Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘gender’

Women in the US Congress

I was somewhat perplexed by this line from a BBC report about women’s anger triggered by a photo of the all-male (actually, one woman out of the photo) at the White House negotiating cuts to, among other things, women’s health care:

Less than a fifth of Republicans in the House of Representatives are women, but gender representation is not just a Republican problem – the US Congress as a whole is still dominated by men.

With 20% female, the US ranks alongside Bangladesh in global terms. In Sweden it’s 44%.

It sounds like it’s about 20% of Republicans and about 20% altogether, meaning hardly any difference between Republicans and Democrats. In fact, there are 22 Republican women out of 237 in Congress, so 9%. “Less than a fifth” seems an odd way to put it. (Almost 1/3 of Democrats are women.)

Being demographic

People have been saying for a long time that the Republican strategy of ethnic nationalism is running out of room, because of increasing proportions of ethnic minorities. I noted during the 2012 election how odd it was that some groups of people were considered to vote “demographically”, while others (white Protestant men) were assumed to vote on the basis of a broad array of concerns. According to the demographic fallacy, minority groups have special interests that are very important to them, but only of peripheral interest to the majority. Too much pandering can piss off the majority, but targeted appeals can motivate the minority, potentially to very high percentages, but there is no way to motivate the majority en bloc. After the 2012 election there were any number of comments of the sort “To win the presidency, Republicans need to make up their deficit among black and hispanic voters. They are losing them at such a level that (with changing povulation composition) a future Republican candidate would need to win the white vote at implausible levels to win a majority.” Now it appears that this argument is exactly wrong, for three reasons:

  1. As Trump correctly intuited, white people are also susceptible to ethnic appeals. And if you can motivate them as an ethnic group, they’re the biggest, baddest one of all. Meanwhile, the Democrats appeal to ethnic minorities was maxed out. The pervasive undercover racism of the Republican party gave Obama a huge edge among hispanics and blacks; naked racism, religious exclusion, and threats of deportation by Trump couldn’t move it any further, but could pull in vast numbers of white voters who share his racist world view and are relieved to hear it expressed openly. Those of us who move in educated circles should have taken more seriously the assertions early on that “Trump says what everyone really thinks”. Obviously, we didn’t know what people were thinking.
  2. Similarly for women. The model of what I called “demographic thinking” in politics is  I’m not the first to notice that women are not actually a minority. The power relations (yay intersectionality!) nonetheless seem to justify seeing the struggle for women’s rights as analogous to the struggle for rights of ethnic minorities.
    Feminists may have gotten suckered by a figure-ground second-sex fallacy with regard to women voters. If you think of males as the default, and women as the “minority”, then an openly misogynist candidate like Trump would seem to turn out the women to vote against him. But most of those women have been having to compromise with and make excuses for Trump-like figures in their lives — in their families — their whole lives. Some will recoil in horror, but most will continue to make excuses. And the women voters lost may be balanced by just as many men gained.
  3. It’s perfectly possible to maintain a semblance of democracy while entrenching the power of a minority to rule over the majority. Many countries have done this. With the single exception of 2004, the Republicans have not won a plurality in a presidential election since 1988. Democrats received a majority of the votes for representatives in 2012 and (probably) 2016. Nonetheless, the Republicans have attained unrestricted control over nearly the entire federal government, and very little stands in the way of further restricting voting rights to maintain their control and civil rights of minorities, expanding the political influence of the wealthy, to maintain their power indefinitely.

The electoral college was designed to leverage the 3/5 compromise to increase the power of southern slave-holding states in presidential election. Now, under very different circumstances, it is still serving this function.

Stranger than fiction

Over the many decades when a female president had become conceivable but not yet real, fictional representations purveyed all kinds of notions — some silly, some serious, some sexist — of the first female president. (Jokes about the closet space in the White House were, as I recall, a staple.) But I can’t recall that anyone supposed that the first presidential campaign to feature a woman candidate would have her up against an opponent who bragged about grabbing women’s genitals, or that we would have the following exchange between her opponent and the sitting vice president:

Biden said of Trump on Saturday: “The press always asks me, don’t I wish I was debating him? No, I wish we were in high school and I could take him behind the gym. That’s what I wish.”

Casting scorn on Biden’s physical strength, Trump said, “Mr Tough Guy, you know he’s Mr Tough Guy, you know when he’s Mr Tough Guy? When he’s standing behind a microphone by himself.” Trump added: “He wants to bring me to the back of the barn? Oooooooooh. Some things in life you could really love doing.”

A fiction writer would hardly have dared to imagine the campaign to feature such a running parody of male pathology. It would have been ridiculed as insular feminist propaganda.

Maybe it will come out next that Trump has been scrawling Clinton’s telephone number on bathroom walls.

Locker rooms and Trump’s arena of masculinity

Among the many weird things about the Trump groping scandal is the defense of this vile banter as “locker-room speech”, by a man who avers that the closest thing he does to exercise is public speaking. But then, this is of a piece with his contention that he is a better military strategist than America’s generals. There’s nothing unusual about insecure plutocrats trying to associate themselves with conventional symbols of masculinity: buying sports teams, military medals, weapons, military-style vehicles. I imagine the dominance displays of business, being almost entirely verbal and symbolic, must leave a nagging hole of insecurity in the core of your average wealthy psychopath.

I am reminded of a book I read many years ago, The Arena of Masculinity: Sports, Homosexuality and the Meaning of Sex, about the role that sports play in the performance of masculinity in the US. It’s pretty far off my usual reading, but I picked it up off the new-book display at the Lamont Library at Harvard, and it was extremely helpful to me in trying to understand why people are so interested in sports (which had always mystified me), and why people are so interested in masculinity (ditto). Well, it didn’t get me very far. I mean, sociologists and psychologists like to talk about “fragile males”, constantly under threat because “masculinity” needs to be performed anew or it is lost, unlike femininity which (in this account) is an inherent quality. (Tell that to a mid-40s Hollywood actress…) (more…)

Being pushed uphill

11 states voted in primary elections yesterday in the US. On the Republican side, Donald Trump won 7 of the 11 contests. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton won 7 of the 11. You might think the reporting would take a similar tone in describing both victories. You’d be wrong. Here’s the NY Times headline:

Screenshot 2016-03-02 11.56.06

It’s hard not to see sexism here. The mighty man “overwhelmed” his opponents. The feeble woman was “pushed” to victory. The man was powerful and autonomous, overcoming adversity to fight his way to victory. Not only didn’t the woman fight, she couldn’t even walk on her own. And the people pushing her to victories weren’t ordinary Americans. They were “minorities” — or, as Trump would denote them, losers.

It’s long been recognised that the first woman to be a serious US presidential candidate would have an uphill struggle. Now we know that she’ll have to be pushed uphill.

Gay-baiting Francis

Am I wrong to see homophobic allusions in right-wing pundit George Will’s attack on Pope Francis? He accuses the pope of “fact-free flamboyance” (which would be a nice alliteration if it made any sense, which I can’t see that it does) and calls his “social diagnoses” “shrill”. Again, is this just an attempt to simulate eloquence on a deadline? The expression is striking, but nonsensical. How can a “diagnosis” be shrill? He also accuses the Bishop of Rome of “rhetorical exhibitionism”.

My earlier comments on the gender connotations of “shrill” are here.

Primary sex ratio, the short version

Five months after our article with Orzack et al. appeared in PNAS, showing that the primary sex ratio (the fraction of boys conceived) is close to 50%, contradicting centuries of supposition that it was substantially higher (more male-biased), Bill Stubblefield, Jim Zuckerman and I have published a popular account of the research in Nautilus. It was an interesting experience, the back and forth with an editor to make something comprehensible and gripping for a general audience.

I didn’t end up exactly as we would have liked, but it was probably better — as an effort to explain the science and the background to a general audience — than what we would have produced entirely on our own. The layout and graphics are also very well done.

It’s now been condensed down to three paragraphs on Gizmodo. They even condensed the illustration.

Gender asymmetry…

… and the “pussification of America”. This term came up in an article in Slate about the decision by the American retailer Target to remove the gender attributions from its toys. Since I had children I’ve been amazed at the extent to which children’s clothes and toys have become gender-specific since I was a child in the 1970s. And it amazes me as well how closely identified the colours pink and blue have come to be with girls and boys, despite the fact that it’s an obviously artificial (and quite recent) tradition. (Jo B. Paoletti has written a book on the subject, Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America.) I have also long been intrigued by the way people seize upon even the most tenuous evidence that “science has proved” the validity of this or that gender stereotype.

Anyway, someone set up a honeytrap fake Target customer service Facebook account to collect the outrage that some people (men and women) were spewing over this issue. As chronicled in AdWeek, there are some biblical arguments, like

God made a difference between male and female as there should be. I would never give a boy a barbie doll. It’s not chauvinistic but the BIBLE says women are the weaker vessel I Peter 3:7 so many people are making their boys the weakest link and making their daughters manly.

(Interesting that “as there should be”. Not that she’s simply going to accept on faith that God got this one right. But she approves.) And many rants against PC

You guys should listen to the people who spend money in your stores, not the liberal, PC Complaint people that don’t have two cents to rub together.

I thought the PC Complaint people were wealthy elitists…

Anyway, I thought this comment was particularly telling:target-troll-12a

This is classic Simone de Beauvoir stuff. This is an American woman, outraged at a refusal to emphasise gender distinctions, because it will feminise America. Because America is a man, and if America can’t get a steady diet of trucks and toy soldiers when he’s a boy, he’ll be “pussified”. She’s not concerned that America will be toughened, or dickified, or whatever the corresponding word for “pussified” would be.

Just joking

Following up some references related to Thomas Malthus recently, I discovered that Carlyle’s notorious appellation “dismal science” for economics (or “political economy”) was not a reference to the pessimistic world view of Malthus and his descendants. This sobriquet first appeared in an essay “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question”, in which he criticised the emancipation of Black slaves in the West Indies, leaving the unfortunate Blacks to wallow in disgraceful idleness. Carlyle attacked political economy for undermining natural hierarchies, for

declaring that Negro and White are unrelated, loose from one another, on a footing of perfect equality, and subject to no law but that of supply and demand according to the Dismal Science.

Here “dismal” is presumably not being used in the modern sense of “gloomy”, but in the older sense of “threatening” or “inauspicious”, as in Henry VI pt. 3:

Bring forth that fatal screech-owl to our house,
That nothing sung but death to us and ours:
Now death shall stop his dismal threatening sound,
And his ill-boding tongue no more shall speak.

Carlyle lumps the Dismal Science together with other unfortunate modern political innovations, such as “ballot boxes”, “universal suffrages” and “Exeter-Hall Philanthropy”.

Here I’d like to call attention to Carlyle’s framing device. The essay is attributed to a fictitious author with the absurd name Dr. Phelin M’Quirk. It begins

THE following occasional discourse, delivered by we know not whom, and of date seemingly above a year back, may, perhaps, be welcome to here and there a speculative reader. It comes to us — no speaker named, no time or place assigned, no commentary of any sort given in the hand-writing of the so-called “Doctor,” properly “Absconded Reporter,” Dr. Phelin M’Quirk, whose singular powers of reporting, and also whose debts, extravagances, and sorrowful insidious finance-operations, now winded up by a sudden disappearance, to the grief of many poor trades-people, are making too much noise in the police offices at present! Of M’Quirk’s composition, we by no means suppose it to be; but from M’Quirk, as the last traceable source, it comes to us; offered, in fact, by his respectable, unfortunate landlady, desirous to make up part of her losses in this way.

Together with some self-mocking references to some offended members of the fictional audience leaving in a huff, this sets up the cover story, particularly beloved of British racists and misogynists, that “I’m just joking”. You insult people with a wink, simultaneously spreading poisonous sentiments and confirming your superior power by forcing them to smile while you insult them — if they don’t, they are dismissed as “humourless”. Most recently there was Tim Hunt, whose defenders say that his disgraceful remarks on women in science were some kind of protected speech because he followed them with “Now seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it.” “Now seriously” is the proof that he was just joking, so critics are joyless harridans.
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Natural phenomena

Boris Johnson doesn’t like the fact that biologist Tim Hunt has been fired for pointing out the peculiar “natural phenomenon” that he happens to have stumbled upon in his brilliantly insightful way, that “girls in the lab” (his jocular, brilliant designation for what are sometimes referred to in other contexts as “women scientists”, or, more loosely, just as “scientists”) “cry when you criticise them”.

Sir Tim was a “distinguished” scientist who did not deserve to be “pilloried” for pointing out “a natural phenomenon”, he said.

I wonder if “pilloried” is the right word here. There were simply a lot of people pointing out the “natural phenomenon” that elderly male scientists have a tendency to run their mouths on topics they have little understanding of, particularly when they have won a big prize. I’m sorry if anyone was offended by that.

It reminds me of the Larry Summers affair. Like Hunt, Summers was used to being treated like a genius, and so he could pull out any scientific-sounding chestnut, and expect it to be treated like a scintillating original aperçu. Why do feminists hate standard deviations? (Summers downfall also was pushed by his habit of treating other scholars like lazy schoolchildren, who couldn’t possibly understand their own subject as well as the Great Economist. I’m sure he wouldn’t care that his abuse of statistical terminology offends statisticians.)

And like Hunt, Summers found supporters who thought his trite and ill-considered comments were uncomfortable nuggets of wisdom. It’s the oldest logical fallacy: The truth hurts, they reason, so if it hurts it must be true. At least, if it hurts other people.

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