Political and/or empirical engagement therewith

The difficulty of getting along in the fraught process of classifying people into lady-people and man-people, which is a project of great interest to many of the stakeholders.

Gender and language

What is gender-inclusive language?

Two strands of gender inclusive language seem to be salient for my current environment:

  1. “Career stuff”. Are roles gendered? Does language exclude people, usually women, from roles? e.g. Actor/actress.
  2. “Gender identity stuff” — does the use of some particular word impinge upon an given individual’s preference/need to enact a certain gender role?

Career stuff

Here are two interesting takes on linguistic engineering projects for gender neutrality:

Firstly, Daniel Scholten’s Der Führerin entgegen! which sets the potential inclusivity upsides in the context of language history, language adaptation and so on. The author is a linguist who argues that discussion about gender-neutral language conflates grammatical, biological and social gender, and he argues that this conflation does not help the main feminist project of achieving better outcomes for women. NB 1) he largely assumes 2 genders (to be fair this is not uncommon in grammatical gender). 2) The argument is about empirical effectiveness of changing language to change society, which is of course not the only reason to change language. You could instead agree to change your language for a different reason, for example as socially normalized gesture of goodwill as part of a larger and more substantial suite of reforms, without hoping that the language change achieves anything by itself. Or some other reason that I cannot think of. See also Follow-on video. TODO: raid that video’s citation list.

Anyway a lot of this is the fundamental niggle of our public sphere. But there is also an extra twist in linguistics: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (what you can verbalise defines what you can think) which in my linguistics classes we were trained to dismiss as debunked. The examples we had were about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in concrete and boring settings, rather than in subtle social contexts. There may be a better literature on this sub-field, but I have not done the review of it.

Secondly, Sczesny, Formanowicz, and Moser (2016) reviews the literature about gender fair language in creating inviting environments, and comes to a different, although complicated, prescription:

recent research has documented that linguistic asymmetries prevent girls and women from aspiring to male-dominated roles (see Chatard et al., 2005; Gaucher et al., 2011; Stout and Dasgupta, 2011; Vervecken et al., 2013; Vervecken and Hannover, 2015) and thereby perpetuate the higher accessibility of men in these roles. Second, the use of gender-unfair language, especially of masculine generics, restricts the visibility of women and the cognitive availability of female exemplars (Stahlberg et al., 2007), which may be disadvantageous for women (e.g., in personnel selection; Stout and Dasgupta, 2011; Horvath and Sczesny, 2015). However, increasing the visibility of women with the help of novel feminine forms may also have negative consequences and may therefore be avoided, for instance, in women’s professional self- reference (Merkel et al., 2012; Formanowicz et al., 2013). Thus, the avoidance of GFL by women (e.g., avoidance of feminine job titles in grammatical gender languages), in order to protect themselves from ascriptions of incompetence or lower status, also perpetuates the reduction of gender stereotyping and social discrimination.

The studies for each case, seem to suffer from the usual problems of psychological research, in that they are conducted under laboratory conditions or have difficult observational causal inference problems, so the evidence is not slam-dunk. Indeed, without doing a comprehensive literature review, my sense is that

  1. Sczesny could be correct that the effects of gender-unequal language is real in perpetuating the exclusion of women from male-dominated roles.
  2. Scholten could be correct that the size of this effect of this is small next to the effect of economic and administrative policies to support people in a non-traditional gender moving into a field from which they are historically excluded.

They would both agree, I think, that having a language with no gender markers is not itself sufficient to lead to gender equality since they both raise the example of Turkish which is an essentially genderless language, speakers of which are not automatically transformed into gender-blind egalitarians.

In this case, the argument comes down to whether the policy of linguistic engineering is worth the opportunity cost. prima facie changing the words we use is cheap in that talk itself is cheap. So maybe it is a small return at small cost. Pragmatically, imposing such a policy has a non-trivial cost, though, because arguing about gender-inclusive language it seem highly memetically contagious, because of salience. We all use language but fewer of us feel agency over policy. In practice, this seems to be a policy which it is easy to mobilise people against.

Further reading about this kind of thing in the context of racially neutral language: Pedersen, Walker, and Wise (2005).

Gender identity language

a.k.a. “What is your pronoun?” Usually in English this means question is asked about a 2nd person pronoun. In Thai, for example, the 1st person pronouns are gendered, mostly not the other ones, which means that I am constantly gendering myself, as opposed to gendering that person over there. Does Thai deliver benefits to the gender-incongruent? As people are fond of noting, in English this question is fraught, because second person pronouns are the words that you use to talk about me when I am not in the conversation. This is a somewhat novel thing to have preferences about,compared, for example, for caring about how you address me which we have all cared about forever.

It is not all pronouns, however; there is a lot happening. Case study: LGBTIQ inclusive language guide is for Victorian Public Sector (VPS).

The LGBTIQ inclusive language guide is for Victorian Public Sector (VPS) employees. It explains how to use language respectfully and inclusively when working with and referring to LGBTIQ people. By using inclusive language, we demonstrate respect in both our workplaces and in developing and delivering policies, programs and services for all Victorians.

One point that leapt out was gender incongruence (renamed from gender dysphoria because of the slow cycling of the Euphemism Treadmill). I wonder how this has caught on. Gender-incongruent people I know do not yet seem to have got the memo that they are supposed to refer to themselves in that way now and still tend to use gender dysphoria to describe their experience. Not mad keen to tell them that they are doing it wrong.

(One wonders about the inclusivity of the consultation processes in some language guides.)

Statistics of gender

Do Men \(A\)? Are Women More Prone to \(B\)?

I am loath to touch questions like these. Not because I feel there is some risk of saying something controversial, but because there is so much work to do in disambiguating the vocabulary, as with many arguments, that once we have identified what we are saying it often turns out we are saying nothing at all. TBC.

A pet peeve in this area is the problem of trying to address the basic statistics of binary flag (gender according to census, or hormone level over some threshold, or possession of a penis now, or possession of a penis at birth, or whatever) and the coupling of that binary flag to complicated multidimensional distributions over other noisily-measured traits we claim to care about but are also not very good at identifying and hoping to get a simple prescription.

There is surely stuff going on with hormones and DNA and socialisation and social construction and fashion and power and economics and the intersection of these factors with other non-gender related ones etc, but it does not seem especially likely to generate short and unambiguous instruction manuals for social relations, which some combatants seem to want.

By John Skylitzes (12th century), an interesting moment in historical gender dynamics: An illumination of a scene from the Skylitzes Chronicle, depicting a Thracesian woman killing a Varangian who tried to rape her, whereupon his comrades praised her and gave her his possessions

Still! All those caveats aside, there is some interesting stuff going on with humans and gender. I will come back at some point if something nifty comes up.

Gender identities

What is going on with gender identities? Why are do some people experience gender dysphoria and others not?

I have little insight except that I did enjoy Ozymandias’ Cis By Default wherein is posited that maybe why I might have little insight is explained by the following model: There are two types of people (ish)

  1. People who have a deeply held attachment to their gender, which had better match up to their physical sex and socially assigned role or they will be in distress.
  2. People who don’t mind particularly and will run with the flow.

I cannot cheaply do an experiment to verify that I am in category 2, but I suspect that if I had sudden [surgery formerly known as gender reassignment whose new name I forget], I would be distressed by the medical inconvenience and burdensome social explanations, but otherwise mostly indifferent. For practical, public, rhetorical purposes I am in group 2. 1

If Ozy’s model holds, it would be an interesting explanation for some types of confusion with public discourse; an unarticulated divide lies between the active and inertia-based gender identities.

A resonant model for the accomplishment of gender categories is David R. MacIver’s Gendering.

Public discourse

This one is a hard read that did itself no favours by leaving the invective dial set way too high (reads like Michel Foucault off the meds after you have just reversed over his cat) but check out The Last Psychiatrist: No Self-Respecting Woman Would Go Out Without Make Up for some interesting arguments about where the power comes from, that I think it is important to be able to address.

The manosphere

There seem to be as many flavours of Men’s Rights Activism as there are feminisms now.

TODO: document each.

TODO: Devise a knockout tournament between well-matched sub-movements?

I do not have deep anthropological analysis of the various sub-flavours of MRA. The card-carrying Men’s Rights Activists that I do know (MGOTW-flavoured, PUA-flavoured) seem to have been on classic radicalisation pathways; I do not know how common this is more generally. I think we all know at least one young heterosexual man with poor social skills who probably could attain greater satisfaction if he learned a few conversational skills, but instead chose a path of blaming a shadowy conspiratorial gynocracy for ruining his life at the behest of an alt-right self-help guru? How representative of the dynamics of the movement is Young Man X? Movement radicalising dissatisfied people by mobilising them against conspiracies are a staple of early-stage authoritarianism, nothing surprising there.

Rage-toxoplasmic arguments

So how do we talk past each other gender stuff in particular?

An exemplary incident was the 2017 Awkward Google James Damore Memo. It is a good example of the crowd dynamics and talking-past that happens in these public furore. The reason I would recommend reading it is the interesting meta-phenomenon: a lot of the excerpts and quotes circulating are not actually from the document, or at least not the notional final version. I do not care enough to check earlier versions myself, because I am not a journalist reporting on this as a story but that should obviously be done if one were such. Which means that some fun parodies I had linked were not actually parodying the memo itself, just erroneous quotes. Accordingly I have deleted those parodies from this page.

Which is to say, a mediocre argument was met by an off-point response, and that is how we engage with the negotiation of our complicated trajectories as a society now I guess?

The content of the memo is, IMO … meh e.g. I think it weak-mans diversity arguments — is it in fact true that the consensus amongst advocates for diversity is to target a 50/50 gender split in employees in software development for all time at all costs? Not, rather, claiming that the gender split would be closer to 50/50 after redressing unfair biases? Also, the notion of what psychological safety is presumed to be could have done with some non-anecdote-based development, if the argument was to lean on research, which is a point that it advocates for. For a more sympathetic reading of the Damore memo which includes some extra supporting evidence see Why so few women in CS which attempts to decompose, among other things, the sexism-versus-preference bias in gender split in computer science. That is a noble attempt, but I do not think that it gets at the workplace dynamic that I presume spawned this memo.

Maybe the flaws are precisely what helped it get traction? Certainly it seems the usual suspects were triggered.

This dynamic is tiring to witness.

after a while browsing historical book, the sheer quantity of bare-breasted ladies exemplifying the dangerous ocean is striking. This is a good one.

Some research

There are some lightly-inspected social psychology papers of interest. Wait for replication before assuming they mean much.

A recent study published in Frontiers in Psychology (Moreno-Domínguez, Raposo, and Elipe 2019) explored the impact of body image on sexual satisfaction in heterosexual, bisexual, and lesbian women. While the three groups of women reported similar levels of body dissatisfaction, lesbian women uniquely showed no significant impact of body image on sexual satisfaction..

Women are 15 hours practice away from mentally rotating objects like men. Huh.

The web without male content is a ghost town. With certain exceptions.

Jacob Putanumonit did a survey on “dating assholes” and the results are entertaining and counterintuitive.


Du, Yuhao, Jessica Nordell, and Kenneth Joseph. 2021. Insidious Nonetheless: How Small Effects and Hierarchical Norms Create and Maintain Gender Disparities in Organizations.” arXiv:2110.04196 [Cs], October.
Moreno-Domínguez, Silvia, Tania Raposo, and Paz Elipe. 2019. Body Image and Sexual Dissatisfaction: Differences Among Heterosexual, Bisexual, and Lesbian Women.” Frontiers in Psychology 10.
Pedersen, Anne, Iain Walker, and Mike Wise. 2005. ‘Talk Does Not Cook Rice’: Beyond Anti-Racism Rhetoric to Strategies for Social Action.” Australian Psychologist 40 (1): 20–31.
Schiebinger, Londa. 1996. The Loves of the Plants.” Scientific American 274 (2): 110–15.
Sczesny, Sabine, Magda Formanowicz, and Franziska Moser. 2016. Can Gender-Fair Language Reduce Gender Stereotyping and Discrimination? Frontiers in Psychology 7: 25.
Zietsch, Brendan P., and Morgan J. Sidari. 2020. “The Kinsey Scale Is Ill-Suited to Most Sexuality Research Because It Does Not Measure a Single Construct.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117 (44): 27080.

  1. perhaps that simply means I am not very introspective?↩︎

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