Tag Archives: gender

Is the New York Times trapped in an economics echo chamber?

Ask a stupid question.

When Justin Wolfers wrote about the dominance of economists in the pages of the New York Times, he concluded, “our popularity reflects the discerning tastes of our audience in the marketplace of ideas.” I discussed the evidence for that in this post, which focused on the particular organizational features of the NYT. At the time it didn’t occur to me that his data — relying on uses of “economist” in the paper — would be corrupted by false attributions. So this is a small data story and a larger point.

The small data story comes from a personal reflection by Dionne Searcey, who wrote about work-family conflict in her new post as West Africa Bureau Chief for the NYT. It was a perfectly reasonable piece, except for one thing:

Much has been written about work-life balance, about women getting ahead in their careers and trying to have it all. I often find that if you scratch beneath the surface of many successful working moms, they have husbands who work from home or have flexible schedules and possibly a trust fund. Or in many cases, you find a mom who does more than her fair share at home — or at least feels as if she does. Economists have a name for it, “the second shift.”

Wait, “economists”? The Second Shift is a classic work of sociology by Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung first published in 1989 and revised twice. Why “economists”? The (very good) article that Searcey linked to was called, “The Second Shift: Men Do More at Home, but Not as Much as They Think,” written by journalist Claire Cain Miller, focusing principally on the research of several sociologists, led by Jill Yavorsky (a sociology PhD candidate at Ohio State with whom I have collaborated). There are no economists cited or quoted in the story.

The small data story is that this mention of economists will go into Wolfers’ count of the influence of economists in the marketplace of ideas, but it’s a false positive — it’s the influence of sociologists being falsely attributed to economists.

But why would Searcey say “economists”? The answer lies in the organizational culture of the NYT. Here’s why.

Here are my two tweets on the piece:

Considerately, Searcey replied:

How odd. When I pointed out again that the story she linked to was about sociologists talking about the second shift, she didn’t reply.

I recently wrote that economists don’t cite sociologists’ work as much as sociologists cite economists even when the two groups are working on the same questions with obvious implications for both. What about the second shift? A JSTOR search reveals 473 cases of “second shift” and “housework” in journals identified as sociology by the database. The same search in the realm of economics produces just 35 mentions (no fewer than 6 of which were written by sociologists).

So, why did Searcey think she “was referring to how economists talk about the second shift”? My only explanation is that it’s because the piece was published in the NYT section The Upshot. As I wrote in my Contexts post, Upshot

is edited by David Leonhardt, who was an economics columnist before he was promoted to Washington bureau chief in 2011. That promotion was a dramatic move, elevating an economics writer who hadn’t been a Washington political reporter. Upshot is a “data journalism” hub, which often (but not always) implies an economic focus. (On the opinion pages, economist Paul Krugman writes a column twice a week, and Joseph Stiglitz moderated a long series on inequality.) This can’t be the whole story, but in broad strokes it’s fair to say the paper as an organization moved in the direction of business and economics.

Upshot is, of course, where Wolfers was writing in praise of the idea-market power of economists. Is this just the free market of ideas allowing the most persuasive to rise to the top? Searcey’s errors suggests that it is not. Rather, the organizational status of economics has corrupted her perceptions so that if something appears there she simply believes it reflects economics (and no editor notices).

Incidentally David Leonhardt (whom I’ve written about several times) has been promoted to Op-Ed page columnist and associate editorial page editor.


Filed under In the news

Our broken peer review system, in one saga

When at last Odysseus returns.

When at last Odysseus returns.

Everybody’s got a story. This is the story of publishing a peer-reviewed journal article called, “The Widening Gender Gap in Opposition to Pornography, 1975–2012.” The paper has now been published, and is available here in preprint, or here if you’re on a campus that subscribes to Social Currents through Sage.

Lucia Lykke, a graduate student in our program, and I began this project in the fall of 2012. We came up with the idea together. I did the coding and she wrote the text. Over the course of two years we sent the paper to four journals – once to Gender & Society, four times to Sex Roles, once to Social Forces, and twice to Social Currents, which finally accepted it in July 2015 and published it online on September 21.*

This story illustrates some endemic problems with our system of scholarly communication, both generally and in the discipline of sociology specifically. I discuss the problems after the story.


The gist of our paper is this: Opposition to pornography has declined in the U.S. since 1975, but faster for men than for women. As a result, the gender gap in opposition – with women more likely to oppose pornography – has widened.

That’s the finding. Our interpretation – which is independent of the veracity of our finding – is that opposition has declined as porn became more ubiquitous, but that women have been slower to drop their opposition because at the same time mainstream porn has become more violent and degrading to women. We see all this reflecting two trends: pornographication (more things in popular culture becoming more pornographic) and post-feminism (less acceptance of speaking up against the sexist nature of popular media, including porn). We could be wrong in our interpretation, and there is no way to test it, but the empirical analysis is pretty straightforward and we should accept it as a description of the trend in attitudes toward pornography. And for doing that empirical work we beg permission to tell you our interpretation.

The analysis is possible because the General Social Survey has, since 1975, asked a large sample of U.S. adults this question about every two years:

Which of these statements comes closest to your feelings about pornography laws: 1. There should be laws against the distribution of pornography whatever the age. 2. There should be laws against the distribution of pornography to persons under 18. 3. There should be no laws forbidding the distribution of pornography.

We tracked the rate at which people selected the first choice versus the others. It’s not very complicated (although we tried it half a dozen other ways, of course). Also of course it’s not perfect – it’s not a great question for today’s social reality, but it’s the only thing like it asked over such a long period. This is what’s great and what’s limiting about the General Social Survey. So, let’s agree to collect better data, and also use this. There, was that so hard?

Here is supporting detail on our particular saga. (We have left the typos from reviewers intact, because it makes us look smarter than they are. And these are selective excerpts to make various points – there was a lot, lot, more.)

Before and after

Just to be clear what the world gained by 13 reviews and two years of waiting, you can compare the abstract at the beginning to the one at the end. This was the original abstract:

In the last several decades pornography in the U.S. has become more mainstream, more accessible, and more phallocentric and degrading to women. Yet research has not addressed how opposition to pornography has changed over the past several decades. Here, we examine opposition to pornography and gender differences in anti-pornography attitudes, using the 1975-2012 General Social Survey. Our findings show that both men’s and women’s opposition to pornography have decreased significantly over the past 40 years, but men’s opposition has declined faster and women remain more opposed to pornography. This is consistent with both the growing normative nature of pornography consumption for men and its increasingly degrading content. We situate these trends within a cultural climate in which women are caught between postfeminism and pornographication – between cultural messages that signal the social acceptability of pornography and compel women’s acquiescence, on the one hand, and the increased presence of pornography many women consider offensive and harmful on the other.

And this was the abstract we ended up with:

In the last several decades pornography in the U.S. has become more mainstream, more accessible, more phallocentric and more degrading to women. Further, consumption of pornography remains a major difference in the sexual experiences of men and women. Yet research has not addressed how opposition to pornography has changed over the this period, despite shifts in the accessibility and visibility of pornography as well as new cultural and legal issues presented by the advent of Internet pornography. We examine gender differences in opposition to pornography from 1975 to 2012, measured by support for legal censorship of pornography in the General Social Survey. Results show that both men’s and women’s opposition to pornography have decreased significantly over the past 40 years, suggesting a cultural shift toward “pornographication” affecting attitudes. However, women remain more opposed to pornography than men, and men’s opposition has declined faster, so the gender gap in opposition to pornography has widened, indicating further divergence of men’s and women’s sexual attitudes over time. This is consistent with the increasingly normative nature of pornography consumption for men, increases over time in men’s actual consumption of pornography, and its increasingly degrading depiction of women.

The regression model we started with in 2013 had logistic regression coefficients showing a decline of .012 per year in the log odds of women favoring laws against the distribution of pornography, versus .022 for men. (That is, the decline has been almost twice as fast for men.) After all we went through with the other variables, we ended up with .012 and .023.


August 6, 2013: Submitted to Gender & Society

September 23, 2013: Rejected, with four reviews

Reviewer A was concerned about framing, and about the dependent variable.

if one takes this more complex and nuanced definition of postfeminism into account, the theoretical frame of does not work well for the paper … I also thought that the authors could have gone further in discussing broader cultural changes in sexuality in the media, especially the increasing sexualization and pornification in advertising and the media. …

an analysis of a GSS question concerning laws regarding the restriction of pornography, seem limited. In particular, that GSS question does not seem to get at the historical changes that have occurred in pornography distribution and consumption given its widespread internet usage.

Reviewer B was all about framing:

[I] appreciate your analysis of anti-pornography research and the effects of post-feminism on attitudes towards pornography … [but] I think the literature review needs to spend at least some time outlining feminist pro-pornography arguments. …

doesn’t it make sense to incorporate a discussion of the history of pornography regulation since the 1970s in the U.S? [… and …] While you bring up race in the analysis of your data, the literature review is surprisingly devoid of anything having to do with pornographic representations of gender and race.

Reviewer C thought we should have included a content analysis of pornography over time – done a different study, that is — and framed it differently:

Pornography needs to be defined … Cost, images and rejection of feminist view would clearly support a content analysis on pornography … The provided discussion of pornographication seems to more support the use of images and actual study of pornography, more so than people’s attitudes toward it … more justification to the existing literature needs to be added … Some legal gender studies should be included here … Gender is not one sided and the author should consider adding some agency to [men’s] role in the study and discussion.

Reviewer D concluded that the data weren’t good enough to support our interpretation:

The author, however, does not empirically demonstrate that the found decline in opposition is the result of either postfeminism or pornographication. … The General Social Survey is convenient, easy to access, and quick to run. This, however, does not necessarily make for good empirical evidence. … If the author wanted to investigate postfeminism and pornagraphication and the relationship to pornography, a much more nuanced empirical study would have needed to have been designed.

In a world with limited space for publishing research – which is not our world – this would be a good reason to reject the article.

October 7, 2013 (approximate): Submitted to Sex Roles

October 9, 2013: Returned by the editor

The editor, Irene Frieze, returned the paper almost immediately, saying: “major revisions are needed before we can move ahead in the review process.”

Some of what she asked for reflects the competitive climate of contemporary academic journals. For example, she asked us to pad the journal’s citation count: “If possible, either in this section or later in the Introduction, note how your work builds on other studies published in our journal.”

And she tried to make the journal seem more international:

Explain why your study is important to readers from many countries with a sentence or two. … Note what country each empirical study you cite was done in and explain how any cited studies done in other countries are relevant in understanding your sample.

She also asked for what appear to be standard requirements for the journal:

Add demographic information about the sample and explain more about how they were recruited. Add a table showing the demographic characteristics of the women as compared to the men in the sample in different time periods. … Add correlations computed separately for women and men as well.

And, the dreaded memo requirement: “Assuming you do wish to submit a revision, I would need a revised manuscript and a detailed list outlining the changes you have made in response to these comments.”

November 9, 2013: Resubmitted to Sex Roles, first revision

February 17, 2014: Revise and resubmit, based on one review (“major revisions”)

The reviewer had trouble with our statistical presentation:

I see that on Table 2, the difference between the women’s and men’s regression effect for year shows both women’s and men’s significant (-.012 and -.022). This suggests that for both female and male respondents the year is significant, but it doesn’t show statistically that men’s decline in opposition is steeper than is women’s. Where is the statistic showing a significant difference in slope? [The table had a superscript b next to the men’s coefficient, with the note, “Gender difference significant at p<.05.” Although we didn’t provide the details, that test came from a separate, “fully-interacted” model in which every variable is allowed to have a separate effect by gender.]

This reviewer – who stuck with this complaint for three rounds – also had trouble with the smallness of the coefficients:

Although the coefficient is twice as large for year among men than among women, it’s a very small percentage. With such a large sample size, almost anything will be significant. I’d like to see an effect size statistic.

She might have been confused because the variable here is “year” – a continuous variable ranging from 0 in 1975 to 37 in 2012, so the coefficient reflects the size of the average one-year change, which makes it look “very small.”

A common problem for authors responding to reviewers is the simultaneous demands for less and more. Sometimes that’s good – a healthy revision process. Here is a funny example of that: “There seems to be a much longer introduction than is needed for the findings, especially since what would be interesting to me is omitted.”

However she grasped the concise nature of the findings, which she somehow took as a weakness:

I would like to see how each of these control variables interacts with the changes over years. I believe that analysis is possible using time series analyses. The reader is left with only a few main conclusions: both men and women indicate less opposition over time to pornography, and that men’s opposition declines more than female’s, and men show less opposition to pornography control overall.

Exactly. Oh well.

May 17, 2014: Resubmitted to Sex Roles, second revision

July 8, 2014: Revise and resubmit, with two reviews

The editor now told us: “We were able to find a second reviewer, this time. We won’t continue to add new reviewers for additional drafts.” (This promise, sadly, did not hold.)

The dependent variable – that three-response question about laws regulating pornography – caused continuing consternation. The editor wrote:

none of us feels that the combining of the three categories of responses for the pornography acceptance variable is appropriate. You either need to omit one of the 3 categories from the analysis, or do something like a discriminant analysis to look at differences in those responding to each of the three categories.

And then this bad signal that the editor and reviewers did not understand the basic structure of the analysis:

Another issue that all of us agree on is that you have failed to provide statistical evidence supporting your assertion of evidence of a linear trend in support over time. Either do a real trend analysis, for women and men separately, or compare the data over several specific years using something like ANOVA by year and gender. This would also allow you to see if these is really the interaction you assert is present.

As you can see in the final paper – which was the case in this revision as well – we did a “real trend analysis, for women and men separately.”

We tried to make this as clear as possible, writing in the paper:

We use logistic regression models to test for differences on this measure between men and women across the 23 administrations of the GSS since 1975. We test time effects with a continuous variable for year, which ranges from 0 in 1975 to 37 in 2012. This coding allows for an intuitive interpretation of the intercept and produces coefficients equal to the predicted change in the odds of opposing pornography associated with a one year change in the independent variable (non-linear specifications did not improve the model fit). … The first model combines men and women, while models 2 and 3 analyze men and women separately, after tests showed differences in the coefficients by gender on six of the variables (marked with superscript ‘b’). … Comparison of Model 2 and Model 3 confirms that the decline in opposition to pornography has been more pronounced for men than for women, as the coefficient for the year variable is almost twice as large.

We thought that Reviewer 1, back from the previous round, was doubling down on misunderstanding what we did, and the editor thought this as well. The reviewer wrote: “I don’t agree that the years need collapsing in the analyses. I believe it is better to see the linear trend. Also, I don’t like to see data left out, in this case data from the individual years.”

In fact, we found out in the next round of reviews we found the she meant this is a disagreement with the editor! (“The authors misread my statement about collapsing the years. I was disagreeing with the editor who suggested collapsing the years. I did not suggest myself that the years should be collapsed. I agree that the years should not be collapsed. It’s not me who misread the paper, it’s the authors who misread my statement.”)

That said, she still did not grasp the analysis:

You state that ‘This coding allows for an intuitive interpretation of the intercept and produces coefficients equal to the predicted change in the odds of opposing pornography associated with a one year change in the indepenjdent variable.’ In the results section, please describe how your data fit an ‘intuitive’ interpretation and how the coefficients that are produced explain the one year change. There is a disconnect for me from this statement and the description of the data.

And she added:

Please carefully describe the statistical analysis and statistical findings that describe the difference between the declines in opposition for women vs. men. Is the beta for gender .78 and for year -.02, and how did you test for the difference in betas of -.01 vs. -.02? Mention the test you used to assess this. This doesn’t seem like much of a difference in slope. That one is twice as large as the other is fairly meaningless when it is .01 vs. .02.

And added again later: “P. 22, agvain when you say a coefficient for the year variables is “amost twice as large,” you are talking about .01 vs .02.”


The editor and Reviewer 1 had a long-running dispute about how to handle all of our control variables. The editor was sticking to the policy that we needed a table showing complete correlations of all variables separately by gender. And a discussion of every variable, with references, justifying its inclusion. The editor said in the first round:

You also need to explain each of the control variables you include in your regressions in the Introduction. Add at least a sentence for each variable explaining why it is important to the issues you are testing.

In response, we included a long section beginning with, “Various social and demographic characteristics are associated with pornography use and attitudes toward pornography, and we account for these characteristics in our empirical analysis below.”

But then Reviewer 1 said of that passage: “Much of the material in “Attitudes Toward Pornography” is not relevant. … Gender and gender differences are what you are studying.”

And in response to our gigantic correlation table of all variables separately by gender, Reviewer wrote: “I … strongly recommend deletion of Table 3. This is not a study of the correlates of attitudes toward pornography, and the intercorrelations of all the control variables are outside the range of your focus.”

Never mind.

Reviewer 2, the new reviewer, had some reasonable questions and suggestions. For example, s/he recommended analyzing the outcome with a multinomial logistic regresstion, which we did but it didn’t matter; and controlling for pornography consumption (“watched an x-rated movie in the past year”), which we did and it didn’t matter (in fact, basically none of the control variables affect the basic story much, but reviewers have a hard time believing this). S/he also had lots of objections to how we characterized various feminist authors and terms in the framing, and really didn’t like “pornographication” as a term, listing as a “major” objection:

the term ‘pornographication’ is problematic and should be removed from the paper in favor of a more academic description of increased access to sexualized media.

September 10, 2014 (approximate): Resubmitted to Sex Roles, third revision

October 11, 2014: Revise and resubmit, with one review

The editor now informed us that one reviewer just recommended rejecting the paper because we didn’t address her concerns, while the other called for “major revisions.”

Given this type of feedback, I would normally reject a paper already in its third revision. However, I would like to offer one more opportunity for you to make the requested changes. If you do resubmit, I may seek new reviewers and essentially begin the review process anew, unless it is clear that my earlier concerns are fully addressed.

Despite three drafts and as many memos, the editor still did not seem to understand that our outcome variable was a single question with three options. She wrote:

One of my basic requests has been that you consider the question about exposure of pornography to those under 18 as a separate dependent variable, or omit this entirely from the study. Conceptually, I feel this is quite different from the other two survey items and cannot be combined with them. This will require major changes in the analysis and rationale for predictions relating to each of these measures.

The reviewer, however, disagreed, voicing approval for our choice. The editor clarified, “If my requests conflict with those of the reviewer, it is my requests you need to follow, not those of the reviewer.”

They had no trouble agreeing, however, that they did not understand the linear time trend we were testing: “As the reviewer explains, we do need a clearer discussion of how the linear trend is being tested.”

Reviewer 1 wrote:

Regarding the analysis of the time trend, although the authors state [in the memo] that the starring of the coefficients on Table 4 demonstrate a significant linear trend, it was not apparent to the editor and reviewers. As one of the main points of the study, it should be made very obvious that there is a significant linear trend via statistics. If this means being more explicit in the text of the results section, it would be important to do. If there’s this much confusion, the statistical analysis needs clarification.

You can look at the table in the final publication for yourself to see if this remains unclear. And then the reviewer added:

As I previously mentioned, though significant, a change of -.02 vs .-.01 is not substantial. Thus, the authors should refrain from concluding one is twice as large as the other.

We decided to take our business elsewhere rather than submit another revision.

November 4, 2014: Submitted to Social Forces

December 29, 2014: Rejected, with two reviews

Reviewer 1 only had concerns about framing, such as, “expand their discussion of the broader cultural changes in sexuality in the culture,” and discuss “changes in gay and lesbian identities and visibility during this period.”

Reviewer 2 simply thought we couldn’t answer the questions we posed with the data we had:

The paper is motivated by a largely assumed cultural ‘pornographication’ process linked to post-feminism. Neither concept seems well-suited to explain public opinion formation or change, and greater specificity about these concepts would likely outstrip the operational capacity of the GSS to model how gender and sexuality attitudes may influence shifts in beliefs about pornography.

There were some other technical issues about specific variables that aren’t very important. Again, this is very reasonable basis for making the ridiculous judgment forced by the system of publishing in the limited pages of a print journal.

January 16, 2015: Submitted to Social Currents

April 9, 2015: Revise and resubmit, based on three reviews

The editors, Toni Calasanti and Vincent Roscigno, wrote:

While stated differently in each case, the overriding sentiment across the reviewers is that the paper needs better framing. … the potential contribution of this study is not realized because the theoretical framework is lacking, limiting your ability to discuss the implications of your findings.

Reviewer 1 wanted the “post-feminism” discussion put back in the front: “It’s not until the conclusion of the manuscript that we learn about a potential contribution to ‘postfeminism’ and current work there.”

Reviewer 1 also attempted to lead us into a common trap. S/he wrote:

The hypotheses don’t necessarily derive from a particular theory in sociology or test a specific argument about gender, public opinion theories, and pornography per se. Rather, the project is descriptive (divergence of male/female support for legal control, rate of change over time, etc.). That isn’t fatal. But a project that makes a more direct connection to advancing current theoretical work in feminism and sexuality studies, or current theorizing about the importance of public opinion and values about pornography, would strengthen the overall contribution of this research.

Making the paper more theoretical is not a bad suggestion, but in this context – since the data are so limited – it’s a sure setup for a future reviewer to complain that you have asked questions you can’t sufficiently answer with your data.

The three reviewers’ other concerns by this point were quite familiar to us. For example, “perhaps a line or two to strengthen the validity of measure could be added based on some of the studies cited.” And a worry about about collapsing the dependent variable into two categories. And the need to acknowledge debates within feminism about the meaning of “pornographication.” We dutifully beefed up, clarified, and strengthened. And wrote a memo.

May 20, 2015: Resubmitted to Social Currents, first revision

July 18, 2015: Accepted


Some of the problems apparent in this story are common to sociology, some are more general.

Sociologists care way too much about framing. Most (or all) of the reviewers were sociologists, and most of what they suggested, complained about, or objected was about the way the paper was “framed,” that is, how we establish the importance of the question and interpret the results. Of course framing is important – it’s why you’re asking your question, and why readers should care (see Mark Granovetter’s note on the rejected version of “the Strength of Weak Ties”). But it takes on elevated importance when we’re scrapping over limited slots in academic journals, so that to get published you have to successfully “frame” your paper as more important than some other poor slob’s.

The journal system gets in the way. When journals reject you they report the low percentage of papers they accept. This is supposed to make the rejected authors feel better, but it also shows the gross inefficiency of the system: why should you bounce from journal to journal with low acceptance rates – in our case, asking our colleagues to write 13 reviews – instead of being vetted once by a centralized system with reviewers who work to a common standard? The answer is because that’s the way they did it in the Dark Ages, when physically printing research papers at high cost was the only way of distributing scholarly output.

The system is slow. As a result of these and other systemic problems, we do a terrible job of advancing knowledge. From the time of our first submission to the publication date was 776 days. For 281 of those days it was in our hands, but for the other 495 days it was in the hands of editors, reviewers, and the publisher. Despite responding to 13 reviews, with a lot of tinkering, the basic result did not change from our first submission in August 2013 to our last submission in May 2015. The new knowledge was all created two years before it was published.

The system is arbitrary I don’t want to make Social Currents look bad here, with the implication that they are a lower quality journal because they published something rejected by three journals before. After all, Granovetter’s paper was rejected by American Sociological Review before getting 35,000 citations as an American Journal of Sociology paper. I also like the example of Liana Sayer and Suzanne Bianchi’s paper on economic independence and divorce, which was rejected by the Journal of Marriage and Family, the flagship journal of the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR), before promptly winning NCFR’s best-paper award after it was published in the Journal of Family Issues. That is, one small group of reviewers deemed it unpublishable in a top journal, and the next declared it the best article of the year. That’s a very wide spread. The arbitrariness of the review system we have now creates cases like this – and who knows how many others. It’s not a systemic problem that Sex Roles has a reviewer that won’t let you say .02 is twice as large as .01. The problem is that could happen anywhere – and cost people their careers – at the same time that bad stuff gets through for arbitrary (or pernicious) reasons. There is too much noise in the current peer-review system to trust it for quality control.


Consider an alternative system, for example, in which the paper – having passed a very low bar of basic quality – had been published after the first set of reviews and then subjected to post-publication review and discussion in the field. Another alternative is publishing it before any formal review process, and allowing post-publication review to do the whole vetting process.

Models exist. Sociology doesn’t have a central working paper system, but there are smaller systems. In my neck of the woods, the California Center for Population Research has a working paper archive, which houses papers from six population centers. Math types have arXiv, which has more than a million papers, with each new one “reviewed by expert moderators to verify that they are topical and refereeable scientific contributions that follow accepted standards of scholarly communication.” They also use a system of member endorsement to cut down on junk submissions. If papers are subsequently published the arXiv version is updated to link to the published version. Sociology should make something like this.

Another step in the right direction is rapid-response, open-access peer-review, with quick up-or-down decisions. In sociology this includes Sociological Science, run by an independent team and supported by author fees (often paid by university libraries or grants); and Socious, run by the American Sociological Association and subsidized by the for-profit publisher Sage in an attempt to pacify open-access advocates. These work more or less like PLOS One, which “accepts scientifically rigorous research, regardless of novelty.”

I’m happy to publish in such outlets, but many of us worry about the career implications for our students who risk having their CVs seen as sketchy by old-fashioned types. We need them to be institutionalized.

In the meantime, those of us in position to conduct peer review can do our part to be better reviewers (see this excellent advice). And we can make explicit decisions about which journals we will review for. The system runs off our discretionary contributions, and we shape it through our actions. That argument is for a separate post.

* We did the research together — and Lucia did most of the work — but blame me for the content of this post.


Filed under Me @ work

Pick your potion, Dalai Lama and Pope Francis edition

If you only like religious leaders who agree with what you already think, what do you need them for?

Sometimes people cheer for statements by religious leaders like sports teams: Yay when they agree with you, boo when they don’t. So what’s the leader for? When was the last time a religious leader made you change your mind about a core moral issue?

That time when you realize the Dalai Lama really thinks a female Dalai Lama would be "not much use" if she weren't attractive.

That feeling when you realize the Dalai Lama really thinks a female Dalai Lama would be “not much use” if she weren’t attractive.

The BBC has an interview up with the Dalai Lama, which focuses on the refugee crisis and other issues. Such as the gender of the next Dalai Lama. Starting at 4:52 of the video:

Reporter, Clive Myrie: Is there going to a 15th incarnation of the Dalai Lama?

Dalai Lama: The very institution of the Dalai Lama should continue, or not, up to the Tibetan people.

CM: So the people will decide. Could it be a woman?

DL: Yes! One occasion in Paris, one woman’s magazine, one reporter, come to see me, I think more than 15 years ago. She asked me, any possibility female Dalai Lama. I mentioned, why not? The female, has biologically more potential to show affection…

CM: And compassion…

DL: Yes, compassion. Therefore, you see now, today’s world, lot of trouble, troubled world, I think female should take more important role. And then, I told that reporter, if female Dalai Lama come, her face must be — should be — very attractive. [Laughs]

CM: [Laughs] Oh well. So you can only have a female Dalai Lama if they’re attractive. Is that what you’re saying? You can’t have…

DL: I mean, if female Dalai Lama come, that female…

DM: …will be…

DL: …must be…

DM: …must be very attractive. It’s just gonna…

DL: Otherwise, not much use.

DM: Really?!

DL: I think some people — my face…

DM: You’re joking, I’m assuming. Oh, you’re not joking.

DL: Oh? I mean, true!


All over right now there are conservative Catholics who are unhappy because the Pope is not saying the things that they already believe. Like the Federalist Staff, who are upset that:

During his remarks [to Congress], which were regularly interrupted by rounds of applause from the assembled lawmakers, Pope Francis condemned the death penalty, called for better environmental stewardship, and even talked about the ills of political polarization. He did not, however, mention Jesus Christ, whose life, death, and resurrection form the very foundation of the Christian faith.

Apparently, Francis’s faith in Jesus is not to be taken for granted. (Personally, I find it polite it when religious leaders from religions to which I don’t belong, when speaking in state-sponsored settings before audiences that include non-followers, don’t invoke their own gods.)

Some religious people (but not only them, of course) use their religion to prop up unsupported empirical assertions. Michael Strain, from the American Enterprise Institute, for example, recently wrote, “we must begin with the understanding that each of us is called to love God and to love others.” Beginning with an understanding — rather than coming to an understanding on the basis of evidence — is one hallmark of faith over reason. But what Strain really has faith in is free markets — which to him are the one-variable empirical solution:

free enterprise dramatically reduces extreme poverty. In 1970, over one-quarter of the world lived on less than one dollar per day. By 2006, about one in 20 people lived in extreme poverty — an 80 percent reduction. We have the adoption of free markets across the developing world to thank for this massive reduction.*

For Strain, His Holiness’s appreciation for this single-variable view of history is disappointing: “The effect of liberalizing markets on extreme poverty and the good this does for families is a fact I wish the Holy Father discussed more often.” Strain seems to prefer Pope John Paul II, who wrote that “Man is the image of God partly through the mandate received from his Creator to subdue, to dominate, the earth.” That mandate, for example, apparently includes the mandate to reform disability insurance to make more disabled people work.

This is not allegiance to religious leadership, but rather the political business of cheering for the expression of views one already holds. (For example, I like it when powerful people say good things about sociology — not because it makes me believe them, but because it’s a point for our side.)

Having a pope speak against their views must be especially disheartening to the people who specifically chose to be Catholic because they thought the Catholic church would tell them (and their neighbors) to believe what they already believe.

As an atheist, I find some of this mystifying. However, I do appreciate the way people use religion to provide institutional support to values they support (especially when I support those values, too). That’s just building a social infrastructure to satisfy collective needs. (And yes, I know that the values I hold are partly the result of religious influence on me and those who taught me right from wrong. But citing religion isn’t the same as having faith in it.)

What I find even more mystifying is religious authority. And especially people going out of their way — like changing religions — to follow a religious authority. This seems sad to me; it’s an affirmation of one’s impotence. But odder still is people complaining about the views expressed by the religious authorities they choose to follow. I guess it’s like being misled by a movie preview and finding yourself stuck in the kind of movie you hate. You’ve already bought the ticket, and now you’re sitting there. Grr.

* That link Strain uses is to an NBER paper that seems to be an outlier in poverty analysis. The World Bank had 13.5% of people living at under $1 per day in 2008 (you can see various estimates here), but they prefer a measure of $1.25 per day, by which 22% of people were that poor in 2008.


Filed under In the news

Does doing difference deny dominance? (vocal fry, sports sex testing, and resting bitch face edition)

Does women’s behavior make them less equal?

“Guess what,” Camille Paglia said the other day in Salon. “Women are different than men!”

Usually when people point out gender differences, they don’t just mean men and women are different, they mean “women are different from men.” As an archetypal example, in “Do women really want equality?” Kay Hymowitz argued that women don’t want to model their professional lives on male standards, and therefore they don’t really want equality:

This hints at the problem with the equality-by-the-numbers approach: it presumes women want absolute parity in all things measurable, and that the average woman wants to work as many hours as the average man, that they want to be CEOs, heads of state, surgeons and Cabinet heads just as much as men do.

So the male professional standard is just there, and the question is what women will do if they want equality. Of course, what women (and men) want is a product of social interaction, so it’s not an abstract quality separate from social context. But also, I’m no statistician but I know that when there is a gap between two variable quantities (such as men’s and women’s average hours in paid work), moving one of them isn’t the only way to bring them closer together. In other words — men could change, too.

What about vocal fry and uptalk?

Naomi Wolf would add these speech patterns to the list of women’s self-inflicted impediments:

“Vocal fry” has joined more traditional young-women voice mannerisms such as run-ons, breathiness and the dreaded question marks in sentences (known by linguists as uptalk) to undermine these women’s authority in newly distinctive ways.

So the male speech pattern is just there, and the question is what women will do if they want equality. In opposition is the argument made here:

Teaching young women to accommodate to the linguistic preferences, a.k.a. prejudices, of the men who run law firms and engineering companies is doing the patriarchy’s work for it. It’s accepting that there’s a problem with women’s speech, rather than a problem with sexist attitudes to women’s speech.

So some feminists want more respect for vocal fry, saying: “when your dads bitch about the way you talk it’s because they’re just trying to not listen to you talk, period, so fuck your dads.” This stance is not just feminist, it’s young feminist:

[Vocal fry] is the speaking equivalent of “you ain’t shit,” an affectation of the perpetually unbothered. It’s a protective force between the pejorative You — dads, Sales types, bosses, basically anyone who represents the establishment — and the collective Us, which is to say, a misunderstood generation that inherited a whole landscape of bullshit because y’all didn’t fix it when you had the goddamn chance.

Elevating vocal fry to a virtue would be more persuasive if the common examples weren’t mostly rich women talking about basically nothing. As an old dad who has done nothing to fix society, I personally bitched about the way the two women interviewed for this NPR story fried and uptalked their way through an excruciating seven-minute conversation about the awesomeness of selfie culture.

Of course, this being a patriarchal society, double standards abound. Men fry their vocals, too, and no one cares. (I myself transcribed this awesome piece of run-on from a young man on the radio once, but I didn’t blame him for holding all men back.) And then there’s resting bitch face, “a face that, when at ease, is perceived as angry, irritated or simply … expressionless,” according to Jessica Bennett (whose RBF is not to be trifled with). But only for women:

“When a man looks stern, or serious, or grumpy, it’s simply the default,” said Rachel Simmons, an author and leadership consultant at Smith College. “We don’t inherently judge the moodiness of a male face. But as women, we are almost expected to put on a smile. So if we don’t, it’s deemed ‘bitchy.’ ”

Many men feel that RBF is a blight on their scenery — one they have the right to demand improvement upon — which is why they tell random women on the street to smile. Plus, they just like exercising informal personal power over random women who aren’t conforming with various social rules, including the rule that you show your love for patriarchy at all times.

Sometimes women should act more like men, because some of the behavior that men would otherwise own is about power and access and self-determination and other things that women want and deserve. And some gender differences are just little pieces of the symbolic architecture that helps establish that men and women are different, which means women are different, which means men are dominant. Difference for its own sake is bad for gender equality.

It’s tricky because we don’t have different audiences for different messages anymore, but we need two true messages at once: It’s wrong to discriminate against and shame women for their speech patterns, and it’s a good idea not to undermine yourself with speech patterns that annoy or distract men and old people.

What about sports?

One process people use to essentialize sex categories — to enhance rather than downplay gender differences — is sex segregated sports (which I last wrote about with regard to Caster Semenya). As is the case with many gender differences, our sports establishment and culture is built around male standards, which is why women are granted a protected sphere of difference . Writes Vanessa Heggie in a fascinating historical review of sex testing in international sports:

Sex testing, after all, is a tautological (or at least circular) process: the activities which we recognise as sports are overwhelmingly those which favour a physiology which we consider ‘masculine’. As a general rule, the competitor who is taller, has a higher muscle-to-fat ratio, and the larger heart and lungs (plus some other cardio-respiratory factors) will have the sporting advantage. It is therefore inevitable that any woman who is good at sport will tend to demonstrate a more ‘masculine’ physique than women who are not good at sport. What the sex test effectively does, therefore, is provide an upper limit for women’s sporting performance; there is a point at which your masculine-style body is declared ‘too masculine’, and you are disqualified, regardless of your personal gender identity. For men there is no equivalent upper physiological limit – no kind of genetic, or hormonal, or physiological advantage is tested for, even if these would give a ‘super masculine’ athlete a distinct advantage over the merely very athletic ‘normal’ male.

Heggie adds that, for every claim of gender fraud that turns out to be “true” — that is, a male or intersex person with an unfair advantage competing as a woman, which is vanishingly rare — there are countless cases of “suspicions, rumour, and inuendo” regarding women who are simply unusually big and muscular. As in wide swaths of the professional world, men are the standard, and successful women often look or act more like men — and then they are shamed or penalized for not performing their gender correctly.

There is a sex versus gender issue here, however. When men’s behavior or activity is the standard by which all are judged, there are gendered (social) reasons women have trouble competing — such as exclusion from training, hiring, promotion, and social networks, or socially-defined burdens (such as childcare) impeding their progress toward the top ranks. And then sometimes there are sex (biological) reasons women can’t win, such as in most organized sports.

Here are the world record times in the 800-meter foot race for men and women, from 1922 to the present:

For all the fuss over Caster Semenya’s natural hormone levels, she never got to within two seconds of Jarmila Kratochvílová‘s 1983 record of 1:53.3. It’s presumed that Kratochvílová was taking steroids, but not proven — though the longer the time that lapses since her record was achieved, the more that seems likely.

It’s very telling that no woman has beaten Kratochvílová’s record. In fact, after women made steady progress toward equality for four decades, men’s lead has increased by almost a second in the last four decades. In this contest of physiology, the fastest women apparently cannot compete with the fastest men. This makes a strong case for sex not gender as the difference-maker. But, as I’ve argued before, that does not mean we’re outside the realm of social construction, because the line has to be drawn somewhere to create the protective arena in which women can compete with each other, and that line is defined socially.

We solve the problem if we “stop pawning this fundamentally social question off onto scientists,” say Rebecca Jordan-Young and Katrina Karkazis. They want to “let all legally recognized women compete. Period.” But if it is fundamentally social, instead of biological, why are men’s times so much faster?

Aside: How deep a difference

Thinking about all this, I was half interested in what Camille Paglia had to say in Salon about the similarity between Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby — in some ways obvious, in some ways an obvious overreach — and I might even have looked up her book, Sexual Personae, if she hadn’t said the book “of course is far too complex for the ordinary feminist or academic mind!” So that rules me out.

Anyway, in the interview she goes beyond the idea that men and women have different preferences and habits. Here is “why women are having so much trouble dealing with men in the feminist era”:

equality in the workplace is not going to solve the problems between men and women which are occurring in the private, emotional realm, where every man is subordinate to women, because he emerged as a tiny helpless thing from a woman’s body. Professional women today don’t want to think about this or deal with it.

Not recognizing such inherent conditions is a problem for modern feminism, she believes:

Guess what – women are different than men! When will feminism wake up to this basic reality? Women relate differently to each other than they do to men. And straight men do not have the same communication skills or values as women – their brains are different!

In this view, which you could (she does) loosely call Freudian, the sex difference and the gender difference are nearly unified, because the psychological basis for difference is universally present at birth. The short-sighted feminist attempt to erase gender difference thus makes both women and men miserable:

Now we’re working side-by-side in offices at the same job. Women want to leave at the end of the day and have a happy marriage at home, but then they put all this pressure on men because they expect them to be exactly like their female friends. If they feel restlessness or misery or malaise, they automatically blame it on men. Men are not doing enough; men aren’t sharing enough. But it’s not the fault of men that we have this crazy and rather neurotic system where women are now functioning like men in the workplace, with all its material rewards.

What is out of whack is women entering men’s sphere, apparently.

The political stakes attached to the nature and extent of difference between male and female people makes it an ever-important question. It underlies, for example, the opposition to marriage equality, as demonstrated in the terrible Catholic video series called Humanum, where you might hear such nuggets of wisdom as this:

In every human being there is a masculine part, and a feminine part, and as a man I get this feminine part from my mother or from the maternal image in my family, and I get this masculine image from the paternal part, from the paternal image in my family. And I get to make some equilibrium inside. And without this equilibrium my humanity is not really sane.

There is a difference between saying there is a difference between men and women and saying there is such a difference between men and women that your humanity is not complete unless you have both a mother and father.

Difference and dominance

Times like this, like it or not, are good times to revisit Catharine MacKinnon’s essay, “Difference and dominance: On sex discrimination.”*

There is a politics to this. Concealed is the substantive way in which man has become the measure of all things. Under the sameness standard, women are measured according to our correspondence with man, our equality judged by our proximity to his measure. Under the difference standard, we are measured according to our lack of correspondence with him, our womanhood judged by our distance from his measure. Gender neutrality is thus simply the male standard, and the special protection rule is simply the female standard, but do not be deceived: masculinity, or maleness, is the referent for both.

Between the rock of neutrality and the hard place of special protection. Difference and dominance.

In reality … virtually every quality that distinguishes men from women is already affirmatively compensated in this society. Men’s physiology defines most sports … their socially designed biographies define workplace expectations and successful career patterns, their perspectives and concerns define quality in scholarship, their experiences and obsessions define merit, their objectification of life defines art, their military service defines citizenship, their presence defines family, their inability to get along with each other — their wars and rulerships — defines history, their image defines god, and their genitals define sex.

So, check that referent. Of course, those women who work more hours, adopt male speech patterns and facial expressions, and run faster, may do better than those who do not (under the risk of overstepping). But why can’t women embrace gender difference in things like speech patterns, and wield them in the service of equality? They might. But under these conditions, enhancing gender differences works against inequality.

* There are several versions of this essay available by Googling. I’m quoting the one published in her 1988 book Feminism Unmodified.


Filed under In the news

New data on gender-segregated sociology

Four years ago I wrote about the gender composition of sociology and the internal segregation of the discipline. Not much has changed, at least on the old measures. Here’s an update including some new measures (with some passages copied from the old post).

People may (or may not) want to be sociologists, they may or may not be accepted to graduate schools, thrive there (with good mentoring or bad), freely choose specializations, complete PhDs, publish, get jobs, rise to positions of leadership, and so on.  As in workplaces, gender segregation in academic sociology represents the cumulative intentions and actions of people in different institutional settings and social locations. It’s also the outcome of gender politics and power struggles. So, very interesting!

A report from the research folks at the American Sociological Association (ASA) got me thinking about this in 2011. The conversation revived the other day when someone asked ASA Vice President Elect Barbara Risman (a friend and colleague of mine), “What do you make of the fact that increasingly the majority of ASA election candidates tend to be women?” As we’ll see, the premise may be wrong, but the gender dynamics of ASA are interesting anyway.

#1: ASA leadership

The last four people elected president of ASA have been women (Ruth Milkman, Paula England, Annette Lareau, and Cecilia Ridgeway), and the the next winner will be either Michele Lamont or Min Zhou, both women. That’s an unprecedented run for women, and the greatest stretch of gender domination since the early 1990s, when men won six times in row. Here is the trend, by decade, starting with the decades before a woman president, 1906 through the 1940s:

sociology segregation.xlsx

Clearly, women have surpassed parity at the top echelons of the association’s academic leadership. ASA elections are a complicated affair, with candidates nominated by a committee at something like two per position. For president, there are two candidates. In the last nine presidential elections, six have featured a man running against a woman, and the women won four of those contests. So women are more than half the candidates, and they’ve been more likely to win against men. That pattern is general across elected offices since 2007 (as far back as I looked): more than half the candidates are women, but even more women win (most elections have about 36 candidates for various positions):

sociology segregation.xlsx

The nominating committees pick (or convince) more women than men to run, and then the electorate favors the women candidates, for reasons we can’t tell from these data.

These elections are run in an association that became majority female in its membership only in 2005, reaching only 53% female in 2010. That trend is likely to continue as older members retire and the PhD pool continues to shift toward women.

#2: Phds

Since the mid-1990s, according to data from the National Science Foundation, women have outnumbered men as new sociology PhDs, and we are now approaching two-thirds female. (The data I used in the old post showed a drop in women after 2007, but with the update, which now comes from here, that’s gone.)

sociology segregation.xlsx

Producing mostly-female PhDs for a quarter of a century is getting to be long enough to start achieving a critical mass of women at the top of the discipline.

#3: Specialization

These numbers haven’t been updated by ASA since 2010. The pattern of section belonging at that time showed a marked level of gender segregation. On a scale of 1 to 100, I calculate the sections are segregated at a level of .25.

sociology segregation.xlsx

#4: Editors and editorial boards

Finally, prestigious academic journals have one or more editors, often some associate editors, and then an editorial board. In sociology, this is mostly the people who are called upon to review articles more often. Because journal publication is a key hurdle for jobs and promotions, these sociologists serve as gatekeepers for the discipline. In return they get some prestige, the occasional reception, and they might be on the way to being an editor themselves someday.

Journal leadership is dragging behind the trends in PhDs, ASA members, and ASA leadership. I selected the top 20 journals in the Sociology category from the Journal Citation Reports (excluding a few misplaced titles), plus Social Problems and Social Forces, because these are considered to be leading journals despite low impact factors. The editors of these journals are 41% female (or 40% if you use journals as the unit of analysis instead of editors). Here is the list in two parts — general journals and specialty journals — with each sorted by impact factor. For multiple editors I either list the gender if they’re all the same, or show the breakdown if they differ:


It looks like the gender gap is partly attributable to the difference between journals run by associations and those run as department fiefdoms or by for-profit publishers.

For editorial boards, I didn’t do a systematic review, but I looked at the two leading research journals — American Sociological Review and American Journal of Sociology, as well as two prestigious specialized journals — Sociological Methods and Research, and Gender and Society (which is run by its own association,Sociologists for Women in Society, whose membership includes both women and men). Here’s the update to my 2011 numbers:

sociology segregation.xlsx

I removed a couple board members I know to have died in the last year, so these lists might not be that up to date.

Note on the journals that SMR and AJS are fiefdoms with no accountability to anyone outside their cliques, so it’s not surprising they are decades behind. ASR and G&S, on the other hand, are run by associations with majority-female memberships and hierarchies, in the case of G&S with a feminist mission. (ASA demands reports on gender and race/ethnicity composition from its editors.) AJS has no excuse and should suffer opprobrium for this. SMR might argue they can’t recruit women for this job (but someone should ask them to at least make this case).


Filed under Uncategorized

Book reviews: Sex & Unisex, among others

Or, why your important editor friend should publish my book reviews

I love writing book reviews. In fact, one occupation I really aspire to is “essayist.” How do I get that job? (Wait, I think I figured it out.) Getting a book review assignment is what makes me read a whole book carefully, something I always enjoy but rarely do.

My latest is a review of the excellent Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution, by Jo Paoletti, published online by Boston Review. And they found this great example of unixex fashion from the 1969 Sears catalog:


Here’s a taste of the review:

But if fashion has a hierarchy, it also has a social context. In the newly released book Sex and Unisex, Jo Paoletti tries to understand that context as it gave rise to a revolution that almost was—the unisex fashion trend that, in hindsight, appears awkwardly sandwiched between the conservative, gender-conformist 1950s and the Disney princess tidal wave of the 1990s. For a brief time, little boys and girls wore the same cowboy shirts tucked into identical blue jeans, some men and women wore the same ponchos and turtlenecks, and male and female TV space travelers wore identical outfits.

To the Rick Santorums of today’s culture wars, the 1960s were, in Paoletti’s words, “self-indulgent and aimless—just a bunch of free-love hippies waving protest signs and getting high.” But the unisex moment that era begat was actually “emblematic of a very complicated—and unfinished—conversation about sex, gender, and sexuality.” That conversation encompassed freedom and individualism, yes, but also civil rights, sexual orientation, and the emerging science of gender identity. In Paoletti’s telling, the unisex movement generated unprecedented clothing options for women, men, and children as well as a fascinating series of lawsuits in which the wayward enemies of conformity—mostly men—put their feet down against the arbitrary, controlling ways of an establishment that was temporarily back on its heels.

Help an essayist out

Writing book reviews, especially as part of my job, is a real privilege. If a friend of yours is the editor of another important periodical that publishes book reviews (or if you are such an editor), I hope you’ll recommend me. Here’s a list of the ones I’ve done, to help the cause.

Magazines (or their websites)

  • Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution, by Jo Paoletti (Boston Reviewlink)
  • A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, by Nicholas Wade (Boston Review  | link)
  • The Richer Sex, by Liza Mundy, and The End of Men, by Hanna Rosin (Boston Reviewlink)
  • The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What it Means for American Schools, by Thomas DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann (The Atlantic | link)

On the blog

  • The Sacred Project of American Sociology, by Christian Smith | link
  • What To Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster, by Jonathan Last | link
  • The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, by Joseph E. Stiglitz | link
  • A roundup of good books from 2011 | link

Academic journals

  • Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times, by Marianne Cooper (Gender & Society | preprint)
  • Documenting Desegregation: Racial and Gender Segregation in Private-Sector Employment Since the Civil Rights Act, by Kevin Stainback and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey (Work and Occupations | preprint)
  • Occupational Ghettos: The Worldwide Segregation of Women and Men, Maria Charles and David B. Grusky (Contemporary Sociology | JSTOR).
  • Glass Ceilings and Asian Americans: The New Face of Workplace Barriers, by Deborah Woo (Review of Radical Political Economics | link)
  • The Ties That Bind: Perspectives on Cohabitation and Marriage, edited by Linda J. Waite et al. (Contemporary Sociology  | link)
  • Persistent Disparity: Race and Economic Inequality since 1945, by William A. Darity, Jr. and Samuel L. Myers, Jr. (Review of Radical Political Economicslink)
  • The Racial Contract, by Charles W. Mills. (Review of Radical Political Economicslink)


Filed under Me @ work, Research reports

Color and the making of gender in early childhood

Most of today’s readers weren’t following this blog back when I started writing about color preferences. Those posts are listed under the color tag. Now there’s a new paper on the subject that helps me think about how gender works in young children.

It’s called, “Preferences for Pink and Blue: The Development of Color Preferences as a Distinct Gender-Typed Behavior in Toddlers,” by Wang Wong and Melissa Hines, in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, the same journal where I published my paper on how adult color preferences are affected by the sex of their children. (Their paper is paywalled, but since we’re personal friends feel free to ask me for a look at my licensed copy.)

The researchers studied 126 children ages 20-40 months in a UK college town. The pertinent parts of their findings, for my purposes are: girls prefer pink over blue more than boys; but the the gap starts out quite small before age two and widens to age 3; the preferences are unstable, that is, the pinker girls and bluer boys at age 24 months are not the pinker girls and bluer boys at age 36 months. (The preferences were measured by asking which color they liked better on a card, and letting them choose between pink and blue gender-neutral toys.)

Whenever there is research showing differences between the sexes, I always like to look for the overlap (see, e.g., this post). That’s because people fixate on the differences to confirm their presumption that the differences are total, fixed, and baked in or genetic. This underlies the whole fixation on the dimorphism question. So when they report girls are more likely to choose pink over blue than boys, I plug the means and standard deviations into my graphing spreadsheet to see the implied distributions (assuming normality). Here is the overall pattern:


So, you can decide whether you think that’s a big difference, but you should factor in the size of the overlap. The change over about 14 months was pretty impressive, with boys and girls pulling apart. Here are the curves at 20-26 versus 34-40 months:


One possible interpretation of this pattern is that color preference is learned rather than baked in at birth, and this is a time kids learn it. That interpretation is strengthened by the further finding that, while the gender difference increases from age 2 to age 3, it’s not stable within individuals. That is, whether a kid was pink-positive or -negative at time 1 was not a predictor of their preference at time two. That’s what this figure shows — girls are more likely to be in the top-right, but the time-1–time-2 slopes aren’t significant:


That’s more evidence against the idea that the sex difference in color preference is determined at birth, which is also consistent with the historical evidence, as Jo Paoletti’s work shows.

Children themselves have a strong motivation to perform their gender identity in ways that please adults or perhaps other children, and that tendency exacerbates early sex differences. They can anchor this performance to an arbitrary marker like color. From the paper (references removed):

Gender-related cognitive processes have been implicated in the acquisition of gender-typed color preferences. Specifically, gender-typed behaviors may be acquired through self-socialization after children have developed gender identity, and become self-motivated to adopt gender norms.

Unlike critics of this blog, I don’t fear that gender differences will be erased if we don’t continuously reinforce and celebrate them. People will figure out ways to make the “natural” differences count enough to get the job done when they need to. And reducing the pressure will help decrease both gender inequality and the stigma experienced by non-conforming people.


Filed under Research reports