An Experiment in Bias
Since you’ve opened this, you’ve volunteered for an experiment.
Please, read Excerpt A:
Dear Momma and Daddy,
‘I hope I didn’t seem too sad when you left that day. Watching you all drive off made me realize” — she starts to write, what a long journey I have set out upon, but the pretty-writing alarm sounds again, and she damps it down to ”how much I was going to miss you. But since then I have been so busy studying, meeting new people, and” — she grandly thinks of figuring out Dupont’s tribal idiosyncrasies, already knowing she’s going to settle for ”getting used to new ways of doing things, I haven’t had time to be homesick, although I guess I am.
‘The classes haven’t been as hard as I was afraid they would be. In fact, my French professor told me I was ‘overqualified’ for his class! Since he had a peculiar way of teaching French literature, in my opinion, I wasn’t unhappy about switching to one a little more advanced. I have a feeling that it is harder to get into a university like this than it is to stay in it. I suppose I shouldn’t even think like that, however” — she starts to write lest I have a rude awakening, — and what is lest supposed to mean in Alleghany County? — then downscales it to ”because it might be bad luck….
Now, excerpt B:
Dear Mother and Dad,
I’m in Rome looking for an apartment, though I haven’t found exactly what I want yet. Apartments here are either too big or too small, and if too big you have to shut off every room but one in the winter in order to heat it properly anyway. I’m trying to get a medium-sized, medium-priced place that I can heat completely without spending a fortune for it.
Sorry I’ve been so bad about letters lately. I hope to do better with the quieter life I’m leading here. I felt I needed a change from Mongibello—as you’ve both been saying for a long time—so I’ve moved bag and baggage and may even sell the house and boat….
With Love, Dickie
These are passages are excerpted from popular novels. Aside from the obvious differences in content and writing style, take a moment to think about all the ways these two passages are different.
Since this is a baseball website, let’s try the same experiment with sports-writing:
Where Valentine is sometimes hyperactive in some decisions, he’s historically slow making others, especially where the bullpen is concerned. While his rank in relievers used in some years like 1997 (ranked 12th) and 2001 (ranked 16th) could be related to weakness in the bullpen, Valentine was consistently less busy than his counterparts when it came to pitching changes. But inactivity isn’t always a bad thing, as evidenced by Valentine’s success in 1999, when Mets relievers were second in the league in Fair Run Average (4.37) and second in saves and holds, taking the Mets to the playoffs for the first time since 1988. But at times Valentine’s reluctance to go to the bullpen cost the Mets games, such as during Game 2 of the 1999 NLCS, when Kenny Rogers was left in the game to give up a pair of two-run home runs in the sixth inning. After the game, Valentine said, “I had no reason to keep him in. I left him in and it was absolutely the wrong move.” His hesitance with the bullpen has already been evident in Boston, which stems largely from a distrust due to underperformance.
That unsuccessful pinch-hit appearance isn’t the kind of thing that would generally kick off a Baseball Prospectus piece (especially four days later), and I can’t think of a single reason why it ever should, except that the pinch-hitter in this case was Omar Vizquel. And Omar Vizquel is 45 years old, and still (occasionally) playing in a major-league middle infield. On Tuesday, Vizquel announced that he plans to retire after this season.
I’m one of those who never got tired of all the Jamie Moyer talk. Okay, the “Jamie Moyer is so old that…” jokes got, well, old, but the actual facts of the story never bored me. He’s almost 50 years old and still playing high-level professional baseball after losing his entire age-48 season to injury. His big-league career is about as old as the average big-league player is. He’s faced 9 percent of all major league hitters, ever. It’s a pretty amazing story—even though he couldn’t keep the ball in the park often enough to keep it going for long—and I thought the anecdotes were really interesting.
Both of these pieces were published on Baseball Prospectus during the 2012 season. Aside from the obvious differences of content and writing style, what makes these excerpts different?
It’s a subtle difference, one that is difficult to detect without knowing the premise of this experiment—hell, I’ll admit that once I pasted them into this blank document that the difference certainly isn’t abundantly obvious to me.
This experiment removes the byline from pieces, because bylines create unnecessary context. Looking at passages without a larger context should serve to eliminate any form of reader-bias, which is necessary for a proper experiment. Unless you Googled the passages to detect their origins (in which case you’re kicked out of this experiment for being a resourceful cheater) chances are you had a difficult time discerning any notable difference, especially not the gender of their authors.
Look at the excerpts again, this time knowing that each set (A and B, C and D) contains one piece written by a male, the other written by a female.
Can you detect which?
Excerpt A is from the book, “I am Charlotte Simmons,” by Tom Wolfe. The novel was released in 2004, written by a 73-year-old male, from the perspective of an 18-year-old female attending her first year of college at a prestigious fictional University. The book’s content is focused on status relationships and the sexuality of college students, for which Wolfe did extensive research of both male and female students at several universities.
Excerpt B is from the book,“The Talented Mr. Ripley” by Patricia Highsmith. The novel was released in 1955, the first in a series of five novels focusing on character Tom Ripley. This collection of psychological thrillers is written from the male perspective and focus not only on crime, but also sexuality and relationships, all by a female author.
It’s understandable if you didn’t guess the right gender on these since the authors themselves do such a great job of not only masking their own gender, but impersonating the other gender realistically.
What about the passages from Baseball Prospectus?
Excerpt C is from a piece published on April 25, 2012, entitled “What Valentine Brings to Boston” written by myself, a female. Excerpt D is from a piece published on June 27, 2012, entitled “The Eternal Shortstop” by Bill Parker, a male.
If you figured out the gender by reading just those passages, I’d assert it was a lucky guess—both excerpts are devoid of gender, but both do use historical trends and numbers to analyze baseball. Without a byline or prior knowledge of those articles, it’s likely you couldn’t have figured it out.
The larger point of this experiment is to show that writing is gender-blind, making women an equally valuable asset in this arena as men, despite gender differences. My fight has never been for equal representation in print and Internet outlets for women, but it has been to recognize the exceptional work that some female writers produce without looking at their ability and content through gender-biased glasses.
Writing, with or without a byline, is the great equalizer in this field—there’s no video component to this. Writers get opportunities based on the words they pen, doing analytical work on their own merit, independent of gender. It isn’t the same as sideline reporters in the NFL or MLB who, whatever their merits as broadcasters or reporters, are also there to add an obvious dose of femininity. The female sideline writer is supposed to be a novelty; the female sportswriter is not.
This is not to ignore the discrimination and bias that exists. There is still work to be done to eliminate some of the biases that have existed in any workplace between the two genders, but we’ve come a long way from the days of Billy Martin kicking women from the clubhouse and Dave Kingman sending a rat to a female reporter. Writing isn’t unique in this regard, though the ratio of men- to-women in the industry is obviously skewed, which makes erasing discrimination, or even harmless comments like, “You know a lot about baseball for a girl,” a bit more difficult.
The argument is not to have women in equal representation as men in baseball writing, but it’s to accept and celebrate the women that are in the industry as knowledgeable authorities on the topic, rather than a novelty.
At the end of the day, as the excerpts from the experiment above prove, good writing is good writing: There’s no reason to showcase women as a side-show event in the world of writing, when many are talented enough to be the main attraction.