Second Sex – Second Shelf

A wonderful essay by Meg Wolitzer on women’s fiction and what it means that women’s fiction isn’t simply ‘fiction’ whereas men’s fiction is. Along the way she raises interesting points, including the halycon days of the 70s and early 80s when being ‘woman’ was interesting. Wolitzer believes that many great female writers got their breaks then but she notes the continual under-representation of women in the ‘greats’ lists.

Wolitzer even describes the 1/3rd effect: Where ‘equal’ really equals ‘some’. There’s strong psychological research [citations coming] that suggests that ingroup members perceive an outgroup to be overwhelming them at around 33%. Instead of looking like equal or underrepresentation, the presence of more than 1/3rd of another group seems dominating. I’ve seen this effect everywhere from kids sporting teams to school classrooms to conference attendees and board members.

This is definitely echoed in the technology world, including the back slide in numbers of women involved in comp sci, robotics, and engineering. Even in areas, like health science/medicine, where women’s numbers are ‘equal’ or greater, there is not an equal representation in the upper levels. Worse, the ‘pink ghetto’ effect takes hold. Most men do not want jobs as bank clerks, for example. Bank clerks were once a male status occupation, but it’s become unvalued, underpaid and a woman’s job.

Where I would like Wolitzer’s discussion of the structure of sexism in literature to be continued. She makes an assumption that women’s and men’s writing is the same – allowing for the same type of plot and characterization. She mentions blind testing. Recent years have shown many examples from music that blind auditioning for orchestras has created a significantly different gender balance. Women now are equally represented in most orchestra positions, in the US, excepting perhaps conductors. But research by Pennebaker seems to show that men and women use language in structurally different ways and that computer analysis of a massive range of texts is very accurate at predicting the sex of the writer. Pennebaker believes that these structural language differences are so small and subtle as to be unnoticed consciously, yet they form the milieu in which we operate. More research is called for!

And in the meantime, as Wolitzer requests, more women’s fiction BOLDY titled in STRONG colors, at eye level on the best shelves not stuck on the second shelf.

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