Jun 21 2009

Women just aren’t funny, while patriarchy is hilarious

[I heart Sarah Silverman]

I have been speaking to a friend a lot recently about how much Spiked Online sucks. As a supposedly intelligent, progressive website it is regularly weirdly reactionary, poorly written and strangely often plays into the hands of big business. Of course I moaned about it but didn’t really know what to do. However, now I think is the time for the sceptics to strike as is well demonstrated by the indefatigable Gimpy.

And what do they go and do but hand me a terrible article on gender by Patrick West to criticise. So settle in and lets deconstruct a little.

For a site that claims to be libertarian they are very selective about the power dynamics they choose to oppose. Government forcing us to do stuff – bad, patriarchy squeezing us into oppressive flawed and frankly lame gender-stereotypes – fine, indeed ‘natural’.

Patrick West decides to criticise moaning women who complain about aggressive atmospheres in TV panel shows and in politics. Put simply, if you don’t like the rules that us boys have made for our club, then get out. But he also goes further by saying that women aren’t as funny as men and that a hand full of women have adapted to the adversarial nature of the House of Commons so other women should similarly ‘grow some balls’. Nice.

Let’s start with the spurious claim that men are naturally funnier, like there’s some funny chromosome or identifiable ‘natural template’ of comedy. Call me a lay scientist, but I think that is likely to be bollocks.

Being funny is something that is beaten out of girls at a young age. Being funny is often synonymous with being smart and being clever two things that are seen as deeply unattractive in young women by young men. Put simply, funny girls don’t get laid. Young, insecure men certainly don’t want to get naked in front of a smart young woman who might laugh at their cock. Humour is a powerful thing, it cuts people down, it pokes fun at them, it makes them look ridiculous and men don’t like that coming from a woman.

Its not that men are funnier or more aggressive than women, it that females are brought up to be attractive in the eyes of men – that means feminine, and that means not funny. In all these stupid surveys about what women look for in a man, a guy who can make them laugh always comes top. When do men ever look for being funny as a top quality in a woman?

As for women ‘growing some balls’ and wouldn’t it be better if women were just more like men, again I’m afraid Mr West that I think you’ll find that it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Let’s just say for argument’s sake that women should be more like men in politics. If you want to lazily stereotype people and then try to defend such ‘generalisations’ as scientific, then fine let’s enter that science-free zone for a second.

When women are assertive what they quickly find is that other people actually think they’re aggressive. Men being assertive are just being men and nobody notices or comments on it. Women being assertive are cold, bolshy, pushy, unnatural, surly, and generally a bitch. So Margaret Thatcher was often portrayed as being a man, and indeed encouraged that portrayal. Barbara Castle, Shirley Williams, and Ann Widdecombe have all been portrayed at one time or other as mad, bad or useless.

(As an aside I’m getting really sick of the use of a handful of examples as ‘proof’ of anything. Those three women’s careers span over half a century in which there were hundreds of male MPs. You know their name because there were so few)

If women don’t want to take on certain masculine traits in order to succeed in their field, and particularly if they dare to criticise that culture, they are accused of “crying when they got insulted”, that they “moan about ‘ya-boo’ politics” and are “timidly retreating” from challenges.

Let us step out of that science-free zone where ‘generalisation’ is a mathematical term that allows you to be a fuckwit.

To put that into algebraic terms:
Where A is men’s height and B is women’s height.
A > B ≠ any ungrounded statement you want to make

How about you analyse that behaviour in a way that doesn’t maintain your power? Do you think that perhaps ‘ya-boo’ politics is not the best way to run a country? Could it possibly be that the people that are put off by cock-knocking in Parliament might actually be intelligent, thoughtful, empathetic, rationally minded people (female or male) who have something to contribute to discourse and debate? You generally find that those who shout the loudest have the least to say, (see BNP etc).

Now I say all this as an assertive woman, but one who has often been called aggressive, blunt and argumentative when I ‘act like a man’ (read: have an opinion). If I stay and fight I’m a bitch if I don’t want to play by male rules I’m timid. Seriously, there is no pleasing anyone. But I also recognise, that although I am able to stand my ground and thrive in a combative environment not everyone can or wants to. This includes men but mostly impacts on women and this is the crucial point – by creating barriers to entry into politics, the arts, comedy or anything, you are losing out and perpetuating the same bullshit over and over again.

Ultimately saying that adversarial, combative, ya-boo debate is the best form of politics is anti-intellectual. That argument is nothing to do with the substance and all about the style and posturing. It’s rhetoric over rationality.

Jo Brand commented on the structure of certain TV panel shows not working well for women. That doesn’t mean that women are less funny. (For a start the only funny ones on Mock the Week are Frankie Boyle and Dara O’Briain) It means that the set up, where they have to fight for air and verbally jostle for position, and the atmosphere, which is probably as much backstage as what we see on our screens, is not conducive to women being able to be heard. They could have hilarious things to say, but Jo Brand doesn’t feel they get the chance.

I’m not saying that there need to be an equal opps policy on Mock the Week, but women should be allowed to criticise that aspect of it without being told that they are weak, moaning and unfunny.

I don’t want anything to be diluted or weakened and I do not believe that enabling women to participate meaningfully will lead to that. That is a myth perpetuated by those in power – if we change something then awful things would happen! Things would CHANGE! I actually think (in fact know) that breaking down gender stereotypes leads to more diversity, more creativity and is more dynamic. It is the femininity vs masculinity, power vs weakness dichotomy which is stale, discredited and monotonous.

Viva la evolution.

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.

Jun 1 2009

Men are from Simpleton…

[Brooker supporting Water Aid. See he’s not such a miserable bugger]

I’m just finishing off a post about the Daily Mail being wrong, but thought I’d draw attention to this fabulous column by Charlie Brooker today. Arf.

I believe the ‘dick-swinging contest’ is called cock-knocking in some parts….

May 24 2009

Women and CAM

I was reminded of the women and complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM) ‘problem’ by this blog about Professor Edzard Ernst’s talk at the last Skeptics in the Pub (which I missed, slap wrists). He mentioned that he had been talking to a female homeopath and as an aside said that most homeopaths are women. When quizzed on this later on he said:

All surveys show that the typical user of complementary medicine (more specifically homeopathy) but complementary medicine is… I call it “The Four F’s” – Around forty, female, fertile… and I was going to say “fucking mad”

Now I have blogged on this before and do concede that indeed women are the bigger consumer of CAM, and it seems many are practitioners. So as I asked last time – why?

Purely on anedoctal experience it tends to be either or both based on a) bad experience of ‘orthodox’ medicine and b) out of desperation. One woman I know was having trouble conceiving and so went for fertility treatment. This treatment was ultimately unnecessary because the cause of their infertility was, as it is for most 30-something professionals, a lack of sex (I’m not medically trained but I believe that is key). The treatment did however result in alapecia for her. Both of these events are pretty high on the scale of emotionally devastating and led her to go to a snake-oil salesman to treat the hair loss and later to a Chinese herbalist for fertility ‘things’. A combination of these treatments not working and me suggesting that it might take less effort if she just set fire to her money in the comfort of her own home, she now accepts that they weren’t the best course of action but that in both circumstances she was distraught and needed help from somewhere.

Postscript: she now has two children and her hair grew back albeit completely white, which I think is rather cool.

In a previous job I also attended a seminar on Do Not Resuscitate orders arranged by the then Disability Rights Commission. I was representing a certain medical professional body and was therefore treated with suspicion bordering on contempt. This was because the politicised disabled people involved in the seminar had had awful experiences of the NHS and at the hands of doctors hence their admirable drive to get involved in disability rights work. These people would have been badly treated, misdiagnosed, ignored, possibly abused and so were aggressively opposed to doctors deciding on their fate when they were incapacitated. They did not trust doctors to make decisions that they felt would be based on prejudiced views of a disabled patient’s quality of life. The health professionals in the room discussed the nature of resuscitation and how rarely it even works but it was difficult to shrug of the, in many cases well-founded, suspicion of doctors.

So my point is, that although these anecdotes may illustrate experiences that may lead people towards CAM or at least away from the NHS, not all women have had terrible experiences of doctors, feel alienated from the experience of the NHS or are in an extreme health situation. This makes me wonder whether gender inequality in society as a whole has some bearing on this. Is CAM more empowering for women? Is it because CAM sells you the facade that you are taking your health into your own hands? Is the communication of CAM better i.e. the therapeutic relationship is more important to many women? These are genuine questions, because I really don’t know.

Also, given Prof Ersnt’s suggestion that users of CAM are “around forty, female, fertile and … fucking mad” could there also be something in – now bear with me here – the tradition of the witch? The Witch has been a potent symbol for centuries and although it has been interpreted as a sexist stereotype of old, ugly women, the witch has also be reclaimed by feminists as the symbol of a strong, powerful if maleficent woman. (It important to point out the various cultural variations, e.g. in Central and Eastern European during the Middle Ages witches were believed to be male or female, witches being predominantly female is mostly a Western European conception, but that aside…)

Do female CAM practitioners fit in somewhere in the tradition of strong female ‘healers’? Is there any connection to the reclaiming of the ‘witch’ by feminists in the 60s/70s and its reinvention into the emancipatory goddess rituals? Of course I’m not blaming feminism for CAM, but it does seem likely that there is some connection between people feeling marginalised from ‘orthodox’ medicine and therefore veering into what are perceived as empowering alternatives. My only hope is that with the vastly increased number of female doctors coming up through the system this may have an affect on women’s perception of medicine.

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 30 2009

A Sow’s Ear

Do NOT share cups with pigs

OK, I can’t have a science blog without mentioning swine flu. Is there a gendered analysis? Well probably in the access to healthcare for women, particularly poor women but there’s no data at this time. Generally, women do worst in natural disasters – most shocking stat I’ve come across is that between 70%-80% of the people who died in Southeast Asia after the tsunami of 2004 were female.

But also on searching for swine flu and women, I can across this hilarious conspiracy theory from Wendy Wright of Concerned Women of America (Unconcerned Women of America never really got off the ground). The ironically named Wright opined that Obama’s declaration of a state of emergency was a ruse for appointing Kathleen Sebelius as health secretary by stealth. Will this man stop at nothing?

Of course, the interesting thing is not Wright’s lunacy but the fact that she opposes the appointment of Sebelius because she is pro-choice. Sebelius has a great record of vetoing anti-abortion legislation in Kansas where she was Governor and she has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood which has fund-raised for her. All this and she is a Catholic too! Maybe she’s a fan of Catholics for Choice.

Wendy Wright on the other hand is staunchly anti-abortion which has included challenging the Food and Drug Administration’s licensing of emergency contraception, trying to stop the appointment of anyone who has had anything to do with any organisation that has advocated for women’s access to safe abortions, and she also went to Kosovo to lobby against specific articles in the constitution of the emerging state which provided:

  • the right to make decisions in relation to reproduction in accordance with the rules and procedures set forth by law.
  • the right to have control over his/her body in accordance with law

Apparently these are ‘bad things’. Shockingly arrogant but at least unsuccessful.

(She’s also opposed hate crime legislation and marriage equality so obviously sidelines in homophobia)

What is most concerning for feminists and the rational, is the language Wright uses to oppose reproductive rights and other politically motivated positions on science such as all forms of human cloning; saying that this is about women’s safety and protections against exploitation and the harvesting of eggs. The Right are very adroit at using feminist language when it suits them (see arguments made for the invasion of Afghanistan), but this is particularly dangerous when sisterly language is used to undermine women’s access to safe and legal healthcare and drugs:

“When a drug is easily available, it is a public health hazard to women.”
Wendy Wright talking about FDA licensed emergency contraception

OK, so it wasn’t about swine flu. But you’ve gotta love that quote.

Feb 26 2009

Mine’s a Pint

I love geeks. I love them because they know stuff. I may accuse the press wildly of sexism and I pick easy targets (although bear in mind that A LOT of people take most stuff in the press at face value). However, there are those that can methodically and mathematically tear apart sexist science reporting, such as this blog on women and alcohol. Story in the press here, and here.

After such expert and rational analysis – now for the feminist dogma…. There are repeated stories and commentary in the press about women drinking and this being; Britain Going To Hell In A Handcart, Feminism Going Too Far, Ladette Culture Going Too Far etc etc. Fact is, men still beat women when it comes to alcoholism, alcohol related deaths, and many indeed beat them when drunk.

I am not saying ‘Yay, women should drink till they get cancer!’, I am saying that research into women drinking is suspiciously over-reported, regularly misinterpreted and uniformly accompanied with moralising about wimmin and how awful they are.

Declared Interest
I drink. A Lot.

Feb 2 2009

WOMEN: Don’t know you’re limitless

Here we go again. Everything that is wrong with the world is women’s fault. Here, Children’s Society blames working women for family breakdown, under-achieving children and getting themselves into poverty.

I’d first like to declare an interest, my parents divorced when I was 7. I have two degrees, a successful career and an ability to make friends. You know why? Partly, yes I’m fabulous, but I’m also middle class.

What angers me about these kind of stories is not that the data is wrong, although sometimes it is (links to a comment I made on another blog but haven’t got round to blogging on here, tut). Its the inference it makes and the information is leaves out.

So if economic independence is allowing women to leave unsatisfactory relationships. So what do you suggest? Making women more dependent on men? Make them stay in unsatisfactory relationships?

The information that is missing here is about men. Men and women get divorced, why then to men disappear? Why is it divorced women that largely have sole responsibility for bringing up children? Because our society puts more responsibility on women for childcare than on fathers. Women being economically independent is the problem rather than men not being able to adapt to their changing role in society and in the family. Relationship breakdown is the problem rather than adults not being able to break up without turning into sadists intent on harming their previous loved one and often using the children to do that.

The genie is out of the bottle. Women are not going to stop working because they have a right to do so. Couples are not going to stop splitting up, because it is unhealthy for people to be trapped in a loveless relationship. The key here is the information buried deep in the article:
Figures published by Unicef in 2007 showed that children in Scandinavian countries – where rates of family break-up are similar to the UK – are happier than British children.

Why? Its the Economy, stupid. “Broken” families end up in poverty because (and bear with me this is quite mathematically complicated) two incomes are better than one. Childcare is expensive, before women were working they were doing the childcare for free. Only around 12.5% of absentee parents pay child support. Having this ‘Men, tuh‘ attitude is letting them off the hook and blaming women for not putting up with it.

And I’m not even going to start on the often implicit ‘children being brought up solely by women are crap because women are crap’ argument, I’m sure I’ll return to that another day. See picture above instead.

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.