Archive for the ‘gender differences’ Category

Whenever someone claims they can tell if a piece of writing was written by a man or a woman, I have to suppress a knowing smile. They have only a fifty percent chance of being right, and a near certainty of embarrassing themselves with rationalizations if they are wrong. Writing, apparently, is a skill that has very little to do with gender.

I first became aware of this basic fact through the reactions to James Tiptree, Jr. As a young teen, I remember critics praising Tiptree for a supposedly masculine prose style. When rumors emerged that Tiptree might be a woman, many explained at great length why that could not possibly be so. Then it was revealed that Tiptree was actually a woman named Alice Sheldon – and in a perfect demonstration of double-think, many of the same critics began explaining how they knew that all along, and pointing out aspects of her prose as evidence for what was suddenly an obvious fact.

Something of the reversal happened a few years later with F. M. Busby, a writer of intelligent space opera. Because Rissa Kerguelen, one of Busby’s greatest successes, featured a female protagonist, dozens of people assumed that Busby was a woman. A man, they argued, couldn’t possibly write such a sympathetic female character. But Busby was a man – although one fond of saying that “An intelligent man who isn’t a feminist isn’t.” The reasons that he went by his initials were that he disliked his given names of Francis Marion, and that his publisher considered his nickname “Buz” too informal for a book cover.

Having these two counter-examples, I have always been skeptical about efforts to identify gender through writing samples. Like too much alleged social science, such efforts always assume that certain subject matter and stylistic choices are somehow innately masculine or feminine (gay, lesbian, transgendered, or queer are always left out). A male writer, for instance, might be supposed to use “I” and to write short, unqualified statements. By contrast, a woman might be said to be more tentative in offering an opinion, and write about emotions or domestic subjects. Needless to say, such divisions say more about the devisers of such studies than any actual differences.

In fact, I’ve always found such studies rather dismissive of writer’s abilities. Most writers I know would have no trouble imitating the so-called masculine or feminine prose styles of such studies. Once they knew the required mannerisms, all that would be needed is a few hundred words of practice.

Moreover, whenever I have tried any online versions of such studies, the results have been random. For example, this morning I ran samples of my writing through Gender Genie, an online adaptation of one such study. My journalistic articles registered consistently as male, and my personal blog entries as female. My fiction registered as both male or female, although neither very strongly. Similarly, two women writers of my acquaintance registered as male, and a male friend as female. I would have tried more samples, but at this point, it was obvious that the results had such a large margin of error as to be unreliable in any given case.

And apparently, my personal observations were correct. Recently, fantasy writer Teresa Frohock invited readers of her blog to identify the gender of the writers of ten different writing samples. Of 1,045 guesses, only 535 were correct – a number slightly above random chance, but well within statistical variation. As Frohock noted, despite all the elaborate rationalizations and the stereotyped ideas that men were more likely to write epic stories and women emotional-driven ones, people were unable to tell men from women based on how and what they wrote.

In other words, exactly what my experience would predict.  Excuse me while I cackle, “Told you so!”

But this subject goes far beyond a mildly diverting observation. The obvious conclusion is that, if writing samples don’t reveal who is male or female, then why are most people so quick to assume that supposed differences in male and female brains are significant? If the products of those brains are indistinguishable from one another, then the brain differences can’t matter much, either. As often happens when gender is discussed, too many people tell themselves comforting stories, then look for reason to believe the stories instead of examining the evidence.

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Considering how anti-intellectual North Americans are, we show a curious eagerness to justify ourselves by mentioning science. Sometimes we mention science to make our ideas respectable, sometimes to make our prejudices seem true, and other times to dramatize our illnesses and fears, but we almost always do so in a way that shows that we know little about what we talking about.

Evoking science is, of course, a form of appeal to authority, one of the most basic forms of invalid argument. In former times, we might have appealed to God in the same way, but the debating tactic remains the same – by mentioning an unassailable authority, we hope to reinforce our positions while deflating any counter arguments.

Take, for example, many New Age beliefs and medical treatments. New Age practitioners frequently dismiss science as being narrow minded. Yet, when called upon to justify their own beliefs, almost all of them depend on a veneer of science.

Sometimes, they refer at second or third hand to scientists who seem closest to their beliefs, such as Carl Jung, or to discredited studies such as those that claimed to prove the power of prayer.

More often, though, New Agers fall back on pseudo-scientific jargon. By far the most common is to describe what they are doing as a transfer of energy, either from themselves to their clients, or from an inanimate object to a person. Since no trace of such energies has ever been found, at best the reference is a metaphor, but at worst it is simply wrong.

Personally, I’ve always thought that New Agers would do better to come into the Computer Age and talk about a transfer of information, which often can’t be expected to leave any detectable trace. But instead they remain bemired in vague recollections of Newtonian physics, and make dismissing their ideas all too easy.

In other cases, science is mentioned to reinforce prejudice. For example, sexism is often justified by an appeal to biology. If men’s and women’s brains are structured differently, for example, sexists will claim that the two sexes must have different capacities, as well – never mind that no one has ever shown that brain structure and capacity have any relation to one another.

If anything, the fact that the radically different brain structure of parrots does not keep them from having an intelligence at the lower end of the human scale suggests that the differences between male and female brain capacity are trivial or non-existent.

Similarly, many parents claim that behavioral differences between the sexes must be biological because, despite their best efforts, their children act in stereotyped ways. This idea is not only ridiculous in that any connection between our fixed ideas of masculinity or femininity and our DNA seems so remote as to be non-existent, but conveniently ignores the fact that stereotyped expectations are placed upon children from their birth.

In fact, when parents know the sex of their child before birth, they begin talking about the child in stereotyped terms. But the biological explanation sounds better than suggesting we are unaware of our own sexism, and has the added benefit of excusing us from any responsibility.

Science is also used to elevate our infirmities and insecurities. Like someone who has found a book of medical or psychological diagnosis, many of us like to exaggerate our conditions by claiming that we have a recognized condition. If we are always sleepy because we stay up until 2AM every morning, we decide – often without any expert diagnosis – that we have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. If we are anxious, we have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. If we have react naturally in a stressful situation, then we have Impostor Syndrome.

By making these self-diagnoses, we make life harder for those who actually have the conditions we have claimed. After all, when people have heard enough spurious claims, they are less likely to believe in genuine ones, or give them any consideration. Through this verbal hypochondria, we create the impression that anyone who claims these conditions must be as insincere or as misguided as we are.

Just as importantly, by claiming a condition, we evade responsibility for doing anything about our behavior. For example, if we acknowledge that we have problems interacting with others socially, then society pressures us to try to improve. But if, like some computer programmers do, we insist that we have Asperger’s Syndrome, then we are freed of any obligation to act better. The fact that Asperger’s Syndrome might indicate that, while we are highly functional autistics, we might also be geniuses doesn’t hurt our self-esteem, either.

But the truth is, we are only being dishonest with ourselves. We are renaming our problems with a scientific name – not to gain understanding but so we can feel better about ourselves without having to do anything. At the very least, we are elevating our problems to a medical drama.

Even practicing scientists, or graduates with science degrees can use science in these ways. Historians of science are a minority, and few of us in any field have any clear idea of what constitutes scientific principles or practices. But the prestige of science! Of that we are all too aware, and we rush to claim it for our own petty reasons.

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Do gender differences exist?

Many people wouldn’t dream of asking this question. From puberty, if not before, the main source of most people’s identity seems to be whether they’re male or female – not just in sexual matters, but in every aspect of their lives. So, I realize that, in asking this question, I haven’t a prayer of getting out alive.

So what makes me the exception who does ask? Maybe it’s the fact that I went to school with a number of intelligent girls, or that I further confused the already confused time of puberty by reading feminist writers. Or possibly, having been dismissed as slow simply because I had a speech impediment in the first six years of my life has left me with an innate dislike of being labeled myself or of labelling others.

Possibly, too, my mental tendencies play a role. I know from other circumstances that my ability to recognize patterns is far better at detecting similarities than differences is involved. Nor is there much doubt that I’m often a contrarian, particularly where popular wisdom involved. But I’d like to think that being observant has something to do with the matter, too.

Oh, I know that men and women behave and speak differently. I’m not denying that. But how do we know that these differences aren’t only the result of circumstances?

Because we know, says the chorus of popular wisdom. The truth is, gender differences are an explanatory principle in modern industrial culture, just like gravity. When someone’s told that an object falls due to gravity, few ever go on to ask about the mechanisms of gravity. In the same way, once you invoke gender differences you no longer have to probe for deeper reasons for someone’s behavior: she gossips because she’s a woman, he likes sport because he’s a man.

The difference is, we have reliable proof of gravity and how it functions. But do we have equally reliable proof of gender differences? Differences in male and female brains have been charted, but I’ve yet to hear these differences related to mental differences, any more than scientists have explained the importance in the design differences in avian and mammalian brains.

We also have thousands of studies that purport to prove differences between male and female – or, at least, reports of such studies in the media – but most of us, including me, hear only their results. We don’t know that these studies were validly designed to eliminate the possibility of bias in their results or their interpretation, so how do we know that they are pointing to real differences? or that the weak correlations and tentative conclusions haven’t been exaggerated by sensation-minded, scientifically weak reporters?

(Because we know, says the chorus).

In any other area, this sort of sloppy thinking would soon get rejected. When the primate language studies of the 1970s showed too much bias, it took the tightly-designed studies of Irene Pepperberg and years of working with Alex, the African Gray who was her main subject, to make the study of animal language acquisition respectable. But nobody minds having their deepest beliefs reinforced, so dubious gender studies go unchallenged.

In fact, I’ve yet to hear of a single study that began by questioning whether gender differences exist. Probably, such a study would have trouble being funded. Instead, they all seem to start with the goal of articulating gender differences, assuming from the start that they’ll find some.

Personally, I’ve never been able to answer the question with any certainty. The idea that you can generalize about roughly half the population makes little sense – unless, of course, the generalizations are so high level or so qualified as to be useless. Not that this bit of logic makes any difference to any of the thousands of self-appointed experts who chatter away about male and female differences in the popular media.

All I know is that, in seven years of university instruction, I had the chance to see thousands of young male and female minds developing. I saw plenty of differences in attitude and perception in individuals. Sometimes, I observed cultural differences. But not once did I see any pattern that suggests differences attributable to gender. Behavioral differences, yes. Intellectual differences, no.

It’s not as though I’m completely disposed to say there are no differences. I simply wonder how so many other people can speak so knowledgeably and comfortable about what seem to me are exaggerations at best.

However, socially, I’m careful to keep this heresy to myself. Inwardly, I may wince when my fellow men try to drag me into a discussion of hockey, or a woman talks about how all her female friends are addicted to chocolate, but, outwardly, I’ve learned to keep my composure. I play the anthropologist trying to ingratiate his way into a strange tribe, and remain non-committal until I can change the subject.

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