Genies, gender and Pots of Gold

A genie sprouted on the other blog a day or two ago, and whaddaya know – today there’s a news report that says it’s scientifically proven that genies can give you pots of gold!

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.

Very fair.

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.

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8 Responses

  1. Interesting post.

    You might also be interested in the Freakonomics analysis of names given to children of various social strata in the USA. What turns up is that certain names seem to appear far more among persons born of a certain social stratum than other names. What is more, the names seem to ‘slip down’, i.e., you have names usually found in upper class families being more prevalent in lower middle class and poorer families in larger numbers after a couple of days. It seemed to be the trend in both male and female children. A very interesting read, if I might say so.

    Also looks at some of the terrible names given by parents to kids, such as ‘Shithead’ (pronounced as Shuh-teed)!!!

  2. What’s taxstudent doing here just before an exam, anyway?!

  3. I needed a break after I read from my notes that for the purposes of taxation, a tea bush was not a plant!!!

  4. Oh, an OLD tax student!

  5. I knew this was coming, I knew Tipsy toes would have informed erimentha about the gender genie and u [erimentha] would have a thing or two to say about this.

    I wasnt aware of Figlio’s paper, but goes back to BNP’s arguments of ‘punishing the victim'[unless I have terribly mistaken BNP’s objectives and views], give the child a name which does not connotes lower status! so, just name everyone Bill Gates and Angela Merkel and hope they will rule in the in their respective worlds?

  6. Only thing I have to say, Smith, is that it isn’t ‘BNP’s argument’: victim-blaming happens all the time, and though BNP seeks to contest it, doesn’t make it ‘their’ argument!

  7. hmm…. I just noticed that i wrote ‘connotes’ instead of writing ‘connote’. Why cant there be a Google ‘proof reader’, the spell check isnt adequate! Maybe i’ll beat Orkut Buy-o-something to this! Just need a software writer, a grammar book and a miracle. ah! my millions await..

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