“Devious” girls? How the misuse of statistics undermines our girls.

My attention was caught earlier this week by an article in the Australian Daily Telegraph: in the print edition the headline read Study reveals devious girls lead way in tormenting kids; online, the headline read AIFS bullying study shows girls are more devious. The leading paragraph supported both these titles: “Girls are more devious than boys at tormenting classmates, Australia’s biggest childhood study reveals.” Devious … tormenting … what mean girls! Study shows girls are mean … Girls are mean! I would guess that this thought process and conclusion would not surprise most readers; we have been programmed over the years to believe that girls are significantly somehow more mean and more unkind than boys. Most people would not have given the article a second glance; it reinforced their world view.

We should not leave it there, however. Consider the following observations on this specific article:

  1. The study was a study on the experience of bullying by 10-11 year old children. It distinguished by gender those being bullied, not those doing the bullying. It does not say that girls are more likely to bully in a particular way; it says that girls are more likely to be bullied in a particular way. You can read it yourself here. The premise of the title of the Daily Telegraph article is wrong.
  2. A reading of the statistics suggests that the difference between the types of bullying experienced by boys and girls is not vastly different. The article states that “Four in every 10 girls had been excluded from a group, compared to one in three boys”; a hasty non-mathematical reading would assume that the difference was great, but of course ‘one in three’ is the equivalent of 3.33 in every ten, ie not so very different. If 46.5% of boys have experienced name-calling, and 40.2% of girls have experienced this, then again the difference is not enormous – in every group of 10 girls aged 10-11, about 4 of them will have experienced name-calling, while about 4 and a half boys will have had the same experience. There are gender differences, but these are not as black and white as the title and opening paragraph suggested.
  3. “devious” and “tormenting” are very negative values-laden word choices. By bringing them into the public domain and associating them with girls, connections are made in the public’s mind. As writers – or, more specifically in this case, I would guess, as sub-editors – , we have a responsibility to think through the effect of what it is that we write, and whether or not this reinforces existing stereotypes.
  4. As readers, we are often far too quick to jump, uncritically, to conclusions that accord with our world view. We have a responsibility to challenge ourselves not to accept at face value what we encounter in the media.

Those who bring news items and activity to the public attention will always face an ethical dilemma in positioning their pieces; striking and polarising headlines draw comment and sell papers, after all. And to what extent can they comfortably be change agents, seeking to alter public perceptions? But writers and editors have a real opportunity – and, arguably, a responsibility – to challenge our negative status quo as regards the portrayal of women and girls in our society. This negativity is holding us back as a civilisation. At the very least, their – and our – moral conscience should lead them to consider this.


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