Archive for August, 2006

selling patriarchy

why is it that every time I turn on the TV I am inundated with images of how I, as a woman, should be? The most disturbing one for me today was a L’Oreal ad for a product that is supposed to fill in fine lines and wrinkles with silicone. The lovely Claudia Schiffer stars. After “applying” the product to her eye area, a young blond boy-child comes running into the room. She says, “My lines are filled, and my life is fulfilled!” and embraces the boy. There’s a double-whammy of a message: be pretty, and have babies.

Then of course there are the millions of cleaning supply ads featuring women scrubbing and spraying and sweeping and dusting and laundering. And the baby ads featuring women changing diapers and feeding babies and bathing babies.  And the ads for food products, featuring women cooking and baking and icing cakes and pouring juice. And, the diet ads, featuring women who are newly thin prancing in bikinis and miniskirts. And the cosmetic ads featuring perfect skin and eyelashes and plump lips. Even the ads hoping to sell products to men tell women how they should be – and consequently, how men should want and expect women to be. The message here for women is, if you aren’t this way, men won’t like you.

Never mind the under-representation of people of colour. What message does that send? only white women need to worry about filling these expectations? Or is this simply another slap in the face, another way to say, hey, all you people with vaginas are basically the same, so extrapolate from the white standard? Don’t these companies want dollars from people of colour? I find this confusing.

So, what to do about this? I do my best to buy products that don’t advertise in this offensive way. And, of course, that means knowing a little bit about parent companies and subsidieries. I’ve been doing this for years in order to avoid buying products that are tested on animals. But, I always think, I am just one consumer. Can I really make an impact?

Well, I think the answer is YES. I encourage you all to be mindful about what your dollars are buying, AND what those dollars subsequently pay for in the form of advertising. Stop buying products that contribute to the oppression of women through their advertisements.

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here it comes again

Insomnia. Falling on my head like a memory, falling on my head like a new emotion. (God, I love the Eurythmics!)

I was out last night, on the town with friends old and new. Things didn’t wrap up till after 5:30 a.m., and I got home around 6:30 – I was the DD. I couldn’t sleep right away, so I read a bit for an hour or so before I could get to sleep. (I’m reading selected works of Virginia Woolf right now, A Room Of One’s Own to begin. Next is the classic Mrs Dalloway.) I woke up again at 10:30. In the morning. And now it’s after midnight, and I haven’t even napped today. I haven’t had much of an appetite – poor sleep makes me a bit queasy, so I didn’t eat much and now I’m quite hungry, but I hate eating late. Also all I want to eat is sugar, and I’m trying to cut that habit. It’s making my energy low but not encouraging sleep.

I’m so tired, but my eyes won’t shut. I feel like I could stay up all night, watching movies or something. I watched Spanglish for the umpteenth time earlier. I love that movie, despite its stereotypical portrayal of latin women. I can’t help it, it’s Adam Sandler, he gets me everytime because his portrayal is so unexpectedly tender. Anyway. I’m sure a big juicy piece of chicken would do the trick to put me to sleep and fill up my belly and make it stop flipping around in there, but I don’t eat meat anymore and there’s none around anyway. The no meat thing is going great, but I’m having trouble balancing my carb intake, and too many carbs makes me sugar-crazy, which makes me feel a bit sickly and makes me gain weight. I guess I’ll have to up the fibre in my diet to counteract that – fibre helps to slow the digestion of carbs, so I’m told, and can prevent the absorption of up to 20% of the carbs you eat when in combination with fibre. Not bad, right? Bran flakes here I come. Too bad they taste like shit and need sugar on top to make them edible. 😛

Maybe I’ll just tuck myself in and set to reading. Or put on a movie and sleep on the couch with my mini duvet. I gotta get some sleep! Tomorrow I”m starting research for my new project, a paper about Foucault and how his frameworks of disciplinary power and  power/knowledge could help work that aims to end Female Genital Cutting. It’s a really interesting topic, so I’m excited about it. And Foucault is a favourite of mine, he’s such a genius. In my upcoming class this fall, the History of Sexuality, we’ll be looking at more of his work – I can’t wait. But to concentrate on Foucault, I have to be well-rested!!!

Please, wish me pleasant dreams and a restful slumber. This is definitely a night for my eye mask, earplugs, and a couple herbal sleep aid capsules!

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Marc Andre requested a discussion about prostitution as a choice from an ethical point of view. This is a really big topic, and I’m sure it will generate some talk, so get ready kids!

OK, so I’ll begin by saying that I don’t have a problem with prostitution from a moral standpoint. Selling sex for money isn’t really problematic for me morally. But it’s not so simple as that, is it?

There is much I do find problematic about prostitution. (I will save discussion of pornography for another time; I’ve written a bit about it before, but not enough to satisfy myself.) To start, prostitution is an unsafe industry for workers because it is not regulated. I strongly support regulating prostitution for the protection of sex workers. I think prostitution should be legalized worldwide, and the industry should be taxed and monitored, and the health of sex workers should be of paramount importance in regulation. I also think illegal prostitution should be vigorously prosecuted, particularly when the sex worker is underage or under the physical/psychological control of another person, and both the workers and the customers who engage in illegal prostitution should be legally penalized.

The second thing I find problematic about prostitution is the commodification of female sexuality. This is a concern that I have about pornography as well. Female sexuality is being subverted left and right in this society, for selling everything from cars to beer to deodorant. Female sexuality is a tool for marketing, a tool used by white male power to build more power through generating wealth, a tool to control those who are not in power. Women’s bodies become mere conduits of female sexuality – which promises everything, if you can harness it. Vicious cycle. And it seems to me that the most devastating effects of this are seen in two places: rape victims/survivors and sex workers. The bodies of sex workers are used for more than simply sex. They are used to reaffirm male power and privilege through the trading of female sexuality for money. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Women’s bodies and the sites for the expression of patriarchy. ***I haven’t studied enough about gay prostitution to comment much, but I think some of this must be transferable, particularly the power dynamics around money that occur between customers and sex workers.

Sex workers sell sex, and in the world of supply and demand, the demand is what controls the supply. Meaning the customer decides the terms of the transaction. So far, this is no different than selling anything else. But when what you are selling is your body, your sexuality, your body and your sexuality is no longer your own – at least not for however long it takes to perform the service. (a little Marx with your coffee?) When all you have is your labour – your body, your sexuality – to offer the market, you have little power.

The third thing that I find troubling about sex work that there does seem to be a lack of other options among sex workers. For the most part, sex workers trade sex for money because they don’t have much choice. They don’t have education or marketable skills behind them. There is often addiction involved. Sometimes other factors play a part in not being able to secure legal employment – for example, people on the fringes of mainstream society – like transfolk – sometimes turn to prostitution because of the prejudice they face in traditional workplaces. Much of the time, there is a history of sexual abuse. There simply isn’t a lot of opportunity to make a decent living doing anything else. The argument that prostitutes could simply choose to get up one morning and get a job at Tim Horton’s doesn’t hold a lot of water with me. *** I am not saying that all prostitutes fit into this description, or that all poor, uneducated, unskilled, sexually abused, addicted, and/or transgendered people have no other option than sex work. I’m saying that there’s more to the story of the lives of prostitutes than simply choosing their work. When it’s a matter of a roof over your head and food in your stomach and the stomachs of your children, and having no skills, no education, no prospects of employment that will pay for everything you need, and you have nobody to help you out, there isn’t much choice involved.

Which brings me, finally, to a particular segment of feminism that sticks in my craw every time. Choice feminism. The feminism that says, “The women’s movement is all about choice.” I find this branch of feminism both extremely frustrating and extremely intriguing, because I think there is a lot of potential, but also a lot of gaps. There are many, many sex workers out there who say they have made the choice to do their work, that they do have other options and they like what they do or they prefer it for whatever reason, and there is no false consciousness (more Marx) involved, and any claims to the contrary are condescension that denies them their autonomy. Well, here’s what I think about that.

I think that in a capitalist patriarchal society, as a woman, it isn’t really possible to make a completely free choice to sell your body. Period. Hell, if I don’t think Britney Spears is particularly free, I sure as hell don’t think sex workers are! I think there are lots of choices a woman can make freely, but this is not one of them. As I’ve said before, I think there are many many obstacles to exercising free will, and we only have as much freedom as determinative forces allow us to have. Autonomy is not black or white, either have it or don’t. It is a matter of degrees. As is choice. And a choice to resist does not make a necessity the corollary choice to comply.

So, if I feel this way, why do I advocate legalizing sex work? And how do I explain my own behaviour that plays into patriarchy, like wearing skirts and high heels and lipstick?

Well, I advocate legalizing sex work because I think it is not safe for women and men and transfolk who do it. I think that prostitution is not going away anytime soon, and I would rather see protections put in place for sex workers than have the situation continue on in the manner it currently exists. I think that is the least we can do to alleviate some of the problesm sex workers face. I think it would also be wonderful to offer sex workers education and skills training in other industries for free, so that their options are not limited to sex work or minimum wage. I would love to make drug testing mandatory for sex workers along with STI testing. I would love to see psychological counselling made available to sex workers to help them work out issues around sexual abuse, rape, abortion, family and friends, violence and other potential hazards of their job and their life intersecting. I first and foremost want to see prostitution be at the very least a safe way to make a living – if not a free one, a safe one.

As for other “choices” under patriarchy, well, I don’t have an easy answer about that. I struggle a lot with how patriarchy impacts my life, and the ways in which I have been conditioned to be feminine. I don’t claim that all my choices are free just because I’m aware of my conditioning and I participate in things like high heel wearing and leg shaving anyway. But, I don’t think that feminism is about making women into men. I think feminism is about celebrating women, and making it possible to make a free choice to be as feminine as you want to be, as androgynous as you want to be, as butch as you want to be, whatever. I think it is about removing the negative associations with femininity and womanhood and creating equality, true egalitarianism for everyone regardless of sex (and sexuality, and race, and ability, and class, etc). So, one day, I hope to say that a woman can freely choose to be a sex worker. I just can’t say it today.

Marc Andre, thanks for the suggestion for this post!

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the list

MaxJulian over at The FreeSlave asked me what I was looking for in my relationships. (He gave a very full wish list of his ideal mate, and it’s been churning up some talk.)

I hesitate to give a “laundry list” of characteristics or qualities that are too specific, simply because I am trying to keep my mind and heart open. That said, there are some things that are really important to me and I’m not willing to settle for less. Also, Max suggested that putting your desires out to the universe might actually work, so going ahead and asking for what you want is the only way to get it. It’s not too much to ask for! So, with some trepidation, here is the answer to Max’s question, with the disclaimer that this is by no means rigid. I’m not used to writing stuff that’s so personal on this blog! Here goes:

  • edit:passionate
  • funny (even just sarcastic will do)
  • smart
  • honest and truthful
  • has integrity
  • kind
  • equality-minded – not racist, classist, sexist, homophobic
  • taller than me (I’m 5’9 and I wear heels a lot)
  • creative, even artistic would be nice
  • stylish – please, no more deck shoes, perpetual sneakers, cowboy boots, or hikers!
  • dark hair – and I have a thing for curly-floppy hair…
  • handsome – at least to me
  • is into hygiene (!)
  • lean build – no beer guts – maybe a little bit of muscle…
  • relatively smooth, as in hair-free, at least the back!
  • Financially secure
  • no kids, unless they live in a far-away country, will never call me mommy, and I don’t have to see them or have them in my home for more than a day – or if they’re fully grown, that would be fine.
  • doesn’t expect me to have children or raise children
  • it would be so nice if he didn’t have any ex-wives… especially crazy ones!
  • adventurous spirit
  • likes to travel
  • generous
  • educated (not necessarily formally)
  • non-religious – by this I mean not a practicing member or adherent of an organized religion. I’m not totally married to this one, I think I could deal with a buddhist, and I’m fine with spirituality, but organized religion and me don’t mix so well… I just think it’s easier if we’re on the same ideological page.
  • health-conscious, non smoker
  • fun to be around
  • affectionate and attentive
  • supportive and helpful if I need it
  • independent – and respects my independence
  • politically aware
  • well-mannered
  • good conversationalist – someone I’m not going to get bored talking to
  • emotionally/psychologically stable
  • enjoys lots of great sex, knows a few tricks, and isn’t afraid of suggestions on how to please me
  • two words: size matters
  • R-E-S-P-E-C-T for me, for my life, my friends, my family
  • compatible with my peeps – if my best friend doesn’t like him, he won’t be around for long.
  • loves me for me, doesn’t want me to change – only grow
  • doesn’t expect me to be perfect all the time
  • dependable
  • enjoys a good discussion
  • doesn’t expect me to get married, I’m not decided on that patriarchal institution just yet, but isn’t necessarily against it either
  • faithful
  • mature
  • reads. books.
  • can be silly
  • can be serious
  • emotionally available
  • is willing to work to make it work. commitment isn’t always easy
  • reciprocity
  • gentleness of spirit, non-violent
  • isn’t addicted to masculinity
  • not arrogant – that is the biggest turnoff ever
  • is a feminist!

So, nice list huh? Think I’ll find it all?

the important thing about this, for me, is that I am willing to give as much as I get. I’m a pretty great girlfriend – I’m sweet and kind and thoughtful and loving and supportive and affectionate and very caring. But I’m not willing to put up with bullshit. And I’m not willing to put out everything that I do in a relationship without getting back what I want and need. Overall, I just really want someone to KNOW me, and be completely FOR me, who will support me, help me achieve my goals, accept me, and love me unconditionally.

So, in the interest of putting it out to the universe – or at least the blogosphere – this is it! If you know someone who fits the bill, email me immediately! 🙂

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segregating survivor

Just when I feel like I have nothing to say, I get this video link by email this morning.

Survivor Divides Tribes By Race.

For the MSNBC story, click here.

So, the criticism that Survivor is not racially diverse enough has long plagued the show. It’s certainly true – I have watched most of the seasons of the show, and I can remember only a handful of black and hispanic players – I’m not sure there has ever been an asian player, if so I can’t remember him/her. There hasn’t been a native american player in my memory, either, or an arab player. Maybe I haven’t paid close enough attention – my own inherent white racism?

well, I have a couple things to say about this.

so, who thinks this is a bad idea? I do! I do! The main worry is that misconceptions and stereotypes will “play themselves out” on the show. Hmmmm… and who exactly will play those stereotypes out? One claim in the past is that the black men who have appeared on the show have lived up to the stereotype of being lazy. Another complaint is that the contestants of colour that have appeared have not been strong players. Never mind a black woman won Survivor Marquesas, a hispanic woman won Survivor Pearl Islands, and a jewish man won Survivor Africa. That is not to say the charge that Survivor isn’t racially diverse enough isn’t true. But some of the winners have belonged to oppressed groups.

Nevertheless, Survivor has been mostly a white person’s game. One person mentioned on the video has said that race doesn’t matter on Survivor. But, I think it does. I tihnk race always matters. Those players don’t live their entire lives isolated from the world – they come into the game with preconceptions, previous experiences, and culturally ingrained american attitudes about race and ethnicity. We don’t see what the producers don’t want us to see, so who knows what racial tensions have reared their heads during the game?

Another point is this: “asian” is… what exactly? Korean? Japanese? Chinese? Thai? Vietnamese? Indian? Malaysian? Filipino? What about mixed-race people? What if someone has a white mother and a Japanese father – do they “count” as asian? What if their mother was black and their father was Japanese – are they asian, or black? OR something else altogether? what about italian-americans, irish-americans, swedish-americans, german-americans, jewish-americans? are they all lumped together as “white” ? Are they going to call them the White Tribe? The Black Tribe? There is a lot of diversity among the larger “categories” of white, latino, black, and asian. How are the producers accounting for that? I’m sure they aren’t even bothering.

Anyway, the tribes have been divided based on age before, but the most popular way to divide the teams thus far has been along gender lines. This hasn’t caused the outrage that division by race has caused. Why hasn’t there been an outcry against gender segregation? Once again, we are paying a lot of attention to race and not enough to gender. Why hasn’t there been the same worry, that gender stereotypes will “play themselves out” if the tribes are separated this way? And, what about the delicate interplay between race and gender? It’s not like these can be easily pulled apart.

anyway, I thought I’d see what y’all have to say about this….

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Well, I know FF is late this week, but I thought I should post something anyway. I’ve had quite a whirlwind two weeks, I must say – taking two summer classes where you have to go for several hours a day every day is kind of tiring. I’m looking forward to having a little bit of time off, just to be leisurely for a change.

It’s Mister P’s turn to have his question answered. Although I haven’t seen him around much lately! His suggestion for FF was:

“I would like to see a discussion on ways in which people exploit their own (real or purported) powerlessness to wield power–i.e.: in order to maintain the status quo, to compel somebody else to accept a course of action, etc. In other words: How does male powerlessness get used to take advantage of women? How does female powerlessness get used to take advantage of men?”

So, I’m not sure I understand what Mister P is getting at with this question in the first place, but I’ll give it a shot.

First of all, I want to make it clear that many factors go into the construction of power, and that men are not monolithically powerful across the board, and neither are women always powerless. Gender is not the only factor that determines power – there’s also race, ethnicity, religion, ability, sexuality, and class. It is possible that certain women have more social power than certain other women who are marginalized in more than one way – and it is possible that certain women have more social power than certain men. That said, “male powerlessness” is not a term I use on a regular basis!

But I think what Mister P is getting at is perhaps ways in which people play a certain powerless role, but are really covertly holding all the cards. Like, for example if a woman were to play the role of not knowing how to, say, set up a bookshelf because “women aren’t good at building things” – so she can manipulate a man into doing it for her? Or if a man were to play the role of not knowing how to, say, change a diaper because “men aren’t good at caring for children” – so then it falls to the woman to do it instead? Does this make sense?

I suppose this sort of thing takes place all the time in personal relatinoships. Does anyone have any stories to contribute about this? I think we’re talking about microcosm stuff here, am I right? The intimacies of relationships, where people play roles all the time, some of which are gendered?
It becomes problematic when people play these roles, even when they have the ability to empower themselves to do the things that are outside of these roles. It is a compounded problem when one person in the relationship is in a position of social power, and the other is not, because society reaffirms gender roles and gender roles are in themselves problematic and limiting. When two people are equally capable of doing a thing, but it consistently falls on one or the other to do it, because of gender roles and not because, say, one person likes doing that thing, or maybe it has been negotiated between the two of them that they will each share chores that neither of them much care for equally – when this happens, we have to examine the reasons why certain tasks always fall to one person or the other. Because women have been excluded from the public sphere for so long, and have been strongly associated with the private sphere of home and family, a good deal of the domestic labouring falls with women rather than men. The small “p” politics of home life become very important. The personal is political – it is by making changes within the private sphere that allows women to get one foot out the door and into the public sphere of work, politics, and society.

There is something interesting going on with these sorts of transactions that we’re talking about. There is a certain power in knowledge – but it seems like there is also power in NOT knowing – not HAVING to know. Like when George Bush Sr. went on a publicity stunt to the grocery store in his campaign for re-election. Remember? He didn’t know what a checkout counter was? He lost credibility with that little move – but the point is, he didn’t ever HAVE TO know what a checkout counter was. His power was one riddled with ignorance. And his son has carried on the family tradition in spades – his power is all about ignorance, not having to know, not making any effort to know, not wanting to know. He’s so powerful that he doesn’t even have to be good at anything. But yet, there is a powerlessness about this as well – a practical powerlessness. What happens if George Sr. has to buy gorceries one day? Will he know how? Will he know how to make himself dinner, where to pick up his dry cleaning? Of course, the point of all this is not to point out how “disempowered” Bush sr. is because he can’t do basic things in life – it could never be argued with any strength (not by me, anyway) that Bush sr is anything other than a very powerful and privileged person. But it’s a power that privilege has purchased for him. If that privilege were removed, things would be harder for him because he never had to know certain things.

So does this happen a lot? I’m not sure it is an area I have much to say about in terms of theory. I think it’s problematic to just thoughtlessly assume a role that society has constructed for us based on some arbitrary feature or characteristic. I think it’s problematic to pass off certain tasks based on a gendered notion of who can or should do those tasks. (I also think it’s quite different if you simply don’t like doing a certain thing for practical or personal reasons, and you’d be happy to pawn the task off onto anyone who could possibly do it for you!) In lots of ways, I think that empowerment can only come about from multiple small acts of individuals rebelling against traditional socially constructed roles. (Incidentally, that’s not all I have to say about empowerment, but I’ll save that for another time.) So if you think you can’t do something, maybe you should think about why it is you don’t know how to do it in the first place, and think about maybe learning how, so you won’t be rendered even more powerless by your own ignorance!

Mister P, I don’t know if this is anything like what you were thinking about when you asked the question, but I hope you at least enjoyed the read!

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Hello all,

Listen, I’m taking a brief hiatus from the blogosphere. I am taking a really interesting course right now called Gender Empowerment and Development, and it is only two weeks long, so it’s very VERY intensive. I have a ton of reading to get done, and not a whole lot of extra time, and I’m still in French, and my final exam for that is coming up this week too! I’m under the gun!

Anyway, I apologize for not being able to put the time into research for Feminism Friday this week, but I will return to it next week, to Mister P’s question about powerlessness.

So, I’ll be around for comments and perhaps the occasional short post for the nextweek or so, but don’t expect to see too much of me!I’ll leave you with a question: what does empowerment mean to you?

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Sage got me. Here are my answers for the Book Meme.

1. One book that changed your life?

Changed my life? Hmmm. I’m gonna say, Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. That book really touched me, very deeply. I loved it. Second, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou. She is such a beautiful writer, beautiful woman.

2. One book you have read more than once?

Besides the above, The Neverending Story by Michael Ende is my most favourite book. I can’t say how many times I”ve read that one.

3. One book you would want on a desert island?

I’d probably take Will to Power by Freiderich Nietzsche. Or maybe, The Tao Te Ching (Lao-Tze). I do get great peace and solace from that book. Or maybe The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran? Or some poetry, perhaps a compiled works of Pablo Neruda, complete with English translations, and then I could learn some Spanish while I was deserted! You never know who might come to rescue you!

4. One book that made you laugh?

Immediately I knew tha answer to this one – The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van – a trilogy of books by Irish writer Roddy Doyle. His writing is SO funny! It makes me laugh out loud!

5. One book that made you cry?

Aw, easy peasy. The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. What a story! A bit fantastical, but I loved the romance. Broke my heart.

6. One book you wish had been written?

How To Solve All the World’s Problems in a Single Day!

7. One book you wish had never been written?

The Bible. The Qu’ran. The Torah. The Rules.

8. One book you are currently reading?

Right now I”m knee deep in empowerment and development theory, but for pleasure I’m reading Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky. It’s a bit broken, but I think it might tie together soon. We’ll see.

9. One book you have been meaning to read?

Well, they’re all piled up neatly on my coffee table, and in my bedroom on the window ledge, and on my microwave, and on my nightstand. Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond. The End of Faith, by Sam Harris. The End of History and the Last Man, by Francis Fukuyama. The Red Tent, by Anita Diamont. More Marx. More Foucault. More Nietzsche. More Camus. More Butler.

10. Now tag five people.

OK, folks, your turn. I tag: Marc Andre, L>T, Mike, Karenology, and Mister P!

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new skin

Hey all,

I’ve been in the market for a new template (WordPress calls ’em “themes”) for a little while now, and I decided I’d take some time to find one I could customize. I’ll try it out for a while and see how I like it, and, how you like it. What do you think?

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This week’s post is in response to Mike‘s request for a discussion about women in math and science careers. Mike said, “women in math and science careers – or how young girls meet or exceed the achievement of young boys in this area – but at a certain point, the % of girls in advanced classes drop off.” 

He also asked what the reasons might be for “the lack of young men going to college… women outnumber men at most colleges… it is especially dramatic for minority groups.”

OK… well, I admittedly don’t know too much about this topic, so I had to do some research. I found a few great sites dedicated to women in math and science careers, some of which provided some stats that clearly show there are far more men than women in math and science – as well as far more whites than people of other races. This site shows stats for the top 50 schools in the US and the diversity in their math and science faculties. The highest % of women was to be found in the psychology department, at 60%. The lowest % of women were found in electrical engineering programs, at 6.5%, followed by physics at 6.6%, mechanical engineering at 6.7%, and math and statistics at 8.3%. These are teaching faculty. White people were most populous in these faculties, followed closely by those of Asian descent, then Black, then Hispanic. The measliest, saddest numbers showed the % of Native Americans teaching at universities.  Another site gave some interesting facts about women and  technology, for example that women tend toward classes on the low end of technology like data entry, that parents tend to buy computers for boy children rather than girl children, and that women’s participation in computer science programs at university is one of the few that have declined over time – despite the fact that women make up 56% of university students in total – scary when 75% of jobs require computer skills.

Does anyone remember a few months ago when Harvard University President Lawrence Summers made the wild claim that men perform better in high level math and science due to genetics? (Sexist jackass.) Well, Harvard psychology prof Elizabeth Spelke decided she would tackle his ridiculous claim with some actual research, and published a study in which she found there were NO differences between male and female babies, children, and adults in terms of cognitive capabilities and aptitude in mathematical and scientific reasoning. And, jumping on the band-wagon to rebut Dr. Spelke was Steven Pinker, noted cognitive scientist and fellow professor at Harvard in the field of language acquisition in children. (I’ve studied his work thrice in my philoosphy studies: in my cognitive science class, in my philosophy of mind class, and in my philosophy of language class. I did’nt find his work too bad to understand – unlike others I studied in those classes!) The two held a joint debate, outlined online at The Edge. It’s long, but the jist of it is that Pinker takes a “nature” line of argument and Spelke takes a “nurture” line of argument.

All of Pinker’s points about “biological” differences between men and women have, in my mind (and Spelke’s), a sociological explanation. For example, Pinker says that men have different motivations than do women: men are more motivated by status than by family. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you will probably be able to predict my response to that point – this has nothing to do with biology. Come on! Women are taught from childhood to care for other people, and men are taught that they must be providers. Is this difference in priorities really surprising?

In any case, my analysis of why there are fewer women in high-level math and science careers is that women are not encouraged and directed towards these classes from a rather early age, and not necessarily by their teachers, but by the world around them. We are bombarded with images of women and what kind of value they have to society, which basically amounts to looking pretty and having babies. Even when we are encouraged by teachers, and by parents, the message is loud and clear that women have a place and it doesn’t include a whole lot of abstract thinking, number-crunching, or laboratory experiments. We don’t have great images of women making important scientific discoveries, or building amazing structures that are feats of engineering, or solving notoriously difficult mathematical problems. We have images of starving blonde dummies whose main function in life is shopping and applying lip gloss while living off the money earned by a man. Even if a woman perseveres through these crappy societal images, and takes the higher-level math and science classes, she is likely to be in a very substantial minority in those classes, she is less likely to be hired after her education is completed, she will be paid less, and she is still subjected to societal pressures like being the primary care-giver for her family and putting her career on hold – which won’t be that difficult a choice since she is the only woman in her workplace and she earns WAY less money than her husband/partner.

I’m with Spelke. I don’t think there are significant statistical differences in the cognitive abilities of women and men. I do think there are significant differences in the ways men and women are encouraged to think. This is backed up by a study at U of Michigan, which suggests that women tend to choose careers based on their values more than on their skills.

Now, the second part of Mike’s question: why are there fewer men attending university than women?

Well, there are more women earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees, but there are more men earning PhD’s. (Could this be because when women get to PhD-age, they start having babies and abandon their studies?) This report puts things in perspective a bit – there isn’t exactly a crisis in boys’ education going on. Christina Hoff Sommers, a feminist philosopher, has suggested that society is encouraging greater aggression and less academia in boys. Maybe less boys are going on to post-secondary educations because they are getting recruited into the military right in their own high schools.

My last point is that girls and boys of non-white racial descent and those of disadvantaged economic means are not making it to university to study any subject. University is increasingly expensive, and student loans are harder to get. Scholarship programs are extremely competitive. Kids who grow up in economically depressed areas have poorer educational opportunities. And poverty is extremely racialized and feminized in all societies; in ours, the worst off are our Native populations, whom we generally treat disgracefully. This is a major problem that needs serious attention.

Mike, I hope you enjoyed this post, and thanks for the inspiration – it was a really interesting subject to look into!

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