LINGUIST List 4.517

Wed 30 Jun 1993

FYI: Sex of LINGUISTS: Results of Survey

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  1. Susan Herring, Sex of linguists: results of survey

Message 1: Sex of linguists: results of survey

Date: Wed, 30 Jun 93 17:18:43 CDSex of linguists: results of survey
From: Susan Herring <>
Subject: Sex of linguists: results of survey

Results of Survey: Sex of LINGUISTs

On April 25, I posted a survey to LINGUIST in an attempt to discover
why so few women had participated in the discussion initiated
by Dick Hudson on 'rude negators' of the type 'Bollocks/the hell/my
ass she did'. While on the average women comprise 21% of contributors
to discussions on LINGUIST (already a low percentage, given that 36%
of subscribers are women), in the rude negators discussion, only
three (7.7%) of those who posted publicly on the topic were female.
Are female LINGUISTs put off by the use of 'rude' language on the net?
Are they less interested than men in the topic of rude negators? Or
is there some other explanation for their relative lack of participation
in this particular discussion?
[Note: I am primarily concerned here and in what follows with public
postings; although Dick Hudson indicated the sex of those who responded
to him privately (M=77%, F=23%), such figures are not available for
other LINGUIST discussions, and thus no comparison can be made.]

The survey asked LINGUIST subscribers what percentage of the
discussion on rude negators they had followed; whether they had
contributed publicly and/or privately; if not, why not?; and how
they felt the discussion compared with other discussions on LINGUIST.
Respondents were also asked to indicate their sex and academic
status. Responses to each question are summarized below.

Sex: Over a 4-week period, I received 211 responses to the survey,
of which 197 were usable. A roughly equal number of men and
women responded: 51% male, 49% female.

 M F Combined
 Student 13% 19% 32%
 Assoc prof or equivalent 16% 8% 24%
 Full prof or equivalent 8% 7% 15%
 Assist prof or equivalent 5% 7% 12%
 Not affilated w/academia 5% 3% 8%
 Researcher 2% 2% 4%
 Lecturer (American system) 1% 3% 4%
 Other 1% 0% 1%
 Librarian 0% .5% .5%
 --- --- ---- 51% + 49% = 100%

1. Percentage of postings read?

According to self-report, male respondents had read an average of
63% of the 'rude negators' posts, while women had read 49%. On the
face of it, this might appear to suggest that women were less
interested than men in the discussion.

2. Posted publically?

19% of the men had participated in the public discussion, as
compared with 2% of the female respondents.

3. Exchanged messages privately with another subscriber?

I distinguished three categories of response to this question:
'yes'; 'no'; and 'no, but I talked about it with and/or forwarded
postings to non-subscribers'.

 yes no no, but talked...

 men 16% 81% 3%
 women 8% 80% 12%

These findings do *not* support a hypothesis that I've sometimes
heard suggested, namely that women and men participate roughly
equally in electronic discourse, with men posting more messages
publicly, and women sending more messages privately. It is noteworthy
however that women exhibited more involvement than men with the topic
outside of the list, an observation that would seem to contradict
the notion that they lacked interest in the topic.

4. If didn't contribute, why not?

Unfortunately for the purposes of the survey, men and women did not
differ significantly in their overall responses to this crucial
question. Both sexes gave as their primary reason that they had
nothing new or unique to add. Included in this category are those
who said they had considered contributing, but someone else
contributed what they would have said before they could get to it.
The second most frequently cited reason was lack of interest,
followed in third place by lack of time. Only a few respondents
of either sex said they were uncomfortable with the 'rudeness' of
the topic, and a similarly small number gave as a reason for not
contributing that they didn't like the manner in which the
discussion was conducted (see responses to (5) below).

 M F Both
 nothing to add 43% 35% 39%
 not interested 26% 27% 26%
 not enough time 10& 13% 12%
 English not native lg. 3% 1% 2%
 didn't like manner 2% 2% 2%
 uncomfortable w/ topic 2% 2% 2%

Only two reasons were cited significantly more frequently by one sex
than the other:

 M F Both
 generally afraid/
 hesitant to contribute 5% 14% 10%
 topic not important 6% 3% 4%

Under 'generally afraid/hesitant to contribute', I included responses
indicating shyness, fear of not appearing knowledgeable enough, and
those who wrote that they *never* say anything on LINGUIST. Female
respondents were nearly three times more likely to give this as a
reason for not partipating, although it is a reason that doesn't apply
uniquely to the rude negators discussion (in fact, comments by
respondents indicate that this discussion was considerably *less*
intimidating than others on LINGUIST).

5. How compares with other LINGUIST discussions?

Here again male and female responses did not pattern significantly
differently. The general consensus was that the 'rude negators'
discussion was primarily concerned with usage (rather than theory);
it was light (rather than serious) and friendly (rather than
adversarial) in tone. Overall it was evaluated both positively
('fun', 'easy to follow', 'one of the best discussions on LINGUIST')
and negatively ('trivial', 'low signal to noise ratio', 'in poor
taste -- contributors reveled in chance to use foul language')
by both women and men. By assigning a numerical value of 1 (most
positive) to -1 (most negative) to each respondent's evaluation of
the discussion, and averaging separately by sex, I arrived at a
positive average for both sexes: .2 for men, and .07 for women.
(The higher score for men is due in part to the fact that
more male than female survey respondents had participated in the
original discussion, and felt correspondingly more positive about it.)

In short, women evaluated the discussion in neutral to slightly
positive terms overall, expressed no particular aversion to the
use of 'rude' words, and professed no less interest in the topic
than men. The question of why they contributed less than usual to
the discussion then becomes all the more intriguing.

Since direct questioning failed to produce an explanation, I offer
the following two interpretive hypotheses.

1) The 'quick response' hypothesis:
In a discussion such as that on rude negators in which there
are a limited number of fairly obvious points to be made,
those who habitually respond quickly will make those points first.
The ability to respond quickly depends on having free access to
e-mail, the time and motivation to check e-mail often, and
the self-confidence to respond without hesitation and with a
minimum of editing of one's response. (Note that this hypothesis
assumes that having messages appear publicly on LINGUIST is
desirable, e.g. as a means of enhancing one's visibility in the

On LINGUIST, men typically respond before women, a pattern that is
also evident in responses to my survey (and to two previous
surveys of this sort I have conducted). 69% of the first 35
responses I received were from men, as compared with 33% of the
last 35 responses -- that is, men's responses decreased over time,
while the number of responses from women increased, with women
responsible for 100% of the responses received during the final
11 days of the 4-week period. There is also an independent
correlation between immediacy of response and academic status.
Full professors of both sexes sent in the most responses early on,
in contrast with students of both sexes who responded later and
increasingly over time. Note that the response pattern for men
resembles that for the highest status group, and the response pattern
for women resembles that for the lowest status group. At intermediate
status levels, responses from assistant professors are distributed
in an apparently random pattern over time, while associate professors
split according to sex, with male assoc profs *the* most aggressive
responders, and female assoc profs among the most reticent. (If
anyone has an explanation for this split, I would be interested to
hear it!)

The above observations suggest that women may have contributed less
than usual to the rude negators discussion because men, as habitual
quick responders, made the obvious observations ('the hell', 'like
hell', 'the devil', 'the fuck', etc.) first. Had the original query
been one that required more specialized expertise than a command of
colloquial English, and the criterion for contributing been
possession of unique knowledge rather than ability/willingness
to post an immediate response, then a corrolary of the 'quick
response' hypothesis predicts that, all other things being equal,
a larger number of women would have contributed. (This is of course
an oversimplification, since non-obvious observations on rude
negation were posted as well.) The 'quick response' hypothesis
explains on the one hand why both men and women listed 'nothing new
to add' as the primary reason for not contributing (since there
are more potential contributors on LINGUIST than obvious points to be
made about rude negation), and on the other hand, why those who did
contribute were overwhelmingly male. The hypothesis does not however
explain why female full professors, as potential quick responders,
did not contribute to the public discussion (one of the 3 women
who contributed is an assistant professor, the other two are grad
students). This brings us to the second hypothesis.

2) The 'gendered discourse' hypothesis:
According to this view, LINGUIST is essentially 'male discourse',
with the consequence that male contributors see themselves as
engaging in same-sex conversation, while female contributors must
engage in cross-sex conversation (thanks to Elise Morse-Gagne for
making this point cogently in her survey response). Research
(Gomm 1981) has shown that both men and women tend to avoid 'rude'
language in mixed sex conversation. Thus the reluctance of women
to contribute to a LINGUIST discussion on the use of rude words
can be understood as an observance of societal norms of
appropriateness in cross-sex communication.

That this explanation does not imply that women are inherently
uncomfortable with rude language is illustrated by the fact that at
the same time that the rude negators discussion was taking place
on LINGUIST, a lively discussion on the etymology of the word
'fuck' was taking place on WMST-L (the Women's Studies List,
which is 88% female).

The 'gendered discourse' hypothesis is consistent with the fact
that many female survey respondents reported enjoying the discussion
and talking about it with friends, husbands, and other non-LINGUISTs,
without however participating directly themselves. It is also
compatible with another set of responses, in which women reported
feeling alienated by the juvenile 'male bonding' aspect of the
discussion, which was introduced by a man, taken up immediately by
other men, and characterized by self-revelations of usage involving
the rude use of (predominantly male) body parts. (A male bias is
inherent in the phenomenon itself; as one survey respondent pointed
out, there are no rude negators of the sort 'Ovaries he did' or 'He did
my tits'.) Finally, and more generally, the 'gendered discourse' view
helps to explain why female subscribers, as outsiders to the discourse,
read fewer postings, and are more likely to hesitate to contribute or
avoid contributing altogether to LINGUIST discussions.

These are my thoughts on the matter at this time. Thanks to all of you
who responded to the survey. I wish I had time to reply individually
to the many interesting comments and personal notes I received along
with the responses. This summary doesn't begin to do justice to the
richness of the data.

Susan Herring
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