Math, Stereotypes and the Gender Wars Mess

Why Pretty Girls Can’t Do Math is an article that appeared on the Psychology Today website about a study that seems to indicate that when women think about romance they can’t think subsequently think about math.

The subjects were shown some imagery and conversation that had either to do with romance or intelligence and were further asked to keep journals or do tasks. Only the women who received the stimulus related to romance temporarily lost some interest in math and related subjects.

I saw this study noted in a couple of places and finally at one of those places left a comment about it , which I want to amplify a bit.

I’m sure there are some things that some men could be exposed to that would cause them to lose their interest in math as well. Ask a male football or hockey fan to divide the length of the field or rink by the width and express it as a decimal fraction while the Superbowl or Stanley Cup finals are on. Or to discuss the angle of incidence as it pertains to the angle of reflection on the mirrored ceiling of their favorite porno movie. (bonus points if you can also account for the refractive properties of an 8 mm. thickness of the mirror glass)  Here is some study help if you need it. No its not a porn site but a physics site.

Try this during or after pretty much any other enculturated dopamine inducing activity. We are taught from a young age not only “gender-appropriate” activities which include heavy emotional content (dolls, war toys), but also we receive positive reinforcement, which is a dopamine (among other neurochemicals) boost, for engaging in those activities.

Girls play princess and hear “You are so pretty.”  or “When is your prince coming?” Boys often receive praise, particularly if they go on to become university students, for good grades particularly in traditionally male dominated fields like math or the sciences.

There is no reason then for men to respond to the romantic stimuli in the same way as women. they have not been conditioned to that as children. The women who received the stimuli related to intellectual topics fared the same as men.

So basically the study proves that women are conditioned to respond to attention to their attractiveness and partnering ability. Pretty old news.

That some would try to make this study into a verification of biological determinism, meaning “Pretty girls can’t do math” as the title suggests is really bogus.

The same old problems exist with this study as with most psychological studies;limited sample size, lack of diversity in sample size, and so on. These romantic images would not generally translate cross-culturally. So any conclusions have to be limited to a subset of a subset. The study is highly gender and culture and class bound. There is a correlation but that is not definitively or necessarily even demonstrably causative.

In general if someone is distracted they are not going to focus on another activity that is of lower priority and especially if they have not been conditioned to it. So the researchers should have first done some investigation into what the participants considered their personal priorities or preferences and set up the experiment using that.

Beyond this the same author who wrote this article mentioning this study wrote another one only a couple of months back about the Japanese women’s soccer team beating the American women’s soccer team at the World Cup. Now I didn’t care for the first article I cite here but it is not based on the author’s own field of specialization.

In How Japan Captured the World Cup Title the author does rely on her own area of expertise to put forward a theory as to the reason why the Japanese women, despite just having been through a devastating earthquake and nuclear reactor melt down went on to win.

It had to do with simultaneous multiple identities. The women were less stressed because they were not only focused on winning a match. It would not be the end of the world if they didn’t win. The other team were there for one purpose only hence their expectations were heightened and the pressure for that particular match was extreme.

She writes:

The mere act of realizing you aren’t just defined by one dimension – your SAT score or your ability to make a penalty shot – can be enough to help curtail those worries and negative thoughts that sometimes interfere with your ability to perform at your best. In essence, thinking about yourself from multiple perspectives can help relieve some pressure that you feel to excel in one area of your life.

Suppose we apply that to areas of traditional gender roles and the gender conditioning children go through.

I have a friend with a young son. Her husband has insisted on training the boy in hockey since he was old enough to walk. He was determined that the kid would be the next Wayne Gretzky. The kid doesn’t really like hockey. The mother enrolled the boy at age 4 into Hip Hop dance class. He loves it and he’s really good at it. He, now at age 6, wants to learn music and singing so he can be a performer. They are fortunate enough that they can afford all of this although I suspect that in the next year or two hockey is going to fade away.

The child could have been kept within a narrow conditioned path and maybe he would have become some kind of athlete. Or maybe he would have become rebellious. No one can say for sure but with a broader range of options the likelihood of him finding something that really gives him a good quality of life, a great deal of pleasure and not just a big paycheck, later in life is substantially increased.

The point is social conditioning has an effect that we can only overcome if we are conscious of it. If we have to spend a good deal of our time thinking about or enacting a particular gender performance (masculine/feminine) and that becomes our priority especially if we feel some element of insecurity in that area, then it will become magnified in terms of priorities. That puts other elements…oh like rational thought, coherent analysis and linguistic ability somewhere out of the ballpark. This is pretty evident if you follow the so-called “Gender Wars” debates. The extremists at both ends can’t manage to see much beyond the genitals of the various situations and take facts into account.

Nathan had a good post today on his 21st Century Relationships blog called “Men Want to Feel Manly” which was a quote from a comment someone had left. The quote he took issue with was:

I think what it boils down to is men wanting to feel manly but still appreciated. I would always offer, but any man who allows you to pay (especially on a first or second date) is probably not that invested. When guys like you, they want to impress you. They do that by proving they can provide for you. It’s an instinctual thing.

He made some very good points about the kinds of assumptions that are wrapped up in this comment. It denies people’s true natures and it turns dating into a capitalist activity. Read the whole thing.

I agreed but went a bit further in the comments:

You didn’t rant so I will.

That biological determinism trope has got to end. We are not our biology, men or women. It all fits so very neatly into the complimentarian scheme of things which basically states "For every manly man there is a womanly woman."

Cut and dried little boxes.

Even though my relationships have primarily been with men, including a long marriage, I’ve begun over the years to adopt the label of gender-queer in terms of the way I think, behave and live. I can’t "think like a woman" whatever that is supposed to mean, nor can I "think like a man" or behave stereotypically as either comfortably. That has always been the case. I can only think and behave as myself, which is not consulting my physiology every time a thought comes in my head to see if it is appropriate for my particular physical configuration. What a load of bollocks.

It annoys me to no end that social structures [and roles] are built based on genitals and what they are "supposed" to symbolize.

I have as many reservations about that comment you quoted as you do. It infantilizes women by suggesting we cannot care for ourselves adequately, turns sex into a commodity to be bargained for by the highest bidder and turns men into johns who are only shopping for a glorified prostitute and whose only worth is measured by their wallet.

Some day maybe more people will see through all this than don’t. I look forward to that tipping point.

I’ve been reading a lot of nonsense over the past week or so about appropriate roles or activities for women and men and the alleged “fact” of male dominance.

I don’t know any men who have such things as their priority nor do I know any women who strive to be “taken care of” as if they were children. I guess I’m just lucky because there seems to be a significant number of people who think and behave as if that were some evolutionary fact.

No doubt evolutionary psychology, which is something I’d call a new form of eugenics, with equally shaky theoretical foundations, has something to do with this as well as the advertising world which continually bombards us with “gender appropriate” propaganda because it’s easier to make a profit if they can convince everyone to buy into the same grand sociological narrative.

And that’s all it is–this sorry story of gender, dominance and the pitiful rationalizations that psychology, religion, society and culture put forward to excuse all manner of atrocity, degradation, abuse, unfairness and injustice.

Unfortunately, until most people realize that these kinds of battles have the stink of brain wash all over them they will keep recurring.

6 comments on “Math, Stereotypes and the Gender Wars Mess

  1. Oo, minefield.

    While conventional behavior — otherwise known as “politeness” or “good manners” — carries a lot of baggage, some of which isn’t very nice, I think the problems only really start once people start conflating social convention and conditioning with essential truths. This happens a quite a lot. I think the problem is more with the thinking rather than the acting. Not that different from getting overly attached to views in general, perhaps.

    Put another way, if you think men and women are different in some ‘essential’ way, you’re going to find ways to justify that belief. Confirmation bias and all that.

    Also, manners shift as mores and expectations change. When I go dine out with my wife, we get routinely asked if we’ll be splitting the bill. I may be imagining it, but I think it didn’t use to happen as often, say, ten years ago.

  2. Thanks for the comments on the blog post. I think you’re right on that evolutionary psychology and it’s pop “affiliates” are playing a role in these conversations. I tend to think that biological differences sometimes play a small role, but given all the layers of social conditioning, it’s really difficult to even pinpoint what that role might be. And even if such pinpointing were easily done, there would still be a fairly sizable subgroup within the larger gender group that doesn’t conform. Which points to, in my opinion, the failure of the gender binary itself as a way of understanding.

    It’s interesting you mention genderqueer. A few of my queer friends have considered me part of the family for years now. And I think that, slowly, this wide-ranging third group is gaining traction, and helping to break through the stranglehold.

  3. What is this genderqueer thing anyway? Not acting or thinking according to social gender stereotypes? ‘Cuz if you two are genderqueer, then I think I must be one too, because I honestly can’t think of any fundamental way I’m different from you in this respect. I just find it an odd thought. Probably privilege talking, there.

    I wonder if cultural background has something to do with this, though? Perhaps gender norms aren’t as strongly enforced over here than on your side of the pond. It just never occurred to me to think that women and men were fundamentally different in some way, beyond the plumbing. I don’t think this is all that unusual for an urban Scandinavian of my generation (or younger).

    Homophobic I was, though, in my teens, before I actually knew any (out) gay people. But I got better.

    • Basically that’s it. Non-conforming. Not comfortable with behaving or thinking in those gender programmed ways. In much of North America even some parts of the gay community find it odd or even unacceptable. The idea that one can be gender-queer and not also gay confounds some people.

      Everything on this continent is based on two extreme poles with no nuance in between. That’s the thing that really gets to me. It’s impossible to have a discussion with anyone who has that dichotomous mind-set because it’s either-or, agree-disagree. Canada is somewhat better in this regard but I notice, particularly in central Canada that this is changing for the worse, especially recently.

      I also never thought of such a thing as a big deal. It seems to be a major thing in some parts of the US and to some extent in some places in Canada. I find the gender thing is very much more enforced in the US than any other Westernized countries such as Australia, NZ, Canada and most of Northern Europe and a lot of southern and eastern Europe. I think that’s why all this Gender Wars stuff is going on there. It is the land of beauty pageants and action heroes. To not aspire to that seems to get a lot of people upset. I’m working on a whole post about it. But it’s long so will take some more time.

      That’s the same attitude I have about men. I don’t know any other feminists who think of men not as people or who have in mind to dominate anyone or to marginalize anyone. (There’s some extreme feminists in Sweden I’ve only just heard about this week-but they quote Americans and base their platform on Dworkin and a few of the other last century radicals. They are the ones trying to influence the Assange case.)

      The word feminist in America has the same social stigma as socialist or intellectual it seems. (Gee 3 strikes-I’m out!) And the same lack of understanding of what these words actually mean.

      So when I get that post done there will be more explanation.

      • I just remembered something. School, between third and sixth grade. We were an unusual class, because for some reason we didn’t segregate into girls’ and boys’ groups, like most classes do at the time. Instead, we just kept on playing together. By the time we got into the “upper grades” (seventh to ninth; that was a different school at the time), hormones started kicking in and girls and boys were hanging out together for different reasons. But I never experienced that developmental phase where boys and girls go their separate ways, to crash into each other as teenagers some years later.

        I think that must be significant. And I’ll be damned if I know why our class turned out that way. We were different from most others. Perhaps it was the teacher, she was a freakin’ genius. Assigned us murder mysteries for reading, too. Her name was Arja Mattsson, so naturally we called her Amazon. (A. Mattsson, Amatsoni. Heh.)

  4. Easier said then done. I see the effect this internal cultural mechanism has on me and the cost of not dismantling it, but it is pretty solid through and through.

    I default to observation and curiosity which has shown me that cultural influence is perhaps one of the strongest unconscious influences, and when we aren’t aware of it is capable of defining everything about us.

    More reason to be vigilant, and so I wonder if you have any advice.

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