Category Archives: Language

On the Blogging Gender Gap Kerfuffle

So a few days ago Mike Cernovich at Crime & Federalism addressed the (apparently common) question of why women are underrepresented in the legal blogosphere.

Everyone gets very concerned for women, who apparently are being prevented from blogging. Who is preventing women from blogging? No one says. Well, it’s “men,” we are told.

Mike calls bullshit on that. As evidence, he quotes a recent New York Times article:

About a year ago, the Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that runs Wikipedia, collaborated on a study of Wikipedia’s contributor base and discovered that it was barely 13 percent women; the average age of a contributor was in the mid-20s, according to the study by a joint center of the United Nations University and Maastricht University.

As Mike points out, there are almost no barriers to contributing to Wikipedia. You just click “Edit”. It seems like it would be almost impossible for men to be keeping women out. Yet some people have theories that sound pretty reasonable:

But because of its early contributors Wikipedia shares many characteristics with the hard-driving hacker crowd, says Joseph Reagle, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. This includes an ideology that resists any efforts to impose rules or even goals like diversity, as well as a culture that may discourage women.

“It is ironic,” he said, “because I like these things — freedom, openness, egalitarian ideas — but I think to some extent they are compounding and hiding problems you might find in the real world.”

Adopting openness means being “open to very difficult, high-conflict people, even misogynists,” he said, “so you have to have a huge argument about whether there is the problem.”

This doesn’t sound too far off the mark to me–I remember similar theories from the early days of Usenet–but Mike doesn’t care for it much. He has a different theory:

Another theory is that women care less about facts and information than men do. Women instead care about superficial gossip. Consider, for example, the demographics of People:

Female: 66%

Walk into any gym in the country – even one in a liberalized, feminist city like San Francisco. You’ll see rows of professional women on the treadmills and stair climbers. I know several of them, and they are doctors, lawyers, psychologists, and other professionals. No patriarchy has kept them from earning fuck loads of money, and obtaining educational credentials. Yet they read stupid shit like People and US Weekly (76% women).

Why should anyone be surprised that a demographic who uses its off-hours to read celebrity gossip aren’t on the Internet sharing useful knowledge, and provoking interesting discussions? Why should anyone blame men?

Over at, Carolyn Elefant responded that women have a lot of other stuff to do, like housework and taking care of the kids, and lightweight reading like People and Oprah is just a way to relax. Then Mirriam Seddiq at Not Guilty, posted her response which is that Carolyn’s response sounds reasonable, in that she’s too busy living her own life to blog more often, but she has even less time to worry about why women don’t blog more often.

All of this blogging seems like an awful lot of talk that may not lead to any answers about an issue that may not even be a real problem. Naturally, I want a piece of this, and I have my own theory.

It all comes down to an observation made by linguist Deborah Tannen about twenty years ago: As a broad generalization, men tend to use conversation as a form of competition, whereas women tend to use conversation to form and maintain social connections.

Tannen did not try to argue which conversational style was better. Instead, she wanted both sides to recognize that there was a difference, in order to avoid (or at least understand) the miscommunications that could result. For example, a woman might ask a coworker if he wants help learning how to perform a new task, and he might turn down her help even though he could use it because he interpreted her offer as a challenge to his competence. Similarly, a woman who wants a male subordinate to change his ways might soft-sell her criticism in order to be diplomatic, only to have him ignore most of her criticism because he didn’t realize he was being confronted.

It’s important to understand that this is a difference in communication style, which is not necessarily reflective of a difference in psychological outlook. My favorite example concerns a male department head at a company I used to work for who got in an argument with a woman lawyer in another department. Afterwords, while meeting with some male coworkers, he joked that she wasn’t much of a lawyer because she broke down in tears during the argument. Within a year, he was unceremoniously kicked out of the company, due in no small part to her behind-the-scenes efforts. Just because she didn’t get in his face didn’t mean she wasn’t out to slit his throat.

Similarly, just because men don’t spend a lot of time talking about relationships doesn’t mean they don’t care about them. They just don’t see talking as a requirement for working on a relationship.

This effect even extends to casual conversation. I remember my wife and I were driving home one day and we got to talking about our respective lunchtime conversations with coworkers. She and her women coworkers had talked about their families and their friends and what each of them was doing, who was seeing someone, who was going through a breakup, and how everybody was feeling. That same day, me and the guys had gone to lunch and talked about how best to defend the Earth from meteor strikes.

It’s easy to see how the women were using conversation to form social relationships, but how were us guys using conversation to compete? The basic answer is that we were each showing off the cool things we knew about meteor defense, such as which types of asteroids were the greatest threat, how much warning time we needed, and what was the best propulsion method to deflect an oncoming meteor.

We’ve all heard guys trying to top each other’s stories about sports or arguing over which brand of power tools is better or trading obscure factoids about the Star Wars movies. It’s a conversational style that becomes second-nature: In casual conversation, guys tend to givie mini-lectures to show off what they know.

Think about that a minute. Mini-lectures to show off what we know. Isn’t that a pretty good description of what most bloggers are doing?

No wonder blogging is dominated by men. It’s a medium that is almost perfectly aimed at men’s conversational style. We like showing off the cool things we know. After all, why do you think I’m responding to Mike and Carolyn and Mirriam with a post about a relatively obscure linguist’s 20-year old theories?

Paris Hilton Getting Screwed

(Not that I’m fishing for traffic with that title by implying that this is about Paris Hilton’s sex life—oh drat! I did it again! Mentioning Paris Hilton and sex in the same sentence. Bad blogger! Bad!)

I think this comment at Public Defender Dude is the best answer I’ve encountered to the question of whether Paris Hilton is being treated better or worse than an ordinary defendent. It’s by a lawyer who routinely handles the same kinds of cases, in the same court, and before the same judge.

Apparently, her actual sentence of 45 days is on the high side, but it’s typical of Judge Suaer. He gives that sentence to lots of people who do the same thing Paris did.

However, the area jails are overcrowded, so people sentenced for minor crimes such as this one are routinely let out after serving 10% of their sentence. The judges know this, but they ignore it, because it’s not their job to oversee the policies of the jail system. Paris Hilton got the same treatment everyone else gets.

What was different for Paris is that the judge tried in his initial sentence to prevent Paris from getting out of jail early like everyone else. When she got out anyway, he ordered her sent back. Normally, with a non-celebrity, he would neither care nor know that someone he sentenced had been released early. It’s only because she’s famous that he’s still paying attention to her.

What’s in a Name? – The Power of Language

There’s been a lot of media coverage lately about a certain f-word. A tremendous amount of power is being given to this word.

Just to recap, in case you hadn’t heard: In October, on the set of Grey’s Anatomy, Isaiah Washington referred to T.R. Knight as a homosexual epithet while having an argument with Patrick Dempsey. T.R. Knight came out several days later, saying he was gay and hoping that there were more interesting things about him than that.

A few weeks ago at the Golden Globe awards, Isaiah Washington grabbed the mike at a backstage interview and said, “I never called T.R. a f****t.” Needless to say, this went over very poorly with the cast and execs of Grey’s Anatomy, not to mention GLAAD and other gay, lesbian, and civil liberties groups. Many were calling for the termination of Washington, but the latest is that he has attended anger management counseling, since he says his problem is being “hot-headed” not homo-phobic.

I do not advocate Isaiah Washington’s actions at all. No one should have to be uncomfortable in their workplace. However, this is a matter to be handled internally, by Washington’s employers – not to be played out in the media.

This isn’t really even a matter of free speech. This is an instance of a word, mere air and vibrations, being given more power than it should have. We assign the meaning to these sounds and it is the listener who decides how this particular group of sounds is going to affect them or make them feel. Sticks and stones, etc. Words only have power if we decide to give it to them.

If we were to somehow ban words like “f****t” or the “n-word”, it would not change what is in the hearts of the people who speak them. If they hate homosexuals or blacks, they are not going to stop hating them or change their behavior just because they can’t say the words. And how do you really know for an absolute certainty what is in Isaiah Washington’s heart/mind or anyone’s for that matter? And if you start banning words, where do you stop? (Will we one day develop the ability to ban thoughts?) Then it does become a matter of free speech.

I’m not saying people should go around yelling these words at each other, I’m just saying that if you don’t show how much you let the words bother you and stop calling even more attention to it, the words will lose their power.

(I get the irony of the fact that I have not actually used the words mentioned, but I wanted to keep this office friendly.)