Posts Tagged ‘gender’

Bill C-279, “An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code (gender identity and gender expression)”, has been passed by the House of Commons. It now needs to go through the Senate, so I guess I should keep holding my breath, but I am encouraged by the fact that 18 Conservative MPs voted in favour of this bill. Read more here (for some reason this source only counted 16 Conservative MPs, but the official record shows 18).

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Are you a fan of criticizing evolutionary psychology? Grab some popcorn, folks, because there has been some criticizing and counter-criticizing going on that you may find entertaining! In most cases, it’s actually serious, well-reasoned debate, too (as long, I assume, as you don’t read the comments). Things began with Rebecca Watson‘s talk about pop evo psych at a skeptic conference, which was…I won’t say “debunked”, but countered, by evolutionary psychologist Edward Clint. This has sparked some dialogue, primarily on Freethought Blogs, about evolutionary psychology as a whole field and about the media coverage of the science (or, often, “science”) of gender differences. I present the (interesting parts of the) conversation so far in chronological order (perhaps I’m missing some contributions from blogs I don’t regularly read, so additions in the comments are welcome; also please note that I’m interested in collecting links that discuss the science or lack thereof involved, NOT those discussing What Rebecca Watson Really Meant):

Edward Clint’s response to Watson’s talk (the latter is embedded here and at the first Almost Diamonds link below)

Justin Griffith’s take on the above

Stephanie Zvan’s rebuttal of Edward Clint’s post

Tangential to the debate per se, Zvan also documents the gleeful response from the section of the internet that reflexively detests Watson

Zvan’s counterarguments, continued

PZ Myers begins a series critiquing evo psych

Clint’s response to criticism (this, and some other posts linked within, is more about tone and whether people are misinterpreting what other people said/wrote, which I consider not popcorn-worthy because I want to read about science)

Jerry Coyne discusses the field

Part II of Myers’s critique (and apparently more parts are planned)


Myers, part III

Greg Laden’s take

Shall I write up my own contribution here? Perhaps if I run out of popcorn.

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File under “I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit.”

About a week ago, a small tempest erupted in the science blogosphere over a remark made by Dr. Dario Maestripieri, a professor at the University of Chicago, on his Facebook page. The comment read, in full:

My impression of the Conference of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans. There are thousands of people at the conference and an unusually high concentration of unattractive women. The super model types are completely absent. What is going on? Are unattractive women particularly attracted to neuroscience? Are beautiful women particularly uninterested in the brain? No offense to anyone.. [sic]

Screenshots of the offending status have been spread far and wide, and a few good commentaries on why this statement is problematic and offensive have been written by, among others, Dr. Isis, DrugMonkey, and Janet D. Stemwedel. I encourage you to read these posts, and at least some of the comments, because I don’t intend to explain in detail why this post is so unfortunate here. Suffice it to say, in DrugMonkey’s succinct words,

Don’t do this. It’s sexist, juvenile, offensive and stupid. For a senior scientist it is yet another contribution to the othering of women in science.

There is still sexism in science. I am most pleased and heartened to see established scientists, like the bloggers I linked to above and (allegedly) some of Dr. Maestripieri’s colleagues on Facebook, speak out against it. Behaviour like Dr. Maestripieri’s contributes to an uncomfortable work environment for female scientists, an environment that makes many of us question whether having a job in the field we love is worth putting up with such condescension and objectification.

Don’t believe this? (cf. these guys, and kudos to the commenters who have already thrashed them.) Let me tell you something.

I am a young female scientist.

And Dr. Maestripieri holds an appointment in one of the academic sections to which I’m applying to do my PhD.

His comment, while extremely distateful to me, is nowhere near brazen enough to make me withdraw my application, and isn’t likely to weigh very heavily among all the other factors I’ll have to consider when I decide which school to attend. But if all else turned out to be equal, this comment could damn well tip the balance. Do I want to have to potentially interact with a man who’s made it clear that he judges female scientists based on their looks first?

And you know what else? If I had been considering joining Dr. Maestripieri’s lab, I would be running the fuck away from that application right now. If I were working for him, I’d have to assume that he’s judging me based on my appearance, and that he’s perfectly comfortable talking about my appearance to me or to colleagues. That’s the sort of academic environment that I want to avoid, and one that I shouldn’t have to put up with.

To be clear, I don’t care whether professors, or anyone really, mentally rate people’s attractiveness; I think most of us do this at least some of the time. But when this thought process leads to unprofessional behaviour, be it overt harassment, subtle differences in treatment based on looks, or comments like this that both make their female colleagues uncomfortable and tacitly endorse this sort of behaviour in others, it is not acceptable.

Dr. Maestripieri’s comment is far from enough to drive me away from a science career. But it could well drive me, and other women, away from his lab, his department, and his university. As far as I’m concerned, it’s their loss.

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Parliament just voted on, and passed, a motion that Bill C-279, which would extend protection against hate crimes and discrimination to trans people, be read a second time (bills in Parliament go through three reading before being made into law) and referred to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. This is good news!

The vote was 150 to 132, and all of those 132 nays were Conservatives. However, 15 Conservatives voted for this motion. This gives me some hope. I know it doesn’t mean they plan to support the final bill, but it’s not a bad sign.

Here is the full list of how MPs voted on the motion, broken down by party. If your MP is among the Conservatives who voted against it, I urge you to write to them to express your support for C-279. Tell them to vote for it in future. Perhaps more importantly, if your MP is one of those 15 Conservatives who supported the bill being moved to second reading, PLEASE write to them to find out how they stand on the bill and to encourage them to continue supporting it. Heck, you don’t even have to be in their riding to tell them this. I think I might go ahead and email them all.

We probably won’t hear much about C-279 for a while now, as the Omnibus Budget Implementation Bill of Doom and Also we Hate Science is going to take up a hell of a lot of Parliament’s time. (Oh yeah, while you’re writing to your MP about C-279, maybe you should tell them how you feel about the budget, too.)

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My job requires me to spend a lot of time literally wandering in the wilderness, if the presence of a GPS, map, and compass allow me to call it wandering, and as a result I spend unhealthy amounts of time alone with my own thoughts. (Or, in other words, alone. Har har.) Recently those intruding thoughts have, for some reason, had a lot to do with The Lord of the Rings.

It’s self-evident that Tolkien’s writing has a gender problem. I mean, there are four female characters in LotR*. They are totally kickass characters, and I wouldn’t change anything in LotR for the world. But still. Four characters. One of whom is an evil giant spider.

I used to attribute this lack of women to a combination of tradition—after all, warrior and adventurer are pretty traditionally masculine roles—and lack of awareness—Tolkien wasn’t writing to create female role models. But I think there’s something more pernicious going on. Consider. Theoden’s wife? Dead. Denethor’s wife? Dead. Elrond’s wife? Sailed to the Undying Lands. Sam’s mother? Probably dead too, or he would’ve been pining for her in Mordor. These are opportunities where a female character could easily have been inserted, even in a tiny, nonspeaking role. Instead they’re conspicuously absent.

Gimli’s father Gloin is present at the Council of Elrond. Presumably Gimli has a mother; where is she? (We find out in one of the appendices that Dwarf women are rare, and some Men think they’re actually a myth.) Legolas’s father Thranduil appears in LotR and The Hobbit, but his mother is never even mentioned; has she gone Grey Havens-ward already?

Was Tolkien even aware of this pattern? Was he subtly affected by the “conveniently an orphan” trope? Or did he just think these female characters were unnecessary? Or, like most things Tolkien, is there some subtle underlying meaning?

Is Middle Earth simply more dangerous for women? Celebrian, Elrond’s wife, is the only one of these women whose fate is ever reported, and she left Middle Earth because she never fully recovered from the trauma of an orc attack. If women were disproportionately affected by the growing power of Sauron, it (a) makes the bad guys look nastier, (b) plays into the “weaker sex” stereotype, and (c) makes Eowyn look even more badass. And what does this say about the valiant men who are supposed to be defending their womenfolk?

At least some of Tolkien’s characters have noticed the male-biased sex ratio: the Ents have an entire song about how all the Entwives disappeared. Maybe the same thing that happened to the Entwives is now occurring to female elves, hobbits, and humans. Maybe the Entwives never left—maybe they were killed off. Or maybe the non-Ents are following in the Entwives’ footsteps. After all, it’s never explicitly stated that the absent wives and mothers are dead.

One last thought: I meant this to be a serious line of inquiry, but I also can’t help thinking that “where are Tolkien’s women?” would be a great plotline for a Thursday Next novel.

*Excluding Rose who eventually marries Samwise, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, the matron in the Houses of Healing whose name I forget, and Goldberry. And I like to think the Nazgul’s creepy pterosaur mounts are female.

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I’m confused. Am I supposed to wear red to attract a mate, or not?

ResearchBlogging.orgThese seemingly contraditory findings (which, as I’ll explain in a moment, aren’t actually contradictory) were amusingly published in the same journal within less than two weeks of each other, so I can’t resist a discussion.

It’s an old canard of pop evolutionary psychology that the colour red denotes sex. It had been hypothesized that red ornamentation—especially lipstick—mimics the colour of receptive female genitalia, and therefore advertised (perhaps falsely) fertility or sexual receptivity. A study which I described several weeks ago laid this particular hypothesis to rest by showing that straight men were less sexually interested in pictures of redder female genitals. But still, the colour red has strong cultural connotations, perhaps with evolutionary significance. The newer study was intended to show that red denotes (female) sexual availability—particularly for casual sex.

This study had three parts. First, the researchers recruited women and asked them to pretend they were creating an online dating profile. Half of these women were asked specifically to imagine that they were creating this profile to find casual sex partners. They were asked questions about what their profile picture would look like, including whether they would wear jewelry, and what colour they would wear. Interestingly, they were given only four options: green, blue, black, and red. Women in the “casual sex” group were indeed more likely to say they’d wear red, but by only a small margin (it was just barely statistically significant, at p=.047).

The next part of the study looked at whether this stated preference existed on real online dating sites. The researchers selected profiles of 500 women who were looking for casual sex and 500 who weren’t (must resist urge to make snide remarks about this methodology!). They had three people classify the predominant clothing colour in these profile pictures (again, only red, black, blue, and green were considered). And, indeed, women who were interested in casual sex were more likely to wear red prominently than those who weren’t*.

The third and final part of this study was similar to the second, except that it compared women on websites specifically dedicated to casual relationships to women on sites that emphasized more long-term relationships. A similar result was found: red was more common on the casual sex-focused website.

Now, what can and can’t we conclude from these results, assuming they’re sound? We can say for sure that women (more specifically, women who fit the online dating demographic) who are looking for casual sexual relationships tend to display red clothing more often in the context of looking for those relationships. We cannot say whether this tendency is learned or instinctive, or whether it has an evolutionary “purpose”, or even whether it has anything to do with fertility (=fitness). The authors of this study do a great job of pointing out these limitations. For example, they note that their findings may not hold for face-to-face interactions or for all personalities.

I want to discuss why these results say little about evolution, though, because this is the sort of study that tends to be spun into an evolutionary psych fairy tale. First, it does not distinguish learned from genetically entrained behaviour (and, of course, there may be a little bit of both genes and memes at play). But if this red=casual sex link has a weak genetic basis, it’s probably not something that arose in our species as a result of natural selection in the traditional sense. Second, there’s an underlying assumption that red=casual sex=increased fitness (i.e. more babies). I have a feeling that the average woman these days is not pursuing casual sex in order to get pregnant. Perhaps this was the case in our evolutionary past, but it’s a pretty big assumption.**

Nevertheless, this study is not bad in terms of making wild claims about evolution. I do have some problems with its methods, though. Only four colour options? (None of which include, say, orange or pink—something closer to red.) And no mention of whether shades of pink, orange, or purple could be classified as red. On top of that, having people score what they thought was the “most prominent” colour in the profile pictures seems like not the best method, even though it was repeatable between scorers. (I’m thinking you could come up with a Photoshop manipulation to determine redness of a selected area of clothing. I think it’s been done with stickleback! (That is, with their red throats, not their clothing.))

What you can take away from this paper is that red is associated in women’s minds with sexuality in certain contexts. This is probably not surprising to anyone, but having data to back up the conventional wisdom is always good. However, it’s a huge stretch to ascribe evolutionary significance to this observation. Whether it’s as far a stretch to use it to choose your lipstick colour, though, is entirely up to you.

This study has also been covered eloquently at Scicurious. (Special bonus points to this set of comments.)

*For both of the online dating site studies, most photos had people wearing black, which is interesting if red is really that important a signal. Also, why were so few people wearing green? It’s clearly the best colour. (But not a real green dress, that’s cruel.)

**Also, and this is a question I could probably answer easily with a bit of Google Scholar-ing but I’m too lazy, what about red-green colour blindness, which occurs in 10% of men?

Elliot, A., & Pazda, A. (2012). Dressed for Sex: Red as a Female Sexual Signal in Humans PLoS ONE, 7 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0034607

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Bill C-279 is “An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code (gender identity and gender expression)”. It’s going through first reading in Parliament and there was some debate on it last Friday. You can see speeches in Parliament from this debate here and read the text of the bill here. The bill’s goal is to add gender expression and gender identity to the rights protected by the Canadian Human Rights Act and to make crimes motivated by discrimination based on gender expression and identity (i.e. transphobia) hate crimes—that is, subject to more stringent sentencing.

Let me once again urge everyone in Canada to contact their MP and tell them to vote for this bill. (Here is where you can find out who your MP is and how to contact him or her.) (Oh, and tell your MP to read this.) The bill was passed by the last Parliament but didn’t make it through the Senate before election time, so had to go back to square one—with a Conservative majority this time.

Reading through the speeches for and against this bill, I’m struck by one thing—and it’s not the stupid, ignorant “bathroom bill” claims, which are bogus anyways. It’s the insistence by its opponents that this bill is unnecessary. Because human rights tribunals have ruled in favour of trans people already, citing the clause against sex discrimination. You know what? That’s great that some judges found a way to interpret the law so as actually to protect people. But that still doesn’t mean trans people are actually protected by law. Because hey, sex isn’t gender, and it certainly isn’t gender expression, and saying transgenderism falls under sex for legal purposes is, to me, just like saying “She used to be a man” or “X, who was born a woman but thinks she’s a man”. It’s denying what people are saying about their own experience. It’s insisting someone shouldn’t be offended because you’re not being offensive. It’s mansplaining. Pat on the head, get back to work, I can’t see your problem so it must not be there.

And you know what else? “Oh my god, I don’t know if we should extend human rights to this class of people, what about all the other people who will have to worry about other people’s rights now? It’s so hard and confusing to have to give people who are different from me their fundamental human rights. Oh my goddddd.”

(I suggest trying to be a bit more coherent than this when you contact your MP.)

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