Archive for category Feminism

The Daily Mail guide to being a crappy person

Sometimes I wonder if the papers are specifically trying to legitimise being a rubbish romantic partner by misinterpreting scientific studies. Last month we had  The Telegraph suggesting that fathers should leave parenting to the mother, today we’ve got The Daily Mail telling us that “Behind every successful man is a woman keeping out of the way” (no, I don’t know who’s supposed to be behind successful women, gay men or single men either).

Luckily, for once, the study this is based on is freely available online: Outsourcing Effort to Close Others by Gráinne Fitzsimons and Eli Finkel.

The researchers carried out three experiments, only one of which is actually relevant. Women were asked to think about how their partners supported them in achieving either their health goals or their career goals, answered a questionnaire about their fitness regime, then were then asked how committed they were to their partner. They found that women who thought about how their partner helped them with their fitness planned, on average, to spend less time on exercise, especially if the women were close to their partners.*

It’s modestly interesting, but it doesn’t suggest that “behind every successful man is a woman keeping out of the way” for a number of reasons.

First of all, it didn’t measure whether being supported actually made people less motivated. Thinking in depth about a partner’s support may make you less motivated, but the actual support doesn’t.

Secondly, this is only in the extreme short term. Women were asked to think about how their partner supports them, and then straight away asked what their fitness plans were. If this was a long term effect, all women who were close to their partners should have had low goals, not just the ones mulling over how they were supported.

Third, this data is only about women. It says nothing about men! There was another experiment involving men, but that didn’t measure how close the partners were or how much support they got.

Fourth, it doesn’t measure success, it just measures how big the goals people are willing to set for themselves are. Of course, there’s no way of knowing whether they achieved these goals or not. The researchers suggest this might be caused by “outsourcing effort” – people relying on a partner to provide some of the motivation instead of having to do it all themselves.

Fifth, they found this “outsourcing” effect was overwhelmed by the other benefits of providing support – for example, “he watches the baby so I can get to the gym”.

Finally, the report itself quotes other studies which found that:

individuals who have romantic partners who are strongly supportive of their individual goal pursuits (e.g., in academics and fitness) feel more confident about their ability to achieve those goals and are ultimately more likely to achieve them than do individuals who have romantic partners who are less supportive (Brunstein, Dangelmayer, & Schultheiss, 1996; Feeney, 2004)

Partners who see the individual as already possessing his or her ideal characteristics, and who behave in ways that affirm those characteristics, tend to promote or facilitate the individual’s growth toward those ideal self goals (Drigotas, Rusbult, Wieselquist, & Whitton, 1999; Rusbult et al., 2010).

Thus, in addition to making individuals feel more positively about their relationships and more valuable and loved by their partners, supportive partners also help individuals achieve their goals (Brunstein et al., 1996)

In other words, the bulk of the science out there, including this study, shows the “shocking” truth that receiving support and motivation from ones partner (and indeed other close friends and family members) helps people achieve their goals. In short, the exact opposite of what The Mail suggests!

* The study is annoyingly short on numbers; though they do say the results were statistically significant, I don’t know to what level or how strong the correlation was.  According to ScienceDaily, there were only 90 women involved, all of whom were selected anonymously online. Given how many factors were involved (there were three groups of women, and each was then divided up into smaller groups depending on how close they were to their partners), I’m not convinced you could get especially good data here, but I can’t find the numbers so I can’t be sure.

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More “Battle of the Sexes” BS

Genetic tests prove the ‘fairer sex’ is kinder too, according to today’s Independent.*

Women have a stronger genetic predisposition to help other people compared with men, according to a study that has found a significant link between genes and the tendency to be “nice”.

Funnily enough, the study in question (“A common heritable factor influences prosocial obligations across multiple domains“, Gary Lewis and Timothy Bates, Biology Letters) didn’t find that women were genetically kinder than men at all. In fact, it wasn’t really looking at men and women at all.

The researchers were looking at whether different types of “prosocial behaviour” (i.e., behaviour that helps society as a whole, rather than just helping the individual) were inherited and what roles nature and nurture played. There were three factors they looked at – civic duty, commitment to work and concern for other people’s welfare – and to check whether they were inherited they looked at identical and nonidentical twins; the idea being that if it’s mostly genetic, identical twins should be more similar in their “kindness” than non-identical twins, while if it’s caused by your environment growing up there should be little difference between the two.

In general for females, there appeared to be a clear genetic variance – in other words, those who were “kind” tended to have kinder twins – while for males the water was a bit muddier; the sample wasn’t large enough to tell conclusively one way or the other whether kind males had kind twins. This doesn’t mean that women were all kind however, or that there is a gene which means women are kinder than men!

Instead, it just means that the difference in kindness between different women is fairly likely to be affected by their genes (they found that around 48% of the difference in kindness between women could be caused by genetic difference, with the rest being caused by upbringing), while in men it’s not quite as clear just how much of an effect their genes have, which is why they’re holding onto the data to analyse it more thoroughly.

Just to add to the confusion, there was a significant genetic effect in males when looking specifically at concern for people’s welfare, though again, this doesn’t mean that men are any more empathetic than women are, just that genes play a big role in deciding precisely how empathetic each particular man is.

In short, this research says very little about the differences between men and women, and what it does say isn’t massively important to anyone who’s not a geneticist, and yet that still hasn’t stopped The Independent turning it into another “battle of the sexes” piece. Funnily enough, they actually quote the researcher behind the piece quite extensively – I wonder if he knew what they were twisting the study into.

* The comments are… about what you’d expect, really.

Edit: Thanks to Press Not Sorry, for pointing out that The Mail has spun the research into “Why women are nice by nature… but for men it’s more of an effort“. The research doesn’t show that men have to make an effort to be nice – or that women don’t – it just shows that “niceness” in women is more likely to be genetic than it is in men (although upbringing causes the majority of the variation in everyone, male and female). This doesn’t mean that it takes effort to be nice just because it’s not genetic, by the way, any more than it takes effort to speak your first language or to be scared of spiders; it means that the tendency to feel empathetic towards people (or not) is ingrained into your personality at the deepest level.

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A survey? How romantic!

Blah blah romance is dead, say The Express and The Mirror. Why?

Only nine per cent of those surveyed had ever sent a letter – and most of those were over 50 – while more than two-thirds prefer to say “I love you” by text.

An additional 24 per cent would rather send an email to express their feelings, while 14 per cent said they would post a message on their lover’s Facebook wall.

In further shocking news, very few couples surveyed courted via telegraph, and fewer still stood on hilltops furiously waving sweet nothings in semaphore. The Express quotes relationship expert Jo Barnett saying this shows that “[people] want an instant relationship with instant physical contact, they feel they’ve not got enough time to romance their partner” rather than the more immediately obvious conclusion that people are just sending fewer letters in general.

If the love letter is dead, then it seems male chivalry is also on its last legs as just four per cent of men said they would send flowers to their partner’s place of work. Only five per cent stand up when their partner stands from the dinner table, while only 12 per cent have booked a surprise weekend away.

This is the same rubbish that comes out every few months; pearl-clutching panic about how “chivalry is dead” (a phrase which appears 49 times on The Mail‘s site, incidentally) when it would be more accurate to say “society’s norms about how men should treat women are (slowly) changing to be less infantilising” (a less snappy headline, I’ll admit). After all, I’m pretty sure if I stood every time my girlfriend left the table, she wouldn’t find that chivalrous but instead rather creepy.

Anyway, I’m sure there was a perfectly valid, academic reason this survey was done, right?

The study was to mark the DVD release of romantic comedy Going the Distance.

Going the Distance is released on Blu-ray Triple Play and DVD today, from Warner Home Video.

Oh.

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The Telegraph gives parenting advice, fails miserably

I bet The Telegraph‘s science desk leapt for joy when they realised they could have a run a story with the headline “Men should concentrate on playing with their children and leave the care to women“.

Trouble is, the actual study didn’t say that. Instead, it showed that parents* whose roles overlap tend to be more competitive, and sometimes that competitiveness can undermine the support given to the child. For couples who can avoid letting that rivalry get the better of them, there’s no reason both parents can’t share caregiving duties.

Incidentally, the paper doesn’t seem to mention couples where the men did the majority of the caregiving and women just focused on playing; since there’d be no competition in these couples, there’d be none of the undermining behaviour seen in the study.

The Telegraph‘s article seems to quote heavily from this Science Daily article, though curiously they forget to neglect to quote the author’s conclusions:

Overall, [study leader Sarah] Schoppe-Sullivan said the results show that each couple has to decide for themselves which way works best when it comes to taking care of their children.

“There is more than one path to an effective co-parenting relationship,” she said.

“Effective co-parenting is not necessarily synonymous with equally sharing caregiving duties.”

In other words, this study isn’t saying “men are bad parents”, it’s saying “every couple is different”. There’s a big difference between the two.

* All the parents in the study were in couples, most were married, all lived in Midwest America, and they all had 4-year-old children; hardly a definitive sample of all parents anyway. I don’t have access to the paper, unfortunately, so I don’t know where all the parents involved were the birth parents of the children, whether any of the children were adopted, whether any of the couples were same-sex, etc.

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My hovercraft is full of “PC gone mad” scares

Sunday has always been a slow day for newspapers, hence the venerable old tradition of the Sunday document leak. The newspapers find a few fairly uninteresting reports, blow them out of all proportion, and voilà! Instant front page (picture via @JonathanHaynes).

Today’s Mail on Sunday exclusive, which took the joint efforts of both Jonathan Petre and Chris Hastings to write, can be summed up by its over-long headline:

EQUALITY MADNESS: Government spends £30m to discover whether preserving fish stocks harms ethnic Chinese, or hovercraft discriminate against gays

Gays on hovercraft? Chinese fishermen? How mad!

The gist of the article is simple enough: the Mail claims that because of the Equality Act 2010, the government has wasted taxpayers money on “bizarre reports” – supposedly to the tune of £30 million. But how “mad” are these reports, anyway? Let’s go through each of the documents the Mail calls “bizarre” and see.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) paid £100,000 to consultants who produced a report investigating how efforts to boost Britain’s coastal fish stocks would affect minority communities including the Chinese, homosexuals and Welsh speakers.

That refers to this document: Draft UK Marine Policy Statement: Equalities Impact Assessment Screening report. The only time Chinese people, gay people and Welsh speakers are mentioned is once in a piece of boilerplate listing various groups that live in Britain (and yes, that includes white people and men) and asking whether any of them might be affected, with the answer of course being “No”. According to the Mail, “the assessment was a ‘small part’ of the total work by Hyder Consulting, for which it was paid £111,477,” though that doesn’t stop them insinuating that every single penny of that hundred grand was spend ticking one checklist.

Next.

The Department for Transport issued a study this month looking at harassment and discrimination on ships and hovercraft. The report covered a range of groups, including transsexuals.

So it’s ships and hovercraft? Why are you just focusing on hovercraft then, Mail on Sunday? Oh wait, it’s because hovercraft are inherently silly, which means homophobic or transphobic abuse on board them is also silly!

The study itself mostly seems to be dealing with clarifying whether the Equality Act should apply to all British flagged vessels, whether it should apply to all vessels in British waters, that sort of thing. A bit of space is also dedicated to making sure disabled people have access to ships – as you can imagine, ships are often not very wheelchair friendly. Transgender people are only mentioned once, in some standard boilerplate, which, again, is just saying “We foresee no special problems for transgender people using ships, no further action is necessary.

Officials at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport [carried] out a so-called ‘equality impact assessment’ to ensure minority groups are able to take a full part in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations next summer.

This seems to be based on a piece that the Mail got caught plagiarising from a blog last month (the report itself is not out yet). Not sure why that’s meant to be bizarre. After all, The Mail‘s always going on about how immigrants should integrate with British society more. You’d think they’d love the idea!

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Stephen Fry is wrong, sometimes

This is mostly just a a collection of thoughts that were too long for Twitter.

Anyway.

In an interview with Attitude magazine, Stephen Fry claimed that women do not enjoy sex, saying “The only reason women will have sex with [men] is that sex is the price they are willing to pay for a relationship with a man, which is what they want“. The evidence he gave to back up his assertion?

“Of course a lot of women will deny this and say, ‘Oh, no, but I love sex, I love it!’ But do they go around having it the way that gay men do?

“Gay men are the perfect acid test. If they want to get their rocks off, they go into a park where they know they can do it.”

Well, luckily, there’s a nice big data set we can use to test Fry’s claims. Recently, the dating site OKCupid performed a survey of its users to analyse the how the dating habits and sex lives of gay and bisexual users varied from those of straight users. Obviously this will not be a perfectly unbiased survey – people who are members of dating sites are perhaps more likely to be looking for sexual partners than average, for instance. Still, it’s a very big sample – 3.2 million people in fact – and the bias should affect gay people as well as straight people.

If Stephen Fry is right, we should find two things. Firstly, that gay men would have way more sexual partners than straight women (and indeed straight men), and secondly that gay women would essentially be celibate. After all, if women don’t enjoy it, lesbian couples have no reason to have sex.

In fact, here are the results. Gay men have had, on average, 6 partners. Straight men have had, on average, 6 partners. Gay women have had, on average, 6 partners. Straight women have had, on average, 6 partners.

There is no statistically significant difference between the sex lives of men and women, nor between gay people and straight people. Stephen Fry’s comments are simply not backed up by the science.

Edit: Stephen Fry claims to have been misquoted. The journalist who interviewed Fry on the other hand has saidhe delivered [the comment] with certainty and it was clearly something he’d thought about.” It’ll be interesting to see who turns out to be right.

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Telegraph columnists are from Mars, facts are from Venus

Yesterday, a couple of news outlets reported that a neuroscientist, Prof. Gina Rippon, claimed in an interview with The Sunday Times (annoyingly paywalled) that the differences between the brains of men and women are overstated, and that neuroscientists are often naive about the damaging effects their research can have when hyped up by newspapers – there’s a particularly interesting debate on the subject between her and Prof. Robert Winston from the Today Programme if you’re interested. So far, so reasonable. After all, she’s hardly the only person who’s made that claim lately.

Today however The Daily Telegraph carries not one but two attempted rebuttals of Rippon’s claims: “Why would society want men to be blind to their worn socks?” by Michael Deacon, and “Do men and women really think alike?” by Cristina Odone. Who are these people? Science journalists? Renowned neuroscientists? Leading psychologists?

Err, no. Odone writes on “families and faith”, while Deacon is The Telegraph‘s TV Features editor.

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