Mind The (nonexistent) Gap

May 27, 2009

In the comments thread to this post, good ol’ Goggler dirtyrose left us a message clearly crying out for a good rant:

The View just did a segment about a study claiming that women are more depressed now than they were in “the good old days” of the 50s (which is a misconception and never existed the way people remember it…). It was some of the most anti-feminist crap I’ve ever heard and I was SHOCKED by it.

Crowfoot responded with the following, just as clearly crying out for a blogaround:

That stat is familiar – I think Shakesville had a post about that? Or was it Tiger Beatdown? In any event, if that statistic is actually true (which I have serious concerns about), do you think that it might be because while we are constantly told we’re all equal and shit, we’re still actually treated like meat-socks and/or children, but we can’t complain about that because we’re all so apparently equal and shit so we must just be over-sensitive. Also, we’re almost all of us working full time and still doing the lion’s share of the housework, so more exhaustion? Maybe?

As a compromise, I provide for your reading pleasure a blogaround of rants:

Tiger Beatdown did, indeed, cover this gem, in a typically hilarious post titled “IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: Tales of the Backlash,” which begins thus:

Greetings! Are you aware of how sad – so sad! So prone to bleak despair! – all women now are, due perhaps to progress? Well, we are. Sad, that is! I read a study about it! It was full of SCIENCE. I even wrote about the SCIENCE, for The Guardian’s Comment is Free! Observe.

You may notice that the last word there is a quote; this is because Sady actually wrote at The Guardian but I loved her her Tiger Beatdown intro too much, so I quoted that one. Click either link (or both!) for the full-frontal Sady Awesome.

However, Crowfoot was right about Shakesville, too: SKM covered it in “Mini-Brooks Minds The Happiness Gap” — way to pro-actively steal my title-pun, Shakesville! A salient quote:

Douthat begins by accepting the premise that women’s happiness is falling worldwide. He then moves on to speculate about why that might be. First, he whips out the old high school debate tactic of bringing up the explanation he does not believe in order to shoot it down:

Again, maybe the happiness numbers are being tipped downward by a mounting female workload — the famous “second shift,” in which women continue to do the lion’s share of household chores even as they’re handed more and more workplace responsibility. It’s certainly possible — but as Wolfers and Stevenson point out, recent surveys actually show similar workload patterns for men and women over all.

I have not paid $5 to download the working paper, so I do not know if Wolfers and Stevenson do in fact claim that workloads are equal for men and women, or if their data are convincing. But notice that Douthat breezily dismisses the very concept of a second shift, without feeling the need to argue his point.

Incertus also did a great job for addressing the fact that a “happiness gap” doesn’t obviously stem from feminism as its cause, and in fa, in “Liberated Women Are Sad.”

It does not occur to him that the freedom to be honest and complain is actually a part of that revolution he’s talking about. “Being unpleasant” and “being unattractive” are heavy weaponry when used against a group of people who must make their way in the world by being pleasant and attractive, as opposed to by their intelligence, strength, and hard work. A woman in the 60s who sat down and said, “my life is unfulfilling and I am unhappy,” would have to deal with the consequences of “being that way.” A woman today has less to worry about. It’s even (almost) fully acceptable today (in certain circles) to complain about how motherhood sucks and having children ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. This is a case where freedom equals the ability to mention that you’re unhappy.

Now, Shakesville gave the hat tip to Language Log, a blog that I follow gleefully and which was my first source for this lovely story. “The happiness gap is back” features a collection of links on the topic, as well as the following graph and accompanying question:


And I’ll ask a simple question: What fraction of graphically and statistically literate people think that the right way to describe the data summarized in that graph is “In postfeminist America, men are happier than women”?

My final impression: gee, anti-feminists sure don’t need much to get all riled up, do they? We must be doing something right.


Ideas Worth Spreading: The Intelligence of Crows

April 19, 2009

Since we can now easily embed TED Talks on wordpress blogs, I thought I’d start a new weekly feature: Ideas Worth Spreading. I love the TED Talks website and so many of the ideas presented there are utterly fascinating and, well, worth spreading. I’m looking forward to having an excuse to spend more time poking through the site to find talks to feature here, and I hope you all enjoy what I find!

Today: Joshua Klein on the intelligence of crows.

Fascinating, eh? It reminds me of Twisty’s post on operant conditioning with her horses. I don’t have a lot to say about this one, but it’s always been one of my favourites to watch.

Got any recommendations for next week’s Ideas Worth Spreading? Send ’em in! Remember, the name is Ideas Worth Spreading, not TED Talks, so it doesn’t have to be from TED, even though that’s what prompted me to blog these– share anything that you find fascinating or powerful and, well, worth spreading!

Gendered language leads to gendered thought?

April 18, 2009

I discovered a fascinating post today: Tiny Shiny Keys and Gendered Language, by Zuska at ScienceBlogs. It’s in response to an even more fascinating bit of science, a paper by Lera Boroditsky, an assistant psychology professor at Stanford University, which can be found here.

As Zuska describes it,

Boroditsky’s essay “Sex, Syntax, and Semantics” is forthcoming in Gentner & Goldin-Meadow (Eds.,) Language in Mind: Advances in the study of Language and Cognition. It is a fascinating (and very readable) look at one aspect of the “does language shape thought” question, which Boroditsky recasts as “Does thinking for speaking a particular language have an effect on how people think when not thinking for speaking that same language?” It turns out the answer is yes.

I want to draw your attention to my favourite part of the paper (which you really should read in full!), namely, section 4.6: Grammatical Gender and Object Descriptions. Native speakers of either Spanish or German (who were also proficient in English) were given 24 words, 12 of which were feminine in Spanish and masculine in German, and 12 of which were the other way around, and they were asked to write down English adjectives to describe the words. The results?

As predicted, Spanish and German speakers generated adjectives that were rated more masculine for items whose names were grammatically masculine in their native language than for items whose names were grammatically feminine. Because all object names used in this study had opposite genders in Spanish and German, Spanish and German speakers produced very different adjectives to describe the objects.

For example, the word for “key” is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish. German speakers described keys as hard, heavy, jagged, metal, serrated, and useful, while Spanish speakers said they were golden, intricate, little, lovely, shiny, and tiny. The word for “bridge,” on the other hand, is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. German speakers described bridges as beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty, and slender, while Spanish speakers said they were big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, and towering.

(Quoted directly from the paper in question, which, remember, you can read here!)

It’s always been my gut feeling that language matters, especially in terms of perpetuating systems of thought. However, I’d only been really certain of this on the level of, for example, using “mankind” to mean “humankind.” It becomes obviously biased when one considers, for example, the following sentence:

It is morning in Chicago, and throughout the city man is preparing for his day. He brushes his teeth, trims his beard or puts on his make up, ties his tie or pulls on his pantyhose… 

By this point I tend to get outraged cries that obviously if you know the gender, you use the feminine form. “But I thought it was neutral!” I reply, killing the conversation but emerging semi-victorious.

However, I never had proof, before, that language matters so deeply.

On the one hand, it fascinates me to see how invested we can get, however subconsciously, in the gender binary. On the other hand, life is not academic; the more deeply-rooted these biases are, the harder they will be to conquer. But I suppose all we can do is keep working away. After all, if we can eliminate silly gender stereotypes, and create a world in which men and women can be strong and elegant, it should be no problem to think of our bridges as being both, as well.

Quick hit: synthetic blood from stem cells

March 23, 2009

So, this is some super-cool science news from the BBC!

UK scientists plan a major research project to see if synthetic human blood can be made from embryonic stem cells.

Led by the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service, the three year trial could provide an unlimited supply of blood for emergency transfusions.

Scientists have already shown it is possible to take a single stem cell from an early human embryo and encourage it to develop into mature blood cells in the laboratory.

And a US firm called Advanced Cell Technology has managed to produce billions of red blood cells from embryonic blood cells in this way.

The challenge now is to scale up the production and move the science from the lab to the bedside, which will take years.

Professor Turner said: “We should have proof of principle in the next few years, but a realistic treatment is probably five to 10 years away.

“In principle, we could provide an unlimited supply of blood in this way.”

This is especially handy since they can pick out only those embryos with O-type blood to create the stem cells. O is the only safe blood type to use in emergency situation, since it’s the “universal donor” and contains none of the antibodies that some people react to. Unfortunately, only 7% of the population has blood type O, so it’s always in short supply. By creating synthetic blood from stem cells, we can not only be sure to eliminate the risk of blood-borne diseases in transfusions, we can also have unlimited quantities of type O blood on hand for any time we’re unsure of (or don’t have time to check) a patient’s blood type! Hurray!

Well, mostly hurray. Some people aren’t so happy.

However, many groups object to the use of embryonic stem cells on the grounds that it is unethical to destroy embryos in the name of science.

Josephine Quintavalle of the public interest group Comment on Reproductive Ethics said: “Like so many of the claims associated with embryonic stem cells, this is first steps research rather than a cure around the corner, and just as hypothetical as the rest of the claims which try to justify destroying the human embryo for the benefit of mankind.

First, this isn’t in the name of science. I mean, I like science, so I don’t think things done “in the name of science” are less worthwhile just because they’re not focused on practical benefits. It’s just inaccurate in this case. We’re researching this process in the name of saving millions of lives, not in the name of science.

Also, does this make any sense at all as a reasonable way to protest?

“Associating this controversial research with a National Blood Transfusion service may even end up contaminating the feel-good image of blood banks.

“Those who donate blood but who defend the right to life of the human embryo may be reluctant to continue giving their blood.”

Scientists are researching ways to, in ten years, solve the problem of not getting enough O-type blood from voluntary donations. So now, you think blood banks are Evil, so you’re going to stop donating blood. Zuh?? Wouldn’t it be the opposite way around– every ounce of blood you donate is a widdle baby embryo that doesn’t have to be turned into synthetic blood? If you don’t want us to make stem-cell blood, don’t stop donating yours! Form huge crowds of type-O donors and mob those blood banks so we don’t have a reason anymore for synthetic blood! You think these scientists could get any funding if the blood banks were glutted with type O blood? No way! Refusing to donate is only going to increase their support!

But I guess that kind of logical thought is too science-y for this crowd. So go ahead, give the blood banks a miss. We’ll carry on without you. In the name of science!

Apparently this is a humor blog now…

February 15, 2009

All the greatest scientific minds of the ages were hanging out in heaven. They decided to play hide and seek. Einstein agreed to seek first, so he covered his eyes and started counting to a hundred.

“One… two… three…”

All the scientists ran off to find hiding places, except Newton. Instead, he drew a big square and stood right in the middle of it. When Einstein reached 100, Newton was standing right in front of him.

“Newton is out!” he shouted to the other scientists.

“No, that’s not true,” said Newton. “I’m not Newton.”

By this time the other scientists had come out of their hiding places, and they informed him that he most certainly was Newton, and so it was his turn to seek.

“But the area of this square is exactly one meter,” he tells them. “At one Newton per square meter, I am actually Pascal. So Pascal is out!”

Pascal closed his eyes and started counting to a hundred.

Doctor, Doctor! (No, it’s not Dr. Who… alas.)

February 4, 2009

When I stumbled upon this article yesterday, I thought it was fascinating and started writing a blog post on it; I didn’t finish the post, because I’d already posted for the day. I planned to finish it up this afternoon.

Well, now I don’t have to. Sarah Jaffe at GlobalComment does an excellent takedown of the “news” article, which I doubt I can match. (Should’ve been faster; I could’ve been the one to break the news to the feminist blogosphere!)

Nevertheless, waste not, want not. The article is supposedly about Jill Biden returning to work but instead is about how she prefers to be adressed as “Dr. Biden” despite the fact that she’s not a real doctor, she only has a Ph.D, not an M.D. (bitch!). There’s also an adorable little side-obsession about the fact that Dr. Biden is the only second lady to work while her husband is in office, but the Ph.D. “controversy” is the main focus. Lynne Cheney has a Ph.D., too, it says, and she always went by Mrs. Cheney!

Money quote: “Also, just think if you were on an airplane and you called yourself ‘doctor’ and there was an emergency.”

I find the Ph.D./M.D. “doctor” distinction to be an compelling topic, though I side pretty firmy with the idea that if you have gotten a doctorate you can call yourself a doctor. However, I don’t think the female/male “doctor” distinction is compelling, exactly; it’s an interesting phenomenon to discuss, but it’s not a compelling argument to engage in.

My parents both have Ph.D.s in computer science, and I can’t tell you how many times my dad gets called “Dr. Smith” while my mom is “Mrs. Smith” (Not my real last name.) Or, even worse, my dad is “Dr.” and my mom is Susan. Once, we even had “Dr. Smith and Sue Smith.” My mother’s name is not Sue. It’s Dr. Susan Smith. And when you screw up, and call her “Mrs. Smith,” you don’t get to pretend it’s really about the fact that she’s not an M.D. Because even though the M.D./Ph.D. debate takes place with gender-neutral terms, nobody ever fails to address a professorly white man as anything other than doctor.

My parents emigrated from Canada for their degrees. They worked their asses off. And yet, my friends growing up had to be told again, and again, and again that my mom isn’t Mrs. Smith, because they’d forget every time. I remember asking once why my mom insisted, because it intimidated my friends a little, and she said that if she didn’t insist, if she didn’t keep reminding people all the time, they’d “forget,” and she worked to hard to let it not count. Maybe it didn’t matter what my friends called her when they asked for more juice, but it mattered that she was willing to be stubborn.

My mom is in computer science, which is one of the more male-dominated fields, but that makes it worse, not better, that she has to insist and be stubborn in order for people to “remember” to call her by her actual name. But it’s worked. She gets that respect, because she demands it. She’s actually Head of the department now (which makes me so proud, and also leads to hilarious hijinks when people looking for the Head guess the wrong Dr. Smith). But she shouldn’t have to demand the same title that her coworkers– including people who do not actually have Ph.Ds– get automatically. Because that’s rubbish.

A bit like the L.A. Times article that way, actually.

The people-making-pretty-good-points-in-unexpected-places blogaround!

February 2, 2009

At the top of our list, we have Cracked.com, which is usually the kind of place that I go to to find 7 Badass Animals Presidents Have Kept As Pets or 8 Everyday Words With X-Rated Origins. I don’t usually venture too far into the site, since, as previously noted about a bajillion times, humor is a tricky tightrope to walk and the more entitled white guys you put in a room, the less likely they are to actually be funny. HOWEVER, I actually found Hollywood’s 5 Saddest Attempts At Feminism to be absolutely spot-on. It looks at Eowyn, Padme Amidala, River Tam, Catwoman, and Elizabeth Swan, examines why people consider them feminist portrayals, and then points out what’s wrong with them. Absolutely adore those characters? I do too! (Well, except for Catwoman, maybe.) But do they have their flaws? Oh, yeah! And Cracked does a surprisingly good job of pointing them out sucintly and humorously. Go take a look!

Also in the realm of movies, The A.V. Club, which I usually hear about in sentences containing the words “sexist” and “assholes,” has an interesting article about female characters who have no purpose in life except making the male lead realize how great life is: Wild things: 16 films featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls. I don’t know too much about the specific movies in question, but the general commentary seems spot-on: when ladies are just happy and cute and perfect all the time, and have no inner life unrelated to that of the protagonist, they’re not really characters anymore, they’re just woman-shaped plot devices.

Next up, Discover Magazine. Okay, maybe not everyone is as skeptical of basically all print and broadcast media the way I am, but I was still pleased to see this downright feminist piece: The Aggressive Egg. Basically it’s about how male scientists are big dumbos who tell stories about strong, manly sperm racing to get to the egg and forcefully penetrate it, when actually sperm can be kind of stupid, and the eggs have to choose and attract sperm, and then let them in. Cool! Well, except for the part where scientists are sometimes stupid-heads, but that’s okay, it’s not really their fault.