Women in Irish Ghost Stories

Where our witches at? Women Are Boring is donning its Hallowe’en hat for the weekend and getting SPOOKY. This piece, by Dr. Clodagh Tait, looks at women in Irish ghost stories, and is the second in our two-part Hallowe’en series (read the first one, on the origins of Hallowe’en, here).

In 1937, Mrs Maggie Gallinagh told Mary Anne Gallinagh a ghost story.

One evening round about Halloween, one of the Harvey sisters of Inver, Co. Donegal, was putting in her ducks at twilight, when she saw a woman dressed in grey ‘looking through the kitchen’. When Miss Harvey spoke to the woman she vanished, but then appeared to the other sister the next evening. The sisters sought the help of Fr George Kelly, parish priest of Inver, who advised them to carry holy water, and when the apparition returned on the third evening the sister who saw her addressed her with the question Fr Kelly recommended: ‘In God’s name what is troubling you?’ The woman replied ‘I am your mother and I am twenty years dead, I am on my way to heaven, and I want three Masses said one from each of you. You three [the girls and their brother] are the only ones living belonging to me, and I want you to pray for me and I will keep you out of danger…when you are on your death bed I will come down and bring you up into the glorious kingdom of heaven, where we will live happy for ever.’ The woman then disappeared, and was never seen again.

It may come as a surprise that ghost stories like this one can be taken seriously by historians. The fact that they are usually written at a distance from their supposed occurrence, passing meanwhile by word of mouth, means that the researcher will look in vain in them for objective ‘facts’ (even if that researcher believes that such events could have happened in the first place). But to dismiss such tales as hearsay, fiction or delusion is to miss the point. People in the past have always reported sighting of ghosts and other supernatural beings. Therefore it is the historian or folklorist’s role to attempt to understand what work such stories did in communities, and to listen for what they express about ideas held about the relationship between the dead and the living and about ‘world-views’ more generally.

The beliefs of Irish people in the past

From my point of view, the tale of the ghostly Mrs Harvey reveals several things, about the beliefs of Irish people in the past and other aspects of their thinking. We learn something, for example, about expectations of the behaviour of the returning dead and interactions with them. It seems to some degree that actions performed by ghosts, the circumstances in which they were encountered, and reactions to them, were gendered. Female ghosts often appear in or near domestic spaces, and female percipients of ghosts likewise tend to encounter them in familiar places close to home. Due to greater restrictions on their movements, especially at sunset and after dark, women were less likely than men to report meeting the returning dead further afield. When they saw the ghost of their mother, the Harvey girls were engaged in the routine activity of putting the ducks into their house for the night; the ghost appears at a widow of door ‘looking through the kitchen’.

The episode of ‘haunting’ (if we could even call it that) in the Donegal story is limited. While nowadays we seem to expect ghosts to be trapped endlessly – and usually mutely – in a specific place to be encountered again and again, Mrs Harvey’s ghost reflects the kinds of revenant who tended to be more commonly reported prior to the twentieth century. Those ghosts usually returned in a purposeful way to deliver a single message, and their haunting was limited in duration. The appearance of Mrs Harvey’s ghost is also notable. She arrived dressed in grey, and until she disappeared the first percipient seems to have believed her to be real. This solidity of appearance is quite common in Irish ghost stories: ghosts can be touched, and touch (even hit) others; they need to open gates to pass through; they even eat and drink.

We might also remark on the way the Harvey girls react to the ghost. While clearly initially somewhat afraid, they stand their ground and challenge her. This would have been a usual course of action in medieval and early modern accounts of haunting, when it was believed that ghosts brought messages, but could not speak until they were spoken to. In cases of ghost-seeing in the Irish past, we find percipients did not usually need professional intermediaries like exorcists or mediums to communicate with ghosts on their behalf: while the Harvey’s consulted a priest, they did not require his aid, though it does seem that in the cases of some particularly troublesome spirits the special skills of a priest might be called on.

Ghosts and Irish christianity

The story of Mrs Harvey very definitively places ghost belief in a Christian framework: Fr Kelly arms the girls with holy water and holy words. The ghost is on her way to heaven but needs the intervention of the church to get there – three masses for her soul, in return for which she offers her own prayers and the promise of heaven to her children. Such a story thus performs a dual purpose: to grapple with the possibility of returning spirits, but to house them securely within Christian teaching. For this reason, the Catholic church in particular was happy enough to accept stories of haunting. Sightings of ghosts fitted in with the doctrine of souls working off the penalties due for their sins in Purgatory, and the possibility that their time there might be shortened by the prayers and other assistance of the living.


Another underlying theme of Mrs Harvey’s story is motherhood and women’s domestic roles. Supposedly twenty years after her death, the deceased Mrs Harvey continues to exhibit care and concern for her children. Very many Irish stories of the supernatural describe female revenants visiting their own homes, caring for children and carrying out domestic chores. In one Co. Roscommon story , an aunt charged with taking care of an infant whose mother had died experienced a shape passing her at the door and found that the baby would not drink any of the milk she prepared for her. The next day in the bedroom ‘whom did she see sitting on the bed but the dead mother and she combing her hair. She faded away out of sight.’ The mother in this tale is definitively dead, but often similar revenants are patently not actually ghosts, but women who had been stolen by the fairies. One the informants cited in Lady Augusta Gregory’s folklore collection Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland stated ‘I believe all that die are brought among them [the fairies], except maybe an odd old person’. However, others seem to have believed that only a certain category of the supposedly dead were with the fairies. Numerous stories told of how young women stolen by the fairies could be rescued by their husbands and loved ones, or recalled those who had been released after a period of time and returned to their families.

 Lady Gregory’s informants told several stories of mothers either returning from fairy captivity or appearing as ghosts, including this unsettling one supplied by Mrs. Farley:

‘One time myself I was at Killinan, at a house of the Clancys’ where the father and mother had died, but it was well known they often come to look after the children. I was walking with another girl through the fields there one evening and I looked up and saw a tall woman dressed all in black, with a mantle of some sort, a wide one, over her head, and the waves of the wind were blowing it off her, so that I could hear the noise of it. All her clothes were black, and had the appearance of being new.’

Her companion could not see the spirit which so frightened Mrs Farley that she did not attempt to question it and fled ‘and the woman seemed to be coming after me, till I crossed a running stream and she had no power to cross that.’

This revenant, implicitly identified as the Clancy children’s mother, was so ‘present’ to Mrs Farley that she could assess the quality of her clothes – they have the appearance of mourning rather than grave clothes – and even hear the sound of her headdress flapping in the wind. Perhaps Mrs Farley’s terror responded in part to the rawness of the dead mother’s mourning for the children to whom she had been lost. After all, one of the things we learn from ghosts, even if we believe that they are only figments of imagination, is about emotion: about grief, anger, disappointment, remorse, and compassion. Most of all we recognise the longing for the loved dead – and the mingled hope and dread that they might in some way long for us – that persists as strongly now as it ever did at the Halloween firesides of the past.

Select bibliography:

Irish Folklore Archive, Schools Folklore Collection: www.duchas.ie

  1. Davies, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts (Basingstoke, 2007).

A.Gregory, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (Gerrards Cross, 1992 [1920])

  1. Narváez (ed.), The Good People: New Fairylore Essays (Lexington, 1997).





Women: ruling Hallowe’en since forever

Where our witches at? Women Are Boring is donning its Hallowe’en hat for the weekend and getting SPOOKY. This piece, by Dr. Lucy Ryder, is the first in our two-part Hallowe’en series (the second is coming on Monday). Read on and learn all about where Hallowe’en originated, and how women have always been central to the festival.


We love you, Lisa Simpson

Where does Hallowe’en come from?

Hallowe’en is one of the most secular of religious festivals, and possibly the most misunderstood. Deriving from the considerably more ancient Samhain (first recorded in the Irish tale Tochmarc Emire meaning ‘When the summer goes to rest”) the current fright night we now experience is a long way from its very ancient, but decidedly muddled, origins.

From an archaeological viewpoint, the period around Samhain (stretching from 31st October to, in some traditions, November 2nd) is difficult but not impossible to trace for the landscape historian. The communities and settlements where these rites are played out become the stage for interconnecting stories, beliefs, and tradition.

Add folklore and oral history to what Tolkien called the “soup pot of history” (or should that be witches brew?!) and we begin to see a potent narrative where women are well and truly in the heart of the Samhain festivities – both in terms of driving the activities and also the balance of power.

The Hallowe’en traditions of ‘trick or treating’ and dressing up in scary clothing for sweets is the latest in a tradition to mark the end of autumn. There are many ideas as to the origin of Hallowe’en, and in some respects which is nearest to the truth has become less of an issue. However, what is consistent is that women are central to the theme.

Cailleach: the Old Crone

The Gaelic goddess Cailleach (or Old Crone) presents a strong image of the woman and landscape intertwined to end the autumn and bountiful seasons. It is suggested (Mac Curtain, 1980: 27) that the name ‘cailleach’ had a double meaning in primitive Irish; the word ‘caille’ meant a veil, and no later than the fifth century AD ‘cailleach’ is recorded to mean both a nun and, almost simultaneously, becomes in secular mythology the word for ‘an old hag’.

Said to be closely associated with the dead and hostile to the living, Cailleach Bhéarra marks the end of autumn and the start of winter in the most vigorous of fashions by crossing the Irish landscape with a hammer pounding the fertile ground to solid rock. Cailleach was said to dwell at cave sites and prehistoric standing stones and megalithic tombs across Ireland, (Champion and Cooney, 1999: 200; Dowd, 2015: 251-2) and was thought to be such a malignant force that her suspected presence in Badhdh’s Hole in County Waterford causes local communities to be uneasy about archaeological investigations of the site (Dowd ibid.). Her presence at these locations brought spirits to her. (Editor’s note: Badhbh is pronounced ‘bibe’. This is another word for ‘banshee’, and the word is still in use in Waterford today: generally used to describe a contrary or nasty person – usually a woman!)

Interestingly, many hillforts and megaliths in England and Scotland are associated with fairies that are supposed to roam freely on Hallowe’en. Clay Hill, near Warminster, is a hot bed of little folk, and folklore tells of large fires and strange-talking people revelling in the darkness of the 31st October. Maybole in Ayrshire is also known for fairy activity within the archaeological remains.

Spooky sites in Ireland

The archaeological importance of the change in the seasons can be found particularly in Ireland, and the folklore echoes the evidence. The Mound of the Hostages (Duma na nGiall), a passage tomb in the Tara-Skryne Valley in County Meath, is thought to be illuminated by the ‘Samhain sunrise’ in early November, and reinforces the tie (in a narrative at least) between Cailleach the Crone and the ancient communities that constructed the tomb between 4,500 to 5,000 years ago (between 2500 and 3000 BC).

Many of the symbols we now associate with Hallowe’en seem to derive from Cailleach; the Crone’s Cauldron, said to collect the souls of the dead, was also thought to represent the earth mother’s womb ready for reincarnation. Her association with the dead certainly seems to be the link between the festivals, marking the end of the autumn and the long winter to come, and the spookier Hallowe’en that we celebrate now.

In many neo-pagan and Wiccan accounts, Cailleach is thought to be the goddess of Samhain, but she has competition from another powerful Gaelic woman – in this case, the daughter of the druid and sun god Mog Ruith. The fort is at Tlachtga, also in County Meath (currently under archaeological investigation, which can be found at https://www.facebook.com/ExcavationsatTlachtga/) is said to be named after Tlachtga, a druidess who was also the daughter of Mog Ruith and the original site of Samhain festivities. Presiding over her temple, all fires in the kingdom were extinguished and were relit from the sacred flame at Tlachtga on the eve of Samhain (Evans, 2014). The Anglo-Saxon tradition for Samhain refers to ‘need-fire’, where fires held magical properties – this was carried on into later traditions, as we’ll see below.

How did modern Hallowe’en begin?

The ancient traditions and Catholicism collided when Pope Saint Boniface’s festivity to honour dead saints was moved from May to coincide with the Samhain celebrations on November 1st  (generally thought to be sometime after Pope Gregory the III, around the end of the eighth century (Roy, 2005: 95)), when communication with the deceased was thought to be the most convivial.

The Abbot of Cluny Saint Odilo was attributed to bringing All Souls Day remembrance to the party sometime between 962 and 1049 AD, and therefore, the blurring of practices laid the road to the Hallowe’en we know today. Within this new order, outside of the religious practices of the Catholic Church, women, already so pivotal in the origin of Samhain/Hallowe’en, once again became fundamental in its next phase.

Women and Hallowe’en

Women were central to the home and its protection, and during the days leading up to All Souls Day on the 2nd of November, a number of protective methods were implemented to keep those within the home safe from anyone, or anything, wandering about in the darkness. Fundamental to this was protecting the boundaries, and additional care to bring plants. Women were primarily charged with ensuring the living and the dead were kept at a safe distance from each other, and this included putting bent nails in doors and salt in keyholes (which also worked the rest of the year), and bringing in plants from the natural world. Elderberry branches above lintels were thought to protect homes from malevolent spirits and witches, and crosses made of rowan twigs were carried for protection. Food needed to be prepared and left on the doorstep to appease witches. Strands of hazelnuts (either worn or kept in the home) also brought protection to the home, and were used and carried by young women to ensure fertility for the coming year.

This is crucial to our narrative of women in Hallowe’en, as this period was also seen by women as a time to harness the spirits around and put them to good use – in the form of both divination (seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means) and catopromancy (divination with mirrors). Hallowe’en was the time to predict and safeguard the future; Apples, echoing back to Pomona, were used for divination for future and the longevity of life, and were included in cakes made with coins (wealth), rings (marriage), or marbles (single/childless). inside, whatever you ended up with was your future (Editor’s note: a similar practice continues in Ireland today with the barmbrack [‘báirín braic’ in Irish],  a sweet fruit loaf which contains a number of different objects,including a ring, and which is traditionally eaten around Hallowe’en. Learn how to make your own barmbrack here.). The protecting hazelnuts were placed into fires with single girls reciting love spells such as “if you love me pop and fly, if you hate me, burn and die” in order to establish future suitors.

The practice of catopromancy (divination with mirrors) is most associated with Hallowe’en, and used by women to predict their future, be it wealth, health, or partners. In particular, this tradition was popular during the Victorian period where women would call to the mirror to show their future husband over their shoulder! Catopromancy also assisted communication with the dead, which undoubtedly lead to the game of calling “Bloody Mary”, who would be summoned with the threat that she would curse someone to die before the year was out.

As children born on Hallowe’en were thought to have the gift of communication with both the dead and fairies (or other fey like creatures) the act of women undertaking communication with the spirit world shows another blurring of traditions surrounding the festival.

Throughout the history of Samhain/Hallowe’en, women have had a pivotal role to play. From changing the seasons, and changing the earth, to calling the spirits, relighting the fires and protecting the home, to helping communities through the winter, their role is imprinted on the natural and archaeological landscape around, and accessible through folklore and material culture. And all this without once mentioning riding on a broomstick….


Dowd, M. 2015. The Archaeology of Caves in Ireland Oxford: Oxbow Books

Evans, K. 2014. Tlachtga: The Birthplace of Hallowe’en? http://digventures.com/2014/10/tlachtga-the-birthplace-of-halloween/

Gentilcore, R. (1995). The Landscape of Desire: The Tale of Pomona and Vertumnus in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” Phoenix, 49(2), 110-120. doi:1. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1192628 doi:1

Mac Curtain, M. (1980). Towards an Appraisal of the Religious Image of Women. The Crane Bag, Vol. 4, No. 1, Images of the Irish Woman pp. 26-30

Roy, C. 2005 Traditional Festivals: A Multicultural Encyclopedia, Volume 1. ABC-CLIO Ltd

CHILD SOLDIERS: Where are the girls?

CHILD SOLDIERS: Where are the girls?  Kids, guns and the Patriarchy

By Marie Penicaut

Much has been written lately about African child soldiers.[1] We, in the West, are all familiar with the image of an eight or ten year old boy, holding an AK-47 too big for him, in a pseudo-military uniform, his eyes crying for help. We see him in newspapers and on television. We hear his horrifying story in documentaries, interviews, and sometimes self-written memoirs. Since Blood Diamond[2], we also see him in fiction films, poignant and stereotypical representations of these kids’ tragic lives that we too readily take for granted. And, as Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wonderfully puts it in an inspiring TedTalk, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make the single story become the only story”.[3]



The ‘typical’ child soldier

But where are the girls in all of that? Why don’t we see pictures of little girls carrying AK-47s? Why is there virtually no girl – not a single one – in Netflix’s critically acclaimed Beasts of No Nation[4], while many studies have proven that they constitute up to 40% of all child soldiers in some African contexts? Why are they so often completely ignored by academic literature, governments, international organisations and NGOs alike?



Agu’s all-boys unit marching towards combat. Screenshot from Beasts of No Nation.

The answer should not come as a surprise. Once again, the Patriarchy strikes: society puts us in two clear-cut categories, where according to our biological sex – male or female[5] – we are expected to behave in a certain way. Girls will naturally be peaceful, pacifist, and passive; boys will be inherently violent, aggressive, and impulsive. Hence the common belief that on one side, ‘girls don’t fight’, while on the other, ‘boys will be boys’ – which inevitably leads to the idea that war is the realm of men, and of men uniquely.

No wonder, then, that girl child soldiers are invisible, even when confronted with evidence that 10 to 30% of child soldiers worldwide are female, and 30 to 40% in recent African conflicts.[6]

When – and if – mentioned, it is only as simple camp followers. As the ‘good little women’ they are, they cook, do the laundry and take care of the youngest. But in reality, many receive military training and fight just like the boys.[7] During the Mozambican War of Independence (1964-74), which opposed the Portuguese government and FREMILO (The Mozambique Liberation Front), the rebels had mixed and female-only military units where girls and young women fought for the liberation of their country.[8] War was an opportunity for them to escape their gender roles. They were treated just the same as men. But once the country became independent in 1975, it was not long before they were sent back to the kitchen, and the crucial role they played was progressively forgotten.



Johnny Mad Dog or the stereotypical child soldier narrative

We should not underestimate the power of the media and of pop-culture. They both represent and influence the way we make sense of the world. The first thing I did when I started researching child soldiering in Africa (for my master’s dissertation) was to try to find as many fiction films and documentaries on the topic I could. Before entering the more nuanced and detailed academic discussion, I wanted to have the exact same perception of the phenomenon as everyone else.

I was shocked when I watched Johnny Mad Dog[9], the ultraviolent and ultra-clichéd adaptation of the eponymous novel by Emmanuel Dongala[10]. It tells Johnny’s story, abducted at 9 by rebels, now 15, in yet another unnamed African country torn by a senseless conflict – the Western discourse on African child soldiers is also profoundly racist: most movies are entirely decontextualized, as if the story could take place anywhere on the continent, negating the vast diversity of its 54 countries and the complex reasons that lead to armed conflict.

In the book, there are two narrators: Johnny and Laokolé, a strong and smart girl, who manages her way through a world of violence and chaos. But Sauvaire completely silences her to put Johnny at the centre of the story. She becomes a character of secondary importance. Even worse: while in the book she cold-bloodedly plans to kill Johnny, and does it, as she knows he intends to rape and kill her, the film ends on her indecision whether to shoot at him in self-defence. Her originally strong agency is simply erased.

Dongala’s resistant discourse is violated and distorted to conform to the expectations of a public for which violence is the monopoly of males.



Johnny Mad Dog’s last image: Laokolé pointing a gun towards Johnny, breathing heavily, undecided.


Girl soldiers, the “ultimate victim[s] in need of rescue”[11]

If you are active on social media, there is a good chance that you have heard of the Kony2012[12] phenomenon. The 30-minute video posted on YouTube by Invisible Children, an NGO built by three American missionaries, was created with the aim of fighting the child-soldiering the three “discovered” in Uganda. The viral video – which gained 100 million views in less than a week – sums up pretty well all the stereotypes on child combatants. It also illustrates the difference of treatment between girls and boys in the global discourse: “the girls are turned into sex slaves, and the boys into child soldiers”. Things are simple. Girls do all the chores and are sex slaves. Boys are forced to fight and to commit atrocities. Girls don’t fight and boys don’t get raped. Even more than their male counterparts, girls are voiceless victims in need of rescue by the West.



Kony and his ‘army of children’. Source: Screenshot of Kony2012

Many girls and women are victims of sexual violence, especially in the climate of conflict and instability that has affected a number of African countries in the past decades. But stories of rape and abuse too often eclipse other stories of bravery, resilience and survival.

Even more than boys, girls are denied any agency, any voice; they are denied the possibility to speak out and tell their story as they experienced it and not as we want to hear it.

In some contexts, becoming a soldier can be empowering for them. They can gain power, a surrogate family where they had none, and escape their traditional gender roles.[13] Their experience is too often reduced to the sexual violence they may or may not have undergone. In virtually every documentary I have watched for my dissertation project, girls are interviewed uniquely to talk about their experience of sexual violence, and often asked to provide gruesome details to satisfy the journalist’s, and the public’s, morbid curiosity.

It is not the first and certainly not the last time that women have been misunderstood and misrepresented because of sexist stereotypes. But the tragedy lies in the consequences this has on the ground, for real girls that have served weeks, months, and sometimes years in militias. Because ‘girls don’t fight’, many demobilisation, disintegration and rehabilitation programmes[14] exclude them. Only 5% benefit from them.[15] And when they do, their special needs are rarely addressed: no female clothing in the aid packages, no tampons or pads, no reproductive healthcare, etc. Skills training and camp activities are often biased towards males – learning masonry, carpentry, mechanics etc.[16] When going back to civilian life, because they are labelled as sexual victims, they are affected by a stigma of sexual activity. Whether real or not, this stigma leads to social exclusion. Many girls hide their rebel lives from their family and community and decide not to register for demobilisation because they are too afraid of the consequences – of being seen as monsters, as dangerous rebels, as ‘bush wives’[17] that can no longer marry.

More than anything else, girl child soldiers are victims of the Patriarchy. In the West, which ignores and silences them; and in their own societies that stigmatise and exclude them both as rebels and as trespassers of their gender roles. The child soldier phenomenon is a complex one. Its gender dimension is only one aspect of the issue, but one that deserves much more attention than it gets now.

Movies like Beasts of No Nation, Blood Diamond and Johnny Mad Dog, with a large audience and good critiques, are missed opportunities to challenge a simplistic, essentialist and dangerous understanding of child soldiers.

They perpetuate many harmful ideas and are representative of the status quo on the place of women in war: none.  “Just as these films were made mostly by whites and thus show a white bias, so were they made mostly by men and show a male bias.”[18]



[1] Understood as “any person below 18 years of age who is or who has been recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used a fighters, cooks, porters, messengers, spies, or for sexual purposes” (The Paris Principles, 2007).

[2] Blood Diamond, 2006. Directed by Edward Zwick.

[3] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg.

[4] Beasts of No Nation, 2015. Directed by Cary J. Fukunaga.

[5] Many do not identify with these two categories.

[6] Denov, 2010, p. 13.

[7] Keairns, 2002, p. 13; Annan et al., 2009, p. 9.

[8] West, 2005.

[9] Johnny Mad Dog, 2008. Directed by Jean-Sébastien Sauvaire.

[10] Dongala, E. (2002) Johnny Chién Méchant. Paris: Le Serpent à Plumes.

[11] Macdonald, 2008, p. 136.

[12] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4MnpzG5Sqc.

[13] Valder, 2014, p. 44.

[14] UN-led child-specific programmes whose goal is to facilitate their return to civilian life. NGOs often intervene and collaborate at different steps of the process (UNDDR Resource Centre).

[15] Taylor-Jones, 2016, p. 185.

[16] Coutler, 2009, p. 64.

[17] Girls and women forced to ‘marry’ within the rebel group.

[18] Cameron, 1994, p. 188.

Maths: the same in every country?

by Rose Cook, PhD candidate at the Institute of Education, University College London.

Think women aren’t good at maths? Depends on where you’re a woman. 


(We never miss a chance to quote Mean Girls here at Women Are Boring)

Do you know the difference between Celsius and Fahrenheit? Can you interpret information from line graphs in news articles? Calculate how many wind turbines would be needed to produce a certain amount of energy (given the relevant information)?

These may seem like basic tasks, but if you are a woman living in the UK, Germany or Norway, the chances are you would struggle with them more than a comparable man. If you live in Poland, however, you might even outperform a male counterpart.

Why this variation in skills, and why does it appear in some countries and not others?

For some, these findings, from the 2011 international survey of adult skills, run by the OECD,  will confirm their existing beliefs. In spite of women being more academically successful than men, the perception that ‘women can’t do maths’ is widely held. A recent experiment [1] showed that both genders believe this to be true: both male and female subjects were more likely to select men to perform a mathematical task that, objectively, both genders fulfil equally well. In her successful book ‘The Female Brain’, Louann Brinzedine argued that women are ‘hard wired’ for communication and emotional connection, while men’s brains are oriented towards achievement, solitary work and analytical pursuits.

Another camp of social scientists argue that such narratives misrepresent the facts.  Janet Shibley Hyde and colleagues insist that, at least in the United States, men and women’s cognitive abilities are characterised by similarity rather than difference. Reviewing findings across many studies of gender differences on standardised mathematics tests, these authors found that ‘even for difficult items requiring substantial depth of knowledge, gender differences were still quite small’[2].

The fact that gender differences show up on an international survey of numeracy skills is a puzzling addition to an already contentious picture. Of course, not all maths tests are created equal. The difference may in some way reflect the way the survey conceptualises skills. Distinct from mathematical ability, applied numeracy skills are described as:

‘the ability to use, apply, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas’.[3]

Crucially, individuals who are ‘numerate’ should be able to apply these abilities to situations in everyday life. Perhaps these ‘everyday’ maths skills are more biased by gender than the measures used in other studies?

Numeracy: the ‘new literacy

I argue that we should take these gender differences seriously. More and more, jobs now require numeracy skills, both to perform basic tasks and to support ICT skills. Outside work, numeracy skills are increasingly required to make sense of the world around us. They help us to grasp concepts such as interest rates and inflation, which help us to deal with money. Moreover, according to the British Academy,

‘the ability to understand and interpret data is an essential feature of life in the 21st century: vital for the economy, for our society and for us as individuals. The ubiquity of statistics makes it vital that citizens, scientists and policy makers are fluent with numbers’.

The importance of numeracy has been recognised recently in the UK with the establishment of an All-Party Parliamentary Group for Maths and Numeracy, the National Numeracy charity, and initiatives such as Citizen Maths.

International variation

Particularly curious is the large variation across countries in the size of the gender difference. Figure 1, below, shows that, among adults aged between 16 and 65, the male advantage in applied numeracy skills is particularly large in Germany, the Netherlands and Norway, while it is virtually non-existent in Poland and Slovakia. The graph shows raw differences in average skill scores; although gaps reduce somewhat when controlling for age, family and immigration background and education, they remain.

Figure 1: Mean numeracy skills by gender, International Survey of Adult Skills, 2012


Source: Author’s calculations using data from the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC). Survey and replicate weights are applied. Numeracy scores range from zero to 500. For more information on the survey, please see: http://www.oecd.org/skills/piaac/publications.htm

Any genetic component is unlikely to vary internationally [4], suggesting a substantial role for cultural, institutional or economic factors that vary across countries.

My PhD study

Given that the survey tests adults who have many experiences behind them, isolating the causes of gender differences and cross-country variation is far from simple. We are socialised into gendered preferences, motivations and skills from our earliest years [5]. We go on to make gendered choices in our educational lives, our careers and our leisure activities. All of these life domains contribute to the skills we end up with in adulthood. To some, a choice-based explanation is unproblematic; determining one’s own destiny is a core value in many contemporary societies. However, this side-steps the question of where preferences come from. Skill differences in adulthood may well reflect individuals’ choices; however, the choices themselves are likely to be influenced by a complex mixture of cultural, educational, economic and institutional factors; which vary in their salience across countries.

In my PhD study, I focus on education and labour market explanations. A key task for my research is disentangling why gender differences in numeracy skills are relatively large in countries typically considered ‘gender egalitarian’. For example, Scandinavian countries consistently top the rankings of  the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, and are held up as bastions of gender equality. Yet Norway, Sweden and Denmark show among the largest gender differences in adults’ applied numeracy skills. Poland, Slovakia and Spain are not known for being particularly progressive on gender equality, yet they show among the smallest differences.

School and skills

One possibility is that gender differences arise from what girls and boys are exposed to while they are at school. Despite a similar basic structure, education systems across the world differ in the extent to which subjects are optional or compulsory. For example, in the UK, mathematics was not compulsory in upper secondary education until recently; whereas in other countries this has long been the case. Where numerate subjects are not compulsory, they may be less valued, and this could have created more scope for gender to affect subject and career choices. There is also wide variation in the types of mathematics learning boys and girls are exposed to across countries, as well as between schools and classes within countries.

Work and skills

Another possibility is that differences in skills are related to the types of jobs that women and men pursue once they leave education. In the majority of countries in the study, occupational segregation is still widespread in spite of female’s superior performance in education, and is partly to blame for the continuing gender pay gap.  Gender occupational segregation is particularly rife in Scandinavian countries, although this has been improving in recent years [6]. Countries with strong gender segregation in jobs promote gender norms about what careers are appropriate and accessible for men and women. This is likely to drive the early choices that contribute to skills in adulthood. In contrast, in some countries gender segregation of jobs is less pronounced, which may set more egalitarian norms for skill development. Moreover, given the link between more demanding, highly skilled jobs and skill development in adulthood, concentration into lower paid, more routine jobs could affect the extent to which women are able to gain skills at work. In some countries’ labour markets, women may perceive weaker incentives to develop mathematical skills than their male counterparts, preferring more typically ‘feminine’ ones, such as communication and literacy skills.

In my view, skills gaps are among the hurdles we need to overcome in order to attain full economic equality between men and women. Using international comparisons, my research aims to locate gender differences in applied numeracy skills within a broader, institutional context.  This is important both to correct the assumption that differences are ‘fundamental’ or ‘natural’, and to design effectively-targeted policies to equalise skills. I use a variety of quantitative techniques in my research which isolate factors associated with gender differences at both the individual and country levels. This should broaden the discussion beyond the common focus on encouraging girls to make gender ‘atypical’ choices in education, which neglects both males and the broader social context in which skill differences develop. Moreover, while there is a large amount of research on gender and education, skills inequalities among adults are less often addressed. Yet they affect adults’ lives in profound ways [7]. I hope to show some of the ways in which skill differences among adults are not fixed by early experiences and biology, but malleable according to social context.


[1] Reuben, E., Sapienza, P. and Zingales, L. (2014). ‘How stereotypes impair women’s careers in science.’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111 (12), 4403-4408.

[2] Hyde, Janet S., et al. (2008) Gender similarities characterize math performance. Science 321 (5888) pp. 494-495 (p.495)

[3] OECD (2013) PIAAC Numeracy: A conceptual framework (p. 20) Paris: OECD.[4] http://www.statlit.org/pdf/1999-Steen-ASCD-Education-Leadership.pdf

[4] Penner, A.M. (2008) Gender differences in extreme mathematical achievement: An international perspective on biological, social, and societal factors. American Journal of Sociology 114 (supplement) S138–S170.

[5] Maccoby, E. E., and D’Andrade, R. G. (1966) The development of sex differences. Stanford University Press.

[6] Bettio F and Verashchagina A (2009) Gender Segregation in the Labour Market: Root Causes, Implications and Policy Responses in the EU. Brussels: European Commission.

[7] Carpentieri, J. C., Lister, J., Frumkin, L., & Carpentieri, J. (2010). Adult numeracy: a review of research. London: NRDC.

Detecting Parkinson’s Disease with your mobile phone


by Reham Badaway, in collaboration with Dr. Max Little.

So, what if I told you that in your pocket right now, you have a device that may be able to detect for the symptoms of a brain disease called Parkinson’s, much earlier than doctors themselves can detect for the disease? I’ll give you a minute to empty out the contents of your pockets. Have you guessed what it is? It’s your smartphone! Not only can your trusty smartphone keep you in touch with family and friends, or help you look busy at a party that you know no-one at, it can also detect for the very early symptoms of a debilitating disease. One more reason to love your smartphone!

What is Parkinson’s disease?

So, what is Parkinson’s disease (PD)? PD is a brain disease which significantly restricts movement. Some of the symptoms of PD include slowness of movement, trembling of the hands and legs, the resistance of the muscles to movement, and loss of balance. All of these movement problems (symptoms) are extremely debilitating and affect the quality of life for those diagnosed with the disease. Unfortunately, it is only in the late stages of the disease, i.e. when the symptoms of the disease are extremely apparent, that doctors can confidently detect PD. There is currently no cure for the disease. Detecting the disease early on can help us find a cure, or find medicines that aim to slow down disease progression. Thus, methods that can detect PD before doctors themselves can detect for the disease, i.e. in the early stages of the disease, are pivotal.

Smartphone sensing

So, how can we go about detecting the disease early on in a non-invasive, cheap and easily accessible manner? Well, we believe that smartphones are the solution. Smartphones come equipped with a large variety of sensors to enhance your experience with your smartphone (Fig 1). Over the last few years, abnormal characteristics in the walking pattern of individuals with PD have been successfully detected using a smartphone sensor known as an accelerometer. Accelerometers can detect movement with high precision at very low cost, making them perfect for wide-scale application.


Fig 1: Sensors, satellites and radio frequency in Smartphones

Detecting Parkinson’s disease before symptoms arise

Interestingly, subtle movement problems have been reported in individuals with a high risk of developing PD using sensors similar to those found in smartphones, specifically when given a difficult activity to do such as walking while counting backwards. Individuals at risk of developing the disease are individuals who are expected to develop the disease in the later stages of their life due to say a genetic mutation, but have not yet developed the key symptoms required for PD diagnosis. The presence of subtle movement problems in individuals with a high risk of developing PD indicates that the symptoms of PD exist in the early stages of the disease progression, just subtly. Unfortunately, these subtle movement problems are so subtle that individuals at risk of developing PD, as well as doctors, cannot detect them – so we must go looking for them. It is crucial that we can screen individuals for these subtle movement problems if we are to detect the disease in the early stages. The ability of smartphone sensors to detect the subtle movement problems in the early stages of PD has not yet been investigated. Using smartphones as a screening tool for detecting PD early on will mean a more widely accessible and cost-effective screening method.

Our solution to the problem

We aim to distinguish individuals at risk of developing PD from risk-free individuals by analysing their walking pattern measured using a smartphone accelerometer.

How does it work?

So, how would it work? Users download a smartphone app, in which they are instructed to place their smartphone in their pocket and walk in a straight line for 30 seconds. During these 30 seconds, a smartphone accelerometer records the user’s walking pattern (Fig 2).


Fig 2: Smartphone records user walking

The data collected from the accelerometer is then downloaded on to a computer so we can examine the presence of subtle movement problems in an individual’s walking pattern. However, to ensure that the subtle movement problems that we observe in an individual’s walking pattern is due to PD, we aim to simulate the user’s walking pattern via modelling the underlying mechanisms that occur in the brain during PD. If the simulated walking pattern matches the walking pattern collected from the user’s smartphone (Fig 3), we can look back at our model of the basal ganglia (BG)- an area in the brain often associated with PD – to see if it is predictive of PD.




If it is predictive of PD, and we observe subtle movement problems in the user’s walking pattern, we can classify an individual as being at risk of developing PD. Thus, an individual’s health status will be based on a plausible link between their physical and biological characteristics. In cases in which the biological and physical evidence do not stack up, for example when we observe subtle movement problems in an individual’s walking pattern but the information drawn from the BG is not indicating PD, we can dismiss the results in order to prevent a misdiagnosis. A misdiagnosis can have a significant impact on an individual’s health and psychology. Thus, it is pivotal that the methods that we build allow us to identify scenarios in which the model is not capable of accurately predicting an individual’s health status, a problem which a lot of current techniques in the field lack.

To simulate the user’s walking pattern, we aim to mathematically model the BG and use it as input into another mathematical model of the mechanics of human walking. The BG model consists of many variables to make it work. To find the values for the different variables of the BG model such that it simulates the user’s walking pattern, we will use a statistical technique known as Approximate Bayesian Computation (ABC). ABC works by running many simulations of the BG model until it simulates a walking pattern that is a close match to the user’s walking pattern.

Ultimately our approach aims to provide insight into an individual’s brain deterioration through their walking pattern, measured using smartphone accelerometers, in order to know how their health is changing.


As well as identifying those at risk of developing PD from healthy individuals, our approach provides the following benefits:

  • Providing insight into how the disease affects movement both before and after diagnosis.
  • Identifying disease severity in order to decide on the right dosage of medication for patients.
  • Tracking the effect of drugs on symptom severity for PD patients and those at risk.


Apple recently launched ResearchKit, which is a collection of smartphone applications that aims to monitor an individual’s health. Companies such as Apple are realising the potential of smartphones to screen for diseases. The ability to monitor patients long-term, in a non-invasive manner, through smartphones is promising, and can provide a more accurate picture of an individual’s health.

Advances in smartphone sensing are likely to have a substantial impact in many areas of our lives. However, how far can we go with monitoring people without jeopardizing their privacy? How do we prevent the leakage of sensitive information collected from millions of people? The growing evolution of sensor-enabled smartphones presents innovative opportunities for mobile sensing research, but it comes with many challenges that need to be addressed.