Let’s start with the genie. I did a little link-following, and found that the Gender Genie is based on this.
we find significant differences between male- and female-authored documents in the use of pronouns and certain types of noun modifiers: although the total number of nominals used by male and female authors is virtually identical, females use many more pronouns and males use many more noun specifiers…
…female writing exhibits greater usage of features identified by previous researchers as “involved” while male writing exhibits greater usage of features which have been identified as “informational”.
So far, so good. There’s a lot of ‘scientific’ data about gender differences in communication, but I like what the Genie’s author says:
Although I think you really can’t figure out whether a writer is male or female based on writing, I still believe that the linguists’ algorithm has useful applications.
Now let’s look at today’s little news report.
To carry out the study, to be published in the Journal of Human Resources, Figlio calculated a linguistic ‘femininity’ score for each name. It was arrived at by using 1,700 letter and sound combinations that could be associated as either female or male and matching them against the names on 1.4 million birth certificates.
So, the letter-and-sound-combination of a name decides whether it is masculine or feminine?
Wait, it gets better.
He also showed how harmful giving your child a ‘chav’ or lower-status name can be. In a study of 55,000 children, the exam marks of those with ‘lower-status’ names – often spelled in an unusual way or including punctuation – were on average 3 to 5 percentage points lower than siblings with more traditional names. One of the reasons was that teachers had lower expectations of them.
So, he finally gets to the meat of it: teachers have lower expectations of those they mark as ‘different’ or ‘unusual’, and it reflects in their exam marks. A covert bias, that needed to be identified, and now needs to be addressed.
But wait! That’s not his point.
Figlio argued that people should be more aware of the power of names. ‘In ways we are only beginning to understand, children with different names but the exact same upbringing grow up to have remarkably different life outcomes,’ he said.
‘If you want to give your child a name that connotes low status, then you need to be aware of the consequences.’
“Ways that we are only beginning to understand” my foot! Marginalising the unfamiliar ‘other’ is not new; it’s been going on forever, hasn’t it?! And blaming parents for the names they choose to give their children, rather than identifying this marginalisation and attacking it, is rather stupid, to say the least!
My point? That gender difference is a delicate and complicated subject. That ham-handed ‘science’ masks its incompetence in the rhetoric of gender difference often enough. And while genies can be useful, if they’re offering you a pot of gold for nothing (or just a change of name), you should read the small print.