Examining My Prejudices

janinebenyusWhen I recently republished my How to Save the World Reading List, several readers commented on how few (four out of eighty, to be precise, including Janine Benyus, pictured at right) women authors were represented. SBPoet asked “what does this mean?” — and I replied I wasn’t sure. Don’t women have good ideas on how to save the world, or am I just not open to them, or do they just not promote them as aggressively? No matter which of these three it is, this is alarming: We can’t afford not to be considering all the good ideas and perspectives on this subject.

So then I began looking at my other lists, to see whether this bias was present in them as well. Here’s what I discovered:

Lists dominated (at least 70%) by male authors:

  • My favourite business books
  • My blogroll, RSS subscriptions and hard-copy library of books on the environment, politics, economics, health, education, technology & knowledge management, innovation, entrepreneurship, science, arts, culture, language, fiction novels, humour and ‘self-help’
  • Books I bought at the suggestion of readers
  • Books sent to me free by publishers
  • My favourite music written prior to 1970
  • My favourite films
  • My favourite editorials, essays, and speeches

Lists dominated by neither male nor female authors:

  • My favourite music written 1970-1990
  • My blogroll and RSS subscriptions of uncategorizable writing (“Artists and Dreamers”)

Lists dominated (at least 70%) by female authors:

  • My blogroll, RSS subscriptions and hard-copy library of books on poetry
  • My favourite music written since 1990

I asked myself, and my readers, what to make of this:

I just find that most of the books and articles on subjects I care about seem to be written by men, though it is probably something of a cop-out to blame the publishing industry. I think that, at the risk of generalizing, men and women seem to express ideas in different ways and hence may tend to find books written by their own gender easier to understand and relate to (though I’ve discovered that women also tend to favour male authors on many subjects, perhaps because most of the available books on those subjects were written by men, and a majority of blogs focused on these subjects are authored by men). Lakoff frames meet Mars/Venus.

What do you think this means? Am I a chauvinist without realizing it, or is the available, pertinent reading material heavily skewed in favour of male points of view — and if so, why is that so, and what important and different points of view are we (all of us, male and female) missing as a result?

Rebecca Blood, a blogging pioneer who has long championed women’s writing and blogs, writes:

I find that I read many more male bloggers than female. I favor the link-driven blog, and, of the (comparatively) few practitioners that exist, I wonder if they are mostly men? The ones I find – at least the ones who are linking to things I’m interested in – have historically mostly been male. I have been a devoted reader of several women’s blogs which have shut down for various reasons (one woman had a baby – go figure).

I’ve found it hard to find women for the panels I’ve helped organize, too. In each case, the panel was about the Web, or software, and search as I would, it was hard to find women who were blogging on the subject(s). I slogged through many a page of Google results with little success. (On one such panel, I recruited a woman whose legal name, as it turned out, was Dave.)

Recently, searching for panelists for another Web panel, I started paging through A List Apart hoping to find woman writers. I found one. I even looked through the Blogher Blogrolls and Speakers wiki and had no luck finding women who specialized in the topic I was programming.

Now, you could accuse A List Apart of sexism, but knowing the founder as I do, I think that unlikely. And of course unconscious bias often exists in the most rational people (even me). But blogging is self-publishing. Other’s conscious or unconscious bias will affect linking patterns, but not the publishing itself.

I know there are women working on every aspect of Web design and programming. But I’m beginning to wonder if many women just don’t feel comfortable “tooting their own horns”. A woman friend told me of encouraging another woman to post something on her blog, to be told “Oh, I don’t have anything new to say about that.”

I quite honestly don’t see very many male bloggers who exhibit that same reservation.

So, I don’t think there’s any shortage of smart, capable women doing things in the world, but for whatever reason (time, interest, bias, self-effacement) they are harder for me to find online — and these days, that’s where I look.

I think this is sensible and perhaps reassuring, though I’m not quite sure what to make of Rebecca’s acknowledgement of preferring “the link-driven blog”? It seems to me much of the linking we see in males’ blogs replete with blue underlining is largely mutual promotion and mutual admiration (which male bloggers seem much more prone to engage in). And even if what she says is true in technology writing, where men still significantly outnumber women, how do we account for the ‘male dominance’ in blogrolls and A-lists on so many other subjects?

Take a look at this list of suggested Mothers’ Day books from two critics. The authors of the books on the list are all women, but the subject matter of their books doesn’t fit neatly within the taxonomy of subjects that most bloggers use — many of the books are character-based novels or histories of brave women from the past. The one notable exception, Writing to Change the World, by Mary Pipher, is panned by a (male?) Kirkus critic as a “precious, predictable, and unremarkable ‘self-help’ book”, and another critic, from Reed, says “she never met a clichÈ she didn’t like”. Amazon, which doesn’t provide a ‘see inside’ for the book, suggests you pair it up with (or might prefer) Christina Baldwin’s Storycatcher, another book that “shows the power of story to connect life experiences so that we can share them, learn from them, and teach each other.” Sounds promising, but I’ve already read and reviewed two excellent books on similar subjects, Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories and Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird. Why does the King’s book make my How to Save the World reading list and not Lamott’s? Because King asserts specifically that stories can and do change the world; it’s more ‘political’. Which is the better book? Depends on what you’re looking for. My male bias raises its ugly head again.

Or contrast two other books I love and have recently reviewed, with very similar messages: John Gray’s Straw Dogs and Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s The Place You Love is Gone. Gray is a philosopher, while Pierson is a storyteller, and the way they present this message is utterly different. I’ve given away a dozen copies of Straw Dogs. Will I be as generous with Pierson’s book? Probably not. Is that just because Straw Dogs made the point first? Probably not. I found Gray’s book shattering, worldview-changing. It just resonated with me at a time I was ready for, and looking for, the message his book makes, the way he made it.

Or consider the popularity of Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers compared to Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe, two new books on global warming released almost at the same time. Flannery’s book is around #400 in Amazon rank in the US (#10 in Canada). Kolbert’s is around #900 in Amazon rank in the US (#236 in Canada). Flannery, a scientist, takes a scientific approach to the subject, with lots of data and theory. Kolbert, a journalist, tells “the story behind the headlines”, using interviews with scientists and people living with the effects of global warming now. I bought them both as soon as they came out, they both have similar messages, and they’re both very well written and compelling. But guess which one I liked better?

Women read more than men, and their fiction reading subsidizes and essentially allows most non-fiction (predominantly written by men) to be published. In a comparison of reading habits, the Guardian suggested that women get more “guidance” from reading fiction than men, who get less involved in novels, which they read primarily for “excitement”. The UK Women’s Library has a website called What Women Want, with, perhaps tellingly, these subpage headings: Pleasure, a Voice, Beauty, a Home Life, Security, Independence, Equality. Modest expectations, pragmatic dreams. An honest, comparable list for men would be more ambitious, idealistic, ideological, abstract. Our reading reflects our dreams.

Like most men 20-60, and unlike most women of any age, I now read a lot more non-fiction than fiction. That alone tilts my attention towards male authors and bloggers. But I confess (to my surprise: until I actually went through my library I didn’t realize it) that of the fiction (excluding poetry) I read, 75% of it is also written by men. I don’t read typical “men’s fiction” (I once tried reading a Dan Brown book and found the writing so lame I gave up after ten pages). My favourite writer, as regular readers know, is Frederick Barthelme, but for every Margaret Atwood on my shelves there are three John Updikes, Charles Baxters or Nick Hornbys. I don’t know why. Their characters think like I think. I see and feel myself in their characters the way I rarely connect with the characters of women novelists.

When it comes to music and film, I think we have the big mostly-male ‘entertainment media’ companies to blame for the continuing dominance of men in these areas of writing. I can’t stomach awards shows that lavish prizes, money and recognition on no-talent actors who merely mouth (usually badly) the lines they are given, while the writers are ignored. No wonder 99% of the ever-diminishing output from the Hollywood oligopoly is such crap. As these data show, women are outnumbered more than 8-1 in production and writing of major theatrical releases. The data for TV aren’t much better. We desperately need a new indy film industry run by women to do for film what Lilith Fair and similar projects have done for music. And we also need to get rid of the old boys’ club of film critics: Film critics are overwhelmingly male, clearly biased against the work of women filmmakers, and absolutely obsequious when reviewing (are they getting kickbacks for this?) the pathetic testosterone-crazed products of today’s Hollywood producers.

Because of women’s initiatives, the situation is changing in music: Women artists gave up on the male-dominated music oligopoly twenty years ago, and just started producing their own stuff. It’s now vastly better than the mainstream music fare. But it’s still an uphill struggle against the machine, with radio stations and music TV stations still offering predominantly no-talent formulaic male bands (and don’t even get me started on the nauseating American Idol pap, where singers don’t even have to write their own compositions). It fascinates me that on the video programs where you ‘vote’ for the next video to be played, the music of women singer-songwriters consistently beats its male competition. When will the ‘industry’ catch on?

So I think we are seeing, and will continue to see, a gradual increase in equity, attention and market share for women in all endeavours that stem from creative writing. While men may still prefer creative works written by men, I think women will balance those prejudices, and opportunities for male and female creative writers will ultimately be equal.

When it comes to non-fiction however (and I include non-fiction books, blogs and documentary films in this category) I don’t think we can blame an existing and unresponsive power structure for the inequality, and I suspect this inequality will continue, sustained by several very human, cultural factors:

  • Men are generally more arrogant about what they know and more aggressive at self-promoting.
  • Men are, I think, better ‘weak ties’ networkers — willing and able to draw attention to themselves by getting A-listers they don’t ‘know’ well (mostly men — this cycle is self-perpetuating) to ‘link’ to them.
  • Men seem more inclined to see, and seek, ‘engineering answers’ to problems (even though they have repeatedly been shown to be idealistic and not to work), while women seem more inclined to proffer more pragmatic, adaptive answers. But many women want to believe in the grander, idealistic ‘we can change the world’ answers, which is why they may be more inclined to read male writers than men are to read women writers.
  • Men seem more likely to see ‘universal’ patterns and solutions — one size fits all — whereas women tend to be more down-to-earth and realize that most human issues are complex and that patterns and solutions are situational. Hence, they are more inclined to use stories to explain the context for the observations and recommendations, in women’s writing, which few men seem to have the patience for.
  • Women seem to have a better understanding of the limitations of language: You know more than you can tell, and you can tell more than you can write down, as Dave Snowden has explained. These limitations mitigate against the effectiveness of writing and in favour of oral conversation and demonstration as means of expressing ideas, communicating, learning and explaining. In my experience women are usually better conversationalists (they listen better, for a start) and better at demonstrating one-on-one how to do things (they tend to be more patient, which helps). They are probably also inherently better ‘unconferencers‘ for the same reasons. Men don’t appreciate the limitations of writing as much, so they are prone to over-rely on writing and formal one-to-many presentations to teach and learn.
  • There is some evidence that our languages themselves, evolved over several millennia that were largely male-power-dominated, might be better designed to communicate male-perspective ideas than female-perspective ideas. A language written by women would be, I think, more nuanced in semantics, richer in observational vocabulary and less simplistic in cause-and-effect syntax. So I think to some extent women could be justified in ‘blaming the tools’ for the lack of attention their writing gets.

So I guess I’m acknowledging my prejudices, and not making excuses for my male-dominated library or blogroll. Blame it on my idealism, my short attention span and my frames, rather than on misogyny, however. And I much prefer women teachers/coaches, and conversations with women, at least when I’m paying attention, which I’m at least getting better at.

If we’re really going to save the world, it will probably be women, self-organizing, grassroots, self-improving, talking with each other, patiently, thanklessly, providing context for what needs to be done and hence developing local, practical action ideas by consensus, that will make it happen. Meanwhile most of us men will still be talking at each other, competing and jockeying for attention, writing broad, clever, sometimes best-selling diagnoses and prescriptions — thatdon’t work and don’t tell you what you need to do in the real world.

We are who we are.

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15 Responses to Examining My Prejudices

  1. Dave Smith says:

    We are who we are, but we have to consciously seek out the female because, as you say, the female does less horn tooting than the male. For example, when I was putting my own list of cultural heroes on my website (which also presents a 70% male, 30% female bias), I noticed the heavy weighting of males and realized the females I personally knew that were unrepresented. Having worked at the Farmworkers Union, I knew that Dolores Huerta was as responsible, if not more responsible than Cesar Chavez for the UFW success and added her. And although I haven’t added Cesar’s wife Helen, in many ways, she was also clearly very responsible for the union’s success. Without falling into the “behind every great man is a great woman” condescension, I think we need to honor the unrecognized families along with the recognized heroes, as we did recently in our town. We men like to talk and write about our triumphs, but my experience is that females are much more the doers who actually get down and get the actual gritty work done in organizations and movements, the “walkers”, than we “leader” men, the “talkers”.

  2. Candy Minx says:

    Interesting. I don’t believe in gender, age, race, religion or skin colour…and without even looking at my “world peace reading list…I am sure it is dominated by men writers. I don’t feel guilty about it or any kind of issue at all. Maybe women aren’t interested in writing the links of books I am interested in reading…? I don’t know. But it reminds me I should go add Rachel Carson on to my list. First if we look at the history of printed material, women weren’t actually accepted in the writing/publishing community…so you can’t help that Dave. Now women are allowed to write. I guess we’ll have to give them a few more years to see if they get with the program and start to write some books I find interesting, heh heh.I love the classics and obviously printed material doesn’t have many classic female authors. I tend to prefer novels that have life or death issues, set in nature and wilderness, adventure and with inter-species relationships. Conrad, London, McCarthy, Dillard, Melville, really I suppose men may tend to write about those things more. Some favourite female novelists of mine? Cathy Acker, Anne Tyler, there aren’t many. I also read a lot more non-fiction about nature, science astronomy anthropology adn well I don’t know I don’t feel too concerned what gender my writers are. It doesn’t matter to me if its an important book to me or the human condition, the sex of author is neither here nor there. I think I only have four women on my world peace reading list (http://candyminx.blogspot.com/) that is just my list, not an active blog…Cheers, great thoughts and explorations as always DaveCheersCandy

  3. Michelle P. says:

    Now see! THIS is why I LIKE reading you Dave!!!! :)You are observant enough to actually make this leap in trying to understand why it’s so different for us women bloggers/musicians/artists/writers/scientists/politicians/ and so on to make an impact on the world.I tend to favour a lot of male view-points in my literary tastes too. :) Mens views are precise, most of the time, and linear. I like linear! Probably because I don’t think that way naturally – it’s all about circles for me, which can make one dizzy! I like direction and men are kinda good at providing direction. But a womans voice is definitely different. It’s more fluid and open to alternative possibilities and I think is less about direction and more about all the side-routes that we could visit on the way there. It’s also a tad more intro-spective and dare I say honest. I suspect men get frustrated with that and a little suspicious too. An honest woman can scare a bloke it seems! Don’t know why though.But I do think the blogging world is making the gender biases and the lines between what men and women think somewhat less defined. I read womens blogs as much as I read mens blogs and I like them both unequivocally. :) I actually find a lot of hope here. For the first time we’re communicating openly about what we REALLY know and think and it’s blimmin’ marvellous to see this synergy of agreement starting to develop. I really like that! :) Michelle

  4. Anonymous says:

    keep looking dave. the chicks are out there. you might like machaelle small wright’s books. but she might be too right-brained for you. it’s okay that you resonate more with males. i won’t go see movies unless they have good women roles in them. we need our own kind and then we need others–in that order. i love your site.

  5. Anonymous says:

    also consider:marianne williamsonjulia butterfly hillsusan griffinarundhati roiamy goodmanbarbara ann brennandorothy macleanpeace pilgrimmother theresapema chodrondorothea dayani difrancomary dalyandrea dworkinsimone de beauvoirluce irigarayhelene cixousjulia kristevakaren horneyjane goodalldian fosseymargaret meadisak dinesonetc.etc.etc.

  6. Anonymous says:

    bell hooks, alice walker, toni morrison, maya angelou, june jordon, jane jacobs, angela davis…..

  7. b_heart11 says:

    At the risk of sounding as if I am betraying my own sex to stereotypes, I believe your last paragraph says it all. Women have a greater tendency to spend their leisure time doing something constructive, or spending time nurturing relationships, while men like to…well, around here we call it trash talk. I can easily imagine our most primitive ancestors…the women patiently creating baskets, pottery, agriculture, clothing, and shelter, while the men are hooting and hollaring about the big hunt. Its not sexist…its more than likely just reality.

  8. Mariella says:

    When you say, Dave, that each gender may like better to read its own literature because it is like writen in its own language,,,, Male language is more logic and female language, being more analogic and holistic is closer to non written languages. I guess the same thing happens with the silence of non modern cultures – being more analogic than the super expresive logic modern culture

  9. Just to clarify two points: First, when I say that I prefer the link-driven blog, I mean a blog whose primary purpose is to point the reader out to other sites, with minimal commentary — like my site, (and not like this one. :) In other words, just because a site contains a lot of links would not make it a link-driven site — I link driven site is there, above all, to share links.Second, while the example I used with regard to conference programming is technology-related, the blogs I’m looking for are not. So, I’m not saying that I find a preponderance of men are doing link blogs about technology – I find that I have found mostly men blogging about the things I’m most interested in — culture, society, food, health, the Web, sustainability, science…it’s a long list, take a look at my site to see what has caught my eye in the last week. The exception, of course, is “domestic matters” — cooking (though there are lots of men on that subject), crafting, cleaning, etc. It seems that women are the ones who mostly are writing and linking about those things.

  10. Candy Minx says:

    Hi all of y’all fascinating perspectives. Um, I don’t feel the same way, I shall repeat that I don’t believe in race, gender, age, religion, or skin colour. Sex differences are taught and long programed into us. But what is good about this discussion is you all reminded me of two MORE books to put on my World Peace Reading List. It is too soon to decide whether women have the short end of the deal for publishing. I think someone made a good point about novels, that women have an edge right now for having novels published and it might be a tougher go for men. Again, we have to remember the discrimination of women in publishing the printed word took a long time to change. Chances are in pre-literate societies women were jsut as responsible for telling the stories of Hamlet, Christ, Khrisna(yes! those are all the SAME story, did you know that? Based on astrological and constellations patterns…nicknamed the “strong boy myth”) and around a fire ina community woemn were also gods and also likely passed on oral traditions. Female human primates since agricultural and neotony have had restricted sexual practice and tabbos enforced on them. Female primates are designed to have sex several dozens, perhaps all day long. Our unpredicatable estrus supports this, we never know when we will get pregnant so we are designed to try all the time, can you imagine if we were still unrestricted how tired our partners would be ha ha? Would we live this kind of fanatical devotion to agricultual totalitarianism, no.So sexually women are designed to have several sexual encounters a day…that is the only difference betwee male and females…everything else is pretend and taught. Its very difficult to convince people of this fact though, even many feminists hold on to the illusion there is a difference. In the womb we all start out the same. So this idea of books and who we read is a reflection of the cultural external devices maintained by our families and our various cultures to support the totalitarian farm economy we are all addicted to. if you don’t believe me you can read:Making Sex:Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud by Thomas Walter Laquer and Prehistory of Feamle Sexuality by Dr. Mary Jane Sherfy (very rare out of print)Traits like gender and skin colour and religion are environmental adaptations but it doesn’t mean they ain’t fun!Cheers, great posts and so interesting!Candy

  11. Michelle says:

    I’m laughing my head off now!nearly ALL the comments on this one are from WOMEN!hahahaha! So…. yep! I think this commentary alone pretty well sums up this particular conundrum! LMAO

  12. I’d like to recommend a new speaker’s bureau: Oustanding Women Speakers http://www.outstandingwomenspeak.com This organization is the first of it’s kind in the world.From their homepage: “Outstanding Women Speakers Inc. is an all-women’s speakers bureau dedicated to providing your organization with access to the top voices from the United States, Canada, and from around the world. We have chosen to focus particularly on women speakers in order to represent the exciting, emerging speaker landscape.”I’ve been extremely pleased with their representation to date, and highly recommend contacting them to book an engaging speaker or to become represented by them.Carolyn L BurkeCEO, Integrity Incorporatedhttp://www.integrityincorporated.comCommunications DirectorThe Singularity Institutehttp://www.singinst.org

  13. Jon Husband says:

    Thanks, Dave. I appreciate your perspective a lot, and I like to think that I confront and work at my male-oriented perspectives.I have been in the lucky position of having quite a few strong and assertive female friends who have confronted me, challenged me, worked with me, laughed with me, and taught me a lot about listening, observing and learning to value my intuition and my strong feminine side.It’s been worth it.

  14. What a great post, Dave, and very honest.You said:”* My favourite music written 1970-1990* My blogroll and RSS subscriptions of uncategorizable writing (“Artists and Dreamers”)” Maybe that says more than it appears to. When we look at “brain sex” research, it seems to show that women tend to use many parts of the brain at once, while men tend to be more focused. So it makes some sense to me that women would be less categorizable. I used to work in a male-dominated field–technical writing. I noticed early on that even when we began to have more women doing tech writing, there were still few female engineers and logisticians. There are still fewer female computer programmers. But that is changing. I imagine it’s changing in the science fields as well, which is where many environmentalists come from. Recently my spouse and I have been reading up on alternative housing, green building and so forth, and I notice a lot of those authors are women. I noticed, on my first day of kindergarten, how boys and girls gravitated toward different activities, and some of this had to be biological, though much of it may have been what we’d been taught to enjoy as very young children–even as infants. Smart girls, in my day, were discouraged from acting too smart. We weren’t encouraged to brag about, become too proud of, or even recognize our accomplishments, or to overshadow the boys in any way. Even though I heard my parents sort of laugh off such old-fashioned notions, they had their biases. I remember wanting to learn to build things and never really being encouraged or helped to do so, while my dad taught my brothers to build things whether they wanted to not. (Although if I built something out of clay, yarn, or fabric, that was encouraged.)It’s difficult to separate out what we’re taught and what is in-born, and I think we have a skewed definition of leadership as it applies to men and women. Womenlead every bit as readily, we just tend to lead differently, yet the world seems to persist in trying to turn us into men in order to make us all “equal.” I think we’re seen as weak in learning math and science mainly because of how those subjects are traditionally taught. The methods are geared toward accessing the male thinking process. Women can learn science and math. But we think differently, tend to come at it from a different perspective. The few female engineers I met, years ago, tended to be brilliant, much more so than their male counterparts. They had to be in order to get equal footing with the men, to be noticed at all and allowed to advance in school and in the workplace. Maybe it was that they had to be that much smarter to notice, themselves, that they were strong in those subjects.As for environmentalism, I can’t think of a more nurturing field. It seems to me there ought to be more women’s names out there. Maybe that old non-bragging, non-self-promoting weakness that many women are still trapped in has kept the female authors from being noticed as they should, not necessarily by readers alone but by publishers, reviewers, and so forth, before the reader would ever hear of them.

  15. Martin-Eric says:

    I personally have no sexual preference when it comes to friends, mentors or role models. This being said, experience proved that people tend to more readily resonate with the perspective of people of the same sex. I think it’s mostly a question of vocabulary or rhetorical approach: men and women just tend to choose different words or metaphors to express the same concepts. There’s also the aspect of women being less enclined to toot their own horn, which makes it harder for both sexes to find women with whom to related to or identify with; even though they exist, they are more likely to do their thing than to write about it. That’s OK. I don’t see any reason to find myself prejudiced because the outcome of that is that I reached a similar 70/30 ratio.

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