Thursday, July 7, 2011

Apparently, I write like a man

I'm going to try --  for my non-baby-loving readers like Foamie and my own sanity --  to alternate pregnancy posts with non-pregnancy ones. Expectant moms still have interests and thoughts beyond prenatal scans and icing swollen ankles, right? Right?
V.S. Naipaul, a Nobel-prize winner author, said recently, "I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me." He then implies that he is better than all female writers, including Jane Austen.
His comment drew the expected outrage, which I mostly ignored. When famous people make comments like this, it's mostly for attention, so it's best not to give them any.
What piqued my attention was the fact that Mr. Naipaul thinks he can tell the gender of an author simply by reading the text.  Can you?
What about best-seller J.K. Rowling, whose publisher chose a gender-neutral name for her in the beginning, to keep from alienating the preteen boys who usually buy fantasy novels about wizards? If you didn't know she was a woman, could you guess from the Harry Potter books?
 The New Yorker's book blog points to an online tool that supposedly can guess an author's gender by analyzing a block of text, courtesy of the tech geeks at the Stevens Institute of Technology in the U.S. 
I analyzed a dozen Joyceyland posts. They were all written before I had any idea I would be doing this experiment -- to ensure that I wasn't making a subconscious effort to write in a more feminine or masculine way.
The subject matters were: book recommendations; the new Ozone bar at the Ritz; Google AdSense; Father's Day; the Vancouver riots; the Stanley Cup hockey finals; the West Kowloon Cultural District; a job announcement for paid bloggers; Ai Weiwei; and the Hong Kong Art Fair.
According to this tool, 11 of my 12 posts / articles were written by a man. (They were judged as having a 60%-85% chance of having a male author). Only one, the West Kowloon article, was tagged as gender-neutral. None were tagged as being written by a woman. 
Maybe it was a particularly masculine-sounding list due to dumb coincidence -- the time period coincided with Father's Day, ice hockey and violence. Maybe it was because four of the stories were from the IHT/NYT, so the style was flattened into the concise, less personal writing I do for work.
To compare, I hand-picked some older posts on softer, girlier subjects: the British royal wedding, cute Hugo the Cat photos, Hong Kong McWeddings and a brunch at the W, which will forever be known around these parts as The Hotel That Can't Scramble Eggs. Nope -- they were still either "male" or "neutral."
According to an article in the New Scientist,  the Stevens team searched through text from the Reuters news wire and the Enron email database. They identified 157 "psycho-lingustic" factors that could hint at the writer's gender, including differences in punctuation, style, vocabulary and expressions of mood or sentiment.  
Women used more question marks and  more "emotionally intensive adverbs and affective adjectives such as 'really,' 'charming' or 'lovely.' " 
According to Stevens' own documents, women are also more polite.
So, basically, we write like feeble-brained sweeties. Maybe I should blog like, "My, we had the most charming brunch. The eggs were really very lovely."
Men emphasize themes like independence and power. They use more first person (more "I") and directive sentences. 
So  like  "I am a powerful, independent man. Hey, you! Get me some brunch!"
The Guardian newspaper created what it calls the "Naipaul test" and asks readers to try to identify the gender based on excerpts from well-known authors. I did terribly on this test, especially given that I had actually read four of the books on the list. But clearly, I am of an inferior gender to Naipaul. 

Addendum: Here's another tool,  "inspired by an article and a test in The New York Times Magazine, the Gender Genie uses a simplified version of an algorithm developed by Moshe Koppel, Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and Shlomo Argamon, Illinois Institute of Technology, to predict the gender of an author."

I tried 4 blog posts and an excerpt from my still-unpublished fiction. It's all still male!


  1. You sound like a man, Joycey, because you use logic and argue things well in your writing. Apparently, only men can do that.

  2. Congratulations Joycie, I`m sure Foamie and I will be glad to babysit. And your forgiven for getting and Maid just for a cat.

    Never trust computer programs. If it`s just trained on Reuters and Enron then that is all it knows. Its a bit like coming up with who wears skirts in Australia then trying to apply that to Scotland, Obvious fail.

    Increasing the amount of data just makes it worse.