Aug 25 2009

Ruthless, sex-fiend, testosterone-fuelled women gamblers found by scientists

The reporting of a particular study in the last couple of days sounded more like an ad for a kinky fetish party. “Risky women are ‘hungry for sex’” panted the Press Association over the newswires of the world. “’Traders’ testosterone’ fuels female financial flutters” was Nature’s lame attempt. “Even female investors juiced by testosterone” was Daily Finance’s rather damp contribution.

And I’m just generally baffled as to why The Med Guru felt the need to use a picture of Scarlett Johansson with this story.

So yes “researchers” have “found” that women with greater levels of testosterone are “greater risk takers” (notice my subtle highlighting of certain words there). And of course testosterone is a SEX hormone so some journalists thought it would be a good idea to talk about SEX a bit as frankly SEX is more interesting than financial trading which is what the study was actually about.

The “researchers” were in fact an Associate Professor in Finance, a Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance and a Professor of Comparative Human Development and Evolutionary Biology (who lists press cuttings and press releases on web page rather than journal articles, but that’s just a particular prejudice of mine which has frequently been supported by evidence).

They used the results from a cohort of 460 (320 male, 140 female) MBA (management qualification) students at Chicago University of their levels of testosterone and compared this to their risk aversion and the careers that they went on to do after graduation (which were rated as ‘risky’ or not on the basis of whether they were in the financial sector).

Now, I’m not in a position to judge the accuracy of the testosterone testing (saliva collection and digit ratio), so I’ll assume they’re sound.

The risk aversion test and career choice data have huge confounding factors. The risk aversion test was a computer simulation where participants were asked to choose between a fixed cash amount (from $50 to $120) or to ‘gamble’ for a lottery prize or either $200 or zero. I do not believe that this is a credible test because it was 15 questions in a non-real life example, where participants were selected as ‘professional financial decision makers’ and were not intended to be representative.

Students are a specific type of people, MBA students are even more specific, and MBA students having their risk aversion measured when fully aware of the concepts of risk aversion and financial decisions are likely to give specific answers. (BTW you can actually re-read the above sentence substituting the word ‘specific’ for the word ‘wanky’ and it is still true).

Secondly, the career data was collected two years after the test with no follow-up interview. Therefore, it was assumed that graduates chose certain “high risk” professions (in the financial sector) because they were risk-takers and the risk-averse would take low risk jobs outside of the sector. In fact, there may have been many reasons why certain jobs were taken; offers, opportunities, location, having children, redundancy, not wanting to be surrounded by trading wankers, etc. That is not a measure of risk aversion, for me it would be a measure of bullshit tolerance.

So I don’t think the research was great, but the reporting of the research was atrocious. None of the problems with the research were alluded to, they tried to sex it up by using words like ‘gambling’ and ‘excessive drinking’ and, er, ‘sex’. And they just made false and misleading statements:

Daily Telegraph: “[The study] found that testosterone-driven women who liked to gamble went on to choose careers in finance”

Press Association: “Women with an appetite for risk may also be hungry for sex, a study suggests.” (No, it really doesn’t)

I am most concerned by this quote from one of the researchers:

“This is the first study showing that gender differences in financial risk aversion have a biological basis, and that differences in testosterone levels between individuals can affect important aspects of economic behaviour and career decisions,” said Professor Dario Maestripieri.

Now I have met enough academics who have been misquoted in the press to treat quotes with some suspicion. However, what is important is that this study DOES NOT show that gender differences in financial risk aversion have a biological basis. Even if the methodology was perfect it is still a small study on a select group of individuals who are members of an elite in a Western capitalist society. That is a long way from establishing a ‘biological basis’ for individual attitudes and behaviours.

This also feeds into the argument that women are not making it into top financial or commercial sector jobs because they are risk averse and non-competitive: only women with unusual ‘male hormones’ can make it to the top and the fact that men are over-represented is “natural”. This is wildly reductionist. There are huge environmental and social determinants of managing and evaluating risk and humans are notoriously bad at doing it.

So sorry to those who had hoped that scientists had found a bunch of sex-fiend, testosterone-fuelled women (you know who you are), you’ll probably find they’re too smart to be working in finance.

Thanks to the ever-wonderful Dr Petra for the tip-off on this.

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.