“Women, girls, females, ladies, just can’t cut it”: Clarification

at math, physics, logic, philosophy or even chess.

Have you heard such remarks?  There are lots of interesting details we might ask for later, but this initial survey just asks if you’ve heard a remark about the inferiority of women or girls in some area where we think abstract reasoning is required. 

**Of course, most of us have probably heard of – or read of – someone’s saying this.  So let’s just consider its being said in academic or busness/work/competition contexts.  You’ve heard it personally, as it were.**

There are lots of areas in the arts where comparable things might be said, but let’s not include those areas in this first survey.


Thanks to lga  for her comment, the first one on this post.

Sotomayor’s faux racism and power asymmetries

Racism is a seriously malignant and often unacknowledged force in a society.  One might worry that a phrase like “faux racism” (i.e., not real racism) could diminish our sense of how bad racism is.  Still, there are times when we need to get a grip on the fact that a judgement ostensibly based on race is not really a matter of racism.

Racism is also extremely difficult to discuss; the following might seem obvious and even simple minded.  Or it might seem objectionable or in need of qualifications.  Let us know!

During the hearing yesterday, Senator Graham, in his southern accent, asked Sotomayor if she realized how much trouble he would be in if he  said he hoped that a wise white man would reach a better conclusion than a Latina judge.  I think the session closed on his question, and I don’t know what “don’t rock the boat” answer Sotomayor did or would give.  But the remark invites us to look at the difference between verbally analogous remarks.

There seem to me  to be two directions at  least we could take.  One is to bring in standpoint theory directly, as Jender did previously.  Originally, that theory’s proponents argued that oppressed minority positions can make truths perceivable that can’t really be discerned  by others.  We might now see it as saying that people outside a gender, race, class or national group may have insights, particularly about themselves, that the insiders are unlikely to know.  In this latter version, it seems pretty obviously true, and we’ve taken note of that very recently, with the help of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

A second, related approach is to look more directly at the power asymmetries between, in this case, Latinas and white men in the relevant society, the United States.  White men, not Latinas, dominate in leadership positions in academia, industry, the law, medicine and the arts.  Universities generally teach the history of white men, their theories, the science they have developed and the arts they produce.

In this context, the statement that a wise white man would do better than a comparably placed Latina (e.g., both are judges or artists or whatever) is to say that there is no need to open up the places of privilege that white men so thoroughly dominate.  That position in effect underwrites severe injustices.

There is no such implication on Sotomayor’s part.   There surely are many arenas in which at least some white men can and do experience failures in justice, but the privileging of learned opinion is in general not one of them.  So what is her comment telling us? 

A Latina judge of Sotomayor’s standing will be very well versed in white culture; after all, she went to Princeton and Yale.  But white men are not well versed in the culture of Latinas.  Consequently, when a decision is made where a Latina’s culture has relevance, she may very well be in a position to make a better decision, particularly if she is wise.  She will be likely to have relevant experience that white men often don’t even know they are missing.   We get this conclusion from the obviously true version of standpoint theory.

You might think there’s still some overstatement – hyperbole – in Sotomayor comments about a wise Latina.  But it is in the cause of getting a place at the table and not a claim that a whole class of people don’t need to be  heard.  The context, with the asymmetries of power, make this clear.

Gender and Chess

We’ve discussed stereotype effects before (For example, here). There’s a lot of data showing that if you activate a stereotype about a particular group during badly on a task, members of that group will do badly on the task (but not if you don’t). Women, for example, do less well on maths tests if reminded of their gender in some way (even just being asked if they live in single sex accommodation).

Now there’s an important new study on gender stereotypes and chess.

In this paper it is argued that gender stereotypes are mainly responsible for the underperformance of women in chess. Forty-two male-female pairs, matched for ability, played two chess games via the Internet. When players were unaware of the sex of opponent (control condition), females played approximately as well as males. When the gender stereotype was activated (experimental condition), women showed a drastic performance drop, but only when they were aware that they were playing against a male opponent. When they (falsely) believed to be playing against a woman, they performed as well as their male opponents…

…gender stereotypes can have a greatly debilitating effect on female players leading to a 50% performance decline when playing against males. Interestingly, this disadvantage is completely removed when players are led to believe that they are playing against a woman. This may, in part, occur because women choose a more defensive style when playing with men.

Pretty impressive results, and very good to know about. (Thanks, Vishal!)