I’m so forgetful. Sometimes I get so enamored of my own writing that important things slip my mind. The pragmatic argument is not the only reason I’m a feminist. There’s also the empirical one:
The SAT I is designed solely to predict students’ first year college grades. Yet, despite the fact that females earn higher grades throughout both high school and college, they consistently receive lower scores on the exam than do their male counterparts. In 2001, females averaged 35 points lower than males on the Math section of the test, and 3 points lower on the Verbal section. A gender gap favoring males persists across all other demographic characteristics, including family income, parental education, grade point average, course work, rank in class, size of high school, size of city, etc.
There are a number of pieces of evidence that suggest a systemic bias against women. I am familiar with dissecting these biases because they show up in the same kinds of places we find biases against black people. The pernicious thing about these kinds of non-obvious forms of sexism is that they have immense staying power. As the test causes women to underachieve, it means that fewer women are accepted into elite mathematics programs, which means fewer elite-level female mathematicians are produced, which means that math remains a “man’s field” for the next generation of students.
But it doesn’t simply stop at the SAT:
Like the SAT and ACT, graduate school admissions exams also reflect score gaps between males and females. On the 1999-2000 Graduate Record Exam (GRE), the most widely used graduate school exam, females scored lower than males on all three sections of the test (each with a range of 200 to 800 points) – 9 points lower on the Verbal portion, 97 points lower on the Quantitative section, and 25 points lower on the Analytic section.
The exam widely used in medical school admissions, the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), also shows a persistent edge for male test-takers in 2000 – males outscored females by .1 points on Verbal Reasoning, 1.0 points on Physical Sciences, and .7 points on Biological Sciences, on a 1-15 point scale. Both groups received comparable scores on the Writing Sample.
It is important to remember that this is about performance on the test, not of whether or not women are qualified to enter grad school or medical school. The gaps seen on these tests cannot be explained by academic achievement or socioeconomic status or any other factor you might think of that is related to future job performance. It is entirely based on the structure of the test. The authors of the above article suggest that the differences between how men and women behave on tests, and how the solve problems, explains the differences, at least in part.
But a larger component of the pragmatic argument shows up when we examine the way we think of women, and the way they think of themselves. Ophelia over at Butterflies and Wheels gives us a brush-stroke look at stereotype threat – a psychological phenomenon wherein reminding people of stereotypical beliefs causes them to internalize those beliefs in such a way as to affect their performance:
Think about tv and movies. One, women are mostly not there at all, and two, the women who are there are mostly acting in air-headed ways. Stereotype threat is everywhere. And it’s no good thinking well you can just resist it, because resisting it itself is bad for performance – it takes up cognitive space that can’t be used for better things. Frankly this makes me even more pissed off than I already was at all the smug gits who put so much energy into talking sexist shit on the intertubes. They’re doing real damage. It’s not just a matter of bruised fee-fees, it’s a matter of creating real obstacles.
Our myths about women don’t just make them feel bad, they actively handicap them. And as we discussed yesterday, claiming that women are good at some things and men are good at the opposite might be a nice workaround, except that we place greater value on the “men’s stuff”, meaning that even under the complementary theory (which is hard to demonstrate, given what we know about stereotype threat), women get the short end of the stick.
But even then, the things we do claim to value about women also put them in the hole:
Women who wear more makeup at work are perceived as more competent, likeable and trustworthy by their colleagues, according to a new Harvard study. The study, which was also designed by Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, flashed the images of 25 women – of different races and ages and wearing different levels of makeup – to more than 250 people. The main conclusion was that people judge women who wore noticeable lip and eye makeup as more competent than their démaquillée counterparts.
This study is hardly a ‘smoking gun’, since the halo effect operates in men too, but it does show us that our gestalt evaluations of women are influenced heavily by their physical appearance – a trait which arguably has absolutely nothing to do with competence or trustworthiness.
There are structural, cognitive and psychological forces stacked against women (among many others). We can observe and demonstrate them. Being born female means you start your life off with the deck stacked against you. Feminism recognizes this and seeks to find ways of re-shuffling that deck to even the odds. We know that societies that recognize the equity of the sexes do better, and we have a mechanism to explain why that might be a cause/effect relationship. The evidence all points us in the direction of feminism.
So the question isn’t ‘why are you a feminist’. It’s ‘why the hell aren’t you?’
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