Both gender and language are social constructs, and sociological research indicates a link between the two.
In Lakoff’s classic 1973 paper, Language and woman’s place, she argues that “the marginality and powerlessness of women is reflected in both the ways women are expected to speak, and the ways in which women are spoken of.” This socialization process achieves its end in two ways: teaching women the ‘proper’ way to speak while simultaneously marginalizing the voices of women who refuse to follow the linguistic norms dictated by society. As Lakoff writes:
So a girl is damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t. If she refuses to talk like a lady, she is ridiculed and subjected to criticism as unfeminine; if she does learn, she is ridiculed as unable to think clearly, unable to take part in a serious discussion: in some sense, as less than fully human. These two choices which a woman has – to be less than a woman or less than person – are highly painful.
Lakoff finds numerous lexical and syntactic differences between the speech of men and women. Women tend to use softer, more ‘polite’ language and are more like to hedge or otherwise express uncertainty with in their comments. While she acknowledges that – as of the early 70s – these distinctions have begun to blur, Lakoff also notes that the blurring comes almost entirely in the direction of “women speaking more like men.” Eg, language is still gendered, but has acceptable language grown in breadth for women, while ‘male’ language remains narrow and continues to be taken as the norm.
A more recent study by Sarawgi et al looks more closely at algorithmic approaches to identifying gender. They present a comparative study using both blog posts and scientific papers, examining techniques which learn syntactic structure (using a context-free grammar), lexis-syntatic patterns (using n-grams), and morphological patterns using character-level n-grams.
Sarawgi et al further argue that previous studies made the gender-identification task easier by neglecting to account for possible topic bias, and they therefore carefully curate a dataset of topic-balanced corpora. Additionally, their model allows for any gamma number of genders, but the authors reasonably restrict this initial analysis to the simpler binary classification task, selecting only authors who fit a woman/man gender dichotomy.
Lakoff’s work suggests that there will be lexical and syntactic differences by gender, but surprisingly, Sarawgi et al find that the character-level n-gram model outperformed the other approaches.
This, along with the fact that the finding holds in both formal and informal writing, seems to suggest that gender-socialized language may be more subtle and profound than previously thought. It is not just about word choice or sentence structure, it is more deeply about the very sounds and rhythm of speech.
The character n-gram approach used by Sarawgi is taken from an earlier paper by Peng et al which uses character n-grams for the more specific task of author attribution. They test their model on English, Greek, and Chinese corpora, achieving impressive accuracy on each. For the English corpus, they are able to correctly identify the author of text 98% of the time, using a 6-gram character model.
Peng et al make an interesting case for the value of character n-grams over word n-grams, writing:
The benefits of the character-level model in the context of author attribution are that it avoids the need for explicit word segmentation in the case of Asian languages, it captures important morphological properties of an author’s writing, it can still discover useful inter-word and inter-phrase features, and it greatly reduces the sparse data problems associated with large vocabulary models.
While I initially found it surprising that a character level n-gram approach would perform best at the task of gender classification, the Peng et al paper seems to shed computation light on this question – though the area is still under theorized. If character n-grams are able to so accurately identify the single author of a document, and that author has a gender, it seems reasonable that this approach would be able to infer the gender of an author.
Still, the effectiveness of character n-grams in identifying an author’s gender indicates an interesting depth to the gendered patterns of language. Even as acceptable language for women converges to the acceptable language of men, the subtleties of style and usage remain almost subconsciously gendered – even in formal writing.
Almost exactly four years ago I began writing publicly every day.
In recent months, I’ve allowed myself a great deal of leniency in the “every day” portion of that commitment. But, in the broadest possible sense, I have developed and maintained public writing as a habit.
It has never been easy.
People often ask me what my greatest challenge is: How do I find the time? Where do I get ideas?
Those are challenges, to be sure, but they are the mere details; the logistical flourishes that transform theory into action. The greatest challenge, I think, is one which I outlined in my first post:
…my struggle with blogging is that…in many ways, it requires a lot of ego. Well, I would say ego, but another may generously say “agency.” It requires standing up and saying, “I do have something to say, and I believe it’s worth your time to listen.”
…I see this challenge more broadly in the idea of being an active citizen, of truly engaging in public life…Even in smaller acts of engaging. To actively contribute to your community means believing that you have something to actively contribute. There’s something fundamentally egotistical about that belief.
This is not to say that egoism is bad – but it should be acknowledged as a capacity required for engagement in public life; a capacity which is spread heterogeneously throughout the population. Some people, you may have noticed, have far too much ego; while others, I’m afraid, have internalized from consistent silencing the perspective that their voices do not matter.
I once was one of those people. I suspect I still am in many respects.
But a lot has changed for me over the last four years.
When I started this experiment in public writing, I had built a career out of shadow writing; using my words and my efforts to make other people look good. I was reasonably satisfied with this path: I enjoyed the art of word craft and the strategy of presentation, but I preferred to hide behind those who were eager to take the credit. Acknowledging my contributions just ruined the magic; and I was a nobody anyway.
Four years ago I was just beginning to emerge from the year-long stupor that followed my father’s death. I was just beginning to think about graduate school; just beginning to realize that, yes, I just might be a human person capable of pursuing a Ph.D.
A lot has changed since then.
In some ways, public writing feels even more egotistical than before. Being a doctoral student raises the stakes of self-importance; I’m declaring a value for my contributions through my occupation before I even open my mouth. Doctoral students may be nobody in the fiefdoms of academia; but it remains a fairly fancy calling to the rest of the world. I can hardly consider myself to be a nobody while laying claim to the capacity to someday contribute to human knowledge.
So public writing seems more egotistical, but also less necessary – I declare every day that my voice has value.
And then, of course, there are the practical concerns. Writing does take time, and it requires a sort of mental energy I now need more for my daily work. Many days, I just don’t have it in me.
For now, I plan to continue public writing. Perhaps not with the daily fervor I committed to when I was four years younger; but with a similar sense of rebelliousness for choosing to share my voice with the world.
And that, of course, is the thing; why I choose to share my private journey with my public voice. Because too many people are convinced that their voices and perspectives don’t matter; too many people are taught to believe that through slights and silencing faced every day.
I consider myself a deliberative democrat: I believe that we – every single one of us – has a role to play in collectively and collaboratively building our shared world. You may find something annoyingly optimistic in that vision; but I see something radical and rebellious – a bold truth-claim regarding who has the right to govern and the capacity to participate.
That is to say, I choose to share my public voice because, ultimately, it is not at all about me. I am still just a nobody; a particle picked at random. I share my voice not because it is my voice that matters, but rather because all our voices matter.
And yes, yes, feel free to insert a joke here about “networking” and “network science.” It’s all very clever.
Nevertheless, having attended five conferences in the last six weeks, this is a topic fresh on my mind: I have a strong distaste for networking.
The word itself conjures utilitarian interest of the most basic kind: inserting yourself into someone’s life for the primary purpose of personal benefit and advancement. Selecting who you meet and engage with motivated by the question, what can you do for me?
To be fair, not all networking has to be like this, but the word has been so sullied by visions of frat-boy bros boasting of instrumental interactions, that I find I have a hard time relating to it.
In it’s stereotypical incarnation “networking” seems to go against everything a deliberative democrat stands for – human interaction should be rich and mutually engaging; it should be creative and generative. To “network” in the hopes of self-elevation just seems crass and tawdry in comparison.
Every once and awhile I run across an article in a business magazine insisting that networking in this sense is acceptable because everyone uses it for instrumental purposes: it’s not just about what you can get out of them, but about what they can get out of you.
However, dressing instrumentality up with nods to mutual benefits misses the point: instrumental interactions are shallow, hollow. They may achieve an immediate, narrow, goal, but they do little to advance the larger human enterprise of collaborative living.
It’s a shame, really. Collectively we could achieve so much more.
I don’t mean to pretend that I’m wholly absolved of participating in instrumental action – I initiate such interactions everyday at shops, stores, and other public settings. And, no doubt, I have engaged in networking for instrumental ends.
But the point remains that there is a better way –
One of the most exciting things about network science is how inherently interdisciplinary it is. We all have tremendous gaps in our knowledge – we all have to listen to, learn from, and make space for each other.
I have met so many amazing people in the last several weeks. Folks with fascinating stories and brilliant insights. Folks who are just as anxious, uncertain, and self-deprecating as I am. Folks who don’t seem to “network” for personal gain, but who rather actively work to make space for those around them.
The more I think about it, the more I think “networking” is the wrong frame all together.
At a good conference, people don’t come together as individuals looking to gain value by connecting with other individuals. Rather people come together as members of a nascent community, looking to engage together in the work of building that community.
I recently participated in an excellent workshop on Gendered Creative Teams, hosted by CEU in Budapest. It was an amazing conference, and I am so glad to have had the opportunity to participate. I’ve included the text of my talk Confidence and Collaboration: A Gender-Based Look at Working Together in the Public Sphere below:
I wanted to start with a brief introduction of myself:
– My name is Sarah
– I know nothing.
Now, when I say, “I know nothing,” you might interpret this in a couple of different ways. For simplicity, let’s start by considering two scenarios:
– Either I actually know something.
– I really don’t know anything.
Most of you know very little about me, so you may feel as though you don’t have the capacity to accurately select between these two options.
But, I am here, and I traveled a long way to get here, so if you’re inclined to give me the benefit of the doubt, you may assume that I have done something worthwhile in my life to earn a place here.
Let’s assume, then, that I do know something.
If that is the case, then why might I begin this talk by saying that I know nothing?
Again, let us consider a few scenarios:
– Perhaps I am exceedingly humble or don’t want you to think me too immodest. Perhaps I feel as though the amount that any one person can know pales in comparison to the vast wealth of human knowledge. Perhaps in recognizing that none of us knows everything, I want to create space so that I may learn from others: learn from all of you.
– Perhaps I find myself stunned to be in a room with so many brilliant and thoughtful people – to be sharing a panel with such great scholars. Perhaps I simply feel as though I know nothing when compared against the outstandingly smart people around me. Perhaps I suffer from imposter syndrome – or, perhaps, I really am an imposter who doesn’t deserve to be here at all.
I don’t intend to answer this question for you.
But I do intend to draw attention to the natural tension between these narratives: to raise questions of confidence, courage, knowledge, and humility.
My broader research focuses on civil society, asking what we – literally you and I, along with all the citizens of the world – what we should do?
Implicit in this question is my focus in today’s talk: how should we act in the public sphere? How should we interact with one another? The exploration of this question is complicated along multiple dimensions of identity and power, but in line with the overarching theme of this conference, I focus today on a dimension that is particularly salient to me: gender.
Traditionally in the western world, women’s voices were not welcome in the public sphere.
I use the term “public sphere” here broadly, and you may take it to mean any interactions which take place beyond an intimate circle of family and close friends: interactions at school, at work, at community gatherings, on social media, and in formal politics. Interactions which are “public” in their contrast to the “private” interactions of the home.
Dating back to Aristotle, a woman’s purpose was confined to the private side of this divide. As Arendt describes, the private life of the household was a place driven by the urgency of life: woman was tasked with creating life and man was tasked with providing for it.
The public sphere, the polis, on the other hand, was a place of freedom. Not freedom in the modern sense, but rather freedom from unequals. It was a place where – for lack of a better phrase – men could be men: surrounded only by their peers and without disruption from those who were lesser: from slaves, from barbarians, and from women.
Entry to the public sphere was only permitted to those who had risen beyond the necessities of life: only to the man who could devote himself fully to the political, unconcerned with the mundane labor of survival.
As Arendt (1958) describes:
To leave the household…to devote one’s life to the affairs of the city, demanded courage because only in the household was one primarily concerned with one’s own life and survival. Whoever entered the political realm had first to be ready to risk his life.
This hardly sounds like a place fit for the delicate sensibilities of a woman.
By the mid-renaissance aristocratic women were joining their male siblings in the study of humanist arts: astronomy, mathematics, Latin, Greek. These were vehicles for human flourishing, necessary for all sophisticates of a refined society. But amongst the many areas of humanist learning, one alone was deemed improper for women to study: rhetoric.
Women were barred from learning or practicing the arts of public speaking, political dialogue, and persuasion. Their voices were not wanted.
The sentiment of this prohibition dates back to the vision of the polis. A woman entering political discourse would disrupt the equity of the public sphere: no longer surrounded by peers, men would have to tip-toe around this out of place woman.
Furthermore, what kind of woman – scandalized minds might ask – would even want to enter the public world of men?
Rhetoric was far from the secluded privacy of the household. It was an engaged battle of verbal combat, a place for masculine sport and swagger. As Bizzell (1992) describes:
The adult woman who entered the arena of rhetorical combat …risked being treated like the only female player in a touch football game: and what chaste women would take such a risk?
This distaste for female rhetors can be seen in the story of Italian humanist and intellectual, Isotta Nogarola. After attempting to enter the scholarly realm of rhetoric, Nogarola was widely debased as a prostitute who indulged in other unseemly activities.
These attacks were justified primarily on the premise: an eloquent woman is never chaste.
As Dillion (2004) notes, in the 19th century, American author Nathaniel Hawthorne stated similar concerns about women expressing themselves in print.
Writing that “the great body of American women are a domestic race” Hawthorne expressed concern about “ill-judged incitements” which turn women’s “hearts away from the fireside.” There is, he wrote, “a sort of impropriety in the display of woman’s naked mind to the gaze of the world.”
Again, we see the gendered imagery of the polis. Women’s proper sphere is domestic; this is where she belongs. A woman entering the public world does so naked; her words expose her – “an irregularity which men do not commit in appearing there.”
Hawthorne’s imagery also invokes classical Greek notions of the public sphere as a place where men fully come into being. As Arendt (1990) describes, in the private sphere, “one is neither seen nor heard by others” – a man’s wife, children, slaves and servants not being recognized as fully human, of course.
Only in the public sphere may a man “appear and show who he himself is.”
Importantly, this process of appearing is also a process of becoming. Through the reasoned exchange of the public sphere, men learn the nature of others and learn the truth of themselves. It is only through participation in the public sphere – through being seen and heard by others, that a person can fully come to be
Thus women’s exclusion from the public sphere – while charitably intended to protect her delicate demeanor, has the consequence of preventing women from becoming fully human in this sense.
Our modern sensibilities consider equality much differently than the Greeks. In much of the western world, it is now generally expected that men and women should participate equally in public life.
Yet, we continue to see unequal participation.
One of the most measurable indicators of this participation is electoral politics – though public office is far from the only way a person can engage in the public sphere.
Across the world:
Only 17% of government ministers are women (UN Women Report, 2012).
And the majority of these women oversee social sectors, such as education and health – sectors traditionally tied to home life.
Just over 20% (20.9) of national parliamentarians are female (UN Women Report, 2013)
And, if you’re curious how this breaks down:
The U.S. is just shy of the global average at 19.4% (Center for American Women and Politics, 2017)
And Hungary, I’m afraid, is much lower, with women representing only 9% of Hungarian MPs. (Várnagy, 2013)
What’s notable here is that this disparity is often coupled with a stated openness to female candidates.
In the states, 75% of Americans say that women and men are equally good at being political leaders. (AP, 2016)
Here in Hungary, 84% of Hungarians express a similar sentiment (Integrity Lab, 2016)
Given the apparent support for female candidates, then, we may be left wondering why we don’t see more women participating in public life.
One potential reason is hesitancy among women themselves: perhaps they are too shy, too quiet. Perhaps they lack confidence or are otherwise too weak for the hearty, verbal combat of the public sphere.
There’s good reason to think there is truth to this concern. For example:
Hedges – verbal signals of uncertainty such as “sort of” and “maybe” – are used more frequently by women. (see: Hancock & Rubin (2014); McMillan et al. (1977))
Women tend to apologize more than men, indicating, perhaps, that women feel more regretful for their words and behavior. (see: Holmes (1989))
And, furthermore, there is a rich literature documenting `imposter syndrome’ and the `confidence gap’ – findings that show over and over again that women disproportionally believe they are unqualified for the positions they hold or that they achieved their success through sheer luck: certainly not because they are smart or qualified.
As Clance and Imes write in their landmark 1978 paper:
Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample objective evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief.
As psychologists, Clance and Imes naturally study this phenomenon from an individual perspective, exploring the family histories and individual characteristics which lead women to mistake themselves for imposters. They automatically consider the trait as a psychopathy to be treated.
And to a great extent this is reasonable – imposter syndrome causes real anguish and can certainly elevate to the level of neurosis. It should rightly be a matter of concern.
There is some important work being done in this space, but too often, psychological and linguistic studies examining the failings of women – from hedging, to apologizing, to women’s lack of confidence and feelings of impostering – do little to touch on the broader social drivers of the behavior, losing sight of the larger question: how should one properly act in the public sphere?
I don’t mean to discount this narrative entirely. I am – and I’ll go on the record here – entirely in favor of empowering women.
But I find it disconcerting when studies like this are translated into to pop-sci advice like:
• Stop apologizing
• Be more confident
• Assert yourself
The problem I see here is that while researchers have accurately differentiated between the typical, socialized, behaviors of women and men, this advice is blithely translated to the public narrative without first deeply considering what is ideal.
In short, most of this advice amounts to little more than:
• Be more like a “man”
And not just any man, be like a manly man with all the masculine stereotypes of confidence and aggressiveness. Talk over people! Don’t apologize! Assert yourself and stand by your beliefs!
Such advice is problematic.
First of all, we may want to consider how much confidence is actually appropriate.
In perhaps the most relatably-titled academic article, “Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence,” Dunning et al. (2003) argue that people who are poor performers in a field regularly fail to recognize their own incompetence due to a double curse: “the skills needed to produce correct responses are virtually identical to those needed to evaluate the accuracy of one’s responses.”
Those who are most incompetent, then, are also mostly likely to misjudge their own competence, and as a result tend to hold the greatest overconfidence in their skill.
By this account, we ought to be collectively weary of people who give themselves high marks: perhaps some of them are accurately able to assess their own ability, but many others are simply expressing the carefree confidence of incompetence.
…And some of those people may even hold elected office.
Here’s my new favorite statistic: in one study, 88% of drivers rated themselves as safer than the median driver. (see Svenson (1980))
That’s right: 88% thought they were above the median.
To be fair, that number comes from a study of United States drivers, but Svenson found only a slightly lower rate – 77% among Swedish drivers. So this tendency to overrate oneself is not purely an American phenomenon.
So, there’s good reason to think we shouldn’t trust people’s confidence in themselves at all. From this perspective, “be more confident” is pretty lousy advice.
Furthermore, we may want to examine whether typically “male” ways of acting actually achieve the outcomes a group is looking for.
Research on group intelligence has found that groups perform better at various cognitive tasks when:
• Group members have higher “social sensitivity” – which can be briefly described as an awareness of the mental states of those around them
• Discussion is more egalitarian. Groups dominated by a few people perform worse than those in which everyone participates in the discussion. (see Woolley et al (2010); Engel, et al (2014))
Given these traits, then, we should perhaps not be surprised that these studies also find that groups with more women tend to perform better.
The traits which increase group intelligence – reading the needs of those around you and creating space for others to share their voice – go hand in hand with the sort of “feminine” habits which women are advised to drop in the work place in favor of more aggressive and stereotypically male performance.
Again, this seems like pretty lousy advice. Apologizing, hedging, and otherwise not asserting yourself may indeed hold women back in current masculinized environments, but they actually lead to better group outcomes.
Perhaps it is not the women who need to change.
Finally, I want to return to the Greek ideal of the public sphere.
Yes, the public sphere was a masculine battleground; an arena where men strutted their rhetorical skills.
But it was more than that.
It was fundamentally a place to learn. To learn from others and to learn about – and fully become – yourself. Under the classical ideal, the rhetorical combat of the polis was not conducted for personal glory, but rather in service to the greater goal of discovering truth.
Ideal citizens were tolerant gladiators, to borrow a metaphor from Huckfeldt et al (2004).
“Combatants with the capacity to recognize and respect the rights and responsibilities of their political adversaries.”
Given modern gender norms and women’s long-standing exclusion from public discourse, we seem to have lost sight of the ‘tolerant’ part of the vision; restricting our view to merely “gladiators.”
This narrowing – in boardrooms, classrooms, and elected office – is a mistake.
The “combat” of the public sphere may have value: if debate serves to sharpen understanding, then we owe it to our interlocutors to press them on their positions; to find the holes in their armor and encourage refinement of beliefs.
But this combat is meaningless without tolerance and mutual respect – without genuinely inviting our peers to similarly find the weaknesses in our own views.
The goal of rhetorical combat should not be to win, but rather “to find and evaluate arguments so as to convince others and be convinced when it is appropriate” as Mercier and Landemore (2012) write.
The goal should be learn – to learn correct things – and to make everyone wiser from the interaction.
I would further argue that mutual respect is more critical to the ideal than combat. Indeed, this process need not be combative, but can stem from non-judgmental questions of genuine interest: Can you tell me more about why you believe that?
Fundamentally, this process requires humility. It requires entering conversation with the belief that I don’t know everything and that the things I currently believe might be wrong. It requires all parties to enter the public sphere eager to learn.
This need not be a matter of confidence at all, but rather a matter of empirical fact: a single person cannot possibly know everything.
William James (1909) argues that a partial truth is essentially a falsehood, that tearing “the part out of its relations, leaves out some truth concerning it… falsifies it.”
For the network scientists in the room, I put this in more explicitly network terms: with our individually biased sample of nodes, we cannot possibly describe the topology of a full network accurately.
We all have something to learn; and every person we meet has something to teach us.
Given this vision, one of the most damaging things a person can do is to silence another. To do so not only hurts the person silenced, but does a disservice to yourself and to your communities. The process of learning is hindered when all voices and perspectives are not fully included.
And this, perhaps, is what’s most troubling about the current state of affairs.
While women on the whole may indeed be lacking from confidence; that in no doubt stems in part from the many mico-aggressions women experience while participating in public life; the constant, silencing messages that they are not wanted and that their views and voices are not valued.
It shows a solitary woman in a meeting of men. “That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs,” the caption reads. “Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.”
I love this cartoon because it rings so true to me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said something in a meeting only for a man to take credit upon repeating it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been talked over, interrupted, or mansplained to. I cannot tell you how many times it has been made perfectly clear to me – explicitly and implicitly – that my voice is not welcome.
Of course, I tell you all this because it’s not just me.
In deliberative settings, male voices account for up to 75% of the speaking time in mixed gender groups. (see Karpowitz & Mendelberg (2012))
Numerous studies show that women are more likely to be interrupted than men. (see Hancock & Rubin (2014); Hirschman (1994); McMillan et al. (1977))
These constant interruptions serve to re-assert male dominance and reinforce the message that women are neither welcome nor needed in conversations. (see West & Zimmerman (1983); Anderson & Leaper (1998))
So it’s too simplistic to say there is a problem with women’s confidence.
The characteristics so often observed in women of hedging, apologizing, and experiencing self-doubt are better interpreted as the joint result of both public exclusion and private inclusion.
On the one hand, toxically silencing environments make it clear to women that they should be quiet, they should be uncertain, they should be apologizing for the very space they take up in a room.
On the other hand, women’s socialized place in the private sphere gives them skills of listening, nurturing, and genuinely caring about the state of those around them. These are valuable skills in the public sphere, and, as we see in the studies on group intelligence, should be encouraged broadly as critical for collaboration.
This is not to argue that women already have the ideal habits and do not need to change – perhaps they do. But, perhaps, men need to change, too.
My argument here is more general: we shouldn’t be asking how to fix women for the current world – we should rather be asking what kind of world we want and then drawing on our collective answer to inform the skills, values, and habits we would like to have practiced by the citizens of that world; practiced by each of us.
I started this talk by claiming that I know nothing.
I stand by that claim, and I invite you to interpret it however you will.
You may choose to believe that I have too little confidence in myself – that a lifetime of being silenced and marginalized has taken its toll. That I am too meek, uncertain, or quick to defer.
Or you may take it differently: as a bold claim that despite what I know and what I have accomplished I still know nothing in the sense that I still have so much more to learn. That I want, above all, to believe true things, and in pursuit of that quest I am open to the possibility that the things I think I know are wrong. That I recognize the fact that – despite my own, personal experiences with marginalization – I am still relatively privileged as a highly educated, white, cis-gender person. That even I have a responsibility to create space for others to speak.
It feels appropriate to end here with a quote from Erasmus’ satirical essay, The Praise of Folly. In this 16th century piece, Folly herself – a woman, often depicted in in a fool’s cap and academic gown – appears, delivering a rousing oratory and sharply critiquing the intuitions of the day. She concludes:
If anything I have said shall seem too saucy or too glib, stop and think: ‘tis Folly, and a woman, that has spoken.
I recently had the privilege of being an invited speaker at the Gendered Creative Teams workshop hosted by Central European University and organized by Ancsa Hannák, Roberta Sinatra, and Balázs Vedres.
It was a truly remarkable gathering of scholars, researchers, and activists, featuring two full days of provocations and rich discussion.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the conference was that most of the attendees did not come from a scholarly background focusing on gender, but rather came at the topic originally through the dimension of creative teams. The conference, then, provided an opportunity to think more deeply about this latent – but deeply salient – dimension of the work.
Because of this, one of the ongoing themes of the conference – and one which particularly stuck with me – focused on the subtle ways in which the patriarchy shapes the creation and distribution of knowledge.
As some of you may know, I am fond of quoting Bent Flyvbjerg’s axiom: power is knowledge.
As he elaborates:
…Power defines physical, economic, ecological, and social reality itself. Power is more concerned with defining a specific reality than understanding what reality is. …Power, quite simply, produces that knowledge and that rationality which is conductive to the reality it wants. Conversely, power suppresses that knowledge and rationality for which it has no use.
This presents a troubling challenge to the enlightenment ideal of rationality. As scientists and researchers, we have a duty and a commitment to rationality; a deep desire to do our best to discover the Truth. But as a human beings, living in and shaped by our societies, we may simultaneously be blind to the assumptions and biases which define our very conception of reality.
If you’re skeptical of that view, consider how the definition of “race” has changed in the U.S. Census over time. The ability to choose your own race – as opposed to having it selected for you by interpretation of a census interviewer – was only introduced in 1960. Multiracial recordings only became allowed in 2000.
These changes reflect shifting social understandings of what race is and who gets to define it.
We see a similarly problematic trend around the social construction of gender. Who gets to define a person’s gender? How many genders are there? These are non-trivial questions, and as researchers we have a responsibility to push beyond our own socialized sense of the answers.
Indeed, quantitative analysis may prove to be particularly problematic – there’s just something so reassuring, so confidence-inducing, about numbers and statistics.
As Johanna Drucker warns of statistical visualizations:
…Graphical tools are a kind of intellectual Trojan horse, a vehicle through which assumptions about what constitutes information swarm with potent force. These assumptions are cloaked in a rhetoric taken wholesale from the techniques of the empirical sciences that conceals their epistemological biases under a guise of familiarity. So naturalized are the Google maps and bar charts of generated from spread sheets that they pass as unquestioned representations of “what it.”
As a quantitive researcher myself – and one who is quite fond of visualizations – I don’t take this as a admonition to shun quantitive analysis all together. But rather, I take it a valuable, humanistic complication of what may otherwise go unobserved or unsaid.
Drucker’s warning ought to resonate with all researchers: our scholarship would be poor indeed if everything we presented was taken as wholesale truth by our peers. Research needs questioning, pushback, and a close evaluation of assumptions and limitations.
We know that our studies – no matter how good, how rigorous – will always be a simplification of the Truth. No one can possibly capture all of reality in a single snapshot study. Our goal then, as researchers, must be to try and be honest with ourselves and critical of our assumptions.
As Amanda Menking commented during the conference – it’s okay if you need to simplify gender down from something that’s experienced uniquely for everyone and provide narrow man/woman/other:___ options on a survey. There are often good reasons to make that choice.
But you can’t ignore that fact that it is a choice.
If you choose to look at a gender binary, ask yourself why you made that choice and explain in at least a sentence or two why you did.
Similarly, there are often good reasons to use previously validated survey measures: such approaches can provide meaningful comparison to earlier work and are likely to be more robust than quickly making up your own questions on the day you’re trying to get your survey live.
But, again, such decisions are a choice.
If you use such measures you should know who created them, what context defined them, and you should critically consider the implicit biases which may be buried in them.
All methodological choices have an impact on research – that’s why we constantly need replication and why we all carry a healthy list of future work. Of course we still need to make these choices – to do otherwise would paralyze us away from doing any research at all – but we have to acknowledge that they are choices.
Ignoring these complication may be an easier path, especially when it comes to aspects which are so well socialized into the broader population. But that easier path reduces scholarship to the level of pop-science. A quick, flashy headline that glosses over the real complications and limitations inherent in any single study.
You don’t have to solve all the complications, but you do have to acknowledge them. To do otherwise is just bad science.
American civil society has really gone downhill since the 1950s. People used to belong to unions, fraternal societies, PTAs, bowling leagues. Now, self-absorbed and disconnected, they instead go bowling alone. Robert Putnam argues that these metrics of social capital – group membership, trust – even informal sociability – are deeply important to the civic health of a society. He presents a reasonable case that there is some correlation between group membership and civic health, finding that the latter correlates to a wide range of educational outcomes (Putnam, 2002) and that, more broadly, “the quality of public life and the performance of social institutions…are indeed powerfully influenced by norms and networks of civic engagement” (Putnam, 1995). This is a deeply important topic and Putnam is right to give it careful attention, yet his analysis continually glosses over questions of what qualifies as civic health and who gets to participate in the creation of social capital.
Perhaps most notably, Putnam’s definition of civic health places a heavy emphasis on social and institutional trust. As Putnam argues, social trust is a deeply beneficial good which is strongly correlated with civic engagement. Intuitively, this correlation makes sense – there’s no reason to participate in a process if you don’t trust the outcome, and you probably don’t want to spend your social time with people you don’t trust. Furthermore, potential eroders of social capital may be ameliorated by trust: both adults in a two-parent household cannot possibly be fully civically engaged if they do not periodically entrust someone with caring for their children.
Putnam, however, brings his faith in ‘trust’ as a positive social determinant too far. He takes for granted that social trust is intrinsically good, that it always serves to build better societies. A Burkean, however, would quickly find a critical flaw in this argument. As Cass Sunstein explains, Edmund Burke, the great conservative traditionalist, objects to “passionate movements that start political or social life from the ground up,” arguing that the “spirit of innovation” is the result of “a selfish temper and confined views” (Sunstein, 2009). In other words, Burke trusts past wisdom at expense of current knowledge. While Putnam values trust in current social institutions, Burke warns that these institutions may become corrupt. Trust in a good government may be good; but trust in a bad government can be devastating. Consider also Shanker Satyanath’s work on the rise of the Nazi party in pre-war Germany. It wasn’t a weak civil society which allowed fascism to flourish, rather it was the very traits Putnam praises. Indeed, as Satyanath et al. argue, it was “Germany’s vibrant ‘civic society,’ its dense network of social clubs and associations” which “facilitated the rise of Hitler by bringing more people into contact with his party’s message” (Satyanath, Voigtlaender, & Voth, 2013).
Furthermore, despite his protestations to the contrary, Putnam’s grim picture of the United States as a once-great civic utopia is deeply misaligned with realities of race, class, and gender. While tracing the tragic decline of civic engagement, Putnam pays little attention to inequities in access to engagement. He should be deeply alarmed to find that people without college experience – nearly half the population, in which people of color are strongly over-represented – are virtually shut out from civic life (Godsay, Kawashima-Ginsberg, Kiesa, & and Levine, 2012), a disparity which likely indicates structural barriers rather than apathy or narcissism. This oversight may affect Putnam’s analysis in two dimensions. First, standard survey measures of “civic engagement” do not always capture the many ways in which poor people support their communities (Godsay et al., 2012). While Putnam sees a decline in positive responses to the General Social Survey question of “How often do you spend a social evening with a neighbor?” (Putnam, 1995), Godsay et al. find that acts of “neighboring,” such as sheltering and feeding other community members, were common among non-college youth. Such civic acts may not register as “social evenings,” and therefore may artificially deflate survey responses. But perhaps the most striking finding of Godsay et al. is that non-college youth did engage in civic life when given the opportunity (Godsay et al., 2012). It was not the case, as Putnam fears, that “deep-seated technological trends are radically ‘privatizing’ or ‘individualizing’ our use of leisure time” (Putnam, 1995). Indeed, the greatest barrier to the civic engagement of this segment of the population was something Putnam hadn’t even considered: they had never even been given opportunities to engage.
Putnam takes for granted that engagement in civil society is a right which all residents have the full capability to exercise. ‘Capability’ here can be understood in Martha Nussbaum’s sense of ‘substantial freedoms;’ capabilities “are not just abilities residing inside a person but also the freedoms or opportunities created by a combination of personal abilities and the political, social, and economic environment” (Nussbaum, 2011). A person may have the ability to eat, but they don’t have the capability unless they have food. Similarly, civic scholars may agree that all people have the ability to engage as productive and valued members of civil society – but all people do not have this capability until they are all equally welcomed, encouraged, and celebrated for their contributions. In other words, what Putnam sees as a decline in civil society may have more to do with the broader context; rather than a problem of apathy, the increasing professionalization of civil society may undermine some citizen’s capabilities – may rob them of the knowledge that they, too, can contribute to the shared task of governing. This effect can be seen in people’s doubt of their own civic ability. In one survey, for example, Michael Neblo finds that 42% of Americans felt they “didn’t know enough to participate” in a deliberative session (Neblo, 2015).
None of this is to say that Putnam doesn’t make good points. Whether due to poor survey measures, disparities in civic capabilities, or even changes in mobility, family structure, or technology we should all be concerned with continually building a strong civil society. But Putnam is too quick to bemoan the past, to turn back the clock to a time when women stayed in the home and we all ate at segregated lunch counters. The Elks Lodge may have once been a great bastion of society, but now it’s a dingy reminder of a time when white men smoked cigars and congratulated themselves for saving the world. Perhaps, like Burke, we should put some trust in the wisdom of the past, but we would be blind to follow Putnam in putting that trust in the present. We shouldn’t be shaming people for not participating in survey-ready forms of engagement; we should be reminding them that governance is a shared activity; that we have a right and responsibility to engage; and that resistance is a worthy civic undertaking. But most of all, we need to convince people – perhaps, even, to convince ourselves – that our perspectives, actions, and voices matter. Our engagement matters.
Godsay, S., Kawashima-Ginsberg, K., Kiesa, A., & and Levine, P. (2012). “That’s not democracy,” How Out-of-School Youth Engage in Civic Life.
Neblo, M. A. (2015). Deliberative Democracy Between Theory and Practice: Cambridge University Press.
Nussbaum, M. C. (2011). Creating capabilities: Harvard University Press.
Putnam, R. D. (1995). Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital. Journal of democracy, 6(1), 65-78.
Putnam, R. D. (2002). Community-based social capital and educational performance. Making good citizens: Education and civil society.
Satyanath, S., Voigtlaender, N., & Voth, H.-J. (2013). Bowling for fascism: social capital and the rise of the Nazi Party. Retrieved from
Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Going to extremes: How like minds unite and divide: Oxford University Press.
I recently returned from three days at the annual conference of the National Communication Association. I attended a lot of great panels and enjoyed some enriching, thought-provoking conversations.
I was particularly struck by a comment from Debian Marty, who served as respondent for an engaging panel on “Using Dialogue and Deliberation Practice, Research, and Pedagogy to Shape Society and Social Issues.”
Marty argued that hospitality should be championed as a civic virtue.
This idea received some criticism from the room – most notably for the gendered connotation of the word “hospitality.”
To me, that word also implies a certain artificialness which I don’t think Marty was going for. Indeed, it was a little surreal staying at a Philadelphia hotel just days after the election. While nearly everyone I interacted with was generally gloomy and/or angry, the hotel staff – almost entirely people of color – were professionally upbeat and enthusiastic.
They were very hospitable, and their enthusiasm didn’t even feel forced – but their happy-presenting exteriors were a notable contrast to the general climate.
But, semantic details aside, Marty makes a strong argument. Hospitality – “the welcoming of the stranger as a guest,” as she described it – is a worth championing as a civic virtue.
It’s a fine line that Allen walks – we should pretend to like each other, but in a way that’s not entirely fake and disingenuous. We need to be hospitable.
Now, this sounds all well and good in a perfect world where we can all just put our differences aside and learn to work together across disagreement – but I worry that this line of reasoning does too little to acknowledge the real and persistent sacrifices that some groups of people have been forced to make for too long.
I want to be hospitable, and I want to champion hospitality, but there are some things – hate speech in particular – which I simply cannot abide or respond to warm smile. As a society, we cannot let such behavior stand.
Allen is well aware of this challenge – indeed, she starts her book with the inexcusably treatment of the Little Rock Nine. But the idea of “niceness” of not saying the things that need to be said out of a misplaced since of politeness, still plagues broader conceptions of “friendship” or “hospitality.”
But civic hospitality or political friendship is something much more subtle than this – something much more important. It is welcoming the stranger as a guest; it is listening intently and thoughtfully, and it standing up for what’s right: it necessarily entails calling out injustice and working against hate.
I don’t know the best phrase for this spirit; our language is so diversely burdened with subtle connotations, but I do know that whatever it is – civic hospitality, political friendship – we sure could use more of it. Fast.
…Graphical tools are a kind of intellectual Trojan horse, a vehicle through which assumptions about what constitutes information swarm with potent force. These assumptions are cloaked in a rhetoric taken wholesale from the techniques of the empirical sciences that conceals their epistemological biases under a guise of familiarity. So naturalized are the Google maps and bar charts of generated from spread sheets that they pass as unquestioned representations of “what it.”
Data visualizations – just like statical techniques – are an interpretation of the data, not a realization of the data. In the statistical world, there are known problematic techniques such as p-hacking where you find something significant only because you tried so many thing something (randomly) had to be significant. This is part of the art of data analysis – data fundamentally needs to be interpreted, but we should always be clear on what we’re interpreting, what assumptions we’re making in that interpretation, and what biases go into that interpretation.
Using a humanist lens, Drucker seems to apply a similar argument to visualizations. We are too accustomed to taking a visual representation of data as a ground Truth of what that data can tell us and to unaccustomed to thinking of visualization as a interpretation.
That’s not to say that visualization has no purpose, or that the fact that visualizations are interpretation is irreparably problematic.
There’s a great classic example of from Francis Anscombe – Anscombe’s quartet, as it’s appropriately called. Four data sets which appear comparable from their basic statistical properties, but which are obviously different when visualized.
But I don’t think that Drucker wants to throw visualization out all together. I read her article as a provocation – a reminder that visualizations, too, are interpretations of data.
Arguably, this reminder is even more important when were talking about visualizations rather than narrative or statistical descriptions. Those later modes almost inherently force a user to engage – to think about what they’re reading and what it means. Though there’s still plenty of misleading interpretation in the statistical world.
The real concern – and the one Drucker highlights so poignantly – is that we accept visualizations without question – we don’t spend enough time thinking about what boundaries a visualization should push.
In many ways this makes sense – we expect a visualization to be quickly and easily interpretable. But we are at risk of letting our biases run wild if we don’t question this. It may be easy for someone to interpret gender in a visualization if colors indicate pink for women and blue for men.
But please, please, don’t use this color scheme to encode gender. It may be interpretable, but it carries with it too much baggage of social norms. Far better to shake things up a bit.
Drucker pushes this argument to the extreme. Changing the gender color scheme is a relatively minor act of subversion, what happens if you take this questioning further? Make the user really work to understand the data?
This argument reminds me of the work of Elizabeth Peabody – who created intricate mural charts which could only be understood with a significant amount of time and energy. These visualizations were not “user friendly,” but at a time when women had few rights, they pushed the boundary of who gets to create knowledge.
This also reminds me of the arguments of Bent Flyvjerg, who argues that social science should stop trying so hard to be computational and should instead focus on phronesis – emphasizing a humanities, rather than computational, approach.
I’m not sure the two approaches are as mutually exclusive as Flyvbjerg fears, but his argument, like Drucker’s, raises a crucial point: it is not enough to ask “what is,” it is not enough to take computation as ground truth and – in terms of visualization – to take what is easy as what is good.
Regardless of field, we should be hesitant to put humanistic concerns aside, to think that facts can stand isolated from values. Values matter. Our assumptions and interpretations matter, and it may not always be most appropriate to try to bury our biases and try to pretend that they don’t exist.
Rather, we should bring them to the fore and examine them critically. Instead of asking “do I have any biases?” perhaps we’d do better ask ourselves, “do I have Good biases?”
As I’ve written before, I am generally annoyed by the concept of the so-called “confidence gap” – or perhaps just annoyed by the common prescription. If you’re not familiar with the term, the confidence gap refers to a gendered divide in individual confidence levels. Or more precisely, the idea that women are less confident than men.
Various studies reinforce the existence of this phenomenon, indicating that – while of course there is a great deal of individual variation – women are generally socialized to believe that their voices and perspectives don’t matter. In an interesting correlation, this is probably because, for many women, it is continuously made clear to them that their voices and perspectives don’t matter.
Numerous programs aimed at increasing the confidence of these wayward women seek to address this problem.
In my mind, I imagine the advertisement: you too, can be an arrogant blowhard.
These efforts are well intentioned, no doubt, but I always have to greet them with a sigh.
First, the existence or non-existence of an individual’s confidence is mostly likely a complex interplay of a number features, among which gender is one. To the extent that it is a gendered phenomenon, it is related not only to the socialization of women, but to the socialization of men.
Rather than asking “how can we increase women’s confidence?” I’m more interested in the deeper question, “how can we ensure [all people’s] voices are actually heard?”
But more fundamentally, the idea of confidence just annoys me. I don’t want to be confident in the way many confidence gap enthusiasts talk about confidence. Sometimes I wish the confident person who doesn’t know what they’re talking about would just shut their mouth. I want it to be okay to not know an answer.
More importantly, I want it to be okay for people to make space for each other’s ideas.
In many deliberative settings there’s a concept of “step up/step back.” This expression captures both what one might call confidences as well as what I can only call civic humility.
If you haven’t added your voice and perspective you have a duty to do so. I’ve you’d added a lot of your voice and perspective, you have a duty to create space for others.
Civic humility, though, is more than simply stepping back from dominating the verbal space. It is the active mentoring and nurturing of the voices of those around you – creating space for them and actively seeking and valuing their participation.
I call this humility civic, because I see it as an intrinsically associated phenomenon. In the Good Society, people don’t just try to yell their ideas loudest, constantly preening for attention; they work together, co-creating something better than they could have developed through a mere aggregation of opinions.
Civic humility, I would argue, is needed beyond the scope of any current systemic injustice. In a perfectly egalitarian world, there will still be people who are faster to speak while others take time to process. There will always be power imbalances – between people of different ages, or people of different technical expertise.
The art of associated living is not only one of speaking up and making your voice heard, but it is fundamentally one of making space for the contributions of those around you.