Gaming The Gender Guesser Algorithm

Here’s an experiment. Because Gender Guesser always tells me my writing is very male, I thought I’d try gaming its algorithm. It’s easily found because it uses Javascript, so you need only click on “View Source” and you get code showing you which words set off “male” alerts and which “female”. While writing this, everything seems rather stilted because I must keep reading lists of words which tell you typically female and male words. That’s all Gender Guesser uses for pigeonholing writing into those two categories. Actually there are four because they divide them further into “formal” and “informal”, and more refinement emerges because of “European” and “American” (presumably) categories: apparently European, i.e. British, English, has slightly greater “femininity”.

Such an approach seems rather crude. One might think better approaches would involve looking for more coordinating or subordinating conjunctions, relative frequencies of adjectives and nouns and so on, but actually that doesn’t appear fruitful. The basis of this technique was taking large numbers of English texts whose authors’ gender was known and looking for words which were commoner for men or women, giving them scores, negative for women and positive for men (hmm), then spitting out the result. It’s quite good even just using that. I’ve put lots of texts into it and found it reliably identifies texts written by women and men. But it also reliably tells you texts written by trans women are by men, those written by trans men are by women and that I find distressing because to me, female and male use of language should be fundamental to gender roles and feminising society. Famous feminists such as Germaine Greer and Andrea Dworkin also reliably show up as female. Why should I find this so upsetting?

Before going further, I should point out that the next thirty lines or so might not be what they seem, and the opinions I express, though I may hold them, are not the main focus of my writing. I’ll reiterate that in more detail later.

One book I’ve mentioned before on this topic has been Deborah Tannen’s ‘You Just Don’t Understand: Men And Women In Conversation’. That work asserts, with evidence, that everything women do in conversation should establish empathy and make the listener comfortable, whereas men try to establish superiority. Those are generalisations, and also stereotypes, but they do apparently parallel my perceived experience quite closely. That could be confirmation bias, naturally. There are other features of language, like the male tendency to interrupt and use “anti-language” because they signal spurious superiority and keep information away from the listeners. Everything becomes a competition, which constitutes one of the problems with how politics are conducted at the moment, and probably for centuries or millennia. One can easily imagine the Roman senate or the debates of Ancient Greek politics being couched thus, being all-male, and today the conflict and confrontation are probably even worse, with polarisation and failure to compromise. Opinions nowadays mainly seem to be about asserting your position, the more extreme the better, and anchoring it where it is without moving, ever. No dialogue, no listening, no real discussion. Lots of name-calling. Consider J K Rowling. One may disagree with her position, what she thinks endangers vulnerable people, but none of that justifies abuse and invective because people don’t change their minds that way. Maybe that’s not a priority. It remains the case that trans people receive more hatred online or off for our mere existence, but we must demonstrate that we must be the better people. The flaming of J K Rowling convinces me my resignation from the Labour Party on the grounds that they included us on all-women shortlists was correct, because clearly our presence would have done nothing to feminise political discourse. Note also that when I say “feminise political discourse”, I mean encouraging positive but nonetheless stereotypical feminine behaviour for that arena, because that’s what is deprecated rather than just women per se. Political success so often entails women behaving in a more stereotypically masculine manner. People of my generation will fondly recall the Spitting Image sketches of Margaret Thatcher joining her cabinet at the gents’ urinals because her success substantially hung on her being “male” despite the fact of her femaleness. I’ve oversimplified, naturally, but until stereotypically feminine behaviour meets with as much acceptance as stereotypically masculine, we will get nowhere. Starkly, Thatcher willingly threatened roasting Russian children with nukes and offered very little help to other women because she insisted on the non-existence of society and posited the idea that anyone could pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. We need each other, and none of us would even exist without our mothers and fathers, and the whole society surrounding them. There are no self-made women or men because humans don’t work that way.

People call J K Rowling a “TERF”, a name which everyone knows upsets and antagonises the people on whom it’s used. The people who get called that prefer the term “gender-critical”, and since they would rather be called that, why not just use that name instead? Probably because for plenty of people it doesn’t appear to be about building bridges but antagonising and despair. These people will apparently never change their minds and people who think they might are just naive, but people do change their opinions, particularly when they recognise those opinions for more than merely intellectual talking points from which they’re abstracted. “TERF” just makes people angry, anger causes division and the forces working against us all are happy with such a divided in-fighting opposition because then they can take over. The bickering does that anyway. Wade into Mumsnet and you will see plenty of aggressive discussions on gender identity issues, revealing incidentally that lots of the parents on there who are gender-critical also have the authoritarian parenting styles which encourage totalitarianism when conducted on a large scale, but precious little on period poverty, reproductive rights, female genital mutilation, domestic violence, the glass ceiling, the gender divide in STEM subjects or all sorts of other things one should expect were important, which are not being discussed because everyone has a complete fixation on gender identity, toilets and the rest. Another reason “TERF” doesn’t work centres on the final letter, “F” for “feminist”. Graham Linehan may be very supportive of women, but can never be feminist by virtue of his gender, and the same applies to any other cis man described as a TERF. Hence gender-critical, whether or not you agree with it, works better.

Should you reach this paragraph, I should probably point out that because I’ve been concentrating on wording rather than topic, I’m not sure how accurately the above lines reflect my true opinion on the issues. I do take them seriously, but the point of that wall of text was, like I’ve stated already, gaming the algorithm. My words were chosen thoughtfully but not with respect to the matter itself. I must write sufficiently for the purpose of tipping the scales toward the feminine with my choice of words, and the bigger the quantity of verbiage, the closer I am to achieving that aim. So take what I’ve just written with a bucket of salt – I’m not targetting persuasion here but gaming the algorithm, like I’ve stated previously. The remainder of the post will concern the choice of words I’m making.

I have before me five lists of words taken from the Javascript on the Gender Guesser site. I do not believe that those words constitute the apotheosis of gendered language and actually I find the focus on vocabulary choice tangential, because I focus on the likes of interruption and jargon rather than prosaic vocabulary which might be found among the thousand or so most common English words. The question arises of whether the words used are actually distinctive of female and male language use because of stereotypical gender roles and different experiences, perhaps positively and healthily, perhaps not, or whether they merely reflect something like a gendered subculture for women and men and their “dialect”, arising arbitrarily such as the differences between American and British English. Are they more important than the simple fact that Americans say “gotten” when we use “got” for our past participle or we spell “kerb” differently? Maybe not. How would we even be able to tell

Greater detail on the lists. Thirteen words are included on the informal register for (stereo)typical women’s voices: actually, am, because, but, everything, has, him, like, more, out, since, so, too. The mere fact of listing these will have skewed my text towards being flagged up as feminine, so I won’t be listing the male counterparts. They are rarely synonyms, though it would be easier to push writing female-wards were that so. That is sometimes possible. More on that later. Then comes the formal list, including the words and, be, her, hers, if, me, myself, not, she, should, was, we, when, where, with and your. I’ve deliberately omitted the inverted commas. Some of the words on each list are a little surprising, not because they don’t seem feminine, whatever that’s supposed to mean, but because they’re just perfectly common words in writing and speech, so maybe it’s just an arbitrarily different “dialect” and not significant for the status or roles of women or men.

I won’t be referring to the male lists directly, but I will provide a list of near-synonyms, some of which are on the “female” list. They are: when, because, since (I’m paraphrasing here), over, about, under, lots of, “-er” (though this is not that simple), spoke, answered, asked and all those other options found on the answer sheets of English students for certain well-known compositional exercises but rarely used earnestly, the plural of a word like “that”, till, until, always, great, a conditional conjunction which can be dealt with via paraphrasing, inside, at the moment (I’ve used “today” here too), summat (cheating because that’s not standard English), the corresponding word to “that” naming a nearby item, and the adverbial form of “good”.

Oddly, formal register use of “more” is masculine and informal feminine. Other words have different weights according to register, and various pretty much essential words are used oftener depending on gender too. There are also words I overuse normally which fall into the feminine category, particulary “actually”. I would also underuse “am” because when I us the first person, it seems arrogant and self-centred, although not using it can make the subjective appear objective, which bears an arrogance of its own. Another quandary surrounds the use of near synonyms for “because”, because (!) I have a habit of using those rather than “because” itself, and I often paraphrase there. “But” has a complicated colouring because extensionally it means “and” but implies unexpectedness, for which some empathy might be anticipated. “Him” interests me. It suggests that women will probably refer to men having things done to them more than men will, perhaps because men’s views of their experience tend towards activity, not passivity, but there is no corresponding “her” on the male lists, though there is on the formal female one. “Like”, being informal, may function as the kind of interjection which has emerged recently. “Since” is another near-synonym for “because”, and would be a candidate for a mere vocabulary difference without altering connotation. “So” can be a mere interjection or a synonym for “therefore”, and since I’m a philosopher there are lots of ways I can paraphrase that too. And finally “too”, again synonymous with “also”, or maybe “excessively”, rounds off that list.

On the formal list lies “and”, a pretty much essential word, though less avoidable than definite articles. “Be”, being an infinitive, surprises me since one of its finite forms resides on the male lists. “Me” is a person things happen to, and a recipient. “Myself” constitutes her reflexive equivalent and a more emphatic version. “Not” suggests uncertainty, “she” does not surprise, “should” mainly expresses moral perspectives though also unusual correctitude for “would”. “We” reminds me of noted usage in Urdu where married women rarely use “I”, and of course I myself always say “our children”, never “my children”, so I have a tendency there too. You’ve probably noted the language game I’m playing here by this point. “When” has greater certainty than the conditional conjunction, though that may not be its significance here. Its companion “where” follows and I’m getting rather tired by now since concentration has been key.

Maybe because of that fatigue, the significance of those last few words may be lost on me. I don’t think I’ve produced particularly feminine-sounding writing. It’s just odd-sounding really, but strangely the program succeeds admirably gender-wise, though it’s not clear why. But the real question I should be asking would be something along the lines of, how much does avoidance of particular words actually help here? Doesn’t it seem probable that the likes of openness and clarity on some level would be more germane and helpful? Or would the language still be obscure for other reasons?

I once made a habit of avoiding words of French or Latin origin when I spoke or wrote, and my exercise here reminds me of such a practice. It causes circumlocutory obfuscation, which reminds me of the use of jargon, which I associate with anti-language and thus maleness (stereotypically of course). I will close at this point, having produced remarkably strange-sounding writing and proceed to run it through Gender Guesser and see what I get. Bye then!

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