Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Blogging, feminism, and critical thinking

I'm never going to win any awards as a feminist. Oh, sure, I believe men and women are intellectual equals, and I think the fight for equal rights among the sexes is a worthy goal that hasn't come anywhere near close to being achieved. Most of the time, though, the political goals that most occupy my thoughts involve electoral reform, health care, and post-secondary education. While I support feminist issues wholeheartedly, they simply aren't the ones that most speak to me most, and in the blogging world, I'm mostly content to leave them in the capable hands of others. Given this, I was quite astonished with myself when I ended up playing the feminist role in an argument with Jim Elve of the BlogsCanada egroup about women bloggers.

For those who don't feel like clicking through, here it is in as unbiased a nutshell as possible: Jim suggested that while 71.5% of bloggers and blog readers participating in the 2005 Canadian blogging survey were male, most of that survey's participants were involved in political blogs, and there would have been a lot more women if the survey's author had counted personal journals among the blogs as well. I thought this sounded suspiciously like the old adage about how men are interested in politics, but women are only interested in talking about their personal lives, so I asked Jim to clarify what he meant. He stated that women are simply less politically involved than men, and offered up the small number of women MPs as proof of this. I replied that the number of women MPs was hardly sufficient evidence from which to draw general conclusions about male and female political involvement, and he responded that there weren't very many women at a Green event he attended, either. I challenged him to offer up some data about the supposed greater political involvement of men, and he said all he'd meant to say was that there should be more female bloggers than there were. The conversation grew more and more frustrating as several onlookers began taking potshots from the sidelines ("stop being so politically correct!" "you don't even know who Betty Friedan is!"), and it became evident that we were talking more past each other than with each other. It never reached a satisfactory conclusion.

The main message I was trying to get across, though, which seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle, was actually more about critical thinking than it was about men, women, blogging, or politics. I may not be a world-class feminist, but I'm a pretty decent social scientist, and the social scientific literature is littered with examples of how easy it is to be wrong when you try to draw 'why' conclusions about men and women when you only have 'what' data. Harvard president Lawrence Summers found that out the hard way back in January of this year, when he spoke at a conference on women and minorities in science. Summers cited differences between boys' and girls' scores on science and math tests, arguing that the reason for these differences can be attributed to women not having the same "intrinsic aptitude" as men in these fields. In response, many scientists turned on Summers, citing scores of studies on research into gender differences on science and math tests. They argued that the differences between men and women on math tests are much less if you take into account how many math courses they've each had, and that the gap between men and women is closing over time. They also stated that it was "irresponsible and unscientific" of Summers to rely upon genetics as the sole factor influencing women's disproportionate representation in the higher echelons of math and science. Chastened, he issued a quick apology.

Another example comes from the field of psychology and child development. Early findings suggested that even as very young babies, girls tend to be more social, less active, more timid, and more nurturing than their male agemates, and little girls gravitate toward nurturing toys like dolls, while boys instead opt for exploratory and active toys like trucks. Because this disparity is present from before age one, it was long attributed to innate differences between the sexes. But then Phyllis Katz and Sue Zalk carried out the "Baby X" studies, in which the same young babies were alternately dressed in typical boy-baby and girl-baby garb, and researchers observed the behaviour of experienced parents in reaction to them. They found that the babies were more likely to be cuddled close and given dolls when dressed as girls, and were more likely to be held facing outward and given trucks when dressed as boys. And yet all of the early social psychologists had immediately leaped to the conclusion that any differences must be innate, without bothering to test for what else might be going on.

Finally, there's the example of sociolinguist Janet Holmes. A couple of weeks ago, I discussed her finding that that men tend to use 'you know' in conversation to elicit reassurance or to express linguistic imprecision, while women use it more often to address their conversation partners' knowledge. What I didn't mention then is that prior to Holmes' paper, the common wisdom in sociolinguistics was quite different--several studies had shown that women tended to use 'you know' more often than men did, and those early linguists had made the leap from that data that 'you know' must be a marker of insecurity which women use more often because they're more insecure. It took Holmes to show that linguists had been so led down the garden path by their own assumptions about men and women that they hadn't even bothered to closely examine the whys and wherefores when investigating 'you know.'

Do I think there are more male political bloggers than female ones? Well, my own cursory observations do suggest that this is the case at least for Canada, and the 2005 Canadian blog survey data that sparked my argument with Jim would seem to confirm those observations. But if you ask me about the reasons for that disparity, I have to admit that I haven't the foggiest idea. The Americans waded into this quagmire long before we did, and have come up with a huge range of speculation. Some have suggested that most women aren't comfortable with the type of discourse found most often in opinion writing. Some have suggested that many women's blogs, when political, don't tend to be purely political, and thus go unnoticed. Others have suggested that there are plenty of women bloggers, but people assume they're all men unless they write under gendered names. Others have suggested that there are plenty of women bloggers, but men don't bother reading or linking to them. Still others have suggested that it's just harder for the women bloggers to be noticed among the scores of men. But the truth is, I simply don't know. And, with all due respect, neither does Jim Elve, and neither do you.

One of the best posts I've seen on this well-worn subject is Majikthise's:

We could argue about whether our society irrationally discounts stereotypically feminine modes of expression, how to define the A-list, what percentage of female bloggers aspire to be on somebody's A-list, or whatever. We could speculate about how much of the variance in site traffic can be explained by sexism vs. social conditioning vs. sun spots vs. having a nice picture. The fact remains nobody ever offers any data to substantiate these hypotheses.
It's rare that a blog post makes me want to stand up and applaud, but that one does. All of the aforementioned speculation is just a Hindenberg-sized portion of hot air when all we've got is 'what' data. And when people try to contort their 'what' data into a 'why' answer, they can't help but make the same kind of mistakes that Lawrence Summers, the early child behaviour specialists, and the early sociolinguists working on 'you know' made.

Everything I've seen has suggested that Aaron Braaten of Grandinite--the blogger who put together the 2005 Canadian blogging survey--is a pretty decent social scientist, himself. As such, I'm sure he'll realize when it comes time to write his master's thesis that he simply doesn't have his hands on the kind of data that would be necessary to figure out why his sample contains more male political bloggers than female ones. But the rest of us, especially those of us standing behind the mouthpieces that blogs can be, need to be equally cautious. We need to think critically enough to realize that while we can often identify the fact that a phenomenon is occurring, we can't always explain the reasons behind its occurrence. And when we do speculate about such matters, we need to have the courage to stand up and admit that we don't have all the answers. After all, phrasing something as an open question makes it a lot more likely that someday, someone will invest time and resources into answering it.

8 comments:

Dale said...

Excellent well written, well spoken article.

I had no idea that there were far less female bloggers than male bloggers. For someone like me that feels pretty much in the know about many issues, I admit your article was quite enlightening, and for that, thank you. I've bookmarked you and I'll be returning for more.

~Dale

kurichina said...

Interesting post. I guess I fall into the category of someone who blogs about politics, but not exclusively. But then, there's a lot of things I blog about that I consider political but wouldn't be considered "high politics". And I sometimes like to illustrate my topic with references to my personal life. Again, kind of an artificial public/private distinction that I would reject as a feminist, especially since my politicization came from working in issues like reproductive choice.

angryroughneck said...

So its wrong to generalize based on specific types of evidence (harvard guy...), but isn't that what you are doing, just using different pieces of evidence to satisfy your claims.

Candace said...

Hmmm, interesting post. I'd noticed the disparity in the results and wondered about it. However, the Canadian blogsphere is still rather young in comparison to the US, and I wondered (when participating in the survey) why Aaron was limiting it to just Canadian blogs (I'm pretty sure he explained that but am too lazy to go look).

My guess - and it's purely a guess - is that women avoid writing "political" blogs because they don't like the downright nastiness of some of the comments. People are quite emotionally involved with their politics and will lash out at the slightest provocation. I've been involved in "conversations" that left me feeling physically ill, just because I used one or two words that someone found inappropriate (& I'm not talking foul language, but actual ... words).

I'd guess that, if there really IS a significant disparity in the number of female vs. male political blogs, it's the low level of discourse that masquerades as "debate."

Rivka said...

Angryroughneck wrote: So its wrong to generalize based on specific types of evidence (harvard guy...), but isn't that what you are doing, just using different pieces of evidence to satisfy your claims.

None of these examples is about competing evidence. In each case, people had a theory about why an observed difference existed between men and women, a theory which was not backed by evidence. Actually collecting data and testing the theory led to different conclusions.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Dale,

Thanks!

kurichina,

Interesting. I also write down things about my life and my thoughts in general, but I choose to share them with only a few friends rather than with all and sundry. I'm more comfortable with that division, but I can see wanting to mix them, too. You're right that they're artificial divisions.

angryroughneck,

Using several individual anecdotal examples to argue for a particular stance, and using several systematic research studies to argue that taking a particular stance is irresponsible. Do those really seem like the same thing to you?

Candace,

I wouldn't want to make that generalization overall, but what you say really resonates with this particular datapoint. I love level-headed, respectful debate with those who disagree with me, but can get very angry with people who approach arguments from a place of ridicule.

I've enjoyed your blog, by the way. We don't see eye to eye about much of anything, but you're clearly one of the sensible ones. :-)

Rivka,

*smooooooch*

Deanna said...

I could be wrong, but I seem to recall seeing studies indicating that women's internet usage is lower than men's overall?

Shouldn't that be factored in while determining what percentage of women blog, and what percentage of women read or write political blogs? Besides, there are more forms of political expression - for example, I've seen studies that indicate more women prefer to volunteer than men.

Frankly, while I enjoy reading and commenting in political blogs, I don't have time to write one. I run a political roleplaying forum instead. (Seriously. We make up nations and rp domestic and international events. And yes, most of my members are male.)

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Deanna,

I don't know about those studies, but certainly those would be factors that would have to be taken into account.

Your point about volunteering is well taken, and in fact why Jim's idea that women are generally less politically involved than men are rang so false for me. And it's not just volunteering, but whole organizations. Abortion rights groups? Planned Parenthood? Feminist lobbyist organizations? Groups advocating for more women candidates? Surely those groups aren't all run by men, but they're still pretty damn political.

Your political roleplaying game sounds like waaaaaay too much fun. Don't ever introduce me to anything like that; I'd never write a blog post again! ;-)