Unseen sexism and journalistic misinterpretation of a research study

I seem to have reached the point where people send me things that will piss me off enough to blog about. Today, Nat sent me this: “Feminism’s misdirected targets”, a Guardian article

The article reports a research study called “Seeing The Unseen“, which is about attention paid to everyday sexism. The paper aimed to investigate whether people who were more likely to endorse benevolent sexist or modern sexist beliefs did so because they were unaware of sexist behaviour around them. The paper is open-source and, in a pleasant subversion of expectations, is actually linked in the Guardian article. At face value, it would almost appear as though the journalist had read the research paper, which is as much to be expected given that it is a freely-accessible paper.

However, I don’t think Jennifer Abel did read the whole paper. Abel gleefully takes apart a measure used in the study:

But the study didn’t ask women to seek sexism in discussions about women’s proper roles in marriage, combat or any other positions. Instead, it asked women to note:

“[If they] observed a man helping a woman with a task because he assumed that, as a woman, she should not have to grapple with it (eg, long drive, selection of a new laptop, carrying shopping bags).”

This is not true. It says, as clear as day in Table 1 of the article, what was measured. Among these things are hearing traditional stereotypes about women, heard traditional beliefs about relationships, heard paternalistic stereotypes about women, and witnessing traditional or paternalistic treatment of women. How this does not translate as seeking sexism in discussions about women’s proper roles in marriage, combat or and other positions, I do not know. Perhaps Abel didn’t look at the table. It is also worth noting that many of these observations are lifted directly from the gold-standard measure of benevolent sexism.

The measure Abel does report is not perfect, and I do wish the authors of the research paper had provided more context as to why these incidents were selected. It is a worthy critique based upon what is otherwise a fundamental misunderstanding of the research.

For the rest of the article, Abel builds to the thesis that feminism is targeting the wrong kind of sexism, and we should focus our energies on more hostile forms of sexism. This is erroneous on two fronts. Philosophically, it buys into the myth that one should only focus on one fight at a time rather than using all tools in the box. Scientifically, it is also wrong: benevolent sexism has real-world implications for women. Fighting benevolent sexism is therefore not a “misdirected target”. It is a valid target, a source of oppression. To say that it is misdirected is plain wrong.

Furthermore, there is some confusion in the article about Abel’s beliefs. Towards the beginning, she (incorrectly) outlines the journal in which the journal appears*:

in the current issue of Psychology of Women Quarterly. (Speaking of sexist beliefs, there is the idea that any questions about my psyche can be answered “Because hers is a woman‘s mind.”)

Yet later in the article, Abel says:

Even if humanity builds the feminist utopia of my dreams, there will still be certain traits more common in one sex than the other. I suspect, for example, people who choose careers working with young children will always skew overwhelmingly towards females.

Which one is it? Is it that men and women are fundamentally different in their minds, or is that untrue? The answer to that question is that it is untrue, which Abel touched upon at the beginning of the article and then changed her mind. Apparently she did not read Delusions of Gender.

Abel ends by saying that feminism has been hijacked by fundamentalists, feminists who believe benevolent sexism to be a major problem. It is a major problem. The evidence behind it suggests it to be a major problem. Abel clearly did not read this evidence.

One can hardly blame her; Abel is, after all, a journalist without scientific training, and a lot of the literature is paywalled. This is a shortcoming of science: how can journalists be expected to report adequately on an area of research if they cannot access some of the pertinent research? Furthermore, how can the piece be expected to accurately report when the piece was written by someone unfamiliar with reading research papers, then edited by someone unfamiliar with reading research papers, then published by someone unfamiliar with reading research papers?

It is a shame that even decent, doing-it-largely-right science reporting is still so poor. Every time it is in the media, misconceptions about benevolent sexism crop up, with the “but it’s not a valid target” being the most frequent response.

Science-types are traditionally quite rubbish at engaging with the media, and media-types are traditionally quite rubbish at engaging with science. I wish that more were involved in both. Perhaps, then, we would see accurately-reported research.


*In fact, Psychology of Women Quarterly makes no claims to cover the psychology of all women, any more than the discipline of women’s studies claims to understand every single woman ever.

6 thoughts on “Unseen sexism and journalistic misinterpretation of a research study”

  1. Ah yes. ‘Delusions of Gender’. The writer of that book reminds me of a Flat Earther telling other Flat Earthers they’re right… Books by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen (‘The Essential Difference’), Professor Steve Pinker (‘The Blank Slate’) and Professor Louann Brizendine (‘The Female Brain’) are far more authoritative and persuasive, I think.

    The ‘Blank Slate’ theory which denies innate human nature of gender-typical people at birth (we must exclude gender-untypical people such as Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron, obvously) is today only believed by militant feminists, so far as I can tell. Given a choice, men and women continue to behave in perfectly gender-typical ways, e.g. women seek partners who are taller than them, and better off. Alpha males with faces only a mother could love (Andy Murray, Bernie Ecclestone, Nicolas Sarkozy, Andrew Lloyd-Webber…) have their pick of beautiful women. Why do beautiful women not fall in love with Gamma males? Why do rich women not fall in love with poor men? Because women are careful that money and resources only ever flow in one direction – from men to women. If a wealthy couple divorce and one partner gets alimony of £x million p.a. for life, will that partner be (a) male, or (b) female? The first case of a pre-nup being recognised by the courts in England was to protect the fortune of a rich women (Katrin Radmacher) from her relatively poor husband. Women don’t want equality. They want ever more of the special treatment they enjoy already.

    Why are radical feminists so angry? Could it be that – irony of ironies – they’ve achieved true equality with men, i.e. if they want a good standard of living they have to earn it through work, rather than enjoying the good life thanks to their relationships with well-off men?

    Have a nice day.

    Mike Buchanan

  2. No, I won’t try harder. My psychiatrist tells me I need to start being more assertive towards women. She has a point…

  3. Stavvers, isn’t amending someone else’s post (namely, the title of my last book) a little… well… childish?

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