Not laughing at women? you should be

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink can be summed up as ‘trust your instinct except when it’s wrong’. Simplistic, certainly, and a description that may not get at the very readable account that Gladwell presents. His point is that experts should rely on their gut instinct and the rest of us would benefit from trying to identify from where we gain our instinctive reactions. If we are not experts then they must necessarily come from biases because we don’t have all the information.

This occurred to me when I saw Dara O’Briain tweet a self-proclaimed feminist, Sianushka, about women in comedy clubs. She asked ‘why don’t Mock The Week hire more female comedians’? He replied along the lines of ‘because that would be positive discrimination’ (I’m paraphrasing). Sianushka went on to say something about weak cultural assumptions, e.g. women = bad drivers and it sounded like the wrong argument.

Are women put off by ‘vague cultural assumptions’ Dara asked? Female comedians he knew would find that insulting.

The argument was all backwards.

It’s like asking a selective university like Oxford or Cambridge why they don’t have more working class students. Most of the time they would answer that those students don’t apply. Those students don’t get the grades to apply to selective institutions. The biggest predictor of going to university is achieving the grades.

I don’t know why there aren’t as many female as male comedians but I am pretty sure that it’s not because the person booking the acts decided not to let women perform. I could be wrong. Perhaps the idea that women comedians aren’t funny is a lot more pervasive than I think.

There have been studies that have tried to prove discrimination in the practices of admissions tutors for entries in higher education. The studies don’t usually do very well at proving bias.

The bigger reason is that students don’t apply. Some think that students don’t apply because of tuition fees. The fees that were introduced in 2006, then the ones that will cost up to £9000 a year from 2012. No matter that the students won’t have to pay up front. That the poorest students who may earn the least will pay the least. That free higher education is also free to those who pay thousands of pounds to secondary school.

The perception of higher education isn’t the same for all people. Some students grow up surrounded by people who have gone to university, who have at least one degree, who have been interviewed, who know what courses to take, what subjects to study, what to do and how to proceed. Then there are other students who know no one who has gone on to tertiary education. People who have never left the area in which they grew up let alone leave home to go to university or even for an interview.

So why did I think of that when the comedian and the feminist were tweeting? Because she made a very weak argument with the bad drivers example. Not because people don’t think it – they may, I don’t know. I guarantee however that insurers don’t think it and when it comes to paying for bad drivers, 18 year old boy drivers are paying huge premiums because of reality rather than rumours.

The professionals know the difference and like Gladwell pointed out – if you’re not an expert then examine your biases. But who are the experts in the comedy world? And why aren’t women better represented? Any ideas? Here’s an article on this subject from the @sianushka. I don’t have an answer but I like the question.

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