blogging the numbers

I stumbled on an interesting post over at double X blog that roundly criticized much writing about how women have been affected by the economic downturn as “recession lite.” Its central complaint amounts to too much soft news, not enough numbers. The author—Linda Hirshman, a retired professor of philosophy and women’s studies at Brandeis—goes on to commend a number of feminist blogs and initiatives that are making a point of grappling with the relevant statistics, with an eye to affecting public policy.

I don’t know how accurate Hirshman’s overall picture is—though I picked up on it partly because I had long since become annoyed myself about all those silly depressionista stories about how Clipping Coupons Saves Thousand$! or When Mom and Dad Move In to Your Basement! Hirshman is mainly taking women writers to task for this, so I don’t know if she shares my (admittedly anecdotal) sense that just as much of this fluff is coming from men as from women writers but wants to hold feminist bloggers to a higher standard, or if she really thinks women writers churn out more anumerical fluff than men do.

If the latter is true, I am left wondering: is this one of the predictable downstream effects of an acculturation process that has pushed so many women away from mathematics in high school? Or an effect of longstanding gender assumptions in the publishing field, regarding both which stories women reporters should cover and which stories women want to read? Or both? Or, more optimistically, is the interesting story here to be found in the signs of a reversal, given that recent statistics show more women now take advanced math in high school and beyond (e.g. the 2008 study published in Science)?

OK, count me also guilty here of speculating about trends in the absence of good—make that: any—numbers. So tempting, and so dangerous…

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2 Responses
  1. zelda says:

    “numbers are tainted in feminist practice”

    Numbers have certainly been massively misused as one more tool to keep any number of social groups “in their place,” including women. But I would hate to give up arguments based on numbers for arguments based on anecdotal evidence. At best, the latter case comes down to generalizing from a statistically insignificant data pool, like the people who leap from “My daughter likes dolls” to “Girls like dolls” (or worse: “Girls like dolls for reasons X Y and Z”) without even pausing for breath. You may still sometimes be right about whatever theory you are putting forward, but you haven’t given me any better basis to agree with you than if you had just started out by saying “I believe it and that makes it so.”

    I would submit that reductionism can be useful as a way of making change possible; as a practical point of entry into complex systems. If we really looked at things holistically all the time, it would be hard to imagine making any change at all, since we would see–or at least imagine we saw– thousands upon thousands of ramifications both positive and negative, to the extent that we would probably not even be able to guess at net gain or loss any more. Would there then be any point to maintaining a reasoned or rational approach to sociopolitical change? Isn’t it arguable that we would be just as well off if we shifted to an M.O that inserted random changes in the system?

    Are we at that point now?

  2. lilly says:

    Interestingly, Hirschman isn’t looking for lots of women to blog about numbers. She says she wants one good female economist.

    Other scpeculations:
    1) Foucault, statistics, governmentality – numbers are tainted in feminist practice? Feminists have been suspicious of science for a while. Perhaps the ones who would be highly educated and blogging have been beaten over the head with the idea that numbers are reductionist? That you can lie with them? That it is the positivist objective masculine gaze from nowhere?

    2) The feminist bloggers might not be writing about this, but maybe a less-overtly feminist identified person, like a female economist, might be doing so quietly and unseen?

    Even reading Hirschman’s blog post, I see numbers being presented in a number of different ways from different perspectives without an obvious right answer. There are lots of different ways to frame feminist intervention. You could earmark funds to encourage women to train in the male-majority areas (like engineering) or even retrain in midcareer. Or you could invest in a pink-collar industry. But Hirschman’s stance of just trying to improve unemployment numbers equitably seemed equally — and perhaps strategically and agreeably — reductionist. (Ah, the blog form.)