Glass Eye: Laura Bates’ Conspiracy of Silence

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“The patriarchy is like the Matrix, you have to have it shown to you, before you see it, and then you see it everywhere!” Caroline Criado-Perez

I must confess to being at a bit of a fork in the road when it comes to my perception of Laura Bates.  On the one hand I think she has made a significant contribution towards helping women feel safer when travelling on public transport, I reckon she deserves her position in the women’s hour power top ten and her everyday sexism project was one of the success stories that inspired me to start my own humble eyeisbloke experiment.

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On the other hand, I’ve recently discovered that there appears to be something inherently sexist about the everyday sexism project and I’m also conscious that over a relatively short space of time she has shifted from plying her trade as an actress to a full-time career proselytising on everything from sexism in work, to sexism in football, to sexist adverts, to sex education, to sexism in the institution of marriage, to food policing, to sexism in toys, to sexism in the media, to sexism on the silver screen, to sexism in politics & health & economics & education, most especially in science, technology, engineering & maths which, in fairness, a lot of arts graduates in the media are especially vexed about at the minute.

Fair enough, when it’s fair enough but especially given the frequency of her contributions to gender journalism, and the expanding range of themes she ponders on, it would be remiss of me not to keep a glass eye on what words of wisdom are on offer.

One reason that I haven’t quite moved past that metaphorical fork is that, to a degree, I suspect that Laura may a victim of her own success.  She admits that she didn’t even know what feminism meant until relatively recently and although I don’t doubt her commitment to calling out / documenting examples of sexism in this diverse and complex society we all call home, I suspect that she must still be on a relatively steep learning curve.

Fair enough and good luck to her on that aspect of her journey but I’m guessing that inevitably, by now, she must sometimes be faced with commercial deadlines and the prospect of having to quickly mine another freshly angled nugget of gold from what I’ll be the first to accept is a sadly all too heavy seam of societal sexism (apologies for the clumsy metaphors by the way).

Even if she wouldn’t shop in Athena, I do sometimes wonder if she lives in a suburb of London that is somehow still magically trapped in the 1970’s. Even if I don’t always agree with her opinions (and probably have more of a glass half full worldview), I often struggle to see anything in her writing that I’d feel comfortable describing as a blatant transgression of the Moran code.

That said, she has gone on record to dismiss male rights activists and compare them to conspiracy theorists.  Her perception of sexism and inequalities also appears to be exceptionally exclusive to problems experienced by women, so my one glass eye does tend to particularly spark into life anytime I come across her views on education.

Which is a relatively long preamble into why I think that her recent Guardian piece ‘female academics face huge sex bias‘ is worth a second look.  In particular, I think it’s fair to make a call of check your data privilege, based on a curious omission from her narrative.

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(A picture reinforcing gender stereotypes in academia)

In the article Bates uncovers startling evidence of ‘biased and sexist appraisals of female professors’ based on her analysis of Gendered Language in Teacher Reviews.  Using a data set culled from 14 million student reviews posted to RateMyProfessors.com, she quickly establishes evidence to support her thesis that ‘performance reviews can reveal serious gender bias’.

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 08.54.33Using an online diagnostic tool developed by the Northeastern University, recognisable societal stereotypes emerge with terms like “disorganized” popping up much more frequently in the evaluations of female academics, while men are more likely to be described as “cool”.  Male professors are more likely to get called “genius,” while women are more likely to be identified as “annoying”. You get the general idea.

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“When a man makes a point with passion, he doesn’t risk being labelled ‘hysterical’ or ‘shrill’.  When a man is successful in business, he’s unlikely to be labelled a ‘ballbreaker’, as if his success can only have come because he was aggressive and somehow emasculated his colleagues. These words subtly undermine powerful women and send the negative message to girls that there is something unattractive about achieving highly.  Laura Bates

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I appeared to slightly debunked Professor Bates’ conspiracy theory on my first few attempts to replicate her methods.  My first effort threw up the graph above, establishing that students tended to apply the term ‘hysterical’ to male lecturers in seriously statistically significant greater numbers. My second attempt at mapping sexist language (‘sexist’) drew a complete blank (did not compute) but then both ‘ballbreaker’ and Mike Buchanan’s favourite pejorative, ‘whine’ both threw up inconclusively mixed results.

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That said, I did study behavioural psychology during my misspent youth and I’ll accept that a broader analysis of the data is likely to establish reasonably statistical significant trends in relation to words and gender.  My main question is whether or not Laura Bates’ analysis is corrupted by any conscious or unconscious bias, which based on a literature review of her broader work, I suspect it may be.

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As a side note, her approach does appear to go some way to support my own personal conspiracy theory that the Guardian seems to be more interested in extending it’s American audience by encouraging articles that have (at least) as much relevance north of the atlantic as they do to the diminishing readership they have on this green and pleasant land.

This theory is based on nothing other than my own humble subjective opinion and the fact that the diagnostic tool was developed by an American University and draws upon data that has been primarily sourced from responses submitted from within the vast land mass of North America.

My main criticism about the conclusions she draws from this data is the curious absence of any acknowledgement that, based on current university matriculation trends in North American Universities (and British, if you like), the majority of the respondents to the survey will most likely have been female.

Women are also more inclined to write online reviews so perhaps there would be some purpose in self identifying leaders of the sisterhood pausing even momentarily to consider the relevance of conscious or unconscious bias emanating from their own perceived backyard.

Accepting that her passion and background is very much grounded in women’s rights activism, Laura Bates’ contribution to the discipline of promoting gender equality has, to date, been disappointingly one sided.

For example, in her most recent contribution to the Guardian she proposes a causality between gender disparity in suicide rates and ‘the pervasive idea that boys don’t cry’.

Fair enough as far as it goes but personally I’d like to think that equality champions would also take more tangible trends into account also, such as the fact that, up and down the breadth of this country, boys will struggle to find male role models in primary schools and are much more likely to be excluded from secondary schools or leave without any qualifications.

Perhaps the aforementioned university matriculation trends even have relevance, not to mention gender disparity in post-graduate employment, workplace fatalities, redundancy, unemployment, parental rights, experience of violent crime, homelessness, average life expectancy, taxation, consumer spending and even equal pay trends.

Who knows, perhaps the not entirely low level inference, regularly flowing from mainstream media equality champions, that men, as a homogenous group, are collectively responsible for all of the contemporary challenges faced by women in society has been the last ironic straw for at least one vulnerable lost soul?

I’ve submitted a range of examples of sexism experienced by men to them, I’ve also written to the everydaysexism project team, twice, to ask why it is they largely ignore male inequalities and perhaps predictably their response has been to ignore me.

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Perhaps boys don’t cry because most girls aren’t really interested in ‘male tears’ and given Laura’s apparent blindspot I’m also going to call shenanigans on her two most recent articles: feminism doesn’t mean a battle of the sexes, but a common goal for all and anti-feminists don’t get irony  Ironically, I’m not an anti-feminist but I doubt that Laura would get that.

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