Too Pretty for Homework and Allergic to Algebra

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As you know, JC Penny recently offered a shirt that said “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me” My solution was to offer an alternative tee shirt that said “Testosterone killed my brain” or words to that effect, but the Skepchicks went after JC Penny more directly and got the shirt shelved. Or should I say unshelved.

Now, Forever 21, which is apparently some sort of retailer, has an Allergic to Algebra shirt, also for girls.

This really pisses me off. I know smart young women who could have easily killed math but were culturally derailed by a combination of this sort of destructive iconography, teachers who shared this sexist and incorrect view with the evile marketing mavens at JC Penny and Forever 21, and other related factors. This sort of thing causes damage. This has nothing to do with free speech. It has everything to do with causing real social damage to make a buck.

JC Pennys and Forever 21 have a right to do this asinine thing. And the rest of us have a right to complain loudly, not shop there, and do other things that they may not like.

Make me a promise: If you are in a family that exchanges gifts for the holidays, including gift cards, and there is any chance that someone might shop at either of these stores, please put the word around that you would strongly prefer that you and members of your family not receive anything from those establishments this year, and of course, don’t go there yourself. I’m not talking about a boycott here (though that would be fine). I’m just talking about letting your friends and relatives know that you have a conscience and that they should check in on theirs as well, and send a little business in a somewhat different direction.

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72 thoughts on “Too Pretty for Homework and Allergic to Algebra

  1. One of the local science museums sells gift cards for admissions to special exhibits. Seems like a great gift idea to me.

    This is the same museum that was the first in the US to host the Lucy bones. I loved seeing the real bones I had read about so much earlier.

  2. I’m not concerned about sexism — boys and girls are generally very different and should be treated as such, with room made for the outliers — but I am put off by the anti-intellectual message. It is an adorable shirt though.

  3. I’m not concerned about sexism

    That’s good to know. Of course, having a penis means that historically the privilege would have been heavily weighted in your favour, and even today it gives you advantages – and some disadvantages. But at least it doesn’t concern your pretty little head.

    boys and girls are generally very different and should be treated as such, with room made for the outliers

    So by this being treated differently – we shouldn’t be treated equally? We shouldn’t have equal opportunities or receive equal support educationally?

  4. “It is an adorable shirt though.”

    It’s not. It is a badly designed, cheaply made – yes, you can tell that from a photo – garment with a totally negative message on it. Added to the many thousands of times a girl growing up will hear that same message it can do nothing but harm. And all for a cheap laugh in the boardroom?

    Oh, and if you really believe boys and girls are intrinsically that different you need citations. Yes, even on a post about crap shirts.

    1. You know that we’ve seen differences between the brains of people who speak different language families, right? Do you think that means the langugage you’re going to speak is determined biologically?

    2. And gender is determined socially, as is language instruction, as is what is taught about math. With 3 out of the 4 elements of your analogy being socially determined, you’ve got a long road ahead of you to make that deterministic biological connection. Good luck.

    3. I’m not sure if this reply is going to be posted out of order…there doesn’t seem to be a “reply” link on Stephanie’s last post.

      Anyway, I wasn’t making an analogy, you were, and I really have no opinion on brain function in different language families. There are people, and I assume you are one, who cherish the belief that all the personality and aptitude differences between the sexes are socially programmed. There is not a shred of scientific evidence to back that up, so it’s an interesting question why people want to believe that.

      It doesn’t do girls any favor to tell them they will lead happy, fulfilling lives if they follow a traditionally male path if it’s not true.

    4. What you did was cite biological differences as though they were biologically, not socially, determined, in defending your assertion that we should treat boys and girls very differently–a social proposition. You also, in fact, made an analogy between langugage and math, whether or not that was your intention. Then when I pointed out a scientific observation about the effects of social environments on brain structure and function, you decided I “want to believe” something.

      What is it that you “want to believe” that makes you decide to get personal instead of discussing the science with which you’re presented?

    5. Hi Stephanie. I want to believe in reality. Please show me the science that demonstrates that biological differences between the sexes are socially determined and I will change my mind. I am unaware of any such results.

    6. London taxi drivers have to qualify for their licence by, essentially, learning the entire map of London, including details like one-way streets, restricted routes etc. This can take two years or more.

      And look what this does to the hippocampus, remembering that this is in adults – a socially induced change to the ability and to the shape of the brain. Google Scholar will get you to more papers but 893 citations on this is enough to be going on with!

  5. Tabby, I’d prefer not to add anti-math/science, and would instead like to see pro-math/science messages.

    Making something that discourages both boys and girls is better than only discouraging girls in a a rather half-assed way.

    1. I’m not sure of anything, Greg, but Thomas Bayes proved in the 18th Century that absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence. I’m unaware of any evidence of gods despite many people looking for them and so I don’t believe in gods. Likewise, feminists have been trying for decades to find evidence that boys and girls do not have biological differences in psychology and have failed. Occam’s razor and Bayes’ theorem lead to a conclusion that there are in fact biologically determined tendencies that differ between the sexes.

      I’ll do a blog post on this…it’s getting too good for comments. Thanks again for blogging here; your posts are very stimulating.

    2. There are differences between males and females. Many of the differences between boys and girls in various test settings, identified in research over the 40s, 50s, 60s and early 70s became part of our popular and pop psych-logy culture. But then one or both of two things happened to many of those differences: 1) They went away or reduced all by themselves because boys and girls started to do different things. For instance at the turn of the century in western society, it was believe that women could not run more than several dozen yards before tiring or collapsing. Today, they seem to be able to run marathons. Differences in certain kinds of spatial ability went away in where girls and boys were playing the same sorts of games as kids. Etc.

      The other thing that happened is that explanations other than genes emerged for some differences. It has been shown that girls become disadvantaged at math for social and cultural reasons, not because they are born to fail in this area. Which is why I find your comments both annoying and destructive and, frankly, something you should apologize for.

      Some differences have not gone away and do seem to be mostly a result of sex differences at a deeper level. For instance, Testosterone does seem to mess up the brain a bit in boys, which may be why remedial reading classes tend to be all-male, or at least, have very few girls in them. And, generally, girls are smarter than boys in school (at least in my experience.

      But there are those who need to believe in the inferiority of women. Mostly, they are men, interestingly.

    3. Hi Greg. It seems you agree with me that there are biological differences in the psychology of males and females, in general. No one used the word “inferior” but you.

      Please direct me to the study proving that males and females are equally apt at math controlling for social and cultural differences.

    4. Hi Greg. It seems you agree with me that there are biological differences in the psychology of males and females, in general. No one used the word “inferior” but you.

      This post is about logo clothing that feeds the claim that females are inferior to males in math ability. This is what we are talking about here

      Please direct me to the study proving that males and females are equally apt at math controlling for social and cultural differences.

      You write a blog on this topic, so I’m rather surprised that you don’t have a handle on the literature. At the moment, I’m working on Penguin Evolution (stay tuned folks!) and don’t really have time to do your homework for you. But it is a topic of interest to me. Chances are I’ve already covered something related here:

    5. Hi Greg. I don’t see anything on the shirt indicating that females are inferior to males, and as I said I am put off by the anti-intellectual message. But the reason a girl would buy a shirt like that and a boy wouldn’t has to do with the differing goals of the sexes. Females are happy to be seen as weak and in need of protection and support, while males want to be seen as successful and tough.

      My point remains that there are clearly psychological differences between the sexes, there is no convincing evidence that it’s 100% or even 50% due to social programming, and closing our eyes to these differences does a disservice to society and to all the individuals.

    6. You don’t have an absence of evidence. You have negative evidence, evidence showing biological differences that are caused by social differences. In addition to the language example I gave and the taxi driver example from maureen, there are also studies showing that girls spatial processing–and the associated brain structures–are changing over time to look more like boys’ processing, as girls get more involved in sports.

      Once again, I’ll point out that your response was not to interact with the science, but to decide that I was merely politically motivated to reject your idea, something for which this thread has also given you negative evidence.

      So where would an actual attachment to reality put you in the middle of all this?

    7. Hi Stephanie. The blank-slate theory is certainly interesting. Your and Maureen’s examples don’t seem to me to relate to the question of sex-based differences in psychology. In my mind the blank-slate theory is largely discredited. I think the door ought to be open to all girls and boys to follow their dreams, but girls ought not to be directed into careers they will ultimately find unfulfilling.

    8. Fascinating that you keep bringing up the Blank Slate theory as the only alternative to the idea that men and women are hard wired to do math differently. You’ve been presented with several pieces of evidence that show you that differences in complex processing, including differences between sexes, and the brain architecture that goes with it are caused by social phenomenon. Instead of saying, “Yes, and here is the proof that sometimes it’s caused by sex differences,” all you’ve got is that some theory no one but you is talking about is largely discredited in the confines of your head? Truly fascinating.

    9. Hi Stephanie. The blank-slate theory is a name for the theory you are espousing, that all mental differences between the sexes (or more generally, individuals) are caused by social conditioning. I can prove there are physical differences between males and females. I can prove males have more aptitude for math. The burden is on those making the extraordinary claim that, across all societies and all time, the universal difference in aptitude for math is solely do to social conditioning and not biology.

      Frankly I don’t see how anyone can claim there is anything close to sufficient proof of your point of view.

      Here’s an interesting article:

    10. OK, so, now, who is talking about inferiority. If girls should be kept away from the law (and my daughter is likely to be a lawyer, so you might forgive me if I don’t take you seriously), then boys should be VERY STRONGLY encouraged to stay away from, say, professions that use words, or that require doing two things at once, or where timing is important or blood might be spilled, because either many males suck at those things or many women are accustom to or good at those things.

    11. Right. Logic is apparently not your strong suit.

      (1) You have not provided evidence that the Blank Slate theory has been falsified. Whether or not it has depends on how broadly you construe the theory.

      (2) Even if the Blank Slate theory were falsified, it would not follow that any particular ability is innate. The evidence must be examined for any given claim.

      (3) Even if one were to demonstrate an innate component to a trait, it would not follow that that trait were 100% determined by innate factors or even that innate factors dominate.

      (4) You want to support your position of not worrying about sexism. In order to do that, you would need to demonstrate that social influences are insignificant.

      (5) The null hypothesis (which determines where the burden of proof lies) is not determined by your personal incredulity. It is determined by prior research findings.

      (6) Those who are saying that there is a large social component to individual aptitude differences, even as measured biologically, have presented evidence to support their case. You’ve presented…doubt and speculation about our motivations.

      (7) Get serious.

      Also, there is no “universal” difference in aptitude, except in your head:

    12. As the responses have degenerated to ad hominems, I am prepared to rest my case. Stephanie, your logic and definition of null hypothesis are wrong. Points 1-4 and 6 actually argue against your position that differences are 100% due to nurture. Point 5 is simply wrong. Your final link is an unscientific anecdote but even that demonstrates the innate superiority of males with spatial skills. Can you see why?

      As for sexism, I was raised a feminist and tried for many years to treat women the same as I treat men. My life works much better now that I recognize the difference.

    13. Where have I said that anything is 100% due to nurture? I have said that all of the evidence presented points to environmental factors, and you still haven’t presented any that points to factors related to biological sex. Got any of those, aside from your “universal” that isn’t? Any? Anywhere?

      Point 5 is not wrong, but I’m not surprised that you don’t understand it. After all, you just called a scientific study (more if you consider the links within that article) an anecdote. “There are no environmental impacts on sex differences in math performance” is a null hypothesis. So is “There are no sex-based biological impacts on sex differences in math performance.” Which one you choose (or what variant thereof) depends on what you’re studying and what you’re claiming.

      You showed up here claiming environmental influences were nothing to worry about. When we said there were, in fact, significant environmental influences, we had to deal with the first null hypothesis. It’s been falsified. You still haven’t falsified yours. When should we expect that, or are you just going to rely on your own hunches and politics?

  6. Hi Greg. I don’t see anything on the shirt indicating that females are inferior to males, and as I said I am put off by the anti-intellectual message.

    Now, you are being willfully thick. Look again. And no, I won’t pander to or be led around by your game playing.

  7. Females are happy to be seen as weak and in need of protection and support

    Okay, he isn’t even arguing from a point of reality. That is the stupidest friggin’ thing I’ve read in a long time.

    1. Tabby: Funny, I didn’t even see that part of his comment since lost interest in it during the first sentence.

      This is a candidate for Comment of the Day Award!

  8. A footnote, merely, for them as is scientifically inclined.

    I am lousy at sport. Having been born with a squint, surgically corrected far too late, I have no hand eye co-ordination and no confidence on the sports field where my experience is 100% failure.

    I am, though, bloody good at spatial reasoning. Why? I would sit as a toddler watching my father draw the detailed plans for, say, a house and then go out onto the building site in his wake and see those 2-dimensional diagrams turn into 3-dimensional solid objects. And all before I could read.

    Then I engaged with the wider world which told me, over and over, that girls can’t do maths and treated any minor difficulty as evidence* of that fact. So, instead of being one of the great civil engineers – where my personality and interest would have taken me – I now make quilts!

    * Like missing the first half of the logarithms module through sickness, coming to it in the middle and asking politely what was going on to be told by the male teacher that if I did not understand I was too stupid – in so many words – to be in that class.

    Tell me again that it’s not social. Please.

    1. Maureen, excellent case study. Even if there is a demonstrated particualr area where there is a persistent sex difference caused by the biology of sex (which is not the case with math) there is usually lots of overlaps and there are many exceptions.

  9. Stephanie, I was just starting to like threaded comments (never liked them before) then I just returned to hating them. Interesting to see your comment come up just at this moment.

    Is this an option we have on this blog network? If so, imma turn it off.

  10. Ah, that’s better. I hope that does not mess up the conversations in progress to much, but this is much, much better.

    OK, back to business:
    As the responses have degenerated to ad hominems, I am prepared to rest my case.

    There have not been any ad hominem arguments made here, I’m pretty sure.

  11. Hi Stephanie. It appears you now agree with me that there are biological differences in aptitude between the sexes. I never claimed there were no environmental factors.

    You misunderstand my comment about not worrying about sexism. I think boys and girls ought to be treated differently because they have different things that make them happy and fulfilled in life, but the door ought to be open for the minority who choose the other path. However, I think it is a great disservice to girls to teach them that traditionally male roles are somehow a superior life path for them.

  12. No, it doesn’t appear that at all except to someone who’d really like to get out of a conversation that he’s not doing well in. I strongly disagree with you that, without environmental influences, there would even be a minority. You didn’t say no environmental influences, but everything else you say claims those influences are miniscule.

    Instead, the studies that have been done strongly suggest that the environmental influences–those that have been isolated thus far–account for almost all of the difference. What I am is agnostic on where those remaining small differences come from. That isn’t agreeing with you, and it isn’t claiming 100%. It is dealing with evidence instead of politics.

    When are you going to do the same?

  13. @Greg, interesting take. No. I find evolutionary psychology compelling, though, and think it trumps the blank-slate theory.

    @Stephanie I’m curious what you think of evolutionary psychology as it relates to male-female differences.

    As for your claim that science supports the theory that almost all psychological differences between the sexes are environmental, even the uncontrolled study you posted has a result showing significantly better spatial aptitude in the males in the one group, while the other group was only at par. And I’m not so interested in aptitude as I am in happiness. Nobody wants to be around a bunch of unhappy lawyers.

  14. That would rather depend on the evolutionary psychology study and its methods. Most of it is crap, using a tiny slice of humanity and history to make large claims that are generally contradicted by the rest of what we know about a topic. Sort of like your “universal” claims. Some small portion of it actually gets multidisciplinary enough to produce some interesting results.

    But how many times to I have to point out that the link I gave you also provides links to other studies? Need to see girls outperform boys at math? Follow the very first link. It doesn’t even require matriarchy (which is still likely to have gendered work roles).

  15. Hi Stephanie. The link you mentioned also demonstrates significant differences in scores between boys and girls, so now you’ve given me two links to studies that support my case.

  16. Letting my sex down? You’re trying to be funny with that personal attack, but it shows emotion and tribalism rather than science.

    The article said the reading scores were even more different in the countries where women had more status. In no country were the girls’ math scores higher than the boys’ nor the boys’ reading scores higher than or equal to the girls’. And yet the authors’ completely unsupported conclusion was that perhaps unspecified social factors were responsible for the differences. Grade: C-.

    You keep arguing that environment has an influence on people’s brains. No one disagrees.

    More interesting, though, is the point Greg brought up about whether we ought to be trying to undo the historical difference in male and female psychology. If you believe significant parts of it are hardwired, that tilts the answer toward no, at least if you believe that the two sexes derive fulfillment from different qualitative experiences and you want people to experience fulfillment.

    If you’re trying to create a society of productive but unhappy workers I guess the answer is different.

  17. “while Icelandic girls outscored males by roughly 2 percent”

    Also, “letting your side down” is there to mark the tribalism you seem to be showing, because you’re not providing any evidence.

    Interestingly, if you like the world the way it is and don’t want to change a thing, that tilts your answers to “Where is the evidence of a biological effect on these differences?” to “Uh…squirrels!”

    When will we see some of that evidence?

  18. I tell you what, Betasattva. You toddle off and find a world class university which will take on someone to the civil engineering bachelor’s course with vast amounts of arts, social and political sciences, good life experience including management but with O Level Maths and no physics, no chemistry since I was 14. Oh, and pushing 70! I’ll need funding, too.

    You can have a lifetime supply of chocolate for that or a similar reward.

    The deal is, though, that you let me work out whether I’m happy or not. After all, I’m here and I can tell!

  19. Stephanie, you’re obviously intelligent so I’m doing my best to figure out what you’re really asking for. Here’s an article that summarizes some of the observed differences in the sexes:

    I’m sure you already know this, so maybe you’re asking my to show evidence that all those differences are not caused 100% by environmental factors. I point out the cross-cultural and cross-generational nature of most of these differences as evidence, and reiterate that the extraordinary claim that environmental factors are responsible for all these differences is the claim that requires evidence.

  20. I find evolutionary psychology compelling, though, and think it trumps the blank-slate theory.

    Just so everyone watching knows, those are NOT the two exhaustive alternatives. Not at all.

  21. Betasattva – You’re just wrong. I’ve got no links to studies to support that. You’re just wrong. Stay in your man cave and remain willfully ignorant and self-congratulating. We really don’t need you here in the real world.

    Good day.

  22. I’ve submitted a post, but with two links it is in the moderation ghetto right now.

    What it boils down to, is two demonstrations of “biological” gender ability (in one case, math) being shown to be quite clearly socially determined.

  23. I’d just like to interject with a few points, if only because I wasted the last 40 minutes wading through the entire thread- and if I don’t comment I’ll feel that I have wasted nearly an hour of my life for nothing.
    -“Evidence” does not usually include an eighth grade level independent study on gender differences. Seriously. I was starting to expect that sections might be presented as .jpeg photos of quasi-illegible points on Bristol board. (It may have actually looked more professional than the HTML on the webpage)
    If this is the “best evidence”- then Steph is sitting quite pretty.
    -If we assume- and I’m confident based on the comments of Betasattva this is his point- that gender performance in math is a mixture of nature and nurture, then Stephanie’s links show precisely the opposite conclusion you want. If the gap between boys and girls closes toward statistical irrelevance in cultures where gender roles are less obvious- since we can’t possibly hope for a gender neutral culture- it appears girls would be better at math than boys if such a culture existed. As gender role difference approaches zero, girls perform statistically equal. So if gender role difference=zero, given Betasattva’s insistence that nature dictates skill to some degree, girls ought to actually surpass boys.
    If I am to believe that nature is a relevant factor in math performance- I am left to conclude that I am a member of the “weaker sex” once again. This is all quite unscientific, of course, but so goes the thread thus far…..

  24. George, there’s a difference between an egalitarian society and one that doesn’t define gender roles. It is possible to have “men’s work” and “women’s work” and still value them essentially equally. For example, it is possible to believe a woman’s voice should be calmer and quieter than a man’s but to still stop and pay attention when she speaks. So it is possible to have expectations of boys–say, that they’re more active and less attentive–that could disadvantage them in school setting, even in an egalitarian society.

    Similarly, there is at least some evidence that the relative rates of diagnosis of learning disabilities that Greg talks about are a social artifact. Hard to say for sure with the research that’s been done.

  25. Hi Stephanie. None of the links you presented came anywhere close to falsifying a biological basis for gender differences in math and reading aptitude, let alone the dozens of other commonly observed gender differences. You’re retreated to personal attacks, so I’m declaring victory.

  26. Hi Betasattva.

    falsifying a biological basis for gender differences

    Falsifying something you made up?

    You’re retreated to personal attacks

    Again I haven’t seen any ad hominem arguments here.

  27. Steph,
    I’m not claiming that you can’t have an egalitarian society without gender roles. I’m suggesting that even egalitarian societies can have gender roles that cause differences in performance through entirely social constructs.
    I’m also unscientifically suggesting that if it were possible to have a society with no gender roles, and if sex biologically determines proficiency at mathematics, your evidence seems to suggest that women- stripped of gender roles- are potentially better at math.
    Since Betasattva clearly accepts that “nurture” is an important factor, but that “nature” also plays a role- studies seem to suggest that as gender roles tend toward egalitarianism- women quickly close the gap in math scores. Could it not be argued, then, that in an imaginary gender neutral society women would surpass men- if we take Betasattva’s tack that “biological gender affects performance in mathematics” is the null hypothesis?
    I’d also like to argue, at least anecdotally and based on a case study of one- that being male adversely affects ones ability to assess the scientific significance of internet information.
    Just sayin’…..

  28. George, I think we’re saying the same thing more than you think we are.

    I’m pointing out that the socialization of boys also contains elements that can interfere with learning. And given that societies that have become more egalitarian have focused on treating girls more like boys, while treating boys more like girls is still often taboo, I don’t think we have the data to say anything about relative underlying performance even if we assume some biological basis.

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