October 02, 2007

Losers are from Mars, winners are from Venus

Or is it the other way around? Anyhow, the day after the Guardian featured an excerpt from Deborah Cameron's new book "The Myth of Mars and Venus", we get a "special report" under the headline "Venusians in a Martian's world: How do women fare in parliament?". The lead paragraph:

In 2006, Tony Blair told the House of Commons that the next election would be a contest between "a heavyweight and a flyweight". He predicted that his successor, Gordon Brown, would knock out the Conservative leader, David Cameron, with a "big, clunking fist". These remarks delighted the Cameron camp while appalling many on Blair's own side. Labour supporters feared for their electoral prospects if voters got the idea that, as one journalist put it, "Gordon Brown is from Mars, David Cameron is from Venus".

The cute thing about this take on the mythology of gender, as the report observes, is that it doesn't even require any actual sexes.

The core of the report presents some work by Sylvia Shaw on the behavior of female vs. male MPs in the British and Scottish parliaments. As described (I know it only through this article), her work supports "dominance theories" as opposed to "diference theories" about language and gender:

Officially, arcane rules of courtesy govern the speech of MPs. [...] But in reality the rules are breached constantly. [...]

The influx of more than 100 women MPs in 1997 prompted many commentators, and some of the new MPs themselves, to suggest that women would exert a positive influence by introducing a more civilised way of doing business. [...]

In 1999, the linguist Sylvia Shaw decided to investigate whether any of this was happening. She found that it was not: rather than changing the verbal culture of the House of Commons, women seemed to have adjusted to its adversarial norms. In proportion to their numbers, women spoke as often as men and challenged other speakers to "give way" as readily as men. In short, they were (as MPs at Westminster have to be) assertive in competing for opportunities to speak. There was, however, one significant difference. Women rarely seized the floor "illegally" by interrupting or interjecting comments. In five debates analysed closely by Shaw, men made almost 10 times as many illegal interventions as women. [...]

Women MPs are classic "interlopers": they form a relatively small minority within a historically male institution, and the verbal harassment they face suggests a degree of active hostility to their presence. One logical response to being positioned as an interloper is to do exactly what Shaw found the women MPs did: observe the rules meticulously as a symbolic way of showing that you are worthy to belong. Paradoxically, however, this strategy only underlines the insecurity of those who use it. [...]

Shaw also studied the recently opened Scottish parliament, where once again, the most effective speakers tended to be people who deviated from the official rules. In Edinburgh, however, these rule-breakers were as likely to be women as men. This, Shaw argued, reflected the fact that the Scottish parliament was a new institution, with procedures designed deliberately to be less arcane than Westminster's. The proportion of women members was higher, and they had been there from the very beginning.

The women MPs' problem is clearly not that they have a less assertive or competitive style of speaking than men. That would not explain why there is a difference between the Westminster and Edinburgh parliaments, nor why Westminster women hold their own with men so long as they are speaking legally. The variable that does explain these patterns is not gender as such, but whether or not women are positioned as interlopers. To the extent that their behaviour is different from men's, it is not because they have a different style, but because they have a different status.

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 2, 2007 09:03 AM