Saturday, January 10, 2015

This is what sexism looks like #2

Libraries, it seems, are in crisis, and many people are searching for answers. Someone I know posted a blog post pointing to community systems like Stack Overflow and Reddit as examples of how libraries could create "community." He especially pointed out the value of "gamification" - the ranking of responses by the community - as something libraries should consider. His approach was that it is "human nature" to want to gain points. "We are made this way: give us a contest and we all want to win." (The rest of the post and the comments went beyond this to the questions of what libraries should be today, etc.)

There were many (about 4 dozen, almost all men) comments on his blog (which I am not linking to, because I don't want this to be a "call out"). He emailed me asking for my opinion.

I responded only to his point about gamification, which was all I had time for, saying that in that area his post ignored an important gender issue. The competitive aspect was part of what makes those sites unfriendly to women.

I told him that there have been many studies of how children play, and they reveal some distinct differences between genders. Boys begin play by determining a set of rules that they will follow, and during play they may stop to enforce or discuss the rules. Girls begin to play with an unstructured understanding of the game, and, if problems arise during play, they work on a consensus. Boys games usually have points and winners. Girls' games are often without winners and are "taking turns" games. Turning libraries into a "winning" game could result in something like Reddit, where few women go, or if they do they are reluctant to participate.

And I said: "As a woman, I avoid the win/lose situations because, based on general social status (and definitely in the online society) I am already designated a loser. My position is pre-determined by my sex, so the game is not appealing."

I didn't post this to the site, just emailed it to the owner. It's good that I did not. The response from the blog owner was:
This is very interesting. But I need to see some proof.
Some proof. This is truly amazing. Search on Google Scholar for "games children gender differences" and you are overwhelmed with studies.

But it's even more amazing because none of the men who posted their ideas to the site were asked for proof. Their ideas are taken at face value. Of course, they didn't bring up issues of gender, class, or race in their responses, as if these are outside of the discussion of what libraries should be. And to bring them up is an "inconvenience" in the conversation, because the others do not want to hear it.

He also pointed me to a site that is "friendly to women." To that I replied that women decide what is "friendly to women."

I was invited to comment on the blog post, but it is now clear that my comments will not be welcome. In fact, I'd probably only get inundated with posts like "prove it." This does seem to be the response whenever a woman or minority points out an inconvenient truth.

Welcome to my world.


Eric said...

I'll admit my first reaction to this post was to ask myself what the numbers look like. I found this chart of gender demographics for different "social" websites; Reddit is reported as attracting a 74% male user base. It's not clear to me, however, that Reddit's gender skew is due to gamification, because Pinterest, which has a gender skew in the other direction, also has a wealth of gamified aspects- for example, it prominently displays follower counts and uses follower statistics in ways that derive from gamification. The sight I think of as being the most gamified, Foursquare, is reported to be roughly even in its gender demographics. And don't forget Wattpad.

But you have an important point that gender awareness in system design is crazy to overlook. It's ironic that in the case you cite, a proper awareness of gender difference would support the use of "competition" in some library contexts. Public library usage is known to skew female, so perhaps reading competitions and the like could be used to balance the audience. Getting more young boys to start reading is an important goal for many libraries.

William said...

I'm sure there's a lot more to this dynamic that I'm missing, but one thing that struck me was his assumption that his needs (as in "I need to see") were automatically your problem.

I could read that as entitlement. Or I could read it as conversation-as-competition-to-be-right, which seems like a great example of exactly the sort of win/lose situation that you just told him you didn't want.

Either way, it's sad to see. You get yet another negative interaction, and he can't get out of his own way long enough to learn something he apparently really wants to know. I'm sorry it happened to you. Thanks for posting about it.

Karen Coyle said...

Libraries do make use of "reading contests" for kids - I even remember them from my childhood. They were not judgmental, however. That's bit different from contests for the "right answer" where people are given points on what they offer, and, as in the case of Reddit, those who disagree with you can be viciously vocal. Facebook and Pinterest give you popularity demographcs, but they don't, AFAIK, pit people's thoughts against each other. (I don't use either.)

I'm fine with drawing in young male readers with contests, etc., as long as those do not crowd out girls and women. It's one thing to increase the participation of boys, but I would greatly object, as I'm sure many would, if that was done at the expense of female readers. Adding more readers is good; eliminating some to make room for others, not so good.

Karen Coyle said...

William, I think there is a somewhat "natural" reaction to having someone say something that contradicts your world view, especially if it implies that your world view may have problems. It's possible that we all need to be challenged a lot before we learn what to do with such challenges. It's like the famed Buddhists who create incredibly complex sand pictures and every once in a while some runs through it in an act of vandalism. You and I would want to strangle that person; the enlightened monks just smile and start over. We all are invested in things that we care about, and we don't like those disrupted. Entitlement or privilege is probably one of the hardest things to let go of -- it sure seems like it in our society. Many of us have some entitlement, but for those for which it hasn't been challenged even minimum questioning can be threatening. And since we have taboos against questioning the status quo (as human society has probably already had) we don't get many chances to practice our response to challenges.

T Scott said...

I'm reminded of a study I saw years ago (and I'm sorry that I'm not taking the time to dig it up) making exactly your point in studying how youngsters (5-7 as I recall) approach soccer. The girls took a very collaborative and consensus based approach to strategy and rule-making.

The issue of inherent competitiveness is complicated. I was at my 9-year old granddaughter's gymnastics meet yesterday. She is very competitive, always has been. But her competitiveness is primarily directed towards herself -- that she always gets better than she was the last time. When she has a very good meet, she will generally give some of her medals to her teammates who didn't do well. Yesterday she had her worst meet ever and was still quite genuinely thrilled for her teammates who were more successful. So her winning doesn't depend on somebody else losing. Maybe that's a key.

On the general issue of rampant sexism, the frustration is that privileged males can't see their privilege in the same way that privileged whites can't see their privilege vis-a-vis blacks. (Reference the recent statistics on how dramatically different blacks and whites view the fairness of the police). It makes it hard to even have a good discussion with generally well-meaning men who simply can't grasp the seriousness of the issue.

(I say this as a fairly privileged 59 yr old white male who has had the good fortune to be surrounded by strong women since birth).

Hanan Cohen said...

When reading your response, I said to myself "I need to find a proof for that". One Google query [stackoverflow gender differences participation] gave it to me.

p.s. I am a male.

Eric said...

Since I did the guy thing and commented on what I was interested in instead of responding to the main point of the post, I'd like to add this.

It's really important that we figure out how to create spaces where Karen and others will feel comfortable bringing out important issues (such as gender-linked reactions to gamification strategies), and also will be able to constructively point out behaviors that are not conducive to that sort of discourse.

I'm really impressed with Hacker School's lightweight social rules, and I wrote about why I think they're useful on my blog. Because we're all imperfect, and we need to work together to make progress.

Karen Coyle said...

Eric, Thanks. I like the "subtle-isms" (or "subtleisms") concept. But I don't know how you get folks to learn from such reminders. An example: on Wikipedia, someone changed "invented by Dr. X and Mrs. Y" to "invented by Dr. X assisted by Mrs. Y". I explained (gently) that we should return the text to "and" because there was no indication that they didn't contribute equally, and that this was a subtle way that sexism creeps into the text. The man who had made the change simply could not see it as prejudicial. The idea that a woman is an "assistant" was so ingrained in his thinking that he saw no problem with it.

This is the trick with the -isms. As a human with prejudices (which is all of us), you have to work really hard to make what is essentially a reality perception change. For some, it's like asking them to eliminate gravity from their world view. As social animals, peer attitudes are probably the most important factors in making the change. (See #gamergate for peers gone bad.) (Or Fox News, for that matter.) This is why it is so hard to be the lone voice when you are in a minority, and this is why it is so important for us to to speak up in support when -isms are outed. Don't ever let a person carry that burden alone. That's the best -ism rule.

Andrea said...

Hello everyone. It's maybe right to step up and say that I'm the one who have been sexist, and I would like to take the chance to say publicly that I'm sorry. As for sexism/racism/etc. goes, I did not want to hurt, but I did. I'm glad that Karen pointed out the flaws in my behaviour, at least I can learn something. It is very true what you Karen say: you challenged my world view, and I coped the only way I know, namely "I need to be convinced" (not necessarily by you). I'm (slowly) understanding how my reaction was, despite my intentions, sexist.
I still believe that your comments, Karen would be important and helpful for the discussion: I completely overlooked the point of gender awareness in system design, which is crucial (I know nothing about gender studies (and that's probably the original sin of everything).
I don't know how will be libraries in the future, I'm engaged with a lot of online communities, and I believe part of the job/vocation of librarians is to go there and help these communities with their competences. Thus it is important how to design these communities. I thought that gamification was gender neutral and good way to stimulated users/members in these communities (at least online). I was wrong.

Karen Coyle said...

I'm trying very hard here not to assign blame, but obviously that doesn't work. I'm sorry. I don't know a better way to bring things up for discussion.

It's ok to suggest things like "gamification" for libraries - we need all the ideas we can get. But we also have to listen to opposing viewpoints. Those may be social, they may be political, and some of them even could be scientific. So making the suggestion is not a problem -- it's part of the solution. Then we need to move to the discussion of how it works, who it benefits, and what it might disrupt. I don't want the discussion to become about me; I want it to be how we open our eyes to the great diversity of our world. Unfortunately, what often happens when a woman posts about women, the discussion becomes derailed in a back-and-forth of "he said, she said." That is, debating on who is right. We need to start with the premise that we all are right, and that's ok. That's the best starting point for a discussion.

Staff said...

I respect your opinion, but I sincerely believe that you have a preestablished position that you are looking to reinforce. As a father of two young girls, I disagree that there is girls are not as driven to win at games than boys. I think this is a societal construct and not one built in. I also think there is a fallacy in you point in that you are comparing what is posted to the site to what you emailed to the site owner. If you had posted to the site, then you may have encouraged discussion on an interesting point rather than received a response in an area where the site owner was clearly not knowledgeable.

I have read many articles that lay a foundation that learning styles of boys and girls are slanted in favor of girls in that classrooms are set up to demand long periods of attention.

By your response it would be clear that boys could never learn in a classroom setting in the same way that girls could never be competitive online.

Thanks for the post. This is very interesting for me as I look the to the future of the world my daughters will live in.

Unknown said...

I appreciate this article you've written very much, as well as the conversation it's perpetuating. It's sad to say, but this is very real. Not every woman has to deal with it every time, but often enough, for sure. Here is a link to a conversation we are currently having on the topic, on Meta StackExchange (someone had linked to your wonderful and insightful blog post, which is how I found you):