Tag Archives: gender

Laughing strategy

People who believe that a certain group of other people deserve higher relative status often refuse to laugh at jokes about that group of people. Unfortunately (for them) this tends to make them look like uptight goody-goodies who don’t have a sense of humor; a group whom almost everyone agrees should have low status. Why not instead focus on making up more jokes about the group whose relative status seems too high? It seems like that should have the opposite effect on the campaigners likability, and so also encourage more people to join that side of the fight. What am I missing?

Dirty old men and greedy young women

When people see relationships where the man is much older than the woman, they often suspect that both partners are there for superficial and unseemly benefits; money for the woman and a sexual object for the man. If a young man was with the same young woman, why does it reflect less badly on his motives? If an older woman marries an older man, why is it less plausible that she is just after his money? Why does trading one of two superficial motives for a relationship – the man’s youth or the woman’s money – and replacing it with a different superficial motive – the man’s money or the woman’s youth - make the relationship more likely to be superficially motivated? If people really fell in love for non-superficial reasons, shouldn’t we expect to see more couples who don’t match on superficial criteria such as age?

Does SI make everyone look like swimsuit models?

William Easterly believes Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue externalises toward women with their ‘relentless marketing of a “swimsuit” young female body type as sex object’. He doesn’t explain how this would happen.

As far as I can tell, the presumed effect is that pictures of women acting as ‘sex objects’ causes men to increase their credence that all other women are ‘sex objects’. I’m a bit puzzled about the causal path toward badness after that, since men do not seem on the whole less friendly when hoping for sex.

I think the important bit here must be about ‘objects’. I have no idea how one films someone as if they are an object. The women in SI don’t look inanimate, if that’s what it’s about. It’s also hard to make robots that good. I will guess that ‘sex object’ means something like ‘low status person to have sex with’, as opposed to just being sexually alluring. It seems unlikely that the concern is that women are taken to be sexier than they really are, so I think the problem is that they are taken to be low status in this particular sexy way.

If I guessed right so far, I think it is true that men increase their expectation that all other women are sex objects when they view videos of women being sex objects. I doubt this is a big effect, since they have masses of much better information about the sexiness and status of women around them. Nonetheless, I agree it is probably an effect.

However as usual, we are focussing on the tiny gender related speck of a much larger issue. Whenever a person has more than one characteristic, they give others the impression that those characteristics tend to go together, externalising to everyone else with those characteristics. When we show male criminals on the news, it is an externality to all other men. When we show clowns with big red noses it is an externality to all other people with big red noses. When I go outside it gives all onlookers a minuscule increase in their expectation that a tallish person will tend to be brown haired, female, dressed foreignly and not in possession of a car.

Most characteristics don’t end up delineating much of an externality, because we mostly don’t bother keeping track of all the expectations we could have connected to tallish people. What makes something like this a stronger effect is the viewers deciding that tallishness is more or less of a worthwhile category to accrue stereotypes about. I expect gender is well and truly forever high on the list of characteristics popularly considered worth stereotyping about, but people who look at everything with the intent of finding and advertising any hint of gender differential implied by it can only make this worse.

Or better. As I pointed out before, while expecting groups to be the same causes externalities, they are smaller ones than if everyone expected everyone to have average human characteristics until they had perfect information about them. If people make more good inferences from other people’s characteristics, they end up sooner treating the sex objects as sex objects and the formidable intellectuals as formidable intellectuals and so forth. So accurately informing people about every way in which the experiences of men and women differ can help others stereotype more accurately. However there are so many other ways to improve accurate categorisation, why obsess over the gender tinged corner of the issue?

In sum, I agree that women who look like ‘sex objects’ increase the expectation by viewers of more women being ‘sex objects’. I think this is a rational and socially useful response on the part of viewers, relative to continuing to believe in a lower rate of sex objects amongst women. I also think it is virtually certain that in any given case the women in question should go on advertising themselves as sex objects, since they clearly produce a lot of benefit for themselves and viewers that way, and the externality is likely minuscule. There is just as much reason to think that any other person categorisable in any way should not do anything low status, since the sex object issue is a small part of a ubiquitous externality. Obsessing over the gender aspect of such externalities (and everything else) probably helps draw attention to gender as a useful categorisation, perhaps ultimately for the best. As is often the case though, if you care about the issue, only being able to see the gender related part of it is probably not useful.

What do you think? Is concern over some women being pictured as sex objects just an example of people looking at a ubiquitous issue and seeing nothing but the absurdly tiny way in which it might affect women more than men sometimes? Or is there some reason it stands apart from every other way that people with multiple characteristics help and harm those who are like them?

Update: Robin Hanson also just responded to Easterly, investigating in more detail the possible causal mechanisms people could be picturing for women in swimsuits causing harm. Easterly responded to him, saying that empirical facts are irrelevant to his claim.

Why can’t a man be more like a woman?

Women are often encouraged to move into male dominated activities, such as engineering. This is not because overall interest in engineering appears to be lacking, but because women’s interest seems to be less than men’s. This is arguably for cultural reasons, so it is argued that culture is inhibiting women from pursuing careers that they may be otherwise suited to and happy with.

If the symptom is that women do less engineering than men, why do we always encourage women to do more engineering, rather than encouraging men to do less? It seems we think men are presently endowed with the perfect level of engineering interest, and women should feel the same, but are impaired by culture.

This could make sense. For instance, perhaps all humans somehow naturally have the socially optimal level of engineering interest, but then insidious cultural influences eat away those interests in women. I think this is roughly how many people model the situation.

This model seems unlikely to be anywhere near the truth. Culture is packed with influences. These influences are not specific to inhibiting women’s impulses to do supposedly masculine things. They tell everyone what sort of people engineers are supposed to be, how much respect a person will get for technical abilities, how much respect they get for wealth, which interests will be taken to indicate the personal qualities they wish to express, which personal qualities are good to express, which cities are most attractive to live in, etc etc etc. Everyone’s level of inclination to be an engineer is significantly composed of cultural influences.

A cacophony of cultural influences may somehow culminate in a socially optimum level of interest in engineering of course. But it is hard to believe that some spectacular invisible mechanism orchestrates this perfect equilibrium for all cultural influences, except those that are gender specific. If there are fleets of rogue cultural influences sabotaging women’s inclinations, this must cast suspicion on the optimality of all other less infamous cultural influences.

Besides the incredible unlikelihood that all cultural influences except gender related ones culminate in a socially optimal level of interest in a given activity, it just doesn’t look like that’s what’s going on. Socially optimal cultural influences would mainly correct for externalities, for instance encouraging activities which help others beyond what the doer would be compensated. But this is not the criterion we use for dealing out respect. It may be part of it, or related to it, but for instance we generally do not respect mothers as much as CEOs, though many people would accept both that mothers have huge benefits often for little compensation and that CEOs are paid more than they are worth. We respect the CEO more probably because it is more impressive to be a CEO.

Incidentally, the correction of cultural influences is another example of expressing pro-female sympathy by encouraging females to do manly things. It seems here we accept that many male jobs are higher status than many female jobs, so to give women more status we would like them to do more of these jobs. Notice that while more men operate garbage trucks, there is less encouragement for women to do that. But my main point here is that we are obsessed with equalising the few cultural influences which are related to gender, while ignoring the sea of other influences which may misdirect both genders equally.

If a gender gap only tells us that either men or women or both have the wrong level of interest in engineering, and we don’t know what the right level is, trying to move women’s interest to equal men’s seems about as likely to be an improvement as it is a deterioration, except to the extent people like equality for its own sake, or where the cultural influences have other effects, such as making women feel less capable or worthy. If we are really concerned about people finding places in the world which suit them and let them make a worthy contribution, we should probably focus on other influences too, rather than being mesmerised by the unfairness of a politically salient discrepancy in influence.

So when people motivate their concern about a gender gap with the thought that there might for instance be capable and potentially interested women out there, missing their calling to be engineers, I can’t feel this is a pressing problem. Without investigating the rest of the cultural influences involved, there might just as easily be capable and potentially interested men out there missing their calling to not be engineers. Or perhaps (as I suspect) both genders should be engineers more often than men are, or more rarely than women are.

Femininity can’t be that bad

Lisa at Sociological Images:

Most of us are clear on the idea that patriarchies are defined by sexism… In our American patriarchy, however, this is …perhaps even superseded by something called androcentrism: the valuing of all-things-masculine over all-things-feminine.  We know we live in an androcentric society because masculinized things (playing sports, being a doctor, being self-sufficient) are imagined to be good for everyone (we encourage both our sons and daughters to do these things), but feminized things (playing with dolls, being a nurse, and staying at home to raise children) are considered to be good only for women.

I’ll admit I hadn’t really noticed the extent of this until she pointed it out. It’s not immediately clear though why this would be unfair toward women, rather than men. She explains elsewhere:

Comparably, women have got it good. We’re allowed to knit and play soccer, be a mom and be a lawyer, take dance and karate, wear skirts and pants!…How do we make sense of this? Crash course: Femininity is just for chicks. When men do feminine things, they are debasing themselves. Masculinity is awesome and for everyone. When women do masculine things, they’re awesome. This is sexism: Masculinity rules, femininity drools. Men are encouraged to stay away from femininity, so their individual choices are constrained, but they also are staying away from something debasing. In contrast, women are required to do a least some femininity, so women are required to debase themselves, at least a little bit, even as they are given more options.

Another possibility is that femininity is debasing for men, and awesome for women. Otherwise, how can one account for women doing so much femininity? So eagerly, so expensively? According to the above, they are required to do at least some, but shouldn’t women be consistently pushing this supposed boundary to do as little as possible? I don’t see this at all.

Consistent with this, and not with Lisa’s view, this vast majority of women who are actively unnecessarily feminine do not appear to be at any popularity disadvantage relative to their more tomboy counterparts. In fact they appear roughly to be more well liked as they display more feminine characteristics. Can Lisa’s view account for these observations? If not, it seems that men are the ones who lose out here, just like women lose out in cultures where dressing or acting like a man is considered disgusting for them.

Victoria Baker

Is this woman just ignorant of the superiority of manliness? Image via Wikipedia

On behalf of physical things

Most people inadvertently affect the reputations of groups they are seen as part of while they go about other activities. But some people also purposely exploit the fact that their behaviour and thoughts will be seen as evidence of those of a larger group, to give the false impression their views are widely supported. These people are basically stealing the good reputation of groups; they enjoy undeserved attention and leave the groups’ images polluted.

Such parasites often draw attention to what a very ordinary member of the targeted group they are, or just straight out claim to be speaking for that group. People who ‘have been a left voter for fifty years, but this year might just have to vote conservative’ are getting much of their force from implicitly claiming high representativeness of a large and respected group, and those who claim they write ‘what women really think‘ are more overt. From the perspective of women who think for instance, this is almost certain to be a damaging misrepresentation; any view other than your own is worse, and people who have good arguments are less likely to steal the authority of some unsuspecting demographic as support. It is also costly to listeners who are mislead, for instance about the extent to which women really think. Costs of prevention ignored then, less of this is better.

Purposeful exploitation of this sort should be easier than other externalities to groups’ reputations to punish and to want to punish; it’s easier to see, it’s directed at a specific group, and it’s more malevolent. However the public can’t punish or ignore all claims or implicit suggestions of representativeness, as there are also many useful and accurate ones. Often much of the interest in learning what specific strangers’ views are requires assuming that they are representative, and we keenly generalize this way. So mostly it is up to groups to identify and punish their own dishonest exploiters, usually via social pressure.

This means groups are easier to exploit if their members aren’t in a position to punish, because they don’t have the resources to deny respect that matters to the offenders. If you claim to be broadcasting what women think, most women don’t have the time or means to publicize the shamefulness of your malicious externalizing much. Even if they did they would not have much to gain from it personally, so there is a tragedy of the commons. And in big groups it is hard for a member or several to know whether another supposed group member is lying about the group’s average characteristics; they may just be a minority in the demographic themselves. Respectable groups are also good. Last, if most people have a lot of contact with the group in question, and the topic is a common one, it will be harder to misrepresent. So large, respectable, powerless or otherwise engaged groups who don’t commonly discuss the topic with the rest of society are best to make use of in this way.

I haven’t seen this kind of activity punished much, it doesn’t seem to be thought of as especially shameful. But given that, it seems rarer than I would guess. For instance, if you wanted to push a radical political agenda, why join the disrespected minor party who pushes that agenda rather than a moderate party, which allows you to suggest to your audience that even the larger and more reputable moderate party is coming around to the idea?

Why is gender equality so rude?

I don’t see much anti-female sexism in my immediate surrounds; I notice more that is anti-male. But one place I have been continually put off by anti-female sexism is in attempts to promote gender equality. It seems especially prominent in efforts to seduce me to traditionally non-feminine academic areas. If my ratio of care about interesting subjects vs. social situations were different I might have been put off by the seeming prospect of being treated like a defective sacrifice to political correctness.

Some examples from the advertising and equity policies of various academic places I’ve been:

‘Women can make valuable contributions to …’ implies that this is an issue of serious contention. If most people thought women were of zero value in some fields, this would be a positive statement about women, but they don’t. Worse, the author can’t make a stronger statement than that it is possible for women to create more than zero value.

Appeals to consider myself capable of e.g. engineering despite being female make the same error but this time suggesting that the viewer herself is likely in doubt. Such a statement can only be useful to women so ignorant of their own characteristics that they need to rely on their gender as deciding evidence in what career to devote their lives to, so it suggests the female audience are clueless. The smartest women have likely noticed that they are smart, and will not be encouraged by the prospect of joining a field where others expect them to be intellectually insecure special people to be reassured and included for human rights purposes.

Statements such as women are valuable because they can provide a different perspective on computer science, imply that women can’t understand a computer the usual way, but might help figure out how to make it more personable or something. If this is true, why not just say ‘women are not that valuable in computer science’?

Policies of employing a certain number of female staff to provide role models or leadership for female students imply that females would rather aspire to femalehood than to superior ability (presumably the decision criteria forgone).

Recommendations that courses like mathematics should be more focussed on women say that while existing mathematics is about completely gender neutral abstract concepts, not men, it is unsuitable for women. Presumably either women are not up to abstract concepts, or women can’t be motivated to think about something other than women. Despite whichever inadequacy, they should be encouraged to do mathematics anyway by being taught to work out the mean angle of their cleavage or something.

Why do so many attempts at equality seem so counterproductive?  The above seem to fall into two processes: first, assuming that society believes women might be useless, advertising this, and arguing against it so badly as to confirm it, and second, trying to suck up to women by making things more female related at the cost of features capable women would care for. Perhaps those more concerned about anti-female sexism make these errors more because they have an unusually strong impression of society being anti-female and their own obsession with femininity makes it easy to overestimate that of most women.

Why do ‘respectable’ women want dead husbands?

I find this hostile wife phenomenon pretty confusing for several reasons:

  1. Wanting other people dead is generally considered an evil character trait. Most people either don’t have such wishes or don’t admit to them. This is especially the case when the person you prefer dead is someone you are meant to be loyal to. Often this applies even if they are permanently unconscious. The ‘analogy’ between wanting someone dead and insisting they don’t get cryonics is too clear to be missed by anyone.
  2. People don’t usually seem to care much about abstract beliefs or what anybody is going to do in the distant future, except as far as these things imply character traits or group ties. If the fact your partner is likely to die at all in the distant future isn’t enough to scare you away, I can’t see how anything he might do after that can be disturbing.
  3. People tend to care a lot about romantic partners, compared to other things. They are often willing to change religion or overlook homocidal tendencies to be with the one they love. Romance is infamous for making people not care about whether the sky falls, or they catch deadly venerial diseases.
  4. The hostile wife phenomenon seems to be a mostly female thing, but doesn’t go with any especially strong female-specific characteristics I know of. Women overall don’t especially resist medical spending for instance, and are often criticized as a group for enjoying otherwise pointless expenditures too much.
  5. My surprise is probably somewhat exacerbated by pre-existing surprise over many people wanting to die ever, but that is another issue.

Partial explanations of the hostile wife phenomenon offered by Darwin, de Wolf and de Wolf, Quentin, C (#44), Robin Hanson, and others:

  • Women are more often hostile just because most interested parties are heterosexual men (This is presumably some part of the explanation, but not much – in around ninety cases of significant others interfering in cryonics arrangements recorded between 1978-86 I count four males, while roughly one quarter of Alcor’s members are women. It wouldn’t explain the strong opposition anyway, nor the fact that men are more interested in cryonics to begin with).
  • Women really don’t like looking strange (according to Darwin and the de Wolfs, women often claim deep embarrassment. This just raises the question of why it’s so embarrassing. Plenty of people have plenty of strange opinions about all sorts of far off things, and they can usually devote some resources to them before it becomes so problematic for their partner).
  • Cryonics looks like a one way ticket to somewhere else, where other women are, which also makes here and now less significant, shows the man could go on with life without the woman (this at least a cost in terms of something that usually matters in relationships. But why not go with him then? Why not divorce him over his excercize habits? Why wouldn’t men have similar concerns?)
  • Cost, perhaps specifically that it is selfish not to give money to more needy, or to the wife or family (But people put up with huge expense on other funeral rituals and last minute attempts to live longer. Perhaps cryonics just looks less likely to do what it is meant to do? Would it be more admissible if it weren’t meant to do anything? Why would women care about this more than men?)
  • Separation in whatever other afterlife the spouse has planned (this could only explain whatever proportion of religious people don’t believe you go to the same place eventually after living longer, and should apply to men also)
  • Cryonics is seen as a substitute to caring about raising family, since you don’t need genetic immortality if you have proper immortality (if genetic immortality is a common conscious reason to invest in a family I’m not aware of it, and this shouldn’t especially apply to women)
  • Wives object to their husband joining a boys’ club, and feel left out (this only makes sense for those heavily socially involved in a cryonics organization, and I understand this phenomenon is much broader)
  • Thinking styles: women don’t like risky things, ‘global solutions’, or the sort of innovative thinking required to appreciate cryonics (this is Darwin, and the de Wolf’s main answer. It is made of controversial assumptions and wouldn’t explain strong antagonism anyway, just lack of enthusiasm. Even if you aren’t a fan of risk, it’s generally considered better that complete failure).
  • Women either want to die, or have tenuously justified doing it, and resent being presented alternatives. This also explains why the answer to many of the above things is not to just sign up with your husband (But I see no evidence women want to die especially much, and while apparently many people have come to terms with their mortality enough to not fight it, I don’t think this is much higher among females than males)

None of these is satisfying. Got any more?

On the off chance the somewhat promising social disapproval hypothesis is correct, I warn any prospective hostile wives reading how deeply I disrespect them for preferring their husbands dead.

Are abortion views sexist?

Indian girls are born on 500,000 fewer occasions per year than Indian boys (2006).(Photo: Steve Evans)

Indian girls are born on 500,000 fewer occasions per year than Indian boys (2006).(Photo: Steve Evans)

Abortion isn’t too bad according to half of Americans, and most of liberals and the irreligious and that bunch. The fetus never really got as far as being a child, and virtually nobody thinks failing to have children is as bad as murder.

Selective abortion of female fetuses, on the other hand, is horrific according to both ends of the ideological spectrum. And the reasons given are almost always to do with it being  bad for the females who aren’t born. It’s “discrimination“, a “gross violation of women’s rights“, “an extreme manifestation of violence against women” . As my pro-choice friend (among others) complains, ‘There are all these females who should exist and are missing!’

So confirmed females have a right to exist if they are conceived, and have suffered a grave loss if they cease to be, but fetuses who might be male may as well not exist? This is either hypocritical or extremely sexist. Why are the same people adamant about both views often?

They both appear to be applications of general pro-female sympathy. When supporting the pro-choice side, the concern is for a woman’s rights over her own body. When condemning gender-specific abortion, the concern is for the females who won’t be born. Siding with the females becomes complicated when females are conspicuous as aborters one day and abortees the next. So it looks like this isn’t hypocrisy via accidental oversight, but policy choice biased by sympathies to a specific gender. If ‘whether an aborted fetus has been done a terrible wrong’ were the important point, we should expect to see more consistency on that.

When I asked about this previously my friend suggested that the motivations were importantly different in the two cases. Aborting someone because they are female is wrong. Aborting someone because you don’t want to look after them is compassionate. This doesn’t apply here, even if it were true. Gender specific abortions are common for economic and other pragmatic reasons too, not because people hate females especially. Moreover one could argue consistently that gender specific abortions are bad because they harm to others who do exist, such as the males who will go lonely. This is rarely the claimed source of outrage however.

The most feasible explanation for this inconsistency then is sexism in favor of females being a big motivating force. You probably don’t approve of sexism in picking job applicants or political candidates. Do you approve of it in picking policies which determine countless lives or deaths?