Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Curse of the female pronouns

When I went to college, I was used to hearing people refer to any example character in a story as "he." Stories went like this:

So let's say there's a scientist studying butterflies. He collects them. Then he dissects them. Then he wins a Nobel Prize for discovering the butterfly testis.

Imagine my surprise when I went to college and sat in a required Philosophy class and heard a male professor use exclusively "she."

Does the chair exist because she thinks it does? She perceives the chair by seeing it, by sitting on it.

At the time, I remember literally gasping out loud. OH MY GOD. I had never seen anyone do that before. Suddenly I realized this college thing was a really big deal. It was a whole other world, where people were really enlightened.

Needless to say, it was that experience that made me sign up for a Women's Studies class to fill one of my other requirements. And other than using "she" for everything, the guy who taught that Philosophy class was terrible. I think my grade for that class was a B.

This week I noticed two examples of something that made me think of the guy who taught that class.

One was in a survey I took online for my university. We do these a lot. Would you like better parking? Yes. Would you be interested in attending this event? Yes.

This one was a safety re-certification. Are you aware that this is unsafe? Yes.

But in this one, there were little scenarios. You know the type.

Bob spills radioactive superglue on his hand.

Does he

a) pick up the phone with that hand to call EH & S ?
b) yell and scream for help ?
c) sit down and calmly wait for someone to come along and rescue him ?

And as I went along and did the little questions, I noticed something weird.

In all the examples where Bob did the right thing, Bob was a guy.

In all the examples where Bob did the wrong thing, he was Roberta.

Similarly, today I'm reading a book about how to communicate your ideas clearly. It's a great book, I'm really enjoying it and learning a lot.

But again, there are almost no examples where the scenario character is "she."
So now I'm on ~ page 37, and I just found one: a female engineer who does the wrong thing.

On the next page is an example of a brilliant (male) engineer who created a great product and led his company to fame and fortune.

Subtle? Sure. Hard to miss? You bet.

And I bet the authors don't even realize they're doing this.

Meanwhile, Larry King was interviewing Bill Clinton, who said something about how Hilary was a great example of her gender. Or something to that effect.

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At 11:41 PM, Anonymous Green Grad Student said...

Wow. If it's that consistent, you have to wonder: did the authors intentionally use females as the screw-ups? Or was it strictly subconscious?

And which of these alternative explanations is more disconcerting?

At 6:53 AM, Blogger mmarchin said...

I know! I have seen this very thing done many times. It's really annoying.

I've also seen the opposite, actually, where everything the woman does is correct, and the man is the bumbling idiot. This is more rare.

I kind of wish people writing these scenarios had more imagination sometimes. These subtle cues do infiltrate people's brains.

At 8:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

that's such an obvious faux pas, you would think that people would go out of their way to do the opposite: have bob screw up all the time and roberta do everything correctly all the time.

in the book Freakonomics, there were some data that suggested that people tended to avoid biases (as evidenced on the show "Who wants to be a Millionaire") against women and blacks because no one on national television would want to come off as racist or sexist. they attributed this political correctness to the most prominent and recent movements, namely, women's rights and civil rights. instead, biases were against hispanics and the elderly. i think those data reveal that unspoken biases still exist. could you imagine what the average american citizen would REALLY think if they weren't on national television?

At 12:53 PM, Anonymous etbnc said...

Ain't culture amazing?

YoungFemaleScientist describes a pattern that's consistent with my experience, too. And as the other comments suggest, the opposite cases look conspicuously like overcompensation.

It's insidious because those little memes spread so easily while we're not paying attention. (Subconsciously, or unconsciously, or however we prefer to describe mental states.)

Have y'all ever had the experience of driving around your neighborhood and noticing a billboard or a building for the first time, and thinking, "Hey! Has that always been there?!" That's what it's like to notice the operation of culture, I think. But once we become aware of them, the patterns jump out at us everywhere.

Becoming aware of these insidious little memes seems like a good step toward neutralizing them. Thanks for bringing this to our attention, YFS.



At 8:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

oops, re-read my own comment. the show that had the biased tendencies was "The Weakest Link." it is based on voting off the people who are not "in the know," and thus, the weakest link of the group. the people who would get voted off tended to be the elderly and the hispanics. the hispanics do not get to "enjoy" the benefits of the civil rights/anti-bias movements, as of yet. the elderly, i feel, get a bum rap of being "senile."

At 11:35 AM, Anonymous gorckat said...

Fascinating. I'm gonna point this out to my daughter so maybe someday she'll see this in class and ask the teacher why Goofus is always a girl and Gallant always a boy.


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