Showing posts with label Work-Life Balance. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Work-Life Balance. Show all posts

She's Just Not Interested

Female CEOs always make headlines (recently GM, Yahoo). Several media outlets have spent much space lately to commentary on women in science. Few would bury their heads in sand and deny the gender disparities in the workplace and outside. And there is no dearth of arresting visual statistics on the yawning gender gaps.

But the analysis that proclaims the gaps rests on assumptions that rarely figure in the discourse. Observers speak of vocations and industries missing out on “half the population”. If I were to ask for a pause to consider the assumptions, you might dread this is headed towards unsavoury territory. But bear with me. The conversation on gender representation in vocations is generally driven by discussion of ability and opportunity. What about interest?

Both opportunity and ability seem easier questions to engage with than interest. Opportunities are not equal for the genders, period. We know that. No question. The question of equal ability only has pieces unsolved that are both too trivial and too pointless to discuss. The scarce evidence from neuroscience is for minor and poorly understood differences, and moreover, even finding significant differences would give no ground for prejudice in single cases.

Interest is different. Unlike innate aptitude or opportunity, one does not make a normative argument: everyone is not expected to be equally interested in everything. Quite to the contrary, the only normative claim one might make is that we may not assume interest on anyone’s part. So why make the assumption that the genders should or would be equally interested in every vocation? Can we not make room for interest to vary despite exactly equal aptitude? There is evidence that given equal ability interests might indeed drive the discrepantly low representation of women in science.

If equal interest is not assumed, then actual numbers of a gender engaged in any occupation cannot be taken as a measure of opportunity. Opportunity must be measured by testing provision, not uptake.

The place of women in society then is not a simple variable to understand. Besides the question of interest, presumptions about geography are equally rife. Genders are not quite equal anywhere, but is the picture we have of how the gap varies by age and region accurate? Let us contrast two regions to take a snapshot.

Across large parts of India, opportunities for young girls are severely restricted compared to boys. Sexual assaults on young women were always a problem but have received widespread attention in recent years. But also in India, CEOs of about 20% of major private banks and financial institutions happen to be women, in contrast with virtually none in the US or the EU.

Arguably, little girls in Norway or Netherlands are no different than boys at their school. But there is a very real pay gap in the private sector, with disparity even more noticeable at the higher executive levels, which is why every new female Fortune 500 CEO in the US makes big news. Norway has quotas in place for female board members in private firms that other countries in Europe have tried to emulate.

The place of Indian women in a socio-cultural context too appears to be different from the West. It may not be the best means to assess gender parity in films, but Hindi films do significantly better on the Bechdel Test. The test is certainly not conclusive for arguments about culture. But precisely because the requirements on the test are so basic, significant differences in scores do prompt one to wonder. It would seem that Hindi films are more likely to have named female characters discussing women than English films.

Given that it is difficult variable, gender differences between vocational inclinations would likely be very difficult to disentangle from all the noisy confluence of factors. Sure, we must continually strive to ensure that opportunities are not skewed or denied. But the uptake of those opportunities might not be the best way to assess the results of efforts.

If it turned out that with everything else equal, women really are less interested in a science career or editing Wikipedia entries, that would be okay right?

Of course we must raise both boys and girls with acute awareness of gender disparity and to be on guard for biases in their own thinking and to fight unfairness when they see it. But equally, in a post-modern world, we do not wish to inhibit little girls from expressing their true interests for the fear they might fall on the wrong side of the strict line of expected equality between the genders. It should suffice to teach children not to a priori assume or expect either skills or interests of the other people based on their gender.

In one of last year's sweetest films, 'Wadjda', when a ten-year-old girl's last recourse to earning a bicycle is thwarted, Abdullah, her next-door friend, offers her his bike. "Then how will we race?", she replies, not attempting to hide a mix of indignation and exasperation. It is an error all too common in talk of gender disparities. One assumes the problem because one of the problems is obvious. Sure it is wrong that girls should be denied bikes where boys take them for granted. But in Wadjda's case, presuming that the delivery of one bike delivers her from the specific disadvantage she wishes to overcome is prejudiced reduction. Next time, let's just ask her, shall we?

J'analyse donc je suis

Writing a letter in prison, Bertrand Russell wrote, "No one has the least idea how much I get into a day". Stephen Wolfram, in some ways his latter day intellectual heir, has the answer: Personal Analytics.

He has logged every single keystroke for 30 years and every morning gets an email summary of all his activity – including emails. Let's not focus on the circular analytical trail there yet. That tells him how productive he has been the previous day. To doubt Mr Wolfram’s genius is to call one’s own semblance of an intelligence into question. But let’s ask the fundamental question anyway. Does everyone need or want or stand to gain from his brand of analytics? Carefully perusing through smartly visualized reports of one’s digital activity is arguably only productive for someone who is planning to commercialize and sell that sort of analysis to the masses, as he is. To everyone else, it is one more thing to do they got by without just fine until someone invented it for sale and profit. At that personal level at which he intends to track it, what is productivity?

Why was I not as productive yesterday as the same day last week? Because on my way to work, I paused in the park as I caught a whiff of the most delightful scent on the air, and on following it, espied a glorious bloom of rose bush (a literal truth). Why was I less productive in the month of May 2011 than in May 2010? Because in 2011, my girlfriend left me, whereas in 2010 we were just back from a very happy holiday. I remember both events vividly. Why was I apparently shirking work in August 2000? Simply cannot remember. And should I? Those that write journals or personal blogs can quickly check. Others do not write journals for various reasons. It might entertain them to look for unexplained patterns in digital data and wonder some day when they have nothing better to do and they have just been through old photos. But do we all need to dissect and analyse every single blip in the data, constantly?
Omar Khayyam Profile
Bust of Omar Khayyam
Photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim
From WikiMedia Commons
If I scrutinised my productivity so thoroughly every morning I expect two things: A) I expect to deliver ideas equivalent to being the Omar Khayyam of my time. B) I expect I will see the daily analytical report as a waste of the time that I might better spend working on whatever makes me that great. If I take a break to pause and smell roses, I would rest in peace knowing that every such single instance over the course of my life was well considered and justified at least in that moment, regardless of whether I remember for all time to come. If I do not remember, I shall trust my judgement in the past and also allow for it to evolve in a way that my present disagrees with the past but without regrets. Thanks for the software then, Mr Wolfram, but I think I will spend the cash otherwise. A book on Indo-persian algebra, perhaps.

And there's the connect - the kind that this blog scouts for. It is a weak but direct link to a couple of recurrent themes - Productivity and Work-Life Balance. I've said before: any talk of productivity is meaningless without spelling out the values being produced. Even the simple case of a sensory experience of natural scents involves multiple values. In the moment, I value that experience very highly indeed, and there is very little the world offers that I would trade it for. In general, I value the memory of such simple pure pleasures from the countless occasions in the past. I also value the conceited knowledge that I seem to have the increasingly rare appreciation for these self-anointed values! I could go on, but you get the idea. If ever in the future they make an app for a wearable devide that somehow records the metadata for that experience, or fate forbid, attempts to assess the quality of the scent of the particular rose, I would elect to ignore it. (You know where I stand on this. I brought it up with that story of the schoolchildren scaling tall ladders en route to a school set in pristine wilderness.)

Analysing 'personal' productivity means scrutinizing either what one produces 'for' oneself or 'out of' oneself. Surely, even for the self-employed few, that includes many things that in no way help bring in an income? Whichever gender, we certainly cannot 'have it all'. It comes down to setting one's priorities early on and keeping an interal tab on how we fare. When it is time to take stock, judge leniently. After all, we did not rely on an app logging everything and presenting it to us with the morning coffee. And may that email that I eagerly read before leaving for work be from a friend or colleague in another time zone. For I can handle any number of emails from friends - and colleagues, if the request is within a very broad reading of my job description. (I'm looking at you. Yeah, you know who you are!) Just as long as it is not a bot that sent me an email about my email traffic.

Decades after that prison stint, Russell came to write, "A great deal of work has come upon me, neglect of some of which might jeopardise the continuation of the human race”. Now there's a candidate for it!

Anomie at the Top

Goldman Sachs short-sold clients, Morgan Stanley covered up ginormous losses, Barclays toyed with the LIBOR rate, HSBC aided money-laundering, and Wegelin helped evade tax. Peter Doyle of the IMF has since pulled a Greg Smith; the Fund now has its own whistle-blowing exit. There is a lot to infer here about global finance. Hopefully, experts and leaders alike will put their heads together to react to the big picture. There is, though, a bigger picture.

Door Detail at the Bank of England / Photo: Paul (HOWZEY), via Flickr under a Creative Commons License

Ever since the unprecedented oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico directly hurt British pensioners, we have known that as with finance, the management of our environment, the other global common, is subject to the same kind and degree of failures. That climate change is not the only pathway of global environmental harm and the harm may not necessarily be in the supra long term or even necessarily environmental. News and information is another global common. The top leadership there is not doing much better either.

Why are we failing to check or even detect critical failures in vast networked organisations? How can they happen when they need an organisation-wide support to be hushed-up?

The answer may lie in advice that Neil Barofsky received, before commencing his job of policing the TARP bailout. It may seem a paradoxical connect to a contemporary discourse on work-life balance. David Brooks, Umair Haque, Anand Giridharadas and more recently, Anne-Marie Slaughter, have been singing of this in various tunes: the idea has gained ground that we face a choice between living for our careers or defining what else we live for and balancing that with our work. But the career-driven societies of the day present other more direct trade-offs at work itself. Mr Barofsky was told, the New York Times reports, not to be “too aggressive” and risk damaging his future career. In that subtle menace lurks the devil.

The recent spate of revelations about mischief of the highest order across global financial institutions on both sides of the Atlantic, at a multinational oil company and global news outlets makes one wonder. As societies evolve, get rich and tidy up, as institutions of governance improve, how could managers through the ranks be apparently devoid of morals? A few rotten eggs rising to the top is easily explained. But how can an entire organisation conspire to cover something up?

It would appear that the advice that Mr Barofsky received has widespread adherence anyway. Simple, honest people go along with it, lest they jeopardised their carefully built careers. Every little honest achievement of their past, earned with decades of consistent hard work and countless daily sacrifices big and small, leads them to that university and onwards to that coveted job, even if still far from the top, at that big bank. Or at that intergovernmental organisation. The way success is pegged, these good hard-working people fear for a single bad word in the progress report, one less-than-stellar recommendation from the top.

No surprises then that Greg Smith so famously spoke out only when leaving Goldman Sachs, and Peter Doyle, when leaving the IMF. We never seem to hear from current incumbents in-charge who discovered in the course of duty how bad things were, before they are in the dock. Mr Barofsky also wrote an Op-Ed on his last day.

The consequence of a university-branded career-driven society is not just that a vast majority of people lose sight of what used to make people happy until the previous century. Most people are also readier, once they deem themselves successful, to compromise on the values that for the most part earned them their early successes. That is faulty design logic at the least.

It is now common enough to signal shortcomings greater than of the individual. Universities like to take credit for spectacular successes. Let us start by shaming them for colossal failures. For every list of illustrious CEOs to have graduated from a school, let us also publish lists of alumni summoned to a parliament or a court to explain dubious oversight or criminal misconduct. Let us publish the costs of damage to contrast against figures that signal success for the benefit of prospective students and future managers.