Via The F-Word, a dispiriting post that starts with the question: “Ever wondered what we’d get if “two of Britain’s most outspoken feminists” (Julies Bindel and Burchill) had a conversation in The Guardian’s G2? Let’s see…

As it happens, I wasn’t aware that Julie Burchill actually identified as feminist – or anything like it, for that matter. Certainly, when I lived at home and snuck away with Mum’s issue of the Guardian at the weekend, I never noticed anything that suggested that she did.

And on the subject of Julie Bindel, I know a little. I know she’s on Facebook; I know she’s been embroiled in a large and wide-ranging argument on the subject of trans people’s rights, which, as far as I can tell, she doesn’t really care about; I know she does care about lesbian rights, although she’s been reported to have said that lesbianism is “a choice”; and, bizarrely, I know that she’s been recently “made up” by an Avon representative. Like you do.

I got this information – all of which I’d already gained from other sources – from the first page of a Google search.

After my 10-minute foray into the wilds of Julie Bindel’s unofficial Google biography, what I’ve gained is shock that she didn’t manage to say anything worse in this latest Guardian article. She certainly doesn’t have a good track record.

I’d love to say that I wouldn’t normally criticize somebody without their knowledge, but that is clearly a lie. I do it all the time, usually with BBC reports, and, by implication, the reporters. And if they can get the special “Rachel” treatment, I see no reason not to extend that honour to her, too.

You know, I read somewhere once (and wish I’d made a note of it) that feminism, at least in the academic sense, stopped being relevant to one woman when she could no longer talk to her mother about it. And I think this is something that ought to be added to my list of Things Feminists Often Get Wrong: academia has its place. And that place is in libraries, looking smug. Out in the real world, real women are affected by real things that real people do and say. And it’s all too easy for a privileged group to think of the issues of a nonprivileged group in terms of theories, or camps, or controversies, or whatever the buzzword of the year is. But when you try to apply theories to the real world, they often don’t fit. Even I know this, and I’m a mathematician. I live in an academic swamp of theories and corollaries and even laws, but when it comes to things like mechanics, these get handed down to me with the disclaimer that sometimes this isn’t true.

For example: one thing you learn is that a feather and a rock should, in theory, fall at the same rate, and hit the ground at the same time if dropped from the same height. This is fine, if you’re on the moon. But here on Earth, there is air resistance, which means that the law, although technically true, is not actually very helpful, and if you were of a gambling disposition, you would have just lost money. Unless we were on the moon.

All of this is a slightly lengthly way of shoehorning a mathematical analogy into a post that didn’t need to include one. But it’s also a way to point out that at the end of the day, theories are all well and good, but if the people you’re theorising about tell you that you’re wrong, and be damned the problems it might cause your worldview, it tends to be a good idea to listen to them. Yes, even if they’ve just damned your faulty worldview. As it turns out, I don’t much care about that either. If the theory breaks when applied to real life, it’s either not a good theory at all, or something vital is missing from it, and that’s your problem. Clearly, it is not the feather’s fault that it doesn’t match up. And I wouldn’t expect the feather to care.

And all of this is an even longer way of saying that reputations live on. Like I said, it was the first page of a Google search. And if you can pick up reputations by association, this is one association I will happily – and determinedly – choose to live without.

Given all this, and if I lived in happyland where unicorns farted rainbows, I might be a little surprised that the Guardian had picked Julie Bindel to represent feminism. As it happens, though, I’m not at all surprised. Disappointed, but not surprised. Which brings me rather neatly back to the title, and means that I should probably stop writing!

Yes, it’s that time again; I’ve managed to carve some free time into my weekend (slightly extending the definition of “weekend”) and what better way to spend it than to cast a beady eye over this week’s stalwart BBC reporting?

First off, lest we forget that marriage has a long and unsavoury history with legally sanctioned rape, there are two stories from Northern Ireland which caught my eye: a teenage boy (link is to a video report; transcript under cut) who violently raped an American woman in a park in Belfast has been sentenced to 8 years imprisonment, while a 29-year-old Polish man from Derry was given 5.5 years for raping and threatening to kill his then wife. I should also point out that the second man was deemed to pose a high risk of reoffending. To have been given a significantly lower sentence than the first seems somewhat surprising.

Another news story with a somewhat tenuous link to Northern Ireland is this report on research that has been condensed down to “female binge drink rates double”.

That makes for an interesting headline, but, as you might expect, doesn’t actually pick up on much of the study. What they’ve said on the subject is this:

Although there is no standard definition of binge drinking, it is typically defined as drinking more than twice the recommended daily limit on any one day. This corresponds to more than eight units of alcohol in men and more than six units in women.

Ladies, be warned. If you drink more than three double JD&cokes on a night out, you’ve binged! In fact, “revised methods for calculating a unit of alcohol have been introduced recently… [This] effectively doubles the units of alcohol calculated for a glass of wine“, which by my count means that two glasses of wine send you over the binge limit, too. Of course, that’s only because of the “trend for using larger sizes of wine glasses“. I’m now reminded of that greetings card featuring a woman in her 30s curled up on a sofa, holding a wine glass as big as her head, with the caption saying something along the lines of being “good” and “cutting down to one glass a night”.

And, of course, nobody wants to be reminded that “women are less likely than men to drink and women who do drink consume less than men.” That would be far too boring, and besides, why ever would we chastise men for their drinking habits? I myself consider it mere laddish larking about when I hear the sounds of men vomiting and fighting outside my window, whereas the sounds of women giggling – well! That is clearly not the kind of behaviour suitable for a respectable young lady to be party to!

In fact, what has happened, in general, over the last 15 – 20 years, is that ” the drinking behaviour of women that has increased toward that of men“. Apparently,

This might be interpreted as one expression of the historically recent emancipation of women in Western society, the pressure of positive advertising and also the increased financial security and independence of women.

I am shocked. In fact, I may swoon. So, there are two things going on here. Firstly, our glorious tradition of rampant capitalism means that alcohol companies have discovered that, in fact, women are quite capable of drinking, and that, therefore, there is money to be made. You can also see this being played out with the increasing number of Manly Cosmetics For Men (TM), which are packaged in blue, black, white and silver in order that women, who can only see pink (possibly because of berries in a forest) will not buy them, and also so that men (who see in black and white, possibly because of hunting zebra in the savannah) will want to hunt them down and take them to the checkout, just as in days of old they would have taken them to the fire. Or something. Secondly, the studies have noted that the behaviour of women has “increased toward that of men“, and This might be interpreted as one expression of … the increased financial security and independence of women”. This is also not surprising. If men drink more than women and women’s drinking increases, where else would women’s drinking increase towards? These studies don’t allow for identifying outside of the gender binary, which means you’re a bit stuck for anywhere else to go. And indeed, you might find that women with more money and more independence, in a culture which is more accepting of women’s presence – unaccompanied by men – in bars, might be drinking more.

An interesting question might then be, in this age that finds a barrage of articles every summer proclaiming that “feminism is dead” (which to my mind gives it more lives than a very lucky cat), why is it that women are not drinking as much as men? Can it all be attributed to women’s lower tolerance of alcohol, or are there other social factors still in play? Discuss.

In other news, Harriet Harman has been talking to The Fawcett Society about the Equalities Bill. So that’s nice. Somewhat annoying that it’s described as “controversial new legislation“. Because, as I’ve said before, “when you have a white male director general of five male executive directors being quoted in a serious publication on the subject of inequality, of course it’s fucking necessary.” And also, it shouldn’t be*cough*womenstilldon’thaveequality*cough*controversial. Can I mention those “feminism is dead” articles again yet?

Lest this post goes on forever, I shall stop here. Pausing only to mention that a male contraceptive injection that “could be as effective at preventing pregnancies as the female pill” could become available in five years or so. Which would mean that those men who believe that women exist solely to steal their sperm, have their children and then drain their bank accounts and/ or marry them, divorce them and take exactly half of everything including half of the tv using a chainsaw would finally be able to make sure it doesn’t happen. Of course, they would have to be injected. With needles. And it might be, you know, effort. And they then might not be fully fertile for a whole six months afterwards. Which would be a blow to their manly manly identity, which rests on virility. But I’m sure they’ll welcome it, nevertheless!

If ever J’s mother had watched Pinky and the Brain, our recent, brief conversation about the new Equalities Bill might have gone a little something like this:

Her: “Have you heard about the equalities bill, Pinky?”

Me: “Yes – what are we going to do about it, Brain?”

Her: “The same thing we do every time we get annoyed about gender issues, Pinky – try to take over the world!”

Unfortunately, however, I don’t believe she’s familiar with the cartoon, which means that such a scenario will never happen. The scenario that actually happened was similar, up to and including the part where we try to take over the world. I maintain that it could happen, and apparently she’s coming round to the idea, because last night she requested that I start drawing up our manifesto – apparently our tyranny will spawn from the existing democratic model!

Anyway, I mention her now, not because I’m planning on taking over the world in the imminent future, satisfying though that might be, but because, but for that conversation, this post might never have happened.

According to the BBC:

“Many employers will be made to reveal how much they pay men compared with women, under the Equalities Bill.
Firms employing at least 250 staff would be required to publish average hourly rates for men and women by 2013.”

Many employers? Not by the ONS numbers. As of 2008, out of the 2.16 million registered businesses, only 0.4% of companies were employing 250 or more staff. Or, to put it another way, for every 1000 businesses registered, only 4 of them will be required to publish their average hourly rates.

Contrast that with those businesses employing less than 10 staff: 89%. Even if you assumed that every one of those businesses was employing just 2 people, that’s over 3 million employees. Add in the further 9.1% of businesses with 10-50 employees (and assume they all have only 10), and the 1% of businesses with 50-250 employees (and assume they all only have 50) and you have a total of over 6.8 million workers. Does the government really think that targetting that miserable 0.4% that makes up the “large company” category is actually going to help? For the numbers even to be equal, every single one of those (8,640) large companies would have to employ 797 staff. Realistic? I think not.

And, to be honest with you, it’s easy to manipulate numbers, if you know how. Does the government propose to lay out in detail the manner in which the records must be kept? Which “average” are they going to use? Arithmetic mean – add them all up, and divide by the number of employees? Median – put all of the hourly rates in order, then find the one in the middle? Mode – find the rate that’s paid most often?

That these don’t give the same answer is obvious when you consider even five wages. Say you had a kitchen. You might have one Head Chef (£20), three chefs working for him (£10) and one pot-washer (£5). Well, if you take the mean of those wages, you get £11. If you take the median, you get £10, and if you take the mode, you get £10. So, if you wanted to make it look as though you were paying your staff more, you might use the mean. If not, you’d probably use the median.

But what if you had two kitchens? The first would be as above. But in the second, you might have a different Head Chef, and only pay her £17, but pay the three chefs underneath her £11 each. You’d still get a mean of £11. But you’re not paying the male Head Chef and the female Head Chef the same wage. And you’ve just successfully disguised that fact.

The story continues, and on the subject of gender inequality, it doesn’t get much better.

Harriet Harman has said that businesses will have until 2013 to voluntarily publish the data.

With quotes like this:

This is a further example of unnecessary regulation at a time when companies, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, are struggling to survive” from Miles Templeman, director general of the Institute of Directors (and, by the sounds of it, part of the Department of Administrative Affairs), I think I’m permitted to feel a little skeptical.

It’s heartening to know that such an august gentleman might, like myself, have trouble with his eyesight. Probably quite severe trouble, actually, since he seems to have confused the word “large” with the words “small and medium-sized”. I suppose I should recommend my optician to him.

On the other hand, never let it be said that I pick on only the negatives. The bill, in broad terms, is heartening in its consideration of other discriminated groups – in particular, the working class and the elderly – and the BBC has had no trouble in placing sentences for maximum irony:

“Ministers want older people to pay for services, such as insurance, based on the actual risk they face, rather than an arbitrary age-based cost. This has the backing of charity Age Concern and Help the Aged. However, the Association of British Insurers has denied its members’ policies are unfair, saying they simply take account of risk.”

Indeed. arbitrary age-based costs are not arbitrary, but simply take account of risk. In other news, war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.*

So: do I like the bill? Well, roughly speaking, yes. I’m pleased with efforts to address inequalities, even as I feel that some policies could have been better thought-through, or better explained, or both. It may well be that those who are writing the bill have taken into account the kinds of concerns that I have mentioned. They might even have thought of things that I haven’t. But until I can find more than a rough outline of the bill, I’m stuck with critiquing what is here.

Do I think it will help? Perhaps. It depends on how co-operative companies are with the legislation.

Do I think it’s necessary? You know, I could write a whole other post and more about the necessity of legislating what privileged groups won’t do by themselves. But the short answer is this: when you have a white male director general of five male executive directors being quoted in a serious publication on the subject of inequality, of course it’s fucking necessary.

*gratuitous 1984 quote. If you haven’t read it, go and do so, please!

There was:

  • A question which starts with the words “fifteen individuals who attend a weightwatchers’ clinic are each to be assigned at random to one of the treatments A, B, C to reduce their weights”, and goes on to list “differing amounts of weight” that they need to lose.
  • A question that starts “a surgeon wishes to compare two possible surgical techniques for curing a specific heart defect…” and goes on to list 24 patients, together with “sex: M/F” and “age”.

Why am I highlighting this?

Well, actually, there’s a few reasons.

Firstly, diets don’t work. So the first example grates on me. Secondly, both questions are about changes to the human body. One of them merits the sex of the individuals being known. The other one apparently doesn’t.

Are we meant to assume that weight loss will occur (assuming it does occur, for which, see my first point) at the same rate for men and women? At this point, I’m not getting into discussing the gender binary, because we’re dealing with statistics, and one of the things that statistics does is identify trends. The problem occurs when people start to take trends to be indicative of not only the whole population, but for each individual within that population.

So, if we can assume for the moment that people socially identified as male tend to have a different bodily structure to those socially identified as female, surely it would make just as much sense for the weightwatchers trial to be stratified by sex as it was for the heart defect trial.

In which case, I’m surprised that the question didn’t make that clear. Yes, I know that in the real world there are many factors that ought to be accounted for, of which sex is only one. And the questions that we do are, of necessity, very generalised, as they exist mainly as a way for us to show that we understand the concept. But this is a strange omission, as it is the only question, out of four, which does not in some way mention the sex of the person(s) in question.

Are we, then, meant to assume that there is no need to specify the sex of the people dieting? And why?

I know what I think. I think that the underlying assumption is that dieting is for women. And I know that I don’t like this assumption. In fact, I think that when I hand this homework in, it will have a note to the effect that the sex of the participants was not included, and that this could have made a difference.

Once upon a time, I used to believe my teachers when they spoke of the objectivity in science. Now, more and more, I feel that belief slipping away*. And these aren’t even real studies.

*It’s the small things as much as anything. One of my tutors has a habit of referring to all of the people in our questions as “he”, even when on the sheets they are explicitly gendered female. I’ve also noticed that women in our examples sheets tend to do things like diving and gymnastics, whilst men drive cars. This frustrates me, because when we’re in a parallel universe in which a car is doing a totally constant speed, and the speedometer does not lie, surely we can mix things up a bit and get rid of some patriarchal assumptions whilst we’re there!

Sometimes, you read an article, and it seems to make sense. And then you read another one, and your mind has a *crash* moment. Which is to say that, although both articles seem, on the face of it, to be fairly reasonable, they just don’t work when you read them both at once. If you’re really lucky, you find one article that contradicts itself, or is otherwise badly thought-out, thereby saving you the bother of reading two. Pregnancy advice is, of course, a prime example of this kind of odd double-think, but there are other things that will work just as well. For instance:

Stories about being gay. Apparently, it’s now fine to be gay in the NHS. It wasn’t before, because of people being worried about HIV and paedophilia. But not lesbians. Presumably, lesbians don’t really exist. Why didn’t I think of that? More to the point, why doesn’t anybody worry about all of those heterosexual women working in paediatrics? You know, because gay men like sex with men and therefore want to molest children; straight women like sex with men and therefore….. No?

On the other hand, it’s not at all fine to be gay in Welsh schools. This time, the article uses amazing things called acronyms, which means that they can explain the meaning of the new Welsh charity, LGBT Excellence Centre Wales, and then go back to just using “gay”. It’s a whole one letter shorter, and of course they have to be concise when they write these articles.

Stories about rape. The first, which is better than most because the woman isn’t treated like a liar and the man is actually convicted, contains the quote that the woman waived her right to anonymity to say that “the police system is better than it was years ago and that there are people who can help you.”

I’m sure that will be a huge relief to this woman in Scotland. She was arrested and held in cells overnight after she “struggled to cope in the witness box”. But of course, she’s only an alleged rape victim, which actually makes her nothing more than a witness. So that’s ok then.

And lastly, because Conservatives annoy me, I’d like to point out that it was the Tories that commisioned this survey. I’d also like to point out that for people supposedly concerned about the “awful story of mothers being turned away from hospital at a hugely emotional time”, they’re pretty bloody quick to vote to get the mothers there. The F-Word listed the voting patterns of MPs on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act back in May last year, and 135 out of the 164 Conservatives present voted against the 24-week limit on abortions, in favour of a shorter time limit (22 weeks). By my reckoning, and given that there was an 85% turnout, that means that at least 71% of the Conservatives would make it more difficult for women to have abortions. Which is the kind of thing that would tend to increase the number of pregnancies. They didn’t win that vote, but they tried. So I’m irritated, although unsurprised, at their hypocrisy now.

Having said that, I’m impressed that they managed to get the pregnant woman’s head into the picture. Well done there. Of course, she’s got her hand over her eyes in an incredibly melodromatic I’M UPSET! kind of a way, but you can’t have everything.

… Use the number zero, of course! Breasts and zeros are both (roughly) round, you can see them pretty much anywhere you go, men didn’t understand either concept for many, many years…

More to the point, through the geeky amusement that is Bad Science, I’ve been alerted to the truly awful formula published in The Sun. See what I do in the name of research? I actually go to The Sun’s website. Be proud of me. Even Ben Goldacre didn’t do that.

I like to think that if we pitted the articles against each other, something like this might happen:

The Sun: BOOOOOOBS!!!!

Ben Goldacre: Um, your maths is totally wrong

TS: Ha ha – “Boobfin” – geddit?! “Boffin” – but for BOOBS! Geddit?!!!

BG: Oh, God, and your pet mathematician went to Cambridge..

TS: Look! Numbers!! 0 x 70 x (20 x 5 + 32) /75 = 123.2.**

BG: No, you fools! No! 0 x [anything] = 0. Seriously. Stick to thinking about breasts. Or hire better mathematicians.


BG: Yeah, that’s better.

*Of course, an easier way of combining maths with breasts is to remember that women can count. But this is The Sun we’re talking about!

** The actual “formula” is as follows:

“The equation is O=NP(20C+B)/75.

To figure out the naughtiness rating (O), you times the number of nipples exposed, from zero to two or expressed as fractions of nipple shown (N) with the percentage of exposed frontal surface area (P).

The sum in brackets is 20 multiplied by the cup size (C), where A cup is one, B is two, C is three and D or above is five.

Add that figure to B, the bust measurement in inches. Then divide your answer by 75. Any score higher than 100 is counted as obscene.”

And I wholeheartedly apologise for letting the words “naughtiness” and “rating” into the blog. It will only happen again if The Mail decides that they, too, want a stupid, pointless, non-news item involving numbers and breasts.