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So first of all there was my post agonising about whether I was… - Sally's Journal
March 8th, 2005
04:54 pm

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So first of all there was my post agonising about whether I was sexist because I thought it was probably true that men are better than women at maths*, and indeed I really do believe some things do depend on what sex / race you are. Not very many, but obvious things like the colour of your skin and whether or not you have a vagina, and if these are relavent to the point then you should be allowed to discriminate based on them.

Then chess posted that she was racist, because she thought that a large percentage of asian people fitted her stereotype of them. And that raised my hackles, because while I find it easy to swallow that you might be able to run faster / do maths better because of your genes, whether or not you're a nice person shouldn't have anything to do with it. Except how you relate to people is obviously strongly factored by how you're brought up. And how you're brought up is strongly factored by your parents, your culture, your country and its education system... So maybe people from the republic of foo *are* bought up to be more pushy / in your face than people from the kingdom of bar.

Then I found myself being a raging feminist on #chiark, when Stark claimed that he offered up his seat to women, for no other reason than because they're women. Which annoyed me, because there is an implicit "women need that seat more than men" in such a gesture. Then Rachel said that, well, maybe women did need the seat more than men, because they might be pregnant or have PMT, and one could always say no if one didn't need the seat. And that really annoyed me, because if you accept that women are more likely to need to sit down on a tube than men, you're accepting that women are more likely to feel tired / unwell than men, and if that is true then presented with an identical man and woman you probably should employ the man. Of course, at that point I was told to get a grip, because giving up seats on trains is a small nice thing, and not giving people jobs is a big bad thing. But it's the *same argument* Sigh.

And then today Mole got upset because #chiark took the comment "fatness and lack of education are correlated" as a plausable statement, rather than a great evil, and went off to look it up instead of blindly agreeing with him that it was evil to think this.

Sigh. I'm *still* confused.

*(To which I was told "you can only say that if you say lots of qualifiers, like "on average" or "in my experience" etc)

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From:mr_ricarno
Date:March 8th, 2005 05:24 pm (UTC)
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As far as giving-up-your-seat-for-women is concerned, it was just something drummed into me as a kid, that it was polite to do such things. Old-fashioned, perhaps, but there's no need for women to get angry about it - it's a cross-cultural thing. Though I confess that if it kept happening to me, I'd find it very patronising after a while...
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From:atreic
Date:March 8th, 2005 05:30 pm (UTC)
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I confess that if it kept happening to me, I'd find it very patronising after a while

So there *is* a reason to get angry about it. It's only a polite thing to give up your seat to someone needier than you. Implicitly saying that women are needier than men is a bad thing if we want equality.
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From:cartesiandaemon
Date:March 8th, 2005 05:32 pm (UTC)
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Then I found myself being a raging feminist on #chiark

Funnily enough, while sexism and racism are bad things, feminism[1] is a good thing :)

About giving up a seat, I'm not sure. It's not a *problem* in the sense that hiring, or not hiring, women are, because someone's giving up something they've got the right to give up, rather than giving something at the expense of someone else. And if Y wants to do a nice thing for X, it's hard to object[2]. But it *is* still definitely sending a 'not equal' message, which I don't like.

[1] I persist in using feminism in the original sense out of respect for the many people who fought for equal[3] rights, but always put a footnote, because now 'feminism' is equated with 'loony feminism'

[2] And yet, taken to the logical conclusion, would lead to a big game of musical chairs. Or maybe that would be a good thing.

[3] I typed "evil" there by mistake. I think I may have issues...

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From:beckyc
Date:March 8th, 2005 05:39 pm (UTC)
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So first of all there was my post agonising about whether I was sexist because I thought it was probably true that men are better than women at maths*

*(To which I was told "you can only say that if you say lots of qualifiers, like "on average" or "in my experience" etc)


Well, I guess it depends on what your shorthand "better" means. I expect (from what I remember you saying in the past) that it means much the same as the statement "men are taller than women", and a definition would possibly refer to distributions of ability and point out that the peak is in a different place and make observations on the relative positions of the tails of the distributions.

From the height statement, nobody would expect anyone to conclude or to say "You can't be tall, you're a woman". So, I'm not quite sure why people often appear to interpret a statement of men being better at foo than women as saying that "women can't do foo" (which would in my opinion be a rather more negative thing to say than what you said)

Since the language is so ambiguous, it is my personal preference when I am talking about such issues to add in explanatory comments like those suggested by other people simply to avoid false assumptions about whether I am talking about individuals or about groups and what extra conclusions people can make about my opinions other than those stated in a simplistic shorthand. It's an aid to communication, though, rather than changing the underlying assertion.
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From:feanelwa
Date:March 8th, 2005 05:40 pm (UTC)
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If somebody got up to give me a seat I'd wonder if they'd just farted. As far as I'm concerned I have no obvious need of a seat any more than any healthy person. I find it slightly worrying when old men offer me a seat on trains, because if they fall down when the train goes round a corner and break something then I'd be the nearest person who'd have to figure out what to do about it.

Hmm. Maybe it's an unconscious sense of self-preservation: here's somebody who is slightly more likely to know how to deal with injuries and spills, I will put myself near to this person by making them stay still and giving them a sense of moral obligation to help me if something goes wrong.
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From:edith_the_hutt
Date:March 8th, 2005 05:49 pm (UTC)
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It is also good ettiquette to give up a seat to someone more senior than you.

Not too sure where that fits in.
From:neonchameleon
Date:March 8th, 2005 05:54 pm (UTC)
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No time for a real comment now, but I had serious self-analysis to do when I realised that I was instinctively bracing myself whenever an indigenous (as opposed to Latin American) Brazillian approached me in South America because I thought he was going to ask me for money. This became a near-certainty if he called me "Amigo" (I was wrong using the former check a total of four times and the latter twice after I started keeping count). I still don't know whether this predisposition is racist or not.
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From:naath
Date:March 8th, 2005 07:56 pm (UTC)
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No, you were just in the wrong part of America. Specifically the bit with rich tourists in - which attracts beggars.
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From:plinthy
Date:March 8th, 2005 06:01 pm (UTC)
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( And the -ism confusion goes on... )

No one ever completely escapes being -ist.

The achievable goal is to become aware of -isms and analyze them as much as possible - just being conscious of them tempers their influence on your actions.
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From:koryne_is_me
Date:March 8th, 2005 06:03 pm (UTC)
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My two-pence-worth is that everyone, in some way, has 'isms'. It's the only way we can deal with an increasingly complex world. A few hundred years ago we'd likely only meet a few thousand people in our entire *lives* - we'd certainly not have any sort of major interaction with more than that. As our worlds grow we need to be able to quickly categorise people so that we can make the proper response, and (more especially in some areas than others) an ability to quickly make judgements can be critical.

So those kids on the street corner are black and sound uneducated... it would be wrong of me to judge them because of that, but it would also be pretty stupid for me to walk along past them late at night. Often we find ourselves in situations where we know nothing about the people involved, and so have to make snap judgements using our first impressions and, of course, our past experience with people who 'appear' similar.

Simply having 'stereotypes' in our minds is not necessarily a bad thing, nor is it avoidable. I'm probably not typical, but when I first meet someone I assign them a 'type' so that I can remember them, and then as I find out more about them I embellish it to make it unique to them. What can, and should, be avoided is a resistance to new information about people or treating people badly simply because of the behaviour of others.

I'm not sure how much sense that makes, but I don't belive that humans are naturally fair or unbiased - we need to work at it.
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From:feanelwa
Date:March 8th, 2005 08:00 pm (UTC)
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But it's not pretty stupid. I walk past groups of black uneducated kids on street corners all the time in Bermondsey, and I've never been beaten up by them. It's the throwing eggs and saying "I'm going to beat you up" that gives away the ones who are actually dangerous, who are generally groups of mixed race, mostly white. I think you have a resistance to new information already :)
From:mtbc100
Date:March 8th, 2005 06:06 pm (UTC)
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I think I largely agree with you so far.

I am slightly more likely to give up seats for women, partly because I'm not sure what society wants from me, and I average out its inhomogeneous mix of opinions in matters where I don't have a strong opinion myself.
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From:lacuna
Date:March 8th, 2005 06:57 pm (UTC)
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It's not completely related, but I was debating the other week whether to give up my seat on the tube for a women who looked like she was pregnant. The thing was, I wasn't sure from my angle whether she only looked like she was pregnant. Thank God I decided not to risk it, because when I got off the train I discovered that the would-be pregnancy weight was actually distributed pretty evenly around her body.
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From:ptc24
Date:March 8th, 2005 07:03 pm (UTC)
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My position on this has been evolving somewhat, but here's the current state:

1) Everything correllates with more or less everything else. Maybe not very well, but you can make all sorts of estimates.

2) Making descisions on poorly-correlating things, as you've said earlier, can be rational if you have no better information, and can't easily get it. It goes further than that. Many measures have some form of error attached to them - say for example your exam grades. Some people who get 2:1's in their Part II
's do so because they've had a nice good run-up to revision, have the exams on a good day, and get the questions they wanted, saving them from a 2:2. Other people had an exam term disrupted by practicals that took twice as long as advertised (when other people picked options which took much closer to the advertised time in a previous term) and then househunting, and then had rotten luck with the questions that they were given (for example, many courses split into a first half and a second half. *very* often the exam questions split that way too, and you have to pick one. Binning one half of a course and then having that one course out of so many where both questions are on the other half would be an example of rotten luck), and don't get the First that they had a right to expect. Given the granularity of exam results, and the chance factors involved, wouldn't you apply extra metrics when deciding how smart someone was?

3) Genes correlating with being a nice person. That gets dangerously close to genes correlating with specific instances of good and bad actions, and then onto taking a bite out of Free Will. Then again I have great big problems with the whole notion of free will anyway, and so no problems with genetics/niceness correlations.

4) Should you be obliged to disregard potentially useful information? There's plenty of precedent for it, what with insider dealing and inadmissible evidence and all of that. Still, there ought to be a good reason for it.

5) Perhaps how things average out has a bearing on it. Say you have an employer who needs some good mathmos, and has a pile of CV's to sort through. Say he can improve his selections by breaking any ties/tough judgement calls/"is an extra few months' experience better or worse than slightly better GCSEs?" in favour of male canditates. Consider two situations: a) everyone discriminates, b) no-one discriminates. In situation a, men can charge a premium for their work (or an equivalent in terms of conditions/interest/etc.), and women have to be more willing to take what's given. Everyone there is consistently favoured/disfavoured, which is bad. An d all of the employers end up with the same average quality of mathmo anyway. In situtation b, if you're an employer, well, you're more likely to pick up a dud who got lucky with her exams, but you're also more likely to pick up a star at a bargain-basement rate, and by and large it'll average out.

Discriminating is Playing Defect, which is Bad, unless there's no good way to getting mass Cooperation going.

6) "Separation of information" is a hard mental habit to learn and keep, and hard to police, and not everyone's convinced that they shouldn't do it. Much easier just to fudge things so that people look more equal than they are. Better still, just deprecate forms of fudging that make people look less equal, and take a more relaxed attitude to fudging that doesn't.

7) "It's OK to express an un-PC opinion, so long as you are *extremely* pedantic about it." Discuss.
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From:rmc28
Date:March 8th, 2005 07:06 pm (UTC)
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I got interrupted by having to work in the middle of that conversation, and I'd probably like to expand the idea further in a post of my own, but it will take some time and I'm busy, so don't hold your breath.

The essential difference between what we were arguing though was that you were arguing that assuming women are always weaker is wrong, while I was arguing that, given it's wrong, how should you deal with the situation of being offered a seat if it arises, in order to best educate the sexist out of their sexism while not antagonising the merely considerate.

Also, the pregnancy/PMT thing was me thinking about possible justifications for the "always give your seat up to a woman" attitude, because I was trying to think how people who do that justify it to themselves, because that seems to me a better way to reach them and explain why it's not a good automatic reaction. Pregnancy is something that only happens to women, and happens to many women (a majority? I don't know) for a limited time, and during that time they may well be rather more in need of sitting down and resting than men of the same age and general fitness level. I do think the general tendency to coddle women of childbearing age comes from a time when women were more constantly pregnant, and also from the moneyed classes as the working classes couldn't afford time off for coddling.

Even if women are on average less likely to be able to stand for long periods, that is not the same as not being able to do a job properly; and I'd be interested to know whether the incidence of pregnancy-related times of inability to work is significantly greater over all women than all the other afflictions that strike people down, or indeed whether it really stands out in the population as a particularly debilitating condition.

Anyway, want to put this together more coherently at some point, so will stop now with just a wish for more data, as per usual.
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From:mhw
Date:March 8th, 2005 07:44 pm (UTC)
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I ask for a seat if it's one of those days when I need one. I don't wait for someone to spontaneously decide that I might. It's the presumption that women (or whoever) need to be offered something that tweaks me more than anything else, because they're quite capable of asking for it themselves.

And woe betide anyone who responds with "You don't look disabled." :D

However, I do hold doors open for people regardless of sex if it seems to me that they're likely to benefit from it; for example, if they're carrying equipment, or otherwise impeded. So I'm not quite consistent. A couple of times I've been rebuked for presumed sexism when the person for whom I held it happened to be female, when actually their sex had nothing to do with my decision; equally I've got it in the ear a few times for letting a door go when a woman has assumed that I would be holding the door open for her because she was female.
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From:the_marquis
Date:March 9th, 2005 09:41 am (UTC)
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Ah but not everyone asks, I tend to offer a seat to someone who looks tired or loaded with shopping/children.
From:yrieithydd
Date:March 8th, 2005 08:13 pm (UTC)
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With regard to the `being-given-up-a-seat-to' thing, this falls in the category of things whereby I don't mind the old stereotypes/courtesies because I benefit from them!
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From:ewx
Date:March 8th, 2005 08:23 pm (UTC)

went off to look it up

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I have to say I'm a little miffed at him getting annoyed when (i) he raised the topic himself in the first place (ii) we were interested in the general question, not any one person's circumstances.

As it happens although the discussion on irc was ultimately inconclusive I did some further googling later and found a survey paper that does touch on this (p19) and abstract that finds poor education to be a risk factor (among a bunch of other things) at least in Canada. Given that I'd say that the statement in the BBC article is far from completely false.

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From:meirion
Date:March 10th, 2005 06:44 am (UTC)

Re: went off to look it up

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it's unsurprising he got annoyed, and i think it's unreasonable of you to be miffed about it.

-m-
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From:requiem_17_23
Date:March 8th, 2005 09:20 pm (UTC)
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Right. I would, on principle, give up my seat anywhere there was a limited number of seats, to anyone I felt I should be polite to. This includes, but is not limited to, women.

Not because I consider that they need a seat more. But because they'd probably like a seat and their comfort counts for more than mine does. Why? No rational reason. Just trying to be nice... *puppy dog eyes*
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From:atreic
Date:March 8th, 2005 09:31 pm (UTC)
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Err, I can almost see that, but moral codes shouldn't be too unique... if it's good for you to do it, it should be good for everyone else to do it. And this particular principle would just lead to a neverending roundabout of musical seats, with *noone* getting to rest on a seat.

their comfort counts for more than mine does

Sounds like a bad case of low self esteem to me. You shouldn't think you're more important than other people, but you shouldn't think you're less important either. There's more to life than making people like you.
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From:gnimmel
Date:March 8th, 2005 10:07 pm (UTC)
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I'd be cautious about saying that the behaviour of groups you've seen tallies with the stereotype: your perception is altered by the fact that you have the stereotype in the first place.

I noticed this when I used to cycle around Cambridge. One day I saw a driver mount the pavement and mildly dent a lamppost. It was a man, and I thought vaguely to myself that this was odd. Then I thought how odd it was that I thought this was odd, and realised that what I has been doing was the following:
Whenever I saw someone driving badly, I would think to myself 'oh, there's a bad driver' and consider it no further.
Whenever I saw someone driving badly who was female, I'd think 'oh, there's a woman driving badly' and that would reinforce the stereotype in my head. So, for a reasonably equal gender split of bad drivers, I was still getting my dubious prejudice reinforced.

I also think saying 'men are better than women at maths' is dodgy, becuse in many contexts it's not true. At GCSE, say? ISTR slightly more girls than boys get A-C GCSE maths. And at Cambridge I taught NatSci maths for several years and there seemed to be very little in the way of a gender-ability correlation there; in fact my two best students were one female, one male. Where there probably is a difference is in the extreme upper end, the mathematics wizards as it were; which I think is related generally to the higher incidence of autistic spectrum disorders in males. And even in that case there are female mathematics prodigies. So in my experience that statement's true only in one very specific sense, but (as a widely held prejudice) it can also be subject to the sorts of dodgy reinforcement procedures as with me and the drivers.

And you should give seats to people who look like they need seats, and hold doors open for people for whom you're able to hold doors open, male or female, IMO.
(Deleted comment)
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From:theinquisitor
Date:March 8th, 2005 10:19 pm (UTC)
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Okay, so given that you have an identically able man and woman, competing for a job. You are in no way allowed to ask this particular woman if she intends to get pregnant, because that would be discrimination.

Therefore you are obliged to consider that there is a chance she will have a child, and thus cost you(r company) money - and it is rational to pick the man.

(Similarly if you, a ploice force, have been told to carch as many car thieves as possible by stopping a fixed number of 'random' people and checking them, the statistics support your decision to stop young black men in expensive cars.)

Is it an 'ism' to discriminate rationally based on available information?

Clearly not, since when aplying for jobs, your degree class and employment history don't serve as proof you'll be better at the job - they provide you with data points, upon which you make a rational 'best guess'. Gender is an observable data point, and I think it reasonable to argue that one could make strictly better decisions about who to employ by considering it.

I don't consider that something we can plausibly or sanely legislate against.

(caveat: A decision is 'strictly better' if, in a long-run average sense, it produces results which are better. This assumes utility can be assigned to employees, which isn't inherantly implausible - obviously there are wrong decisions which will be made as a result of gender being considered, but I contend there are more which would be made if it weren't).
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From:edith_the_hutt
Date:March 9th, 2005 10:31 am (UTC)
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But, given that employment history and education are things which an individual can affect through their life whereas sex and race are not, is it equally fair to discriminate on such grounds?
(Deleted comment)
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From:vyvyan
Date:March 9th, 2005 12:00 am (UTC)
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I usually try to preempt old men who might try to offer me seats or open doors for me (not that it happens that often) by doing the same for them first. They are often too surprised to decline.

A while ago, I briefly went out with a guy from New Orleans. He startled me very much, the first time we went up some steps together, by taking hold of my elbow to assist me! (It wasn't actually very assisting, more symbolic.) I asked what on earth he was doing, and he looked dismayed and said that, back home, if he hadn't done that for a woman he was with, she would have been very offended...
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From:teleute
Date:March 9th, 2005 03:52 am (UTC)
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I don't have an opinion on the giving up seats thing, since I don't think I've ever been on a crowded bus and had anyone other than my husband offer me their seat. However, I do hold open doors for everyone, and equally will help carry bags, books and so on. Not because they necessarily can't manage on their own, but because it is nice to help people, and I always feel pleased if someone holds open the door for me, or offers to help me with an armload of stuff. Again, not because I can't cope alone, but just because it's nice to know that other people care. I like the sence of community.
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From:the_marquis
Date:March 9th, 2005 09:45 am (UTC)
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As I said to mhw I tend to offer a seat to someone who looks tired or loaded with shopping/children, likewise if someone's coming towards a door at the same time as me, but carrying something I'll open it for them. If we just get there at the same time I'll defer if they're outside the building and I'm in, as they need to get in out of the weather more than I need to get into it.
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From:edith_the_hutt
Date:March 9th, 2005 10:32 am (UTC)
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Oooo! A new thought:

If you hand your seat over to a woman it puts you in an optimum position to look down her top.

Erm, I'm probably going to get hit over the head repeatedly for that one...
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From:mair_aw
Date:March 9th, 2005 03:01 pm (UTC)
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so you wouldn't give up your seat to a woman in a polo neck?
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From:filecoreinuse
Date:March 9th, 2005 11:56 am (UTC)
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So first of all there was my post agonising about whether I was sexist because I thought it was probably true that men are better than women at maths*

This seems a sensible comment to some degree. Men and women are clearly different, physically and mentally, and hence there will, logically, be some things that one gender tend to do better than others. Many aspects of maths are more male-friendly (geometry, etc.) and some are more female-friendly (statistics, semantics, etc.). On balence I'd imagine most of what your average man in the street would think of as maths is probably slightly on the male-side.

One might as well state it is sexist to say that women are better than men at being wet-nurses.
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From:huggyrei
Date:March 10th, 2005 12:46 pm (UTC)
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I really have nothing to add to this argument; just wanted to post and say how much I like maths, but that there are only two of us girls in my year at LMH doing maths. Of course, the latest intake has about 15 women and two men in it.
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