A Few More Thoughts on Women, Men, and Blog Comments

by Neil H. Buchanan

In my Dorf on Law post last Wednesday, I wondered aloud why the people who contribute to the comment board on this blog seem to be almost all men.  I initially noted my longstanding interest in gender issues, driven in part by an undergraduate experience that featured an unusual level of gender balance in the classroom.  By contrast, the evidence is clear that all too many classrooms in U.S. universities (and especially in our law schools) are dominated by young male blowhards, reflecting a more general socialization process that leads to women too often being silenced in public forums.

The most interesting question, to me, was how this process carries over from the classroom to a comment board on a policy blog like this one.  In an atmosphere that is (with extremely rare exceptions) respectful and issue-oriented, and with the number of comments per post quite low, one might imagine (or I did, at least) that the bad in-person gender imbalance of the classroom would not replicate itself on our comment board.  After allowing for the possibility that the gender imbalance might actually be a statistical illusion, I tentatively concluded that "the gendered norms in school and on the more Wild West-ish internet sites have made commenting on a blog something that women simply do not think about doing."

Before discussing two interesting comments that we received on that post, I must take a moment here to expand on that "Wild West-ish" nature of many internet sites.  In my post, I noted in passing the recent news about the "gamer" harassment of female writers, but I did not appreciate just how awful and pervasive this problem is.  By coincidence, the main story on John Oliver's "This Week Tonight" last night was an investigation of online harassment of women.  The second part of the segment was about so-called revenge porn, which is truly horrifying but not obviously relevant to the discussion here.  Before getting to that issue, however, Oliver described in grim detail the pervasiveness of the problem of male attacks on women via the internet.  Although I was aware of the problem, the degree and intensity was still shocking.

Had I seen Oliver's piece before I wrote my post last week, I would have been much more likely to conclude that the disturbing norms across far too much of the internet are more than enough to explain the apparent absence of female commenters on any comment board, anywhere.  I used the somewhat lighthearted phrasing of "a guy thing" to describe the practice of commenting on blogs, but there is nothing light or humorous about it.  If I were a woman, I would surely be acutely aware of the risks that sadly accompany any online forays, and possessing that knowledge alone would be enough to cause me to forgo making comments.

Consider a somewhat similar problem, relating to race.  At at conference last month, I heard a professor (who teaches at a university in St. Louis) describing the full range of racist ways in which some cities in Missouri raise revenue through fines, along the lines of the practices in Ferguson that were recently cited by the U.S. Department of Justice.  During Q&A, I asked what coping mechanisms were available, by which African-Americans could attempt to minimize their exposure to this toxic enforcement atmosphere.  I noted NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio's comment about the type of discussion that he would have with his mixed-race son, to help the young man navigate a world filled with race-based traps.  I wondered, for example, whether scrupulously obeying the speed limit (which is apparently not necessary for white citizens in Missouri) would allow one to avoid the unwanted attention of the police.  The speaker replied that the system there is set up so that it is impossible not to do something wrong, which leaves police officers with the discretion to stop virtually anyone from whom they might want to extract money.

In that context, in other words, there is apparently no coping mechanism that can allow a vulnerable citizen to avoid the injustice that awaits him.  In the context of gender dynamics on the web, however, there really is an effective mechanism, which is to present oneself as a man.  It is insane and unjust that this is necessary, but the anonymity of the internet does allow people to present themselves in whatever way they like.  One of the comments on my post last week came from such a person, who noted that she has responded to the generally hostile environment of comment boards by using an online pseudonym that identifies her as male.  Especially now, I can completely understand why one would choose to do so.  Again, such strategic planning should not be necessary.  Because it is, however, it suggests that the internet might have become a place where nearly everyone appears to be either male or genderless, even though the reality is quite different.  The underlying statistical reality is thus actually unknowable.

Another reader began her comment by noting that she has never commented on any blog before, nor had she ever wanted to.  I am pleased that she felt comfortable enough to offer some of her thoughts on this blog.  Her hypothesis is that the (apparent) gender imbalance in comments is driven by expertise, which is then driven by generational gender imbalances.  That is, this is a blog that draws wonky comments, and people without sufficiently deep knowledge know not to comment.  (That is clearly an exaggeration, but I see the general point.)  Because the people with deep knowledge on these subjects tend to be middle-aged professors, which as a group is heavily male, even the comment board on Dorf on Law ends up being effectively a male preserve.

The optimistic conclusion that the commenter proffers is that this will change over time, as the legal academy's gender balance rights itself in the future.  One fervently hopes that this is true.  On a related subject, however, I will note the more general phenomenon that women and men have been repeatedly shown to have quite different concepts of what counts as "knowing enough to present oneself as an expert."  In my two years of teaching at selective women's colleges, for example, I noted that my students would hold back when I asked them if they were familiar with a concept or a skill.

For example, in an advanced economics seminar, where I knew from an anonymous survey that almost all of the students had taken advanced mathematics courses, I once asked, "Remind me, how many of you know how to do partial derivatives?"  Not one hand went up.  When I stopped and said that I was certain that some of them should have raised their hands, one student finally said, "Well, I have successfully completed some problem sets with partial derivatives, but I can't say that I know how to do partial derivatives."  I thought to myself, "Is there any guy on the planet who would be that scrupulous about what counts as expertise?"  Among other things, this explains the phenomenon of "mansplaining."

What this means, I think, is that increasing balance in credentials is necessary but not sufficient to change the culture.  Even so, I certainly hope that the generational trends continue and accelerate.  My thanks to our commenters for their insights.