Sexism and the implicature of comparisons

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I recently came across the School Magazine published in my final year at a girls’ grammar school in Leeds in the early 1970s. In it was an advertisement from a well-known high street bank that encouraged girls to apply for jobs there. One of the advertised advantages of working for the bank was that the pay scales for women were the same as those for men. In the early 1970s, this step towards equality was worth advertising.

The bank in question, incidentally, had come a long way. A generation earlier, when my mother had worked there, female staff were confined to back-room tasks; they could not sit at the front desks as it was said that customers would not have confidence in them.

But to return to the advertisement. I was reminded of it last week when reading an account of sexism in the reporting of the Olympics. Broadcasters were criticised for, among other things, comparing female athletes to male ones. For example, a commentator said of a female gymnast “I think she might even go higher than the men” (  The comparisons were, it should be noted, positive – the women were described as ‘as good as’ the men, not worse. So why did the comments raise complaints?

This is a useful reminder of the essential asymmetry of comparisons. Although comparing two things – ‘A is as xxx as B’ – may appear to imply equality, it does not actually do so. Consider the following examples:

‘Birmingham has as many miles of canals as Venice.’

‘In his day, Marlowe was as famous as Shakespeare.’

It is difficult, or amusing, to imagine these the other way round: ‘Venice has as many canals as Birmingham’ or ‘Shakespeare was as famous as Marlowe’. Comparing A with B is not the same as comparing B with A. In the ‘as…as’ construction, the second named component (Venice, Shakespeare) might be called the base and the first named component (Birmingham, Marlowe) the comparator. The importance of the base is that it is known or given information. It is what everyone is expected to know. The comparator, on the other hand, is new information – it is news, and like all news it may come as a surprise.

For example, Venice having a lot of canals is well known. Indeed Venice is the acknowledged standard for cities with canals. In the same way, Shakespeare is known for being famous, and might be said to be the standard for famous playrights. On the other hand, we are surprised that Birmingham is so canal-rich (unless we live here, of course), and surprised that Marlowe was once so famous.

In other words, comparisons are never value-free. There is an asymmetry between the base and the comparator than is imposed by the comparison itself, and that is true even when the comparison ascribes equality. And asymmetry tends to carry an ideological health warning. This is particularly true when women and men are reported in the media. The BBC article states that British press accounts of the Olympics mention the partners of both male and female athletes, but for different purposes. According to Prof Kath Woodward, quoted by the BBC, the male partners of straight female athletes are credited with helping the women to succeed, whereas ‘if a female partner of a male athlete is pictured … it is only to confirm his heterosexuality’. The physique or the clothing of female athletes is discussed in the press more frequently than that of male athletes, and female athletes are sometimes referred to as ‘girls’ whereas male athletes are invariably ‘men’. Asymmetry implies inferiority and, in this context, sexism.

So it is not surprising that ‘she might even go higher than the men’ prompted such outrage. Using the comparative carries the implicatures of base and comparator. The sentence ‘she might even go higher than the men’ makes men the base, the standard of gymnastic excellence against which others are measured. It makes women the comparator, the inferior in the asymmetrical relationship.

There seems to be something about sports reporting that trips journalists up in this regard. This could be because in most events male and female compete separately, and such segregation is increasingly unusual in Western societies. It is also an area where comparisons are essential to the activity – athletes are judged by being faster, or stronger, or more skilled than their competitors. Record breaking is also part of the deal – being faster than anyone before, or throwing the hammer further, or being the first person, or man, or woman to win the most golds in the most games, and so on. These two factors – segregation and comparison – simply set the commentators up for unfortunate remarks.

1 thought on “Sexism and the implicature of comparisons”

  1. Birmingham actually has considerably more miles of canal than Venice, which is really interesting in the context of asymmetry of comparisons.

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