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On men who call women ‘darling’

I told a chap off in Pret today for calling me ‘darling’. I had to lean past him to get my coffee, and I think mostly in innocence he said, “Sorry, darling”. He was saying sorry for being in my way; a classically polite and quite British thing to do. But why did he have to call me darling? I stepped away and said, not angrily but firmly, “Don’t call me darling”. And that was that. I sat down. He and his friend sat down at a table near me, but I didn’t feel intimidated. I ate my porridge, did a bit of work, and stood up to leave. I bussed my table and just as I was stepping to the door I heard, ever so faintly, “Bye, darling”, and then some chortling.

There it is. He thought he was being funny, getting one over on me by imposing his will. He gets to call me darling. He gets to decide. If I don’t like it, he’ll do it as a parting shot to remind me of my place. But that acknowledges that my request for him not to do it was valid; he’s like a child, rebelling against an acknowledged and authoritative rule, not an adult debating two equal but opposite points of view.

I turned around, stared at them both, and gave him the finger. If I’d been feeling more larey, I’d have gone over and quizzed him about his behaviour:

“If you didn’t like it when I asked you not to call me darling, then you should have been a grown-up about it and addressed it with me there and then. Would you like to talk now about why you think you should be allowed to call strangers by a term of endearment? It seems like you didn’t want to talk, because you shouted out behind my back, to try to amuse your mate, but as I’m here and I’ve got the time, I thought I’d say some words to you that you didn’t want to hear. How do you like it?”


A success for Let Toys be Toys

As an avid social media user, when I see something astonishing and objectionable, my first thought is Twitter, for better or for worse. Thanks to the team that operate the Let Toys be Toys campaign account, however, and a very responsive PR team running the California Academy of Sciences‘ account, I’ve had a minor success, and I’ve put together a quick Storify to commemorate the occasion.

When tech companies can do good in the world

‘How it Works’, #385 from the brilliant XKCD.com

Tech companies are renowned for eyes-bigger-than-their-belly mission statements. Facebook, no exception, has the mission: “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” (taken from the Investor Relations FAQ section, or you can go to their oddly meta Facebook page…)

I’ve never been quite sure about whether Facebook was doing good with this mission. In the main, it has meant Facebook pushing at the norms of ‘sharing’, seeking to transform sharing — our thoughts, our information, our data, our time — into a default mode of behaviour online. (For more, see my review of José Van Dijck’s Culture of Connectivity).

However, sometimes, making the world more open and connected means working to change norms that really do need to be changed. A few weeks ago, Facebook  made public some of its training videos about an issue that affects everyone’s daily experience and makes some of us less equal than others: unconscious bias. For Facebook, propelled in no small part by Sheryl Sandberg, making the world more open and connected is supported by a subsidiary mission: “building stronger, more diverse and inclusive organisations”. Facebook has always been bold about being the change it wants to see in the world, and often that can come at the expense of individual users, with data being exploited, users tracked wherever they are online, etc. But, in this instance, Facebook is actually trying to do an unequivocally good thing. Let’s suspend speculation about precisely why and take them at their word when they say their goal is “to achieve broader recognition of hidden biases” and offer a “framework for action” by all organisations. 

Tech in general is rightly criticised for drawing the bulk of its staff from certain groups: mainly male, mainly Caucasian or Asian. #ILookLikeAnEngineer, arising out of sexist commentary about software engineer Isis Wenger’s (@IsisAnchalee) appearance in ads for her firm, demonstrates perfectly just how far we still have to come, not only in tech but in society generally. Consequently, Facebook is not the only company looking to tackle this issue. Google has also been striving to tackle unconscious bias in a public way with anti-bias workshops and coaching sessions, as it has repeatedly been called out about its biases, including in the seemingly innocuous Google Doodles: Spark Summit did an interesting report last year about the rate at which Doodles honour white men. Google Ventures even positions itself as leading the research in this field; this is rather cheeky, given that unconscious bias has been studied academically for decades…. It will be very interesting to see whether Alphabet manages to do better at being more diverse and representative across all levels of the organisation(s), at any rate.
Although tech companies might not be breaking new ground, then, they are opening up the issue, popularising initiatives that tackle unconscious bias at organisational level, and making more readily available resources that can help educate and inform everyone. It’s also an interesting corrective to the increasingly pervasive sentiment that being mindful about everything is all we need to make improvements. David Sze at HuffPo wrote recently about the limits of what introspection can achieve. Research challenges our self-images, suggesting that we are poor judges of the sum of our behaviours, and how to correct flawed patterns of thought or behaviour.

As well as large tech firms trying to lead the way in airing these issues, there are start-ups expressly designed to act as correctives. Textio, for example, promises software that will spot gender biases in job adverts. This is an area that lends itself well to the start-up culture because the landscape is constantly changing. As certain biases are exposed — such as male candidates being more likely to apply for a job that requires a “proven track record” — others will take their place. A constant cycle of close observation and innovation are needed, and this is where re-inventive tech companies and new start-ups can offer most hope for keeping up with and tackling new problems. 

For those interested in exploring their own unconscious biases, it’s worth taking a look at Project Implicit, which is a Harvard project founded in 1998 that studies unconscious bias and offers a range of implicit association tests. The tests are completely free online and seek to measure attitudes and beliefs that one wouldn’t consciously express.

The dangers of women’s appeals to male authority

This blogpost is part mea culpa and part ‘What the hell are two grown women doing playing one-up with their fathers’ qualifications?’ 

Recently, the tenants in my building have been negotiating with the owner as part of a relatively minor but costly issue. In an inevitable way, having finally reached a resolution with the owner, we are now squabbling amongst ourselves. One woman in particular has taken point on a lot of the negotiations. And one other woman is behaving irrationally about the whole settlement. In any legal dispute, a bit of healthy “f*** you” to the other party is desirable, but those with delusions of the courts offering full vindication are dangerous. She is in the latter camp.

As part of her campaign for… I’m not sure what… she not only repeatedly hectored us all condescendingly about her view of the law — rise above it, rise above it — but she had her father (supposedly a lawyer in some capacity) email our point woman to attempt to bully her into refusing the settlement, indicating that he was “senoir [sic] counsel”. Counsel to our fellow tenant, one assumes. He’s certainly not senior counsel at any firm or in-house (because he runs a travel business).

I’m afraid that up with such bullying idiocy I will not put. I thought long and hard about it, but the opportunity to be snarky was too much for me, and I did it. As a fully grown woman with legal qualifications of my own, I leant on my father’s career and CV as a prop when I replied to our fellow tenant indicating that no, just because I accepted the settlement did not mean that I accept any liability for any future issues in her property.

Now, law, in general, is a domain constructed on the logical fallacy of the appeal to authority. So perhaps I can forgive myself for my “I know better lawyers than you” retort (although that might be a tu quoque self-justification…). But when I used to teach debating, logical fallacies were 101, and we hammered into students how to avoid them. And yet I just wasn’t able to resist. In part, my point was that we were both being ridiculous in having recourse to other people’s qualifications when we were both perfectly capable of reasoning our way to the proper course of action. But I was also quite genuinely participating in the dick-by-extension-swinging contest. If it had been her mother or sister who had sent the bullying email, it would probably not have occurred to me to bring my own relatives into it, or at least I would not have been so sorely tempted. 

Implicitly, particularly because we are women, we can treat our fathers as trump cards. They are supposed to be figures of protection, and stereotypically they are also the most highly qualified and professionally advanced of our family unit. Yielding to the temptation to resort to them as trump cards diminishes not only our achievements and capacity as women, but also reinforces these stereotypes. It is an actively damaging step that reinforces stereotypes about both us and them. It validates those who refuse to hear our ideas unless they are repeated or endorsed by a man, and each time we employ the strategy we believe in our own insufficiency a little more. 

Beware logical fallacies. 

And, so as not to end on too dismal a note, while we’re on issues of logic, Tim Minchin’s bit on post hoc ergo propter hoc remains one of the funniest logic-nerd bits ever performed as stand-up.

Image (c) YourLogicalFallacyIs.com, with some minor editing

Imagination "cages"

Andrew Anthony’s article on Simon Schama was posted yesterday, but I only saw it today thanks to Fern Riddell‘s skewering commentary on Twitter, including:



This is all in response to what I’m sure Anthony thought was a charming link between two paragraphs towards the end of the article, jumping off a Schama quote about risking children’s imaginations being “held hostage in the cage of the eternal now” and remarking that Mary Beard is “never one to remain in her own cage”. It’s completely throwaway; Mary Beard is of no interest to Anthony, beyond using her to add “balance” by showing that Schama is not universally loved. (Edit: Anthony also horribly misquotes Beard to achieve this, making his apparent dislike for her doubly disturbing. Beard has tweeted about this herself.)

And that’s what makes it so disturbing. Because it’s obviously bad writing. It barely even makes sense. It’s made its way through Anthony’s drafting process and the online editors because none of them even thought about it.

The only way that one could interpret it as a follow-on from Schama’s use of the word “cage” is if we charitably assume that Anthony is remarking on Beard’s significant pedigree as a classicist. But that is a huge stretch. First, Anthony clearly disagrees with Beard; his article is Schama love-in, and so we doubt there’s much respect meant in his remark. Second, how come Mary gets her very own personal cage? Presumably because, subconsciously (come on, let’s be charitable!), the idea of women’s thinking being restrained (particularly when it disagrees with his) rather pleasantly resonated with Anthony.

So, let us romp wildly on Twitter and wherever else we can!

Breasts, breasts, breasts…

Society does seem obsessed with them, when we stop to think about it. If this title caught your eye, then consider yourself part of society, and ask yourself why while reading this excellent article over at The F-Word, which I wholeheartedly recommend to everyone. Bold and wonderfully open, it can’t help but be a little troubling as well, particularly this paragraph, which I present to you now, teaser-style (somewhat ironically, given that it’s about breasts…):

Nowadays things are much better. I’ve got better at dressing to make my breasts look smaller (not that I should have to, although I would choose to anyway), and looking older means that I get less unwanted attention (not that I should have received unwanted attention when I was younger either, and not that I am exactly geriatric at 25). I no longer feel like a sex object every waking moment. I no longer hate my breasts and I no longer feel that they’re unwanted appendages. I would definitely like them to be smaller and I won’t pretend otherwise, but they feel like part of me, rather than the disembodied udders that they used to feel like. I’m still not happy though. Why should I ever have felt that way? Why should I have had to have struggled so hard to be respected and taken seriously?