Thursday, August 11, 2011

How to tell when male is the default normal

In an article, Pop's gender war: Sexism dictates the media profile of female stars in Wednesday's web version of The Independent Gillian Orr complained about the semi-regular appearance of article about women "having a moment" in music or about women breaking through to dominate the field.

Orr points out that women have not become break-out stars to the exclusion of men achieving success:
Of course, many male artists have broken through over the last few years. But you would be hard pushed to find an article discussing the successes of Tinie Tempah, Example, James Blake, Tinchy Stryder, Plan B, Paulo Nutini and Bruno Mars as some kind of trend. And seeing as this is hardly the first time that a woman has had a hit record, what exactly is going on here?
and she further notes that:
it is not as if female solo success is anything new. If you were to look further back, to cover the period from 1981, you would find that the list of bestselling artists each year for the last 30 years includes 10 women, eight men and 12 groups. Female performers have always had success and will always have success.
Orr asks an important question--why do we not look at the number of female label heads and executives and celebrate the women who have triumphed in those fields.

I think the constant drumbeat of articles about women having a moment in particular fields tells us more about the failure of women to achieve true equality than it does about their success.

Almost anyone who has taken an introductory course in journalism has read/heard the old saw "dog bites man isn't a news story; man bites dogs is." That is because dogs biting men isn't the norm. Thus if every day the biggest headline in the newspaper was dog bites we would suspect that the news editor of that newspaper was out of touch with reality. The editor's "default normal" is dissonant with reality.

When article after article discovers the same thing year after year the reader begins to suspect that the facts that those articles report simply cannot fit into the "default normal" of the editors.


  1. When I was talking with some military officers a few years ago, one of them made an interesting observation. He said that he saw a lot of difference between units that had 15% or fewer female members and units that had 30% or more female members. It was almost like once the female presence exceeded a quarter or so of the unit, that unit was tremendously much less likely to have gender issues. The unit culture would change to a point where female members were considered normal - not "just one of the guys" but normal in their own right. It's a rule of thumb that I have since observed as effective in other situations.

    Since obviously women artists are not uncommon, I wonder whether there are 30% or more women writers in the organizations that keep putting out these pieces.

  2. Literata- Wow. I have been propounding the 30% critical mass number for years in terms of academia and science becoming less blindly sexist and more family friendly!

  3. I have a great book originally written in the 1970s that talks about this phenomenon, Men and Women of the Corporation, by Rosabeth Moss Kanter. In the chapter that deals with tokenism she says: "People's treatment, then, is not automatically fixed by inflexible characteristics but depends on their numbers in a particular situation. Change in the behavior and treatment of women in token positions is strongly tied to shifting proportions. ... In the absence of external pressures for change, *tokenism is a self-perpetuating system*." (p. 241)

    Iirc, Moss Kanter also refers to 30% as the magic proportion but I can't find the cite right now.

  4. I would highly recommend the book, Men & Women of the Corporation, because it explains all sorts of things about not just corporate culture and how it developed in the US, but how hierarchies work, and how they *don't* work if you are a person who always seems to be at the bottom -- intellectuals are not welcome, 'individual performers' not welcome, you can't be 'weird'; you have to be unoffensive and bland and have lots of loyalty to the company/mgmt, but that only pays off if the right people like you. (And for me, they didn't.)


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