Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Default Gender in Politics and Science

President Obama reads political columnists.  His top ten list*  is 90% white and 100% male.

That's probably not because he would have explicitly chosen to focus his reading on white men's thoughts.  Most political columnists in the US are white men, after all.  But it's also true that being male and white looks like the default race and gender to most of us in the US.  That's how it works.

I'd guess that the reasons for the default race and gender are slightly different, however.  Though both of those may also be based on the societal ranking orders, it is true that whites are still the numerical majority in the US, so there will be more columns written by white people than by people of color.

The default gender is based on something different, given that men and women exist in roughly equal numbers.  Think of these kinds of pictures:

We don't interpret them as being pictures of white men but being pictures of "man."  That's because male is the default gender in most societies in that it stands for both the general humanity and for human males.  Pictures of women in the same contexts would only stand for human females.

Which brings me to an interesting post Andrew Gelman wrote about the recent Douthat column (I blogged about that here and here).  A snippet from Gelman's post:

Here’s the story. The other day on the sister blog I reported on a pair of studies involving children and political orientation: Andrew Oswald and Nattavudh Powdthavee found that, in Great Britain, parents of girls were more likely to support left-wing parties, compared to parents of boys. And, in the other direction, Dalton Conley and Emily Rauscher found with survey data from the United States that parents of girls were more likely to support the Republican party, compared to parents of boys.
Both these studies came out a few years ago (and I blogged on them way back when), but the Conley and Rauscher paper got a new burst of attention following its recent publication in a sociology journal.
We haven’t reached the fallacy yet, but we’re getting closer.
One thing I noted in my sister blog post was an oddity in the reporting of the Conley and Rauscher paper:
There’s something oddly asymmetrical about how these results are presented, both by the authors and in the media. Consider the following headlines:
“The Effect of Daughters on Partisanship and Social Attitudes Toward Women”
“Does Having Daughters Make You More Republican?”
“Parents With Daughters Are More Likely To Be Republicans, Says New Study”
“Parents Of Daughters Lean Republican, Study Shows”
“The Daughter Theory: Does raising girls make parents conservative?”
To their credit, the study’s authors and many of the journalists make it clear the the claims are speculative (consider, for example, the question mark at the end of the New York Times headline given just above). So that’s all good.
But here’s my question: Why is it all about “the effect of daughters”? Why not “Does having sons make you support the Democrats?” It looks to me like having sons is considered the default.

Bolds are mine.  And yes, I think Andrew got the reason.  Daughters are seen as the deviance from the norm, sons as the default.

As one commenter at Gelman's blog noted, researchers have studied (pdf) this tendency in scientific articles.  Here's the abstract of the linked study:

Androcentric thinking assumes maleness to be normative and attributes gender differences to females. A content analysis of articles reporting gender differences published between 1965 and 2004 in four American Psychological Association journals examined androcentric pronouns, explanations, and tables and graphs. Few articles used generic masculine pronouns to refer to both women and men. However, explanations of gender differences within articles that mentioned such differences in their abstracts and titles referenced attributes of women significantly more often than attributes of men. Most tables and graphs depicting gender differences positioned males’ data before females’
data, except when gender differences among parents were concerned. Psychologists have ceased to use male-centered pronouns, but female and male psychologists continue to report, explain, and depict gender differences in androcentric ways.

Another way of putting that is to realize that when a study is about gender it tends to report how women differ from men, not how men differ from women.  Though the message is ultimately the same, the emphasis most of us adopt means that how men are is assumed to be the default, and what needs to be explained is how women differ from that default.

I once drew a picture of this particular way of thinking, this one.  The top picture shows the actual reality (in very simplified ways), the bottom picture shows the common thinking pattern:


*I'm not quite sure if Obama has handed out that list or if it was collected from articles about his reading habits.