Thursday, July 12, 2007

Another Myth Debunked

In any debate I’ve ever had about the rights of women, anecdotal evidence is invariably offered as support of some outrageous claim that women are “naturally different” from men in a way that makes us less apt in the public sphere or less able to act on our own behalves. Part of the frustration that stems from these conversations is the realization that it is hard to refute these sexist arguments with anything other than contradictory anecdotes, since it is hard to get ethically obtained falsifiable data about your own species. It is notoriously hard to limit the variables in any experiment done on humans and, even in such a case where you could, you would still have to contend with the researcher’s biases. Just yesterday, Casmall advised me that I should just not worry about the more harmless types of sexism, since common stereotypes are just too hard to debunk with logic.

However, researchers at the University of Arizona were not content to let these “harmless” stereotypes go unchallenged. The journal Science reports this month that although “[w]omen are generally assumed to be more talkative than men,” both men and women alike use approximately 16,000 words a day. The experiment seems as though it was easy enough to conduct, and it provided quantitative results. Over the course of six years, men and women were fitted with recorders that essentially tallied the number of words they spoke each day. The results showed that both sexes talk about the same amount. A nice synopsis of the Science article can be found at SEED.

UPDATE: Thus Spake Zuska has an elegant post about how reluctant people are to change their sexist ideas, even in the face Science-worthy data. Apparently, anecdotal evidence (which Zuska loving refers to as the My Personal Experience About the Way Things Are Defense) actually trumps science. Yup, as Z. says:

...some people are unwilling to have their constraints relieved. For those men who are so enamored of the Strong Silent Man stereotype, I wish they'd live up to their self-proclaimed identity and shut up about it already.
Can I get an Amen?


La Pobre Habladora said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Casmall said...

I'll have to take issue with your characterization of my comments. I think that within good company certain sexual stereotypes can be used for a laugh or whatnot. This usually happens when I know everyone knows the statement isn't true. For example, Mark H has a really expensive car b/c he needs to compensate. However, I don't believe sexist comments are harmless in public forums, like at work, in the classroom, or if you're the president of Harvard.

La Pobre Habladora said...

How is it, exactly, that everyone knows whether or not Mark H needs to compensate? Is Mark H a stripper?
I will agree that there are cases in which a word or stereotype can be inverted or co-opted by a group in such a way as to be useful social commentary, but I'm not sure that common repetition of stereotypes does not more often serve to perpetuate them.

Casmall said...

Mark has financial commitments beyond the means of the graduate stipend so don't go judging.

As to the rest- I think I mean when I say good company that the type of people who believe these stereotypes aren't around.

La Pobre Habladora said...

I can't believe that within the first 5 minutes of a male commenting on this site we're already talking about strippers and wieners.

La Pobre Habladora said...

It seems to me that we are conflating three very different issues within this conversation, but all are interesting topics. With the initial post, I was excited that when we are confronted with “Voz del Pueblo” or “Everyone knows” anecdotal evidence, we have another quantitative experiment that debunks one of these common gender myths. The problem with anecdotal evidence is that it allows people to cherry-pick (denialist tactic number 2) from their own personal experience (data to which no one but the speaker has any access) and discount any evidence that contradicts their initial premises. Being in a conversation like this feels like getting dragged into an endless listing of contradictory, and often un-confirmable, examples until the person arguing in favor of the stereotype says something along the lines of “Well, there is some truth to all stereotypes, you know – otherwise why would so many people believe them?” It is nice to have a handy example of just one such stereotype that has been debunked.

The second issue is – are all gender differences societal myths? Well, obviously we are more likely to have breasts and give birth. Yet, our basic physiological differences have too often been used by patriarchal societies to justify a belief in any number of assumed differences of cognitive ability, temperament, or judgment. It is these assumed and invented differences between the sexes that have most often been cited in support of suppressive laws or customs.

The third issue, brought up by Casmall, is if it is ever justifiable to repeat a stereotype that one does not believe for humor or irony. Perhaps. But in the example given, it seems to me that any humor comes from a basic acceptance of the validity of the stereotype rather than a mockery of it. “Oh, she knows I was just joking,” is often used after an attack as a sort of false excuse, as a way to make the attacked feel guilty or hysterical should she choose to defend herself.