[Comment is free] It isn’t girls who need to watch their words

Originally published by the Guardian.

I probably shouldn’t say too much. I’m female, you see, and scientists have said that “girls [are] at risk of talking too much”. It was a headline in the Telegraph. Scary stuff. If we ladies don’t stop our nattering, all human culture could be swept away by the chirruping tide of oestrogen-imbued verbiage.

The headline fits with the old, old stereotype about talkative women – you can see it lurking in scathing epithets like “nag”, “shrew” and “fishwife”, and it comes out frequently in popular works of neurosexism such as Louann Brizendine’s The Female Brain. But when linguist Mark Liberman tried to fact-check claims that women are the more voluble sex, he found no evidence. “The scientific support for [this] picture of biological determinism seems to slip through the fingers as you try to grasp it,” he writes. So before I clamp my scold’s bridle in place, maybe I should read the rest of the Telegraph piece.

It turns out that this isn’t really a story about how women communicate excessively; instead, it’s about how universities and academics communicate with the world, and what journalists do with the information they receive. The Telegraph report is based on a paper that’s due to be published in the journal Child Development. Well, sort of – it seems to be based on a press release based on the due-to-be-published paper, although it doesn’t name the paper and it conflates the results with those of a previous study (all of which falls short of the standards you might hope a national newspaper would apply to science reporting, though that obviously won’t surprise readers of Ben Goldacre).

The paper to which the Telegraph report refers, by Professor Amanda Rose, studies “how girls and boys expect talking about problems will make them feel”. What it doesn’t study (I know this because Professor Rose was kind enough to send me a copy) is whether girls are talking too much, not enough, or just the right amount. And while the results show some gender differences – girls are relatively more likely to expect that talking about problems will make them feel better; boys are relatively more likely to expect that talking about problems will make them feel “weird” or be unproductive – within the paper, Rose is careful to stress that the relationship between gender and “problem talk” is limited.

“A concern is that overstating sex effects leads to stereotypical thinking about girls and boys,” she writes. “It should not be overlooked that girls and boys both endorsed positive expectations more strongly than negative expectations.” And in the spirit of not overstating sex effects, the University of Missouri produced a press release (and Rose confirms by email that she approved it) with the title “Males believe discussing problems is a waste of time, MU study shows”. In the transition from academic journal to attention-grabbing press release, the self-reported feelings of a minority of boys have been transformed into something that’s generally true of males as a whole. It’s almost as if no one was that concerned at all about overstating sex effects.

Still, Professor Rose was right that exaggerating gender differences could lead to reductive thinking: as well as the Telegraph report, her research has spawned a comment piece in the Philadelphia magazine called, snappily, “Housewives, shut up”. Rose offers some intelligent explanations in her paper of the way that cultural gender expectations go to inform children’s ideas about how they should behave, but the way her paper has been promoted makes it part of the same determinist slurry – what Cordelia Fine describes as “recycling gender” in her incredibly good book, Delusions of Gender.

“These stereotypical associations linger on,” writes Fine, “continuing to be reinforced by the patterns of a half-changed world.” The false belief that women talk excessively becomes a reason to tell them to talk less – just as the headline in the Telegraph does. But it isn’t girls who need to watch their words. It’s the journalists, PRs and academics who allow tiresome preconceptions and hunger for publicity to distort the way they present science to the world.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2011; photo by The Hamster Factory, used under Creative Commons