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ADDENDUM to the previous post on alleged gender differences (that I meant to post yesterday but didn't have time):

At bab5 eight days ago we also talked about a recent study finding that the gender difference in math SAT scores has all but disappeared, at least for the average, which I take as further evidence that the difference could well be due to social factors. Text of the article below for those who don't have BugMeNot.

Interestingly, the variance in scores is higher for boys, which reminded me of research done on how parents, teachers, and others tend to constrain and control girls' actions more than others, for a variety of reasons. For instance, boys are on average allowed to roam much farther from their parents at parks and playgrounds; are allowed out on their own at an earlier age and with fewer restrictions; and are generally allowed to be more boisterous and "take up more space" in the classroom and at home. This translates into a culture condoning more risk-taking for boys generally, in all areas of their lives, from academics to sports to "acting out" (I certainly knew many more boys who were class clowns or delinquents than girls). I'm only somewhat familiar with the literature on this but I really should be more familiar, and likely will be in the next couple of years.

I have a hunch that some of these constraints on girls relate to societal fears that are largely focused on girls. These fears follow the "security theater" model of overreacting to a highly publicized event involving an action (such as stranger abduction or sexual assault) that is actually exceedingly rare (most abductions and assaults are by family or acquaintances). Certainly the law is strongly geared toward these rare, but highly publicized, cases: child sexual assault parolees in California must wear a GPS tracker and must stay more than 2000 feet from schools, parks, and other places with children, even though most of those cases involved a known child and the tracking system does nothing to keep them away from the children of family members or friends (though, of course, the stigma of having a GPS tracker may well give the signal by itself). Paul Dourish and some of his students are doing research on the social and privacy implications of this GPS tracking of parolees, since it's one of the few places where surveillance has reached such invasive levels.

Also, as an aside, I know I tend to focus on "boys and girls" and don't include other sex options very well (though I try to be better about gender orientations). I've heard about the pitfalls of this, but at the same time, so much of my research and social commentary focuses around people's beliefs about the world, and the gender binary is certainly a strong societal norm (and one with actual basis in genetics, at least for mammals). I know I'm reinforcing these things by taking them for granted, but really, if I tried to write in a completely socially-aware way, I'd just never get around to writing because being thorough in that way is damn hard and very daunting. So sorry, but I'm afraid you'll just have to deal.

The SAT scores article )
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As some of you know, my mom's side of the family has consisted of quite a few more girl babies than boys for several generations back now. My sister and cousins have all had girls (five daughters between my sister and four cousins). My mom and aunts all had girls (six of us). My grandmother had five girls, and though I don't have the records, I've been told that her twelve siblings had several times more girls than boys. In her generation, there were five girls before the first boy, and in my grandpa's family, there were also a number of girls born before the first son (which I think was him, the youngest).

I've always figured my family was just a statistical anomaly. My sister has looked into various chemistry or dietary reasons for this (wanting to have a boy next), but the research I've seen on this has generally been pretty sketchy and incomplete, so I've decided to chalk it up to chance -- at least, until I see compelling evidence otherwise.

Well, I read an interesting article today that seems to indicate that there are some chemicals out there that do noticeably tip the scales. I've long known that the benzene and other chemicals in sunscreens mimic estrogen, shifting the sex of fish toward the "default" female, even during an individual fish's life, and having similar effects in rats and other animals. I have blogged about the cosmetics safety database listing the safety of sunscreens. (It looks like the famous "wear sunscreen" column, in which the author said the only sure advice she could give was to wear sunscreen, might have been wrong after all.) I had also heard that PCBs, common in flame retardants and coolants, and other chemicals had documented effects on development, especially sexual development. But this is the first I've heard of the chemicals actually causing a shift in sex ratios at birth.

According to the article, the Arctic populations that the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program studied had imbalances that were particularly pronounced (twice as many girls as boys, where before the ratio was 1.1 boys for every girl) because of their reliance on marine meat, which is high on the food chain and thus had heavy concentrations of these chemicals.

Though it's doubtful that anything like this has caused the generations-long surplus of girls in my family, it does make me reconsider my "just-chance" stance on the trend. It also places even more importance on one of my main reasons for being vegetarian for 9 or so years through my youth and into college. Read more... )
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I came across an interesting New Yorker article today by writer Malcolm Gladwell exploring the phenomenon of "IQ drift" over time -- there's a steady increase in IQ scores year to year, enough that the standard IQ test has to be re-normed every twenty years or so. The implications are that our great-grandparents all had IQs of 70 ... or that IQ isn't as rigid and hereditary, and testing isn't as accurate, as we are often led to believe. (He presents various evidence for the fluidity of intelligence; it's a good read.)

I also read another interesting piece, written over ten years earlier, on the connection between racial differences in sports and gender differences in math.

It turns out that there are racial and gender differences in the variance of several heavily-contested skill distributions, though the means are the same. For instance, black athletes have higher variance in athletic abilities than white athletes, and boys have higher variance in math abilities than girls, which account for the preponderance of the former in upper echelons (as well as a preponderance of them at the lower end, but this isn't discussed as much). Thus, while the mean ability between the two groups is the same, the distribution is flattened for blacks regarding athletics and for boys regarding mathematics.

Gladwell then discusses how the factors affecting ability are both environmental, as evinced by the differences in populations with the same ethnic heritage but different environments (e.g. Jamaicans of Nigerian descent vs. Nigerians), and psychological, as he saw for himself when he ran track and encountered the black-athlete stereotype. But they are not genetic: the evidence for genetic differences breaks down when environmental factors, such as the training conditions for athletes, the dietary history of medical patients, or the scholastic expectations of students, are taken into account.

psychological factors: self-fulfilling prophecies, attribution bias, learned helplessness, and values )

So there are certainly consequences of these differences in variance, but why does it happen in the first place? Could it be that the higher variance in men regarding intellectual abilities be attributed not to genetic factors, but to relative permissiveness toward boys and control toward girls? Further, would this explain well-documented effects such as the gender difference in attribution bias or vulnerability to stereotype threat? what do you mean, control? )

But of course, all this begs the question: where did these behaviors come from? Perhaps the restrictions on girls come from a (perhaps irrational, almost certainly self-fulfilling) fear about girls' safety. But then where does that come from? Is it turtles all the way down -- is it all one social construction after another?

While the "social construction" theories so popular in social science recently do reflect my own observations about the world fairly well, the idea that culture, gender, race, and myriad other things are "simply" socially constructed masks their indelible marks on us all. Sure, these things might be socially constructed, but that doesn't mean that we could feasibly wake up tomorrow and do it all differently. more social science stuff ... )

While this recursive answer is also not satisfying, it's about the best I have. Though I know I risk starting a flame war on this contentious subject, I still venture this question: what do you think?
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Everyone's posted about the great news from the California Supreme Court today. There are two things about the story that I haven't heard discussed much, though.

The first is that there is likely to be a proposition to amend the California constitution on the ballot next November to reverse this decision. Since the arguments overturning the decision were based on close readings of the California constitution, I've read that the case is very unlikely to go to the Supreme Court, but opposition groups have vowed to get the issue put on the ballot. I figure most of my (California-based, US citizen) friends are planning to vote anyway, but let this be another reason. Such a proposition will certainly bring more opponents wanting to overturn this decision out of the woodwork, and such a possibility worries me, both for the future of this decision and about the election results more generally.

The second is just an observation about the ahistorical hubris of the opposition's "this goes against the will of the people" argument. This assertion of theirs is based on the results of a 2000 proposition, put on the ballot in a very small election, to define marriage in the usual narrow and bigoted way -- and it passed. But even aside from this narrow definition of the "people" as those (relatively) few who turned out for that election, I hate this "will of the people" argument. It was equally "against the will of the [majority of] people" to do away with slavery, to integrate schools and public services in the 1950s, to allow interracial marriage, and to enforce equal rights in various other arenas, but that doesn't mean the will of the people is right, fair, or just. The same "separate but equal" arguments have been applied in separating "marriage" and "civil union" as were used to legalize (continued) segregation. The California Supreme Court rightly recognized the historical and logical flaws in this argument and ruled that the civil and legal institution of marriage, or whatever you want to call it, has to have not only the same rights and benefits but the same name for all.
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I've realized that I could never effectively argue with most anti-choice activists about birth control and abortion because we would be making completely different assumptions about the world -- different and fundamentally incompatible paradigms, in Kuhn's terms (since I've been reading lots of and about him in my philosophy of science class). Their arguments about what the Bible says about sex and other topics hold no weight for me. My arguments about problems of abused and neglected children, overpopulation, and a woman's right to control the course of her life hold little or no weight for them.

The point where we might be able to actually speak to one another, rather than past one another, is the issue of viability and when "life" starts, but even there they take what I see as ridiculously extreme views such as "life starts at conception" or sometimes with the possibility of conception (thus, the fight against birth control as a preventative measure) that I can't possibly agree with, given the messy realities of life: so many fertilized eggs don't implant, so many proto-fetuses don't last even a week, etc.

Furthermore, if they take this stance, why aren't they attacking in-vitro fertilization as vehemently as they are abortion and birth control? Multiple fetuses are grown and then one (or sometimes a few, but certainly not all) is implanted, and the rest are discarded. Isn't that murder in their eyes? Shouldn't all viable fetuses be given the chance to live in that case too? Funny how the intention of the couple seems to change the morality of the fetuses: people who are going through in-vitro fertilization want to be parents while people practicing birth control don't.

Along those same lines, it's also very strange that some anti-choice people take childlessness to be irresponsible, while from an environmental perspective, I think that having children is the more irresponsible choice (which, of course, some eco-minded parents mitigate in various ways, as I hope I would too if/when I have children -- but all things considered, that's still another person using a lifetime's-worth of resources, which is not small even when minimized). And moreover, making sure that one has children at a point in one's life when they can be best provided for seems to be, to me, a lot more responsible than risking having kids as soon as one starts having sex, which for a very large part of the population is very young (even with abstinence-only education like I grew up with, as a recent study shows). Of course, the anti-choice people would say one shouldn't be having sex until one is prepared to have children (which is the often-unsaid corollary to most of their points), but that's a whole 'nother can of worms with its own set of worldview incompatibilities, and I'll save that for another post (though you're welcome to rail in the comments if you want to).

No wonder this is such a hotly-contested debate. Except that it's not really a debate at all.

(NOTE: I don't mean to imply that one side is more "rational" than the other, even though I have made it clear which "side" I am on. These sorts of disagreements happen all the time, in many areas. My main argument is that the incommensurability of worldviews prevent the two sides from even seeing eye-to-eye.)
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Interesting -- I heard on NPR today that Muslim cab drivers (UPDATE: just at the Minneapolis airport) who refuse to give rides to people carrying alcohol (even closed bottles in checked luggage, as from a duty-free shop), citing religious freedom, will have their cab licenses revoked for 30 days the first time and two years the second time. My mind immediately jumped to a parallel issue that has generally enjoyed more favorable treatment in the last couple years: the refusal of some pharmacists (and doctors) to fill (or prescribe) birth control prescriptions, citing religious beliefs. The religious argument in both is the same: those involved believe it's a sin to abet something they believe is sinful. So why the harsh ruling in one case, and permissive treatment of the other? Could it be a prejudice against Muslims in the former case, or perhaps a more tolerant attitude toward alcohol? A prejudice against birth control or women in the latter, or perhaps a more tolerant attitude to homegrown religious extremism (i.e. evangelical Christianity)? What do you think?
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I hate it when people use rape as a metaphor. Why use a symbol of sexualized degradation, violence, and control -- and something so heavily gendered -- to characterize some abstract idea or unrelated action? How do you think rape survivors reading these metaphors feel about having their experiences compared to some abstract ideological issue in this way? I feel jarred every time I see it used. Also, I feel like it just habituates us to the idea or rape -- that it's not a big deal. What a stupid, ridiculous metaphor -- why would anyone want to compare sexual violence against (primarily) women with anything else?

*ahem* Anyway, back to my reading ...
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Why are there so few girl characters in kids' movies? And what's up with "purity balls" and this obsession with "naive abstinence"? (I actually have some ideas about where the whole virginity obsession comes from, but I'll save that for another rant.)

That is all.
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This. is. fantastic.

President Cecilia Fire Thunder of the Oglala Sioux tribe has declared that she is going to build a Planned Parenthood clinic on tribal land. In South Dakota.

Donate directly to PP! Thanks to [ profile] corpsefairy for the heads-up.

Utah Quicksilver, Park City and Salt Lake City's best transportation service
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I'm thinking of forming a reading group on technology and feminism next semester, probably starting with Judy Wajcman's book Technofeminism. I haven't done much reading in this area besides some stuff on women studying computer science, but I've been interested in it for a while and also might be taking a course on gender studies in the sociology department, so it seemed like a good time to do it. Who's in? (Of course, we'll have to see how my time for it fares between classes, research, and another reading group for the photos project. But the more interest there is, the more likely it will happen and keep happening.)

Aside: in looking for a link for Technofeminism I found a link to the Handbook of Science and Technology Studies ... take a look at the "concordance" and "text stats" below the fold. Wow! When did Amazon start doing this kind of stuff?
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As seen on Savage Love:
STRAIGHT RIGHTS UPDATE: There were two disturbing developments in the battle over straight rights last week. First, we know that Target fills its ads with dancing, multi-culti hipsters giving off a tolerant, urbanist vibe and runs hipster-heavy ad campaigns positioning Target as a slightly more expensive, more progressive alternative to Wal-Mart. Well, as John Aravosis revealed on last week, Target's politics are as red as their bulls-eye logo. The chain allows its pharmacists to refuse to dispense birth control and emergency contraception to female customers if the pharmacist objects on religious grounds. What's worse, the company claims that any of its employees have a right to discriminate against any of its customers provided the discrimination is motivated by an employee's religious beliefs. Read all about it at and

Second, more troubling news from Tucson, Arizona, where a 20-year-old rape victim called dozens of pharmacies in town before she found one that stocked emergency contraception (EC). "When she finally did find a pharmacy with it, she said she was told the pharmacist on duty would not dispense it because of religious and moral objections," reported the Arizona Daily Star. Emergency contraception, the story continued, "prevents pregnancy by stopping ovulation, fertilization, or implantation of a fertilized egg. The sooner the emergency contraception is taken after intercourse, the more effective it is."

Don't just sit there, heteros. Defend your rights! Don't shop at Target, and write 'em and tell them why you're going elsewhere. (Go to and click on "contact us," then "Target Corporation.") As for Fry's Pharmacy in Tucson, the shop that wouldn't dispense EC to a freakin' rape victim, the fundamentalist pharmacist claims its her "right" not to do her fucking job. Well, you have a right to free speech. Call Fry's at 520-323-2695 and ask them why the fuck a pharmacy that won't dispense EC keeps the drug in stock. Do they do it just to torment rape victims? ("Oh yeah, we've got EC—but you can't have any. Don't you know that Jesus wants you to bear your rapist's child?") Rise up, straight people, and demand your rights!


Oct. 26th, 2005 04:20 pm
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Word of the day (inspired by [ profile] threadwalker), as seen on iGoogle:
virago: an ill-tempered, overbearing woman; also, a woman of great strength and courage.
How's that for a juxtaposition! Tells you a lot about our culture, actually ...
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This is, at last, the final installment of my notes on Unlocking the Clubhouse. My other posts on this are here and here. This post is much more of a mish-mash of information, summarizing chapters three through six, than the other two, which summarized one chapter apiece. Ah well, better late than never. Feel free to point out inconsistencies in my summary and I'll elucidate if I can.

In college computer science, most men are interested in computing (programming, tinkering, gaming, etc.) for its own sake, while many women are more interested in computing's effects on and applications in other fields and how it can be useful to society. The focus in many introductory CS classes on technical details makes some women disillusioned, and they drop out of CS, not realizing that it's not just about silly technical details.

Many men have wanted to study computer science since before they could remember, and think of it as a "no-brainer" to be a CS major; most women decided to study computer science in high school or college, and the choice was much more rational. Their reasons for choosing CS are much more broad than "enjoyment of computing," most men's primary reason.

Men are more likely to like programming for its own sake, and are more likely than women to spend endless hours programming outside of classes. When asked about their ideal computer, teenage boys described machines that give them super powers; teenage girls described machines that helped in tasks or offered companionship. One researcher notes that "the feminine take on technology looks right through the machine to its social function, while the masculine view is more likely to be focused on the machine itself." Many high-school and college kids erroneously see computer science as "number-crunching" and computer games as one of the main applications of computer science (when they have any conception at all of what computer science is); many high-school and college curricula support this misconception by focusing on banalities of programming languages and pointless programming exercises, especially in lower-division classes. (My experience with programming contest problems support this, perhaps explaining the dearth of women in such contests.)

Students in top-ranked programs like Carnegie Mellon's are very aware of the intense geek culture in such programs - of the expectation that they spend all their time in front of the computer, for work and play. (This is backed by some practices in industry such as providing bunk beds at work.) A well-rounded set of interests is undervalued and sometimes actively shunned in this culture. Women on average are more disturbed at this ideal, and how badly they fit it, than men. They are more likely to decide such an intense culture is not for them, and they drop out at a rate three or more times that of men.

Top-ranked programs are also so overzealous, in general, that novices, especially minorities, feel hopelessly behind. Between male "posturing" and lack of programming experience in high school and before, women feel that everyone catches on more quickly than they do and that they can never catch up, even though performance between women and men, in terms of grades, is nearly identical. Many also assume that such passion for computers is required to be a computer scientist, and if they don't have it, they should quit. They're also more likely to keep confusion to themselves because of comments like "what's your major, again?," or the threat of them.

(Some interesting trends in attrition: American women and women from wealthy families are more likely to drop out of CS, the former because many Americans credit intelligence to innate ability and not to hard work, and the latter because these women aren't as worried about having a good-paying job to support themselves or their families.)

Women also have to deal with "you're only here because you're female" talk that men never have to face. Expectations that women will not do as well may have a huge effect of performance, as shown by Claude Steele's experiments at Stanford (repeated elsewhere) that showed that an expectation of a gender difference on performance on a math test resulted in one, while an expectation of no gender difference resulted in near-equal scores. (There are similar results for race if participants are asked to note their race on the test.)

Admissions policies that value previous programming experience or high math SAT scores are biased against women. CMU found that prior programming experience does not affect success in the program, and others have found that math SATs "systematically underpredict" women's college performance (though it was the opposite for me, at least according to my GPA :~)).
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More from the book ...

In late junior high and high school, the computer lab becomes a place where boys who are often socially marginalized can prove their masculinity. These boys and sometimes even their teachers will ostracize or openly mock girls and minorities in computer science classes. Computer science teachers often give sports-related or mechanics-related examples or projects, rather than examples to which girls could relate. (In the book they have some particularly odious examples.) Computer science books will focus on technical detail rather than real-world metaphors or applications. Thus, many high-school girls see computer science as a "math elective," "supersmart and unemotional," and "a place for nerds" and not as a powerful field which affects many others.

Computer games are one of the primary ways these computer geek cliques "prove masculinity," explaining the prevalence of gory, destructive games. Boys also like fantasy or adventure games to prove their independence from parents and other authority. These games provide a safe, predictable, controllable surrogate for social interaction, which can be unpredictable and lead to intimacy and opportunities to be hurt or seen as weak. Many girls are bored or disgusted with gory games, games with a lousy plot, or games without connection to the real world, and they thus turn away from the junior-high and high-school computer culture. The people designing games are mostly male, and don't make games that cater to girls' interests. (At the same time, "Barbie games" that are "based on the crudest stereotype of what girls like" are also not enough!)

Teachers watch for and give special privileges to the classic "boy geeks," typically obsessed with the mechanics of computers, but don't watch for "girl geeks" who often have interests in computers that are not as mechanics-driven. Teacher influence makes a big difference: many of the girls who applied for CMU's computer science program out of high school had teachers encourage them to take computer science classes, usually in high school.
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I'm rereading Unlocking the Clubhouse and realizing how much my parents countered gender paradigms. The book cites interesting studies that find that parents give girls girl-themed toys and boys boy-themed toys, even if they set out to make their toys gender-neutral, because parents are more likely to react to boys' excitement with, say, Legos than to girls'. Additionally, parents call their daughters back more often than their sons when their kids are playing on playgrounds, resulting in girls covering less ground and being trained to more cautious. People are more likely to label a boy baby's cry as anger and a girl baby's cry as fear. Men and boys are more likely to be seen as a family's technology experts, while women and girls (especially mothers) are often seen by other family members as clueless or techno-phobic. Boys are much more likely to be labeled "computer whizzes" and given special treatment than girls with similar capabilities, at school and at home. And parents are more likely to allow boys to monopolize a computer (often even putting it in their room) than girls. Regardless of the "nature" arguments, there are definite "nurture" arguments to why few girls are in science. Most men AND women majoring in computer science have at least one parent who is technically-inclined, but most women report growing up on the "technology sidelines," not allowed or not able to explore much on a computer by themselves.

Not much of this sounds familiar to me. Sure I had dolls (though my mom forbade Barbies for a long time), but I also had my Legos and transformers and micro-machines and lots of homemade clay. My sister and I played outside all the time, and for several years our best friend was a next-door boy my sister's age, who was one of the only kids in the neighborhood. Both of my parents worked, but my dad had a much more flexible schedule and was often the one driving us to school, picking us up, tending us, or taking us with him on landscaping jobs where we'd play in the sand and sod piles; my mom would spend time with us too, but she was the "breadwinner" with the fixed schedule. Though neither of my parents are technically-inclined, my mom used computers first for her master's degree and then for her work, but my dad has never used computers much. I had no brother to hog the computer. Still, I didn't learn more than basic DOS commands, probably because I had no one to teach me. By high school, the computer classes were definitely boys' territory, and several geeky acquaintances went out of their way to make CS sound incredibly complicated (surely to make themselves look smarter :~)).
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Women's magazines are sold by what I call the "uniformity" fallacy - on the erroneous belief that we can all be made to look like one another, given the right creams and clothes and diets. This is a fallacy because it induces us to ignore the unavoidable variation in body type, skin type, hair type, genetic predisposition, and so on. No matter how hard I try - short of major surgery, and maybe not even then - I can't have flawlessly tanned skin or silky-straight hair or a 36-24-34 figure, because I have freckles and wavy hair and narrow hips, and that's just the way I am. What I CAN do is be the healthiest me that I can be. Believing this is my first step in sloughing the media beastie; now I just have to truly LIKE what I've got. :~) (For a start, I think it would be incredibly boring if we really COULD all look just like one another!)


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