AT ALL. Their evidence for the ill effects of a sly glass of wine on the unborn child? Poor to non-existent. You see they couldn’t trust women to drink in moderation so better tell them not to do it at all. Thing is, you have to drink A LOT for it to affect the foetus and insulting women’s intelligence is hardly the best way to go about public health advice.

All of this misses the fact that most of the time women are too queasy to even think about alcohol during pregnancy. But you know what makes them more sick? Self-righteous, unscientific scaremongering by smug, self-satisfied bigots.

Aug 22 2008

Women to blame for own oppression – scientific FACT

More anti-woman propaganda from our friends at the Daily Mail, same story here (“Women are too shy to break through the glass ceiling, says female scientist”). The important word in the Daily Mail’s headline is “says female scientist”. It can’t be sexist or biased because a woman said it! And she’s a scientist! This is a regular trick by the Daily Mail, similar to a comment piece from a few years ago about India being rubbish since the British left – written by an Indian. So not racist at all then?

Despite this basic anti-intellectual point (women can indeed be misogynistic, people of colour can be racist, etc), what about the ‘scientist’ word. Hmmm, not a lot of evidence for that. Shannon Goodson proudly announces that she not only has a bachelors degree, but a Masters too! While still reeling from this academic achievement, I noticed that her Masters was in Organizational Psychology. Now, I’m not one to poo-poo psychology (well, OK I am) but I think it is a stretch to call her a ‘scientist’.

Her notable qualifications have included being a guest on The Dr Pat Show, and presenting her research to “professional associations all over the globe”. Again, the devil is in the detail. Goodson has presented to Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, European Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and both the Southwestern and Southeastern (of the USA) Psychological Associations.

Now, I’m not trying to suggest that this individual is a charlatan, I’m sure she is a very nice human being. Just that her scientific qualifications are limited and her book (non-peer reviewed) is being used to blame women for the structural discrimination they suffer – a point that she should not have been unaware of when writing it.

Psychology is an interesting and controversial discipline, which has historically had an anti-woman streak running through it. It has given us Freud and evolutionary psychology (not to mention the Bell Curve). So we should, at the very least, be demanding of the application of the scientific method when it comes to sweeping statements about half the World’s population.

Again, the book does refer to differences in female achievement between countries and is probably more rigourous than the papers present it. But researchers must be conscious of the way their research will be presented and communicated. This research has been presented in some of the UK press as ‘proof’ that women aren’t cut out for business. Obviously, journalists with their arts degrees are largely to blame, but so are the researchers for the misuse of their research.

Jun 30 2008

Science – good or bad?

I’ve been inspired to start this blog for a number of reasons.

1. A wee while ago I wrote a letter to a paper about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which was making its way through the Westminster Parliament. While Cardinal Keith O’Brien had been given 20mins on Radio 4’s World at One and plenty of column inches, there was no one to represent my rational, science-based views. This was the basis of my letter. The first comment I got on the newspaper’s website read:

“Sadly, being a woman, you will be as rational as the catholic faith itself and as for science based views? Yeah, you mean what you read in Heat or Star magazine.”

Now of course, this gave me epic lols. But seriously, can you imagine a man getting a comment about his gender when he was reacting to a non-gender issue?

2. As a feminist, you are often being confronted with biological determinist arguments: ‘women simply can’t read maps – its been proven’, ‘women are genetically predisposed to liking pink’ etc etc. Given the piss-poor level of scientific reporting in the press, these arguments are used to further demean women and feminist analyses of oppression. These stories are every bit as bad science as homeopathy, but they also impact on women’s inequality.

3. Being involved in the pro-choice movement and again, lobbying on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, it became clear that the scientific evidence supported our cause but was being drowned out by emotional, religious and socially conservative interests. Science won out this time, but it will always be under attack from those who can count on the scientific ignorance of the majority of the population (and our political representatives).

4. I emailed Ben Goldacre to rant about some bad science I came across but weeks after it happened and so he couldn’t follow up on it. Instead he suggested I set up a blog and do it myself.

Er, OK then.

So misogynistic comments on the internet, the need for feminism to engage with science, the need for defenders of the Enlightenment to analyse the science used against women and the fact that I should start taking some initiative on this, all culminated in me starting this blog. I hope you enjoy.