Posts Tagged ‘research’

Gender Research Is Often Sexist

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

Alex B. Berezow – the editor of – has written an excellent article about how gender research ends up being ideological and… yes, sexist.

He’s studied a ‘scientific’ paper where women and men were asked to look for sexist behaviors in their life. The result?

Based on a list of behaviors in the paper, sexism was essentially considered to be any differential treatment based on gender, regardless of whether it was good or bad. A man telling a woman to stay in the kitchen qualified as sexism. But a man opening a door for a woman or believing that women should be rescued first in a disaster qualified as “benevolent sexism.” Tired of hearing about sexism? That’s sexist, too.

As it turns out, if everything is defined as sexism, then sexism ends up being everywhere.

In Sweden, gender feminists often talk about ‘putting on your gender glasses’ so you can see all the sexism around you. Well, if you put on blue glasses then everything looks blue! This is exactly what the good dr Berezow has uncovered in his review of this piece of research.

Seeing the world through the lens of gender feminists, also means that you twist any kind of difference between male and female behavior as being negative for women. This leads to the construction of a bizarre terminology such as ‘benevolent sexism’. When women get the better deal then it is benevolent!

I couldn’t make this stuff up…

Gender feminists are also thoroughly unaware that their view of men is inherently sexist:

At the end of the article, the authors declare that men have a higher social status. (Isn’t that a sexist statement?) But worry not. They suggest that men can be trained to be more empathetic. (Isn’t that sexist?) While on a crusade to fight anti-female sexism, the authors overlook anti-male sexism.

Training your man – perhaps similarly to how you train your dog? – is not labeled as sexist. Can you imagine what would happen if a group of men publicly discussed training women to be more accommodating to men?

Finally, dr Berezow puts his finger on what many of us have long suspected. Gender research based on feminism rarely meets the demands of scientific objectivity:

The website of SAGE, which publishes the journal, describes it as a “feminist, scientific, peer-reviewed journal.” The authors also admit that their goal is to “reduce endorsement” of sexism. However, this constitutes a clear conflict of interest. A journal cannot state an ideological goal and simultaneously claim to be scientific. Would a global warming journal be taken seriously if it claimed “debunking the hoax” as one of its goals?

Let’s hope these kinds of analyses become more mainstream, so that gender research can be infused with a measure of objectivity, and the male sexism rooted out.

Research dismisses the validity of gender studies

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

A couple of months ago, a Swedish researcher called Helen Lindberg presented her doctoral thesis called Only Women Bleed?: A Critical Reassessment of Comprehensive Feminist Social Theory.

In her thesis she has evaluated four different feminist theories, with regard to internal coherence, and their usefulness as theories in a research context:

Is there a viable specifically feminist social theory that can serve as heuristic devise in our social research? This thesis is a critical reassessment of the ontological and normative assumptions of four social theories with specific and clear claims of being feminist. These are Catharine M MackInnon’s Radical Feminism, Anna G Jonasdottir’s Theory of Love Power, Luce Irigaray’s Feminism of Sexual Difference and Judith Butler’s Queer Feminism.

The English abstract only summarizes her findings on the internal coherence of these feminist theories in very general terms:

The feminist social theories are examined and critically discussed according to their internal coherence and their external relevance; which includes the normative political implications that can be inferred.

However, in the more extensive Swedish abstract, she clearly states that all of these four feminist theories show a lack of internal coherency, meaning that they are filled with contradictions that cannot be reconciled.

Similarly, when she talks about the usefulness of feminist theory within the context of research (such as the entire field of gender studies), she is very conservative in the English abstract:

The thesis claims that implicit in every comprehensive feminist approach, there is also a specific view of science. Then follows a meta-inquiry of comprehensive feminisms as social science and as social theories, including a discussion of the effects of comprehensive ideology on social science research in general, and of the relationship between ideology, theory and a scientific approach in particular. The thesis concludes that it is highly problematic to do science feministly, but that we do need the critical questions feminists raise in order to reevaluate concepts, theories and research priorities. It is argued that feminist social theories are perhaps most helpful as ideological guidance for political action.

Still, if you read the parts I made bold, you realize that her criticism of feminist theory is pretty severe. I will also translate part of the Swedish text, so that you can grasp the full extent of her criticism:

The thesis demonstrates that these four feminist theories about society each turn out to be unsatisfactory as tools in social science research since they rest on strong ideological premises and demonstrate a lack of internal consistency. Even though the theories appear to be different, they display two common theoretical weaknesses where one follows logically from the other. First of all, they all use structuralistic and therefore deterministic assumptions about the relationship between the individual and society which leaves little room for individual agency and thinking, which in turn leaves little room for developing and changing society. The theories therefore display a theoretical and empirical ignorance of the multidimensionality of society, and variance at the individual level. Furthermore, the thesis discusses the political goals and action plans that can be derived from their ideological and theoretical content, and finds that where they aren’t Utopia-like, they are unilaterally reduced to a monolithic identity or are normatively underdeveloped and unclear. Finally the relationship between science, politics and ideology is problematized in a general way, and feminism as science, politics and ideology in a specific way. To be able to conduct social science research about gender relations-the author claims-it isn’t useful to use the examined feminist theories, since they are too ideological and theoretically underdeveloped. They should instead be judged and valued the same way other normative and ideological theories are, such as Marxism, especially when it comes to their critical role in defining problems and acting as guides in political practice.

The short version of what she’s saying is that using feminist theory as the basis for conducting research, is about as useful as using Marxist theory to conduct research. This confirms what I’ve long been suspecting: gender studies are not a scientific discipline, they are a method for applying a certain ideology onto whatever data you collect during your “research”.

The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness

Friday, June 19th, 2009

One of my core principles when discussing gender issues is that we need to trust facts and research more than we trust ideology. In my experience, it is also quite common for facts and research to fly in the face of commonly accepted ideological “truths” that have been repeated to the point that many people regard them as facts.

Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfer, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, recently published a very interesting research report about the subjective happiness of men and women. If you want to you can read the whole paper, but the most important findings are summarized in the abstract:

By many objective measures the lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men. The paradox of women’s declining relative well-being is found across various datasets, measures of subjective well-being, and is pervasive across demographic groups and industrialized countries. Relative declines in female happiness have eroded a gender gap in happiness in which women in the 1970s typically reported higher subjective well-being than did men. These declines have continued and a new gender gap is emerging—one with higher subjective well-being for men.

These results are very interesting. What the research shows is that as women have entered the workforce, their subjective happiness has declined. Contrary to what is politically correct, women were happier when they were housewives than they are nowadays. How can we explain these results?

  1. Working outside the home is not as glamorous as feminism would have us believe. Many jobs are exhausting without offering a large monetary reward.
  2. Women are torn between society’s expectations to work fulltime throughout life, and their own desire to work part-time when the children are small.
  3. Young women are taught that they can have it all: a successful career, a loving relationship, beautiful children and interesting vacations. In reality, life is much more messy and you often need to sacrifice what is important to you in order to achieve something that is even more important to you. Impossible standards lead to unhappiness.

The researchers themselves also have an interesting theory:

First, there may be other important socio-economic forces that have made women worse off. A number of important macro trends have been documented—decreased social cohesion (Putnam, 2000), increased anxiety and neuroticism (Twenge, 2000), and increased household risk (Hacker, 2006). While each of these trends have impacted both men and women, it is possible for even apparently gender-neutral trends to have gender-biased impacts if men and women respond differently to these forces. For example, if women are more risk averse than men, then an increase in risk may lower women’s utility relative to that of men.

In effect, what they are saying is that women and men have expected to have certain roles for thousands of years, and our biological and cultural makeup have adapted to those roles. Sudden changes to those roles may cause a stressful reaction in either sex, and according to this research women’s liberation has actually been more stressful to women than to men.

This is not to say that we should go back in time and re-create stereotypical gender roles that offer little freedom to either sex. We need to defend the fact that men and women are free to choose their lifestyles, while remaining aware that making new choices may come at a price.

We also need to remember that equality need not mean sameness, and having men and women play identical roles in society is not the only way to be equal.

Gender and Biology

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

Whenever gender roles and gender issues are discussed, one of the most controversial questions is whether biological hardwiring affects the behavior of men and women. Are gender specific neurohormonal factors significant enough to affect the everyday behavior and choices of each sex? Are men’s and women’s brain constructed differently, or are the differences negligible or even completely absent?

There are a few different stances that people tend to adopt when discussion biology and gender issues, and unfortunately most of them are pretty polarized:

Biological determinism. This is the belief that human beings are animals who are basically controlled by instincts and hormones. Let’s forget about the higher functions of the human brain, at our core we are simply animals who are preoccupied with survival and reproduction.

Sociocultural determinism. Everything is a cultural construction, you were born as a blank slate and then your upbringing and your culture formed you into who you are today. This is a seductive stance since it gives you a very “clean” worldview of gender issues. You remove a lot of complexity by making everything culturally constructed, and that is an attractive option if you want fast results.

Paying lip-service to multiple factors. Some people pretend to take both biology and sociocultural factors into account, but it’s obvious that they have chosen sides pretty emphatically. These people will say things like:

“I believe that biology may affect human beings in some ways but it is completely out-shadowed by our upbringing and cultural programming”.

“Of course we must take culture into account, but at our core our choices are determined by biological hardwiring”.

Seeing the truths of all research fields. In my opinion this is the only defensible stance for anyone who believes that academic science is a good thing. There is undeniable research that demonstrates the importance of sociocultural programming in shaping gender roles. On the other hand, there is undeniable research that highlights the differences in brain structure and function between men and women (and how these differences affect choices and behavior). So who is right? Both are. We are biological creatures living in a culture and environment that shapes us extensively.

Pros and Cons of Acknowledging Biology

Even if we ignore the scientific findings, proof stares us in the eyes. When looking at gender roles in different cultures we see a myriad of differences and some universal features. The differences represent sociocultural factors and the universal patterns represent biological programming. This kind of simple cross-cultural overview is a direct demonstration of how culture and biology co-create the fabric of a community or a country.

Many progressives want to avoid addressing the whole issue of gender specific biological differences, since they feel that it limits constructive social reform by sowing doubts about whether change is truly possible. After all, if there are biological differences in the brains of men and women, isn’t that then an argument to preserve stereotypes? It certainly can be, and people who want to preserve traditional gender roles often do use biology as an argument for keeping men and women trapped in very constricted life conditions.

In light of these potential downsides to acknowledging biological differences between the sexes, what are we supposed to do? How do we deal with this fairly new information that has come to us through the huge strides that science has made in the past 20 years? Do we suppress it or bring it into the gender discourse? Let’s have a look at the pros and cons…

What are the pitfalls of acknowledging biology?

  1. Neurohormonal differences between the sexes can be used as an argument for reverting to traditional gender stereotypes. As we just saw, this is already being done.
  2. Even nuanced thinkers can easily over-emphasize the influence of biology and forget about the huge importance of the sociocultural factors. This is unfortunate since we can change culture and make it more friendly for both sexes, while it’s much harder to manipulate biology.
  3. The research about biological differences could lead to pre-judging individuals, for example those who are looking for a job.

What are the consequences of banning research and pretending that biology doesn’t exist?

  1. This would be intellectually dishonest and overly controlling. I wouldn’t want to live in a society where scientists are controlled in such a way by the state!
  2. If we do not pursue this avenue of research, we will miss precious opportunities to develop better drugs to treat neurological and psychiatric diseases.
  3. Trying to change sociocultural trends while denying a key variable is likely to be unsuccessful. Paradoxically we will probably be more successful in transcending gender stereotypes if we acknowledge brain differences. If we instead perpetuate the myth that men and women have identical brains, then the reforms will automatically focus on eliminating gender roles completely, and having 50 percent men and 50 percent women at all workplaces. Such a vision is almost certainly incompatible with biology, and we shouldn’t waste time and money on trying to achieve an impossible goal. 

My Own View

I believe that it’s our job to create a society where we’ve transcended gender stereotypes, and where everyone is allowed to make the choices that they want. Truly allowing each kid to play with the toys that he or she wants, and truly allowing each young adult to purse the career (or homemaker) path that he or she wants, will be a difficult challenge – but it’s nevertheless what we need to achieve.

Biology will take care of itself, and once stereotypes aren’t as dominating (their influence is already receding), gender differences tied to biology will shine through. Then and only then will we know the exact relative importance of biological differences between the sexes.