Friday 14 September 2007

Scientists don't help with pink and blue and a boy named Sue!

In the early days of political correctness we were told that it was wrong to dress girls in pink.
Apparently we were imposing cultural and sexist prejudices upon our innocent children. Exactly how much of a boy or girl they were going to be was best left to them.
Even so, we had to give them names, but had no idea at the time quite how huge an influence our choices would have on their lives.
Professor David Figlio, of the University of Florida was horrified when he heard his daughter's 'Talking Barbie' doll declare "Math(s) is hard!"
Why would a girl, more than a boy, think that?
He took 1,700 letter and sound combinations that people associated with being either male or female, and applied them to 1.4 million names on birth certificates. From his data he calculated a linguistic 'femininity' score, and then built a league table of the most and least 'feminine-sounding' girls names.
After a massive amount of research, including the study of 1,000 pairs of sisters, Professor Figlio found out that names given to girls have a profound affect on their career choices.
If Barbie was a real girl she might indeed find maths difficult. With twin daughters called Alex and Isabella, Alex will be twice as likely to study maths than her sister.
He explains: "Girls with feminine names ... may feel more pressure to avoid technical subjects"
While Annas, Emmas and Elizabeths will perform just as well as anybody else doing science, they are far less likely to choose the subject, which is perceived as 'male'. But if you're a girl with a name that sounds like a boy - a Lauren or an Ashley, for instance - people will treat you differently, and it will be much easier for you to cross sexually stereotypical obstacles.
So have celebrities got it right? By giving their children names like Twinklebot, Raindrop and Carrot will they avoid the whole business of gender stereotyping?
Maybe, but their childrens' funky names won't help them receive a good education. Professor Figlio studied 55,000 children, and discovered that those given unusual names performed poorly.
Kids whose names had modern spellings or included punctuation (you know the sort of thing: "Hi, I'm Lavinia! That's big 'L' small 'a' big 'V' and an apostrophe, small 'i' big 'N' small 'i' big 'A'. LaV'iNiA!") scored around 5% lower on all exam scores, mostly, it's believed, because teachers tend to take them less seriously as people.
As Anushka Asthana reported in The Observer, Primary School teachers find it difficult not to make judgements on children's names before they have even met them.
We are all so very human, and, according to UCLA Psychology Professor Albert Mehrabian in his book 'Baby Name Report Card', we are drawn to certain names and repulsed by others.
Some names sound like success on a plate, while others make people form images of drug addicts and homeless people. Old-fashioned and traditional names still appeal. Rachel and Robert seem to sound like particularly popular people.
While Breeze scored a miserable 16 out of 100, Christopher got top marks for respect in the name league table.
The book's author has strong feelings on the subject:
"A name is part of an impression package. Parents who make up bizarre names for their children are ignorant, arrogant or just foolish."
Certainly there is a strong case to be made for the old adage 'Give a dog a bad name...'.
Simply, if we are told we are intelligent and beautiful, then we are more likely to believe it of ourselves.
The day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, a wonderful schoolteacher in Iowa called Jane Elliot conducted a tremendous experiment on her class.
After splitting her pupils into groups depending merely on eye-colour, she told first one group and then the other that they were inferior.
Just as she suspected, each person who had been told they were a lesser being displayed feelings of self-loathing, fear, and proceeded to perform worse than ever in academic tests.
Since then, scientists at Stanford University have taken her research, and proved beyond doubt that the observable differences in exam scores between black and white students is nothing to do with genetic differences, but wholly down to what is known as 'stereotype threat': that is, people who feel stereotyped, who have been stereotyped all their lives, are likely to fulfil those expectations.
Hence black kids from poorer areas tend not to perform as well as their white equals.
Meanwhile, Anya Hurlbert (now there's a name that forms an image in my mind!) has thrown all this modern research on its liberal head.
As Professor of Visual Neuroscience (you wot?) at Newcastle University, she has discovered that women like pink and blokes like blue.
Well cor blimey guv'nor, give her an apple. Not an Apple Paltrow, just a piece of fruit.
Apparently, women react positively to pink because they needed to find it when we were hunter-gatherers, back when we lived in caves.
In tests that covered populations around the globe, she amassed tons of data that confirmed that women were drawn to the colours of berries, because, according to Hurlbert (yikes, I just saw that image again!): "Women were the primary gatherers and would certainly have benefited from an ability to home in on ripe red fruits. A clear blue sky signalled good weather, suggesting a good day (for men) to hunt."
And then she goes and spoils it all by saying something stupid like
"Clear blue also signals a good water source."
Doesn't that defeat her own arguments? After all, don't both men and women need a good water source?
Ah me, there's nothing like a big stinky pile of scientific research to confuse the hell out of us.
If we give our sons manly names, are we depriving them of the right to do the Billy Elliot ballet dancer thang?
Should we call our daughters Samantha and Jessica so that they feel all womanly, or are we wrecking their chances of winning a Nobel Prize for physics later in life?
Only one thing is certain. Whatever we call them and whoever they feel like being, they are going to need loads of guidance and plenty of encouragement to make the best of their lives in a world full of experts that can't tell a peeper from a punanny.

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