How Silly Are You (or Pompous or Forthright)?

What’s wrong with being called gutsy? The new book by Hillary and Chelsea Clinton use it as a term of approbation, but it didn’t find favour with Emma Brockes in the Guardian. Why?

‘It’s partly that descriptors like “gutsy” seem to protest too much, partly that they feel slightly infantilising, and mainly, I think, that they have become disembodied marketing terms used to launder self-promotion as somehow socially useful.’

It’s true that gutsy is probably a word that I associate with that child who sticks with something – the egg and spoon race perhaps – that others can see they’re struggling with. (Or, for those of a certain age, think Eddie the Eagle, the ‘gutsy’ ski-jumper from the UK who came last in the 1988 Olympics in both the events he entered.) In that sense it is infantilising I suppose, but at least it isn’t a word I’d necessarily see as gendered. Unlike feisty.  Or sweet. If you look at this analysis of student evaluations across the gamut of subjects on RateMyProfessor, it is fascinating to see which words come across as strongly gendered, and which (not always obviously to my mind) do not. It is also curious how different subjects vary so greatly in the extent to which adjectives are both used at all and used differently for men and women. Feisty does not turn up particularly often in evaluations in this study, but whereas it doesn’t seem to be used at all about women in physics (phew!) it is most common in the Fine Arts. Funny is a word that is used far more often, more about males than females, and apparently particularly in psychology and Criminal Justice courses. I did not have the latter down as a laugh a minute, but apparently I’d be wrong about the subject. As for ‘sweet’, inevitably far more women are labelled this way than men, particularly in Languages. Again, perhaps reassuringly to me, female physicists don’t get called sweet very often.

I find it intriguing that pompous and arrogant are associated with men, pompous particularly for those in Fine Arts (which repeatedly comes at the top or bottom of the lists for frequency of use of a given word) and in political science and engineering for the latter. But, whereas engineers (male) are seen as arrogant, male – and female – physicists and mathematicians are rarely viewed that way, sitting right at the bottom of the list for that word. Across the board women are slightly more likely to be called tedious than men, but men are more likely to be called boring. Why? Women are more likely to be deemed nasty, men as charismatic. One can spend a long time following these charts, watching which words are gendered, which are used frequently and in which subjects. Not necessarily a very fruitful way of spending a wet November evening, except in so far as it shows how gendered our language is, even when we don’t mean it to be.

All this is relevant to the shorthand way we use to try to describe people when we first meet them. I was amused to hear the head of an Oxbridge College recently described as forthright, and it struck me that that was a word that I don’t think is obviously gendered – a view corroborated by RateMyProfessor, although it clearly isn’t often used at all in student evaluations. Nevertheless, heads of colleges describing their fellows heads probably do pick their words often in the same unthinking way as a student describing their lecturer. I get on really well with one head of house – so they strike me as charismatic – but I have nothing in common with another, so I might deem them boring. I wouldn’t necessarily only use those words about men, despite the data from RateMyProfessor, but I am not sure I have met a female head I’d call pompous.

It is all very well being acutely conscious of how one writes letters of reference, but in casual speech – or rapidly-scrawled student evaluations – we are probably much less conscious or careful.  Yet, as with all the concerns expressed about the use of student evaluations in the TEF – or indeed their use in promotion processes – we probably should be worrying. If I am making small talk over the dinner table I might slyly insert that I think someone is terrible (more negatively associated with women apparently in evaluations) when it comes to completing committee work, but that someone else is too sarcastic for my tastes (more commonly applied to men). Yet the idea of censoring all my language so that I can only use words that the public at large would not recognize as gendered would certainly restrict my conversation.

This of course is the trouble with bias, particularly in this unconscious form. We are brought up to associate certain words with certain characteristics and culturally those characteristics may more often sit with one gender than the other. Or at least, they may have done in the past. We are still stuck with a certain set of norms that have almost invariably passed their sell by date without anyone removing them from the shelves of discourse.  Hence, our shorthand lazy brain makes easy connections which may no longer have any validity, even if they ever did. Think Daniel Kahneman and his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, who explained how our System I brain jumps to conclusions our System 2 brain would reject if it ever bothered to kick in. Ironically, in this context Virginia Valian certainly came to the same conclusion earlier in her 1999 book Why So Slow?.  I have heard it said of this observation that, typically, an idea only catches on when what the woman said is picked up by a man…..

We can only do the best we can. Choosing words like ‘forthright’ to describe someone may be pleasantly free from gendered associations. But if someone strikes me as silly or pompous, be they student or professor, I’m likely to go on saying so regardless of gender. I just think much harder when it comes to putting an adjective down on paper for more formal consideration.


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