Gender Sensitive. [Ouch.]

I have been, very kindly and probably against people’s better judgement, allowed to audit a few classes of a programme on Quantitative Analysis, quant. an. being a part of the work I am expected to do. For those not acquainted with Quant. Methods classes for the social sciences: They begin with a dull, reassuring rehash of high-school statistics, so one can sit back, sigh at the memories, and let the brain function on autopilot, conserving bewilderment and grit for future modules.

Sometimes, however, the instructor tosses out a sentence that yanks back even the most dedicated wandering minds (I’m sure they do it on purpose, the brutes), and last class, I felt a sudden kick in my metaphorical shins, as it were, when I heard our instructor conclude, “… IQ is indeed positively correlated with shoe size”.

This was an outrageous statement, even by my standards, so I concluded — with remarkable speed and accuracy, I think — that what I thought a statement was probably a question. Half of the class that I could see was slowly focusing their eyes and coming to the same conclusions.

“No?” ventured a girl to my right.

“No what?” riposted the teacher, looking, I thought, just the tiniest bit pleased with himself.

“No, er, not positively correlated?”

“Negatively correlated?” asked the teacher, with the perfectly innocent look that is bait to many a hook.

“NOT correlated”, chorused two girls from the back, rising to it rather inadvisedly.

“Prove it!” said the teacher, triumphantly.

We hastily bent over our notes, which had been dictated by our ears to our fingers, without, as it were, detouring through our brains. Suddenly, a confident male voice said, from right over my shoulder, “They ARE positively correlated”.

The teacher looked taken aback. He hadn’t expected a doubling-back. “And how can we say that?”, he asked, brows scrunching.

“The data clearly shows it. YOU said the data shows a positive correlation”, said the voice, its tone hinting at betrayal on the faculty front.

The girl next to me sighed. “Variables can show simultaneous changes without actually being influenced by each other, that is the point of this test”, she said (with, I thought, rather pointed patience).

“Yes, I mean, sometimes you can tell by simple common sense, isn’t it, that two variables are independent of each other?” asked the teacher, glad someone was paying attention.

“So in this case common sense shows there is positive correlation”, said the male voice doggedly. “Bigger shoe size means bigger heads, means more brains, means greater IQ”.

“Uh”, said the teacher, prevented by modern pedagogy from speaking his mind. “Well… I mean…”, and then he gave in to the easy way. “You are, of course, right, but when independent…”

“No he’s not”, said a girl from the first row sharply. “He is not right, and to say he is right would be encouraging a sexist hypothesis”.

The teacher, chalk poised, looked absolutely blank. “Sexist?”, he said, “How did gender get into this?”

“In absolute terms, men’s feet will always be larger than women’s feet. That doesn’t mean all women are stupider than men”.

“That is not what he…” began the teacher.

“But they are“, said the male voice, cutting him off.

After a brief silence, the teacher dragged the discussion back to the data sets, telling us not to waste valuable time on ‘other things’. The whole class was now wide awake and listening with razor sharp attention, but not, I think, because statistics had become fascinating over the minute. There was an undercurrent of suppressed outrage and quiet seething that made slipping back into stupor impossible.

That evening, I was telling the story, with great aplomb, to a mixed group of acquaintances. “I like those girls, I really do”, I said, “but this “I’m a victim, watch me whine!” hysteric is bloody embarrassing. That boy was far too stupid — or deliberately provocative, who knows? — to have merited the attention he managed to get. It all boils down to shrilly, thin-skinned insecurity — something I can do well without”.

“Well, that’s modern girls for you”, said one of the group. “Give them their freedom, and they’ll turn around and claw your eyes out”.

“What?” I said.

“It’s true”, the group’s smoker nodded, from near the window. “They can’t fight you with brains or talent, so they’ll fight you with screeches and bitching and tears”.

“This is why I am not a feminist”, confided the girl closest to me.

“Why aren’t you?”, I asked, because it was not at all clear to me what ‘this’ was.

“Well, this“, she expanded, throwing her arms wide in front of her. “You know, people like your friends. Women who have all the freedom they need, but are always shouting and demanding and making a scene. Like you said, it’s very embarrassing”.

“That is not what I said”, I bit out, glaring.

“I’m sorry, we’re being tactless”, she said hastily, gesturing at her friends to shut up. Then she playfully patted me on the shoulder, “But you started it!”

“Yeah, seriously man, when you feel uncomfortable with these shrews, you should just say it”, advised the smoker.

“Scream, demand, and make a scene?” I enquired politely.

“Yeah”, he said, without a trace of irony. “Don’t let them get to you”.

There is a lesson in this story. Unfortunately, I think the lesson is for me.

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20 comments

  1. What do you now think the girl should (not) have said and RE her being hysteric? I suppose she felt a nasty surprise at seeing what the boy was saying (the sexist part) and wanted the teacher explain (to her too?) why it was wrong. Imho, if a teacher says something provocative on purpose, he has to be prepared to provide a good explanation, not lose control of the discussion and hide after dropping the proverbial bomb like this.

    • First, I think I should clarify the teacher’s stand: I don’t think he had any idea gender would sneak into the discussion on shoe size. He deliberately chose IQ and shoe size because ‘common sense’, as he said, would discount any causal relation between the two. That a student would actually interpret shoe sizes to mean masculine intellectual superiority completely baffled him.

      Re. what I think: it’s complicated by the kind of person I am. I have a bit of a temper, and I’m known for my sharp tongue. On the other hand, I cannot stand the irrational and loud shouting matches most rational debates evolve into. Therefore, partly in self-defence and partly out of a superior generosity to lesser mortals, I make a conscious effort to pick and choose my battles. Since I am well aware of the bigotry against my gender, and am also aware that shouting at a determined bigot has little effect on said bigotry, I would have chosen not to respond to this chap beyond perhaps a raised eyebrow.

      So, to sum up my position on the first exchange — I do not object ideologically to it, I merely object personally, and perhaps aesthetically. To engage with a deliberate fool is not the best use of my time, especially in a classroom. But if someone else feels they must, well, then they must. I will merely abstain.

      • This man isn’t worth it, imho. However, it was not talking to him alone, but to the entire classroom: probably some were agreeing with him, while others didn’t know what to say. Had the teacher known what to answer, some students would learn how to deal with it in the future (if they want to), some would know better than believe him and all would get a lesson in statistics.

        The teacher lost it before she mentioned gender.

  2. Been there. Heard that. Last year. You keep good company. Actually we all do 🙂 I like modern girls who ‘are always shouting and demanding and making a scene’ and trash my argument when they think there isn’t one. Keep rocking, u peeps 🙂

  3. Wow…this is quite something although I am not surprised. I find it strange when I m chastised for making much ado about nothing in mundane situations where gender stereotyping is clearly dominating the way someone is conversing with me and the content of the conversation. Honestly, who decided what’s worth protesting and what’s not??? Sheesh.

  4. I know this wasn’t the point of the discussion, but that guy confuses correlation and causality. That’s all I really need to know about his IQ I guess. Also, something tells me that he doesn’t understand that both positive and negative correlation are essentially the same thing (i.e. in either direction it suggests a relation between the variables).

  5. I wrote this for Sandesh once: Hothath raja kheyalboshey aain korlo jari/ joto bodo mostishko pagri toto bhari/ Montri moshai bhebe boley amar pagri tobey/ ojon korey dekhle porey teen chaar mon hobey /….there’s lots more finally ending with “Tokhon birat juddho holo british elo deshey/ pagri chere shobai tokhon tupi porlo sheshe!”

    Prophetic words as it turns out….!

    • Very succinct, Mandy.

      Thanks for chirping in, everybody else. I would still hold that I might personally not find a particular point from a particular person important enough to defend, and might even find women doing it a little shrill (although I’ve now realised what pushes women to move to the defensive and be shrill). This does not automatically render these women hysterical bitches making a scene, ’cause that’s what women do best. One attitude does not translate into the other.

      Except, that is, for people with little feet.

  6. Why are so many of your acquaintances such dumbasses? Probably because they’re youre acquaintances (as opposed to friends) and also probably why they’re acquaintances and not friends. I should think every person who has “all the freedom they want” would shout and scream for those that haven’t. Too idealistic?

    • Srin, you’ve nailed the acq. vs. friends. I’ve no idea why I acquire more strange acquaintances than most, but I presume it’s because I gibber incessently to most people close at hand, at any given time, and this creates an illusion of friendly good cheer. I often find I’m a friend to people whose name I can barely recall.

  7. This is an old statistics problem. When you are looking at children, big feet are positively correlated with intelligence. This is because they are older! There’s no correlation when you look at adults. And, as a previous guest commented, correlation is not the same as causation.

    • The teacher picked it precisely because it is a classic problem, and also simpler than the actual data set we were testing. He wanted a comprehensive demonstration of how apparent correlation is not an indicator for causality, and why testing for causality is important. The possible gender implications had clearly not occured to him at all, and he was gobsmacked when they were brought up.

      Having said that, and as the previous commentator also noted, this was not really the point of the incident. An adult with a master’s degree who thinks size of feet indexes size of brain and size of brain indexes intelligence can, I think, be forgiven for not quite grasping basic statistical concepts. It’s all quite beyond him, poor chap.

      Welcome to the blog, btw 🙂

  8. Hello Priyanka, just checked this blog after a long time – actually, looking to see whether anything on the web indicates that you’re alive, because I’ve not heard from you in ages. Anyway, Runa would appreciate this particular blog entry, and be infuriated by some of the people described in it.

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