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Guessing Games - Elizabeth Unexplained
Lots of data but no answers
Guessing Games
I don't typically think much about gender identity, mostly because my feeling is I don't have a problem with it. I am the proud owner of two X chromosomes and female reproductive parts, and I am not too bothered about all the weird cultural trappings that people hang around that. Thus I can like feminine clothing and physics both and my reaction to people being surprised that I'd rather take a tour of an aircraft carrier than attend a tea party is mild amusement. Other people's expectation of my behavior based on my gender is their own problem, not mine.

These days I can't help but think about it because I keep getting handed data. Every day I take Margaret for a walk. Nearly every day at least one person comments on what a cute baby I have. This is only natural because I do have an exceedingly cute baby. What is less natural is the result of the gender guessing game.

When Margaret was born the nurse in attendance commented that I should slap anyone who asked 'how old is he' because she looked so much like a girl. While I am happy to have an expert data point that states that Margaret doesn't look male, it is lucky for random passers by that I have not been taking this advice. Mostly I remain of the opinion that unless you are changing the diaper, it's impossible to tell the gender of a baby under a year of age. This is why we have the convention of dressing little girls in pink and little boys in blue.

Before Margaret was born I thought that I would be happy to dress my little girl head to toe in pink. As it turns out I am less enthusiastic about pink on her now that she is here. I like pink, really I do. I just don't want all pink all the time. Also, she has already outgrown one set of clothes and is on the verge or outgrowing the next set. Given that she isn't quite two months that's not much wear per outfit, even changing her up to four times a day. I am feeling much more optimistic about our chances of procreating again in the future, and I'd like to use the cute wee clothes again. Given that we can't count on another girl if we are successful again, I find myself buying mostly gender neutral clothing, aside for a few dresses for her to wear when I want her to look especially pretty. As a result Margaret is often out and about without a whole lot of pink on her.

As it turns out, not that many people actually ask me whether the baby is a boy or a girl. About 25% of the people we run into who comment. The rest, that is most of the people, just assume a gender, and at least 75% of them get it wrong. Given that there ought to be a 50% chance of getting it right, I am a bit baffled. I understand the wrong-headed logic that leads to people guessing rather than admit that they can't tell the gender of a person, however tiny. What I don't understand is the bias toward guessing boy, even when there are subtle clues like a small pink pillow. (Apparently the pink pillow and the pink booties that twe made are not enough to clue some folks in.) Pale green doesn't strike me as an especially masculine color. Personally I don't mind that people get it wrong, if I minded that I'd make sure we never left the house without at least three pink items in evidence. What I do find slightly annoying as a female is what seems to be a tendency to default to male. What is up with that?</lj>
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firstfrost From: firstfrost Date: August 14th, 2008 07:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
I would guess that it's not so much that they assume babies are male, as that very small baby faces have some of the visual tags (fat cheeks creating jowl lines?) that say "man" (I saw a quote once about all infants looking like Richard Nixon), like slightly older little kids are more likely to have visual tags that say "woman" (delicate features?).

So if you have very little experience with babies or kids, then when you see one, then your grownup-human-gender-parser tries to go to work, but comes up with the wrong answer because it's the wrong sort of object.
ricedog From: ricedog Date: August 15th, 2008 01:52 am (UTC) (Link)
Short hair tends to do that, too.
countertorque From: countertorque Date: August 15th, 2008 02:09 am (UTC) (Link)
This gets my vote too. As someone who didn't used to care about babies, I wasn't sure if I was supposed to know or ask the gender. Most baby faces looked male to me. Most baby faces still look male to me, but now I know better than to think that means anything.
From: (Anonymous) Date: August 14th, 2008 08:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
Perhaps because there are more men in the world than women that people default to it being a boy? And many people no longer look at details, they look at the 'larger picture' and come up with a general impression and the pink doesn't even register no matter how cute the booties are.
chenoameg From: chenoameg Date: August 14th, 2008 08:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
I thought there are more women than men in the world?
mjperson From: mjperson Date: August 14th, 2008 08:34 pm (UTC) (Link)
Er.. what? Men and women number are equal to within 1%.

Even if they weren't, the difference won't ever get close to a level that lets you say, "there are so many more men than women in the world that it is easier to just assume everyone is a man."

The "larger picture" just isn't that large...
psychohist From: psychohist Date: August 15th, 2008 01:28 am (UTC) (Link)
There's a 5% male excess in her age group, though. That's one of the reasons why we preferred a girl.

I don't think that's the reason for the comment disparity, though; most people won't notice a 5% disparity. I wonder how many actually think they know, as opposed to people who know they are guessing randomly? The latter may guess male because it's the default pronoun for the English language, and they think it's impolite to use "it". That may also be why they don't ask - because they don't want to say, "What sex is it?"
enugent From: enugent Date: August 15th, 2008 04:15 am (UTC) (Link)
I wonder if there's some kind of regional difference, because I don't think I've had anyone try to guess. The default question is, "How old?" or occasionally, "How old is your baby?" (note lack of pronouns). I do try to help people out by answering, "He's two months," instead of just saying "Two months," and they often look relieved at not having to guess or call him "it."
kirisutogomen From: kirisutogomen Date: August 15th, 2008 04:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think you're overstating things by claiming 1% -- life expectancy for females is higher than for males in rich countries but lower in countries where women often die in childbirth. China has serious problems with sex-selecting abortion or infanticide among families that desperately want sons, while poor maternal nutrition causes disproportionately more miscarriages for male fetuses. So the ratio will vary considerably depending on your subset of interest (only US, only babies, whatever).

(Apparently there's also some evidence for a change in fetus sex probability based on things like partnership status at conception or ambient temperature, which is truly wacky.)

None of which invalidates your main point, of course.
kirisutogomen From: kirisutogomen Date: August 15th, 2008 04:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think it's unfortunate in this case that we're using a language with gendered personal pronouns. The sex of your baby is a pretty irrelevant attribute, and it's completely unnecessary for it to trip up conversation.

Just guessing here, but maybe people's experience has been that female babies are usually covered head-to-toe in pink, and that any other color is a strong indication that the baby is male? I have no idea if that's true.
mijven From: mijven Date: August 15th, 2008 09:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
I told you my theory that hair is the determining feature for most when deciding boy/girl. (My guys were just the CUTEST girls!)
From: readsalot Date: August 16th, 2008 02:46 am (UTC) (Link)
I'd guess that Margaret doesn't have much hair, as she's not quite eight weeks old. To many people, short hair means it's a boy, and long hair means it's a girl. I even have a data point--I can remember walking with my oldest nephew when he was a toddler with long hair, and everyone thinking he was a girl.
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