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Invisible Women: a default male stew

Invisible Women
Invisible Women: a default male stew
By Caroline Criado Perez • Issue #91 • View online

Hello hello hello GFPs roll up roll up, take a seat. HUGE excitement over at GFP Towers this week as the goddess that is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has recommended Invisible Women in US Elle, choosing it as the book that most surprised her:
Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez surprised me because even though I know the world is male-dominated, I had never seen the case for data bias presented so convincingly and thoroughly (and with personality!)
I’m particularly excited because this is not the first time Her Chimamandaness has recommended Invisible Women: she first (to my knowledge) gave IW a shoutout almost two years ago in the New York Times:
The last book you read that made you furious?
Two brilliant books I read back to back infuriated me because they detail the pernicious real-world effects of sexism, that refusal of the world to see female humans as full humans.
“The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World,” by Michelle Goldberg, and “Invisible Women,” by Caroline Criado Perez.
This is extremely exciting to me, not only because I admire CNA so d*mn much, which I absolutely do, but also because this basically means I have been squatting in her head for TWO years 😍😎
Chimamanda, if you’re reading this: CAN WE PLEASE BE FRIENDS???
Ahem. That’s probably enough of my embarrassing fan-girling / showing off. Let’s get down to the Very Serious Business of holding the gender data gap and all who sail in default male him to account
Gender data gap of the week
Faithful GFPs may remember that I while back I reported on a study which found that, surprise surprise, humans are far more likely to perceive “illusory faces” in things like potatoes and cardboard boxes (a phenomenon called face pareidolia) as male than female. As I wrote at the time, this was likely not surprising to GFPs, since GFPs have all read their Invisible Women, haven’t they and Invisible Women was pretty clear on this bias, eg:
We don’t even allow non-humans to escape our perception of the world as overwhelmingly male: when researchers in one study attempted to prompt participants to see a gender-neutral stuffed animal as female by using female pronouns, children, parents and carers still overwhelmingly referred to the animal as ‘he’. The study found that an animal must be ‘super-feminine’ before ‘even close to half of participants will refer to it as she rather than he’. (IW, p.10)
Anyway, some of the same researchers have done another study on the same topic, this time checking to see if this bias is stable across recent generations and SPOILER: it is! In fact the findings were remarkably similar to the previous study.
There was “a clear bias for participants in all three age groups to perceive illusory faces as male rather than female,” with most illusory faces “rated as more male than female by participants of all ages.”
This graph shows the mean gender rating per face and as you can see, and as with the previous study, male faces were more conclusively male than female faces were female --  that is, while they were, on average, rated as female, they received fewer female votes than the faces that were, on average, rated as male.
This graph shows the mean gender rating per face and as you can see, and as with the previous study, male faces were more conclusively male than female faces were female -- that is, while they were, on average, rated as female, they received fewer female votes than the faces that were, on average, rated as male.
Also as with the previous study, the male bias wasn’t just found at the level of images (as in more images were rated male than female); participants themselves were also much more likely to give a male than a female to any given image, with participants giving “at least twice as many male ratings for pareidolia images than female ratings,” a finding that held across all age groups.
And again, as with the previous study, participant gender had little to no bearing on whether or not a participant had a male bias – both men and women were significantly more likely to see a male rather than a female face (this is unsurprising because female people grow up in the same default male stew as male people, but somehow we continue to be surprised when women are sexist. Women don’t literally come from Venus, ya know)
As for why this bias exists, the authors are still unable to say, although they do think that this study, by demonstrating that the bias is already exhibited by children as young as four, “significantly constrains the range of possible explanations.”
Human faces are sexually dimorphic, and adults are able to rapidly and accurately classify the sex of faces even in the absence of typical sex-defining features such as hairstyle, clothing, facial hair, or makeup. Children show an increase in the ability to accurately classify both children and adult’s faces by sex in the absence of external cues such as hair from ages 7 to 9 years of age, although their performance remains below that of adults.
Children under the age of seven can distinguish male from female faces, but they are less good at it when the faces are stripped of gendered markers. This makes it even less likely that the bias towards male faces has anything to do with the faces themselves, as opposed to our socially constructed default male bias.
We found the male bias in our youngest group of children from 4 to 8 years of age, evidence that the male bias for face pareidolia emerges before the ability to determine gender from facial cues alone is fully developed. This suggests that the bias to perceive illusory faces as male is unlikely to be driven by a sophisticated ability to discriminate the distinguishing visual features of faces associated with each sex. Consistent with this, in our previous study with adults a computational analysis of the visual features in the same examples of face pareidolia we used here did not show an association with their perceived gender, and control experiments ruled out explanations based on pre-existing semantic or visual gender associations with the objects that contain the illusory face.
So what’s going? Dear reader I refer you to my previously stated sum-up:
This led the researchers to conclude that humans simply have a cognitive bias to read faces as male. As for where the bias comes from, well, I have my own theories about that. I even wrote a whole book about it– maybe you’d like to pick up a copy in your local independent bookstore 😘
(And yes, ok, fusspots, technically this is a default male entry not a GDGOTW entry but I already had a banger for DMOTW and also default male is the REASON BEHIND the gender data gap so really every default male is a gender data gap in disguise 🥸
Default male of the week
In other news, come the f*ck on, British Cycling…
@BritishCycling simply stating this in your introduction to a (women-specific) training course does not make it ok!#defaultmale @CCriadoPerez
In a course aimed AT WOMEN!!!! ffs!
Clearly, British Cycling has not been reading their Invisible Women, because if they had, they would remember that I VERY CLEARLY EXPLAIN that the “generic” masculine is in no way “inclusive” of women:
Numerous studies in a variety of languages over the past forty years have consistently found that what is called the ‘generic masculine’ (using words like ‘he’ in a gender-neutral way) is not in fact read generically. It is read overwhelmingly as male.
When the generic masculine is used people are more likely to recall famous men than famous women; to estimate a profession as male-dominated; to suggest male candidates for jobs and political appointments. Women are also less likely to apply, and less likely to perform well in interviews, for jobs that are advertised using the generic masculine. In fact the generic masculine is read so overwhelmingly as male that it even overrides otherwise powerful stereotypes, so that professions such as ‘beautician’, which are usually stereotyped female, are suddenly seen as male. It even distorts scientific studies, creating a kind of meta gender data gap: a 2015 paper looking at self-report bias in psychological studies found that the use of the generic masculine in questionnaires affected women’s responses, potentially distorting ‘the meaning of test scores’. (IW, p.5)
And again I say: come the f on, British Cycling 😑😑😑
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Product of the week
starting the indoctrination young, you love to see it
(incidentally a male GFP got in touch with me this week to express his HORROR at his new running jersey not having pockets and I’m wondering if, like unisex toilets depriving men of easy pee-ing access, the first step towards pocket equity is to first deprive men of theirs and SEE HOW THEY LIKE IT. I’d love to see a clothes manufacturer breezily telling a man, based on nothing at all, that “actually men don’t want pockets in their trousers”)
Poppy pic of the week
Remember the sun?? 😢
Remember the sun?? 😢
That’s it! Until next time, my dear GFPs….xoxoxo
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Caroline Criado Perez

Keeping up with the gender data gap (and whatever else takes my fancy). Like the Kardashians, but with more feminist rage. Plus, toilet queue of the week.

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