Monday, August 27, 2007

In other breaking news, women like pink.

Why doesn't anyone seem to think through their assumptions when doing research on gender differences? Proceedings of the Royal Society just did a study on women, men, and shopping. Like most studies that deal with gender, the science seems shoddy and the reporting (in this case, The Economist) is worse.

Here's the study:
[Yale Psychologist Joshua New] recruited 41 women and 45 men and led each of them individually on a merry dance around the chosen market. In the course of this peregrination, each participant visited six of the 90 food stalls in the market. At each of those stalls, participants were given a piece of food to eat. They were asked their preference for the taste of the food, how often they ate that food in normal life, how attractive they found the stall and how often they had made purchases from that stall in the past. After visiting all six stalls, they were taken to the centre of the market and asked to point toward those stalls, one at a time, using an arrow on a dial. In addition, they were asked to rate their own sense of direction.

And here's what they found:
On average, women were 9° more accurate than men at pointing to each stall—a significant deviation if you have to walk some distance to get to a place. This was not because those women had more experience of visiting the market than the men had. Nor did the women rate themselves as having a better sense of direction—indeed the men rated their own navigating skills more highly....Among both the British and the Chinese, women preferred reddish hues such as pink to greenish-blue ones. Among men it was the other way round.

Now, this is all very interesting, but then you get to the conclusions:
Dr New suggests that these results show women are better than men at the particular task of relocating sources of food. That contrasts with the idea that men are better at navigation in general. In other words, women's minds are specialised for their ancestral task of gathering the sort of food that cannot run away....Moreover, though anatomical sex is binary, mental “gender” is more pliable. To see how masculine or feminine the brains of their participants were, Dr Hurlbert and Dr Ling used what is known as the Bem Sex Role Inventory, which asks about personality traits more often associated with one sex than the other. This showed that the more feminine a brain was, regardless of the body it inhabited, the more it liked red and pink.
All this suggests a biological, rather than a cultural, explanation for colour preference. And Dr Hurlbert and Dr Ling have produced one. They suggest that their result may be connected with the fact that the colour of many fruits is at the red end of the spectrum. An evolved preference for red, pink and allied shades—particularly in contrast with green—could thus bring advantage to those who gather such things. And if they can also remember which tree (or stall) to go and visit next time, then so much the better.

Lets start with the test Hurlbert and Ling used. Their test points to which individuals identify more with culturally constructed gender traits, right? Because all their test associates gender with is certain common traits that appear in a given gender. Is it really a surprise, then, that they found that individuals who identify with female-associated traits, identify with a specific female-associated trait, pink? The Bem Sex Role Inventory is descriptive, not prescriptive. Here's wikipedia:
In 1971, [Dr. Bem] created the Bem Sex Role Inventory to measure how well you fit into your traditional gender role by characterizing your personality as masculine, feminine, androgynous, or undifferentiated. She believed that through gender-schematic processing, a person spontaneously sorts attributes and behaviors into masculine and feminine categories. Therefore, an individual processes information and regulate their behavior based on whatever definitions of femininity and masculinity their culture provides.
So it's not really surprising that a test designed to measure traditional gender roles produced traditionally-gendered results.

But that's not even the beginning of the problems with the "biological proof" conclusion. Let's also ignore for a second that the article makes the error of assuming that anatomical sex is binary. This experiment does nothing to control for the decades of social conditioning these women had to a) be good at shopping and b) like pink. Women (and, probably, "effeminate" men) simply have more practice at shopping than men (and, probably, "masculine" women) have. And they have been dressed in pink and red since birth, where little boys get blue and green. Why, then, is this all assumed to be based on a history of women gathering? My guess is that New et al went looking for a prehistoric answer and found one, but that doesn't make their control problems less grave (and having someone "rate themselves" as a control for their sense of direction is almost laughable).

Why do sloppy experiments with specious conclusions get press? Hearing about biological roots to our gender assumptions is interesting—it certainly caught my eye. Our daily lives are constantly inflected with gendered expectations, and it's hardly surprising we want to know those expectations' source. But it would be awfully nice to get that information from better hands.

This just in

They're dropping like flies. Madison's own Russ Feingold says it best: the next attorney general must have his foremost loyalty be "to the law, not the president." Wouldn't that be something new.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Two things that are not get-out-of-homophobia-free cards

There are two common ways in which homophobia gets masked, and both of them piss me the hell off. One of them has been in the news, because Mayor Jim Naugle of sunny Fort Lauderdale, Florida has been under fire for proposing that Fort Lauderdale install porta-potties on its beaches to "deter homosexual activities." Now even a conservative FL retiree can tell that's a strawman, and that not too many fags are getting it on in the public toilets of Fort Lauderdale beaches (perhaps Naugle was thinking of his Tampa neighbor, State Rep. Bob Allen—who is now crying, "I'm not gay, I'm racist!"), but that isn't even the issue anymore. In face of criticism, the honorable mayor stuck to his guns and kept firing new rounds, saying that he didn't like to use the word "gay" because homosexuals are such unhappy people, and calling a GLBT section of the public library pornographic. And then—this is the best part—he made fourth graders everywhere proud by issuing a fake apology, saying essentially "I'm sorry you all are so stupid you can't see that this is a problem."

What is Mayor Naugle's defense against people who claim his behavior may indicate some homophobia? "I have longtime friends in the homosexual community." Now granted, they're clearly deeply unhappy friends whose collective presence in a public bathroom represents a threat to children everywhere, and whose taste in literature is utter smut, but the guy has friends who are gay!

Thing number one: having gay friends doesn't mean you aren't homophobic. Wagner loved Mendelssohn, a jew, but he was still f*ckin anti-semitic. That a few individuals have jumped your homophobia hurdle in order to get to your friendship finish line doesn't mean the hurdle isn't there, and doesn't make that hurdle the fault of the other queers who keep tripping over it. Having gay friends doesn't even guarantee you are only a little homophobic, and using it as an excuse might hurt. Most people, even most queers, are a little bit homophobic, but they are aware of it and try to work against it. Not so for those who write off their homophobia—they think there's nothing to work against.

A close friend of mine just came out as queer to his girlfriend, who freaked out. She's not a queer-hater, apparently, except when it comes down to the guy she's sleeping with, and then she can't stop thinking about how uncomfortable it makes her that he hooked up with another guy once.

Thing number two: A NIMBY homophobe is still a homophobe. Saying otherwise is like saying "oh, I'm fine with black people, except when they're around me. Then I get really freaked out." If that happens, you're racist. If you don't mind empowered women, as long as all the women around you act subserviant, you're sexist. Similarly, if you don't mind homosexuals, as long as you get to pretend they're all straight, you're homophobic. And if you let go of a boy who loves you right now, just because he f*cked someone else back then, you're just dumb.

PS—while we're on the topic of sexuality, the superlative Savage LoveCast included a call this week that proposed people use "scrotum" as a synonym for "weakling," rather than "pussy." It's a great idea: the reasoning is that while pussies aren't actually all that weak—they give birth, for god's sake—scrotums are pretty fragile, and don't take pain very readily. Plus, they're kind of gross. I wouldn't want to be called a scrotum. And, despite the chip on my shoulder about the way we construct masculinity, I think using "scrotum" to mean "weakling" actually does a lot to queer the way masculinity is understood. It's not likely that we'll be seeing the ideal man portrayed as weak in the near future; the same is not true for women. So get working and stop being such a huge scrotum! Or, alternately, stop scroting out!

Padilla Convicted

Jose Padilla, the terror suspect who was arrested in May 2002 amid cries from John Ashcroft that the government had foiled a dirty nuke attack in the works, was convicted on all charges in federal court yesterday. There's good news and bad news here. The good news is that this conviction makes it harder for the Bush administration to claim that terror suspects need an extra-constitutional process for trying and sentencing. The bad news...well...

Y'know the charges he was arrested on, the ones that John Ashcroft was so excited about? Those weren't mentioned at all in his federal trial, since for some silly reason federal courts don't like to use evidence that was gathered by rendering suspects outside the U.S. justice system. Instead, Padilla was prosecuted as part of an existing case against two other terror suspects, Adham Hassan and Kifah Jayyousi. The evidence? He met them at a mosque at one point, he talked with them on the phone during seven out of thousands of wiretapped calls, saying nothing of significance (the other phone calls, the ones with just Hassan and Jayyousi, had what prosecutors claimed was code), and his fingerprints were all over an Al Qaeda recruitment document that he could easily have handled while confined in military prison. The end result, though, was that the more persuasive evidence against Hassan and Jayyousi stuck to Padilla as well. Padilla might appeal.

But at least now everyone knows that the Bush administration doesn't need a special process to unjustly convict terror suspects--they can do that just as easily with federal courts. And maybe—just maybe—this will put pressure on the Bush administration to give terror suspects federal trials. That would be great, because then they'd have to stop getting evidence through extraordinary rendition and start getting it through better methods: y'know, the kind that don't involve getting other countries to torture individuals who haven't been accused of a crime. The end result would be more reliable intelligence, since the information gathered from torture is hideously unreliable.

A caveat: Padilla might be guilty. I certainly don't know. But the verdict he received seemed to rest more on his having the wrong friends than on any actual proof of terrorist activities.

UPDATE: The NYT agrees—Padilla was basically sentenced to life in prison for a thought crime.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Still slow on posting

But go check out this post from the Feministe archives. Astounding.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Oh my.

As of about a half hour ago: Karl Rove resigned.
He says he needs to spend more time with his family. (What a sweet guy!) Of course, he is one of what is becoming a lengthy string of Bush administration officials to suddenly need some heart to heart time with the spouse and kids. He chose to break the big news to Rupert Murdoch's new pet project, the WSJ. The big question, of course, will be why he actually resigned. Infighting? Had Bush become a lost cause? Was Rove more controversy than he was worth with a year and a half left to go in a lame-duck presidency? Is it to skirt the soon-to-be-breaking news about his and Dick Cheney's torrid affair? (I wish.) Is he working for a 2008 presidential campaign??

Updates to come when the news is a bit more detailed.

UPDATE: Lauren asks, will he be indicted?

Thursday, August 9, 2007

It's that time of term

So posts are slow for the time being. More tomorrow.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Then again, you could live in Japan

Apparently it's workplace gender discrimination week (read: slow news week) at the New York Times, because right on the heels of the much blogged-about report on gender pay (dis)parity in large cities, comes a report about Japan's glass ceiling. It turns out that only 10.1% of managerial jobs in Japan are held by women, who make up almost 50% of the workforce. The biggest culprit? The same thing that is making young, urban, American women lose their brief pay edge after age 25: motherhood. Being a working mother is even more difficult in Japan, because a fifteen-hour workday is relatively commonplace for those who are interested in getting ahead. No wonder Japan's birthrate has plummeted--it's difficult enough for a pregnant woman to work eight hours, let alone fifteen. The result is that Japanese women have literally to choose between a job and a family.

Now, that's not to downplay the role of outright discrimination. That exists, although it's been illegal since 1985. The piece of legislation doesn't actually provide a means for the government to punish companies who break it, other than putting them on a "naughty list" at the Department of Labor. Which the Department of Labor hasn't even done. The result is a situation like that of one women, described in the article:
Takako Ariishi, 36, experienced an extreme version of these roles when she grew up as the only child of the president of Daiya Seiki, a small manufacturer owned by her family that supplies gauges to Nissan.

At first, her disappointed father cut her hair like a boy’s and forbade her to play with dolls. When she had her first son 10 years ago, he fired her from the company and anointed the infant grandson as his successor.

Still, Ms. Ariishi took over as president three years ago after her father died. She says she is the only woman in a group of some 160 heads of Nissan suppliers. The first time she attended the group’s twice-annual meetings, she says she was asked to wait in a room with secretaries.

“I still have to prove all the time that a woman can be president,” says Ms. Ariishi, a trained engineer who wears a blue unisex factory worker’s uniform in her office.
Things are changing, the article notes, albeit very slowly. Apparently, Japanese society is realizing that a) it needs women to work and b) it needs women to have babies, so c) it should let a given woman do both of those in her lifetime. It's a pity that progress toward gender equality sometimes only happens when men realize it's their ass if it doesn't, but at least that progress is being made.

The most interesting bit of analysis in the whole piece was that, statistically, countries with better workplace participation have higher fertility rates. Women who have jobs and know they can keep them have babies earlier, because it's not a death sentence for their career. So having a baby is bad for your job, but having a job is good for having a baby. Got all that?

If you haven't had enough of workplace discrimination statistics yet, here's an excellent graph from the NYT that illustrates some of the U.S./Japan distinctions.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Just don't get married, have kids, or move to the suburbs.

Or, as an alternative, be a man.

Via Feministing and Lawyers, Guns and Money, the New York Times has a report on how young urban women are actually outpacing men in wage-earning. New York men make 85 cents on a woman's dollar, and Houston men make 83 cents. Then that women becomes a mother, and she falls behind men in earning again.

I don't think any of this is good news. First of all, fathers still make more money than anyone, single young women included. So apparently becoming a father increases your earning power, but becoming a mother torpedos it. Second, that women fall off drastically when they leave their twenties only confirms the existence of a "glass ceiling" that seems to keep women out of the upper echelons of job advancement. And finally, single young urban women are the only group that is ahead of men. Everywhere else, they seem to still be ten or twenty cents behind on the dollar.

And what is wrong with young urban men? The Supreme Court is certainly doing everything it can to help them out. And a couple hundreds of years of old-boy networking and being the traditional figure in every higher-paid job can't hurt. The article has a couple of answers. One is that women may start earlier, because they plan out time from their career to have a family. The other—and this statistic bothers me every time I hear it—is that young women just tend to be better educated nowadays.

Women are attending 4-year colleges at higher rates than men, which raises some interesting questions about masculinity, and especially about how male gender roles affect high-schoolers. Is it just because men are more likely to feel welcome in skilled blue-collar work, like construction work or electrical engineering? Or are men embracing a less bookish self-image because only queers like English class? Or maybe a little of both? Either way, it's just as unacceptable for men to be systemically discouraged from higher education—if indeed that's what is happening—as it was for women to be shut out. I'll rant about the masculine mystique some other time, but suffice it to say that I think we talk a lot more about femininity's problems than we do about masculinity's, and it might be necessary to try to fix both to fix either.

The NYT article ends frustratingly. What's the important kernel the Times leaves its reader with? What "sums it all up and blows it all wide open?" (Extra points if you know what musical that is). Well, apparently being richer than men their age is making it harder for women to get married. Figures.

UPDATE: Zuzu also posts on this topic.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Dartmouth Saturday—Sexual Assault

Saturday will be a Dartmouth-themed post.

The beginning of this summer saw a rash of sex crimes (two qualifies as a rash in Hanover, NH) at Dartmouth. And the weird thing is, they were both the kind of sex crime that everybody thinks about when they think "sex crime," i.e. the kind that rarely happens. The first was an assault on the green—that's the quad, for you non-Dartmouthers—at night. A college student groped a high school camper under her shirt and then ran away when she screamed. Then, a day later, an older man followed a walking female student in his car, masturbating while watching her.

There were two important responses. The first was that the sorority system on campus immediately spread the news about the assaults and started a "ride home" service of their own to supplement the (limited) one provided by Safety and Security. Good for them. The second response, however, was a bit more puzzling. The administration immediately posted long notices about the incidents on the doors of every dorm.

Good for them, too, but what the hell? Sexual assault occurs regularly on this and every college campus. Usually it is the kind of sexual assault that makes up 90% of assault cases: the kind where the victim knows the assailant. However, have one "creepy guy in the bushes" style assault, and now the administration sees fit to start warning students? That's not to decry the response that the administration made—it was appropriate—but it highlights the culture of secrecy and shame that surrounds campus sexual assault. Where is the notice every time a rape is reported to SAPA, the (excellent) Sexual Assault Peer Advising service on campus? Where is the notice every time a woman—or man—is taken advantage of after a night of drinking? Where is the notice every time someone gets unwantedly groped on the dance floor at a frat party? But one random dude gropes a random girl on the green, and now it's headline news in the campus paper and a priority for the administration. The end result? The all-too-ordinary, all-too-mundane type of rape, the kind that happens every day while we watch, gets normalized in contrast. Rape apology becomes easier, because the "ordinary" kinds of rape don't get the drama and coverage that the "guy in the bushes" kinds do.

I'll leave off with a quotation from the second victim, the one who was followed, in case anyone is still under the impression that sex crimes, even those as comparatively mild as getting followed by a creepy guy, don't do serious damage to their victims sense of security and personal integrity:
I’m not walking outside alone after dark. This past weekend my flatmates were both out of town, so I slept at a friend’s room Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. I felt pretty vulnerable on Thursday, and took the day off from work on Friday…I’ve also been looking at license plates like crazy.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Food Friday—Cooking Vegan

I am not a vegan. I am not even a vegetarian. A large part of that is selfish—I simply enjoy the possibilities meat, fish, dairy, and eggs give my cooking and eating. But I also think a focus on limiting factory farming and on buying local, small-organic food is an important first priority before we can understand where animals fit into human diets. It's kind of like the logic that gets applied to women in the workplace. Sure, a greater percentage of women may prefer to stay at home than men, but we won't know until they get equal access to the workplace. Similarly, it may be unsustainable and cruel to use animals for food, but it's hard to know until we arrive back at a system that isn't completely broken.

One of my best friends just turned vegan. He read a bunch of Peter Singer, and found himself agreeing with too much of it to ignore its implications. That gave me the opportunity, last time he came over for dinner, to cook an entirely vegan meal. And it's actually a fun constraint. I immediately established that I would take veganism on it's own terms, not try to make vegan "versions" of non-vegan food. I have had too many floppy, boring soyburgers and dry, floury baked goods to take that road. Instead, I looked for vegan dishes that existed in meat-eating traditions, and built everything else from the ground up, as if non-vegan food had never existed.

Chips and Guacamole were an easy decision to start. Readers who know me know that I am a huge lime whore. The avocado is a great vehicle for a tight balance of onions, lime, tomatillos, and chiles. Thinking back, I would have done well to throw some thin slices of jicama on the plate for dipping as well.

I'm proud of the next dish, a little amuse-bouche that went around before we sat down. I fried green plantains with plenty of garlic until they were crisp on the outside and oozing on the inside, then topped them with a raspberry-cayenne coulis. If I had known how easy coulis is to make, I would have made it before—you just toss fruit in a blender, transfer to a sauté pan, add sugar over heat, and then strain in a sieve. The cayenne was to-taste, to offset the sweetness of the raspberries.

Harire, a thick Moroccan soup with tomatoes and chickpeas, was the main plate of the night. Depending on the recipe, it can have pasta. We left it out, because of the veganism constraint and because it's really not necessary once you have chickpeas doing their starchy thing.

Dessert was "turtles" of pecans, dark chocolate, and caramel. I am terrified of sugar. Honest to god, terrified. It changes so quickly, and is so easy to ruin, that, short of a dark roux (that'll be another post), it has to be the most stressful thing I know to cook. But the caramel turned out alright, if a little hard (no milk). I should have oiled my waxed paper before laying down the caramel and pecans. Chocolate wants butter and caramel wants cream, but both work fine without.

I will continue to make Friday a food-themed entry. Other day-themed entries are coming. I considered giving each day a theme, but decided that would be cheesy beyond words. But I think the weekends may be themed, with weekdays left for news and other posts.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Let's start things off...

...with something nice and uncontroversial. I'm talking, of course, about abortion. Jill Filopovic of Feministe wrote a brilliant post the other day about abortion. She posed the question: if abortion is murder, how much time should the woman who has an abortion serve? The wingnutosphere didn't like this one bit, and focused a whole lot of energy on not answering the question. The useful thing about Jill's question is that it forces pro-lifers to assign legal value to a fetus's "life". And if a fetus's "life" is worth less, legally, than, say, a woman's bodily integrity (which has a fairly easy-to-determine legal value--just look at punishments for rape), then bingo, abortion should probably be legal. It also separates clearly the legal side of abortion from the ethical side. By dealing only with the legal value of a fetus, the "how much time" question delineates the importance of choice--that everyone doesn't want an abortion doesn't mean everyone shouldn't have legal access to one.

There are really only three answers to this question. All are deeply problematic:
1) No time. The justification is usually that women weren't punished pre-Roe, and therefore don't need to be punished now (that's the implication in JivinJ's post, linked above). The trouble here is that now you've just given the fetus an infinitely smaller legal value than any other life, and than any other crime against property, privacy, or bodily integrity. And it implies that abortion really isn't murder, and that the fetus really isn't as human as other humans. In fact, it creates a legal second-class category for fetuses, which is exactly what anti-choicers want to avoid.
2) Some time, but with a lot of lenience because you have to be crazy/emotional/hysterical to have an abortion. This answer is the worst of the three, because so many women are prepared to have abortions before they actually end up in a position where they have to. I did some hypothetical math on the comment thread:
let’s imagine that even as few as 20% of women will identify as prepared to consider an abortion if they were to have an unwanted pregnancy. That means that of the roughly 1,200,000 legal abortions in the U.S. every year, an extremely conservative figure of 240,000 were already prepared to have an abortion before they apparently came down with a fit of hysterics due to becoming pregnant. That’s 240,000 clear premeditated murders.

So number two basically equates to:
3) Ship 'em off to prison. This one is the most logically consistent, but not only is deeply alienating to all but the nuttiest of the wingnuts, but also is fairly socially unsustainable. Here's some more hypothetical math:
About 1.4% of murders currently result in the death penalty: that’s maybe 3,300 more executions every year. Not to mention the other 230,000 life prisoners we would need to incarcerate. So even if “you’d have to be crazy to have an abortion” were to fly 80% of the time (and I’m not even talking about what that argument would mean in terms of infantilizing women), that could still mean an incredible glut of incarcerations and executions. Even if we were to imagine that abortions were to drop to pre-Roe levels (around 580,000/year, according to the CDC), that’s a shitload of women getting thrown into prison and jabbed with a lethal injection.

I'm not going to go on about the prison crowding problems this country has, but suffice it to say, we couldn't imprison women who got abortions if we wanted to.

There were a few other interesting thought experiments that came up in commenting, and near the end of Jill's post. The first was Jill's:
There’s a fire in a fertility clinic. Inside the clinic there’s a three-year-old boy who you’ve never met and have absolutely no connection to. There are also 100 embryos in a box. You only have time to run into the clinic one time. You cannot carry the boy and the box at the same time. What do you do? Do you save 100, or do you save one?

The best anti-choice answer to this one was that life is infinitely valuable, and it's impossible to decide. I've heard this argument before, and it's equally uncompelling every time. A good way around it is to think about the state of the world in either situation. If we can save one person or three people, the world is two people better off if we do the latter. And this isn't a hypothetical problem. Medical triage makes these choices all the time, with regrettable but necessary results.

Someone, I forget who, posed this situation: a woman will die of cancer unless she gets chemotherapy. That chemotherapy will cause her pregnancy to spontaneously abort. She will live long enough without chemo to give birth to a healthy baby, but by that time it will be too late to save her. Should she have chemo? I'd add: what if the chemo has only a 50% success rate? 10%? At what percentage do we flip a coin? Because at that point, I think, we have the relative value of a healthy, wanted fetus to its mother.

Why are these questions important? They establish the relative values of social goods, and that's what lawmaking is all about. Do whatever you want with your personal ethics, but if you can't answer these questions, and well, I don't want you making my laws.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Is this thing on?

If this works, this will be the first post on my new blog. On the off-chance that you wander in, more will follow shortly, including a less generic page layout and some actual content.