tales from urban dilettantia

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Women of Numbers, Unite

Note (01 May 2012): I may have strayed from my intention in writing this one, as I fear it has been misinterpreted in some quarters.  I know many, many women who are good data analysts, and great data analysts.  I’ve read many wonderful articles containing great quantitative research.  However, the the best of my knowledge there is still a black hole when it comes to women talking about data as a feminist issue.  Datafeminists, to coin an awkward term.  Let’s keep talking.

I’m a researcher. I am passionate about research. And yet I hated every moment spent researching this article.

Search for any combination of words including ‘feminist’ and ‘statistics’ and you’ll see what I mean. There’s no body of work around the importance and use of statistics and data in feminist writing; no discussion around sourcing and interrogating data, and effectively communicating the information derived. Similarly, it seems that feminist posts taking oft-cited statistics and subjecting them to robust analysis don’t exist, or are so overwhelmed by a torrent of vitriol that they are near impossible to find.

Vitriol, you say? The posts I came across while searching for material were dominated by comments like these:

“Feminists never tire from promoting their lies”
“Why Feminism’s Vital Statistics Are Always Wrong”
“You are better off ignoring feminist stats”
“Feminism is the main cause of divorce in America”
“Feminists falsify facts for effect”

There are traps here. To say ‘we should have tried harder’ and so to accept the vitriol and the shaming, and – abhorrently – to blame ourselves. To rage against the often raised (and often valid) point that women must unfailingly conform to a higher standard than men to prove themselves. I’m probably going to fall into a few of those traps, in spite of trying my best.  But regardless, I wanted to write this and release it into the wild, because poor data, lazy research are problems wherever they arise, and it genuinely matters to me that we give these things our best effort – particularly when they pertain to very issues that we care about the most.

So, the researching of this post was a falling into the void in popular feminist writing that lurks in the place of well-referenced, well-researched, statistically sound numbers. A void where I would hope to see women with a passion for statistics vigorously promoting and debating the use of quantitative data. Encountering instead, unreferenced statistics, unsourced numbers, sweeping conclusions based only on anecdotal evidence. I’ve worked as a financial analyst, and now as an economist. I aspire to be the best rationalist I can be, however imperfect my achievement. And it grieves me to see such a deficiency, a great disconnect between two things I hold dear.

It’s not that the figures, the assertions, the conclusions are necessarily incorrect. But even if a number pulled from the ether without verification happens to be correct, this does not validate the process used to derive it. Erroneous – or perhaps worse – fundamentally unverifiable numbers propogate without scrutiny. Consider a number of specific cases. (I apologise in advance for cherry-picking and do note that these too are, ironically, anecdotal. However, given the shortage of self-critique and self-correction in feminist analysis, today we will settle for cautionary tales.)

1. Joan Brumberg, historian and former director of women’s studies at Cornell University wrote in Fasting Girls: The Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa as a Modern Disease that there were 150,000 to 200,000 fatalities from anorexia nervosa in any given year. Brumberg was misquoting the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association which had stated that there were 150,000 to 200,000 sufferers of of anorexia nervosa in the United States in any given year.

This error might have easily been identified by checking with the National Center for Health Statistics, which gave a figure of 70 deaths from anorexia in 1990. However, widely read authors including Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth and Gloria Steinam in Revolution From Within uncritically cited Brumberg’s figure without seeking out the primary source. (Both authors issued a correction once the error was highlighted.)

Even when writer Christina Hoff Sommers pointed out the mistake, she herself made the error of uncritically taking the Centre for Heath Statistics figure, stating that the actual number of deaths from anorexia was “less than 100 deaths per year.” In not considering the sources of data used by the the National Center for Health Statistics (which happened to be death certificates) she failed to consider heart failure, suicide or other causes of death arising as a consequence of anorexia. In contrast, the [peer reviewed] study, The Course of Eating Disorders (Herzog et al, eds.) indicated that the long-term fatality rate might be closer to 15%. Recognising the mistakes of others does not make one immune to making one’s own, and as Sommers herself said, “Where were the fact checkers, the editors, the skeptical journalists?” And, to give credit where it is due, Sommers has been one of our more vocal watchdogs when it comes to accuracy and factual reporting.

2. The March of Dimes Foundation, a United States non-profit established to work for the health of mothers and babies provides another example. In November 1992, Deborah Louis (then president of the National Women’s Studies Association) posted a message to the Women’s Studies Electronic Board citing the March of Dimes Foundation, stating that, “according to [the] last March of Dimes report, domestic violence (vs. pregnant women) is now responsible for more birth defects than all other causes combined.” Peculiarly, the March of Dimes Foundation did not publish a report on this topic, and was not aware of any research supporting the statement. Indeed, Maureen Corry, director of the March’s Education and Health Promotion Program, said “We have never seen this research before.”

This did not prevent Patricia Ireland, then president of the National Organisation for Women, saying that “battery of pregnant women is the number one cause of birth defects in this country” on the Charlie Rose program in February 1993.

The misinformation then propogated though The Boston Globe, the Dallas Morning News and Time magazine before the error was traced to the founder of a domestic violence advocacy project, Sarah Buel of Harvard Law School. Buel had misunderstood a statement made by Caroline Whitehead, a maternal nurse and child-care specialist in North Carolina, who cited a March of Dimes study indicating that more women are screened for birth defects than are screened for domestic battery. Whitehead had made no comment on the connection between battery and birth defects.

3. In January in 1993 at a news conference held by a coalition of women’s groups, reporters were told that Super Bowl Sunday is “the biggest day of the year for violence against women.”  The reporters were futher told that 40% more women would experience domestic battery on that day. (More, one might ask, than on what other day?) Sheila Kuehl (California Women’s Law Center) had used a study conducted at Virginia’s Old Dominion University three years before. Again, the statistic propogated through the media, with Rober Lipsyte of the New York Times referring to the “Abuse Bowl.”

The following day, psychologist and author of The Battered Woman Lenore Walker claimed on Good Morning America that she had compiled a ten-year report that showed the sharp spike in violent incidents against women on Super Bowl Sundays. And the day after that, reporter Lynda Gorov reported in the Boston Globe that women’s hotlines and shelters were “flooded with more calls from victims [on Super Bowl Sunday] than on any other day of the year,” citing “one study of women’s shelters out West” that “showed a 40 per cent climb in calls, a pattern advocates said is repeated nationwide, including Massachusetts.”

When writer Ken Ringle from the Washington Post called Janet Katz, professor of sociology and criminal justice at Old Dominion and co-author of the study originally cited by Kuehl at the news conference, Katz said “That’s not what we found at all,” and stated that an increase in emergency-room admissions “was not associated with the occurrence of football games in general.”

When Lenore Walker was asked to provide details of the findings from her ‘ten-year study’ she declined to share them, saying “We don’t use them for public consumption, we used them to guide us in advocacy projects.”

4. Since the mid-1980’s statements have have proliferated to the effect that women represent one half of the world’s population and a third of its labour force, are responsible for two-thirds of all working hours, receive a tenth of world income and own less than 1% of all property.

The numbers appeared in 1984 in Robin Morgan’s introduction to a book called Sisterhood Is Global: The International Women’s Movement Anthology. I remember seeing them in pamphlets and on posters at university, some fifteen years later. The oldest known source for them is in an editor’s introduction to an issue of the journal Women at Work, published by the International Labour Organisation in 1978, which stated:

“A world profile on women, using selected economic and social indicators, reveals that women constitute one half of the world population and one third of the official labour force; perform nearly two-thirds of work hours; but according to some estimates receive only one-tenth of the world income and possess less than one-hundredth of world property.”

Unsourced. No explanation of the ‘selected’ indicators. No elaboration on where ‘some estimates’ might have come from, or what these might be.

In 2007, author Krishna Ahooja-Patel, the editor responsible for that statement back in 1978, published a book called Development Has A Woman’s Face: Insights from Within the U.N. where she mentions that the formula was her own, and that it was “based on some available global data and others derived by use of fragmentary indicators at the time, in the late 1970s.”

The assumptions underlying Ahooja-Patel’s numbers include a guess that women constituted 33% of the world’s formal workforce and data from ‘several countries’ (unspecified) that they earned 10% to 30% less than men. From this, she took the higher end of the range from the earnings data, rather than a midpoint, and calculated that a third of the world’s total income was earned by women.

Further, Ahooja-Patel’s only explanation of the assertion that women own less than one hundredth of the world’s property is that “if the average wage of women is so low, it can be assumed that they do not normally have any surplus to invest in reproducible or non-reproducible assets.” She cites “various UN statistics” as her source.

For more than a quarter of a century, these numbers have filtered down through publications, women’s groups, the media, the internet and more. Often, the primary source is never stated, giving a misleading impression as to the date, time and context in which they were originally provided. They have been endlessly repeated wherever the issues of women, money, work and property are raised. And yet in their unreliability and unverifiability, they do no justice to feminism’s most critical concerns.

These are tales in isolation, demonstrating the manner in which bad information can indiscriminately spread. Far worse, is how little we care; where are our wonderful, fierce women arguing in favour of excellence in research and analysis? Where are those well-known women who have played key parts in the tales above, warning and educating us by virtue of the lessons they’ve learned? Where are the feminist bloggers, clamouring for an end to apathy and lazy journalism?  They may be out there, but we do not help their voices ring loud enough for me to find them in the world.

We can do better than this. So much better. I know women who are ethicists, financiers, lawyers, economists, actuaries, librarians, curators, researchers, doctors, biologists, accountants, architects, engineers, chemists, anthropologists, writers, geologists, journalists, linguists, computer scientists, pathologists, mathematicians, political scientists and more. Intelligent women who know better than to take a number at face value, or to state a conclusion without credible support. Intelligent women who value quality and who wholeheartedly support a culture of honest analytical contribution and critique.

Sometimes, we are story-tellers. Anecdotes have a valuable role in sharing a message, in communicating a large picture to a small audience. But we are not only story-tellers. We are astoundingly well-educated, connected human beings, and that in itself is a great privilege – the children of a providential intersection of race, class, geography and more.

Do better, loudly and visibly. Because we are astoundingly clever and astoundingly well-educated, and there is no honour in doing less than the best we can.

Category: activism, feminism, geeking it up

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4 Responses

  1. lauredhel says:

    I find it really interesting that almost all of your examples are from the 20th century. I’ve seen an explosion of critical thinking on statistics from feminists in online writing. I’ve done plenty of it myself, mostly looking at pregnancy and birth related stats. There are oodles of blog posts dissecting and examining rape statistics, looking at abortion statistics (and the misuse of same by conservatives). Heck, I can even think of an example that I read just in the past 24 hours – Jill’s post urging deeper examination of stats around prison rape in the USA.

    I think it would be great if there were more of it; but if anything, I think many feminists are leading this particular field in online writing right now (which is where popular feminist writing is at in the tweenties), not digging their heels in and trailing behind it. (And all this despite being, as a group, people who have been systematically discouraged from seeking mathematical knowledge, let alone speaking authoritatively on it.)

  2. Vicky says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts/findings H. You may have heard me bang on about the online mag Rookie (aimed for teens, very feminist and pretty insightful and wise in my view – It’s my not-so-guilty pleasure). Might you consider submitting this/any of your other writings/experiences/thoughts to them? Their theme next month is “EXPLORATION. Please send any photos, articles, illustrations, or anything else you might’ve made related to outer space, underwater, research, archives, psychedelia, time travel, science, science fiction, or creatures of any kind to submission@rookiemag.com. Thanks!”

    V x

  3. Helen says:

    Thanks lauredhel! This is heartening to hear; on reading your comment I think the lack of writing on the meta-topic of women and data may have much to do with women getting on with it and using their skills as a tool rather than writing about data as an topic in itself – very much appreciate the link.

  4. Helen says:

    Oh gosh, this sounds like a challenge for the Impostor Syndrome! :)

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