Family gathering

New Year's Day, Waipu, 1933

New Year’s Day, Waipu, 1933

This photo is one of my favourite photos from my family history collection. My great grandmother, the elderly lady standing third from the right, is gathered with all her descendants, by blood and marriage, on New Year’s Day 1933.

There are so many great things about the photo – seeing them all dressed in their Sunday best, at the depths of the depression in New Zealand, looking at my stylish great aunts, with their flapper fashion and hats, some of whom had just come back from a big adventure travelling the US and Canada, checking out the latest in pram technology, and seeing the children who became my aunts and uncles looking cute and adorable.

Sadly, the first death of a person in this photo was not my great grandmother, it was the child at the far left – my father’s cousin Donald, a RNZAF bomber pilot, who was killed in 1943 aged 22.

This week I went to the funeral of the last survivor, my Aunt Mary, who is second from right in the front row. It was a tribal gathering, much like the one in this photo.

My grandfather and grandmother are the two adults standing at the left of this photo. They had 19 grandchildren and 14 of us were at my Aunt Mary’s funeral. Knowing your family and how we are all connected is a big part of the family tradition.

Being the Australian connection of a clannish New Zealand family has meant that I’ve always felt a bit separate from the main family; not in a bad way; but you can’t be as much a part of a family when you see them once every year or two if you are lucky.

Mary on graduation day

Mary on graduation day

But coming back for what felt like the passing of an era made me remember how fortunate I am to be part of a family that really knows where it comes from. Watching the swirling conversations at the funeral, I know there are parts of the family that get on with each other better than others, it isn’t a romantic dream of perfect harmony. But everyone gets together to celebrate life and mourn its passing, and I am fortunate to be a part of that almost tribal experience.

My Aunt Mary has been part of the fabric of my life; even from afar she has watched me and my brothers grow up; congratulated us at appropriate milestones, done the same for my children and she has been a source of family history when I ask my father about some particularly interesting piece of ancient gossip (particularly about his own childhood). Even though it is six years since I last saw her in person she has felt part of the world I live in my whole life.

There is one almost survivor from this photo – my dad (still known as Donald Beag in some circles, little Donald,  in contrast with his big cousin Donald) is hidden in utero in this picture. We were treating him a bit like porcelain this week.


Oral History

Tui (Hugh Gordon) Haswell in 1915

Tui (Hugh Gordon) Haswell in 1915

Over dinner last night, as the conversation turned to Israel, my dad started reminiscing about his father‘s first cousin – Hugh (Tui) Haswell, who was killed in 1917, in an Arab village in (then) Palestine called Ayun Kara. That village is now Rishon leZion, part of greater Tel Aviv.

Tui used to love to imitate his father, Henry Haswell, when he was in full flight complaining about his dinner table. To tell the story, my dad started putting on the accent of Henry Haswell and quoting him – who apparently had the scottish accent common to the people in their part of New Zealand at the time (Henry’s parents were part of the great Nova Scotian migration to northern New Zealand in the 1850s).

So my father was imitating the voice of a man who died more than a hundred years ago, which had been passed on to him by his father, via Tui. It is quite amazing to see oral history in action like that.

Dad finished up by saying that Tui had been such a part of family folklore around the family dinner table that he was astonished to find out in the 1950s that Tui was dead.

According to Mexican legend, there are three types of death: The first occurs when all bodily functions cease and the soul leaves the body; the second occurs when the body is interred, returning one’s physical shell to the earth; and the final, most definitive death, occurs when no one remembers you.

Tui must have been a remarkable man, to have lived so strongly in the collective memory.

I did the Sydney half marathon today (made it to the end!) and because of the design of the course, the most thrilling moment was the point when the front runners ran back towards us back-of-the-pack-ers. The top runners, of course, got a cheer from the field. But the cheers for the top women were, if anything, louder, as they ran past us amongst the men (Nikki Chapple, the top woman was ranked 16th overall, with the next two ranked 32nd and 38th). Australian female marathon runners have (like many of our sportswomen), on average done better internationally than our men, and it’s great to see them getting their deserved cheers.

Shoe frontier2.001

In financial economics, there is a concept called the efficient frontier of investing. You can combine a portfolio of shares and other investments in many ways. In theory, there is one line which consists of the intersection of the best return for each level of risk (or alternatively, the lowest risk for each level of return),

While I was futilely trying to convince myself that the shoes I was trying on would become more comfortable with a bit more wear, in my annual shoe buying expedition, I realised that it’s quite a useful concept for shoes, as well.

In buying shoes, there is generally an optimal level of comfort for a given level of dagginess. So in buying shoes, I try to optimise comfort at the least stylish point on the curve I think I can get away with for a given occasion. Others will choose comfort, and optimise fashion, but either way we will end up in the same place.

In putting together the efficient frontier graph, I realised something else. Changing gender from female to male moves the line upwards AND makes it much flatter. The only place the two lines intersect is at runners, and the dagginess factor at that point is MUCH higher for me than women.

Cross posted at actuarialeye.

Diversity – not just for Halloween

When I was in Norway last year, I took the opportunity to research the experience there of women on Boards – had the sky fallen in after all companies had to appoint at least 40% female Boards? (the quick answer is that nearly everyone in Norway thinks it was a non-event). There has been a flurry of research and articles recently, as other European countries consider following in Norway’s footsteps (so far Australia’s response has been restricted to requiring better reporting).

The most reported research has been this study (pdf) by Cranfield University on Gender Diversity on Boards: the Appointment Process and the role of Executive Search firms. The study was in two parts; a general review of the process of Board appointments, and then a specific set of interviews with headhunters to understand the appointment process from the key intermediaries in the process.

One of the first observations was that change in the pool of Directors appointed will come from changing the criteria – the brief given to the Executive Search firms. If you focus on experience, rather than skill set, you are going to appoint the same set of people who are already on boards:

So our next step is to say, what you’ve got to look at it’s not experience,  i.e. I want somebody who’s either been on the Board, or been on the executive committee of a large company, is I need someone who can make a contribution around the Board table. Using our competencies, it is about strategic input, about focus on results, around influencing style and skill, and integrity and independence. Those are sort of the four major areas we look at. And what we say is you can get those skills from people who haven’t been on the Board yet.

But there is also quite a lot in the study about the later parts of the process, including the interview process:

As you know, many interviews are ‘Oh, you worked at JP Morgan, do you know X? Oh, a lovely chap, he knows all these people I know’. So… but is he any good at the job? ‘Oh, we never got there. We never actually got to the meat of it’. […] Now, what you want people to do, when they go through a series of interviews, is to be asked the same questions, or at least cover the same issues. And that’s one of the weaknesses of a lot of interview processes, is that many people don’t know how to interview, and don’t know what to interview for. So our interviews are structured interviews based on behaviours, based on competencies. But if Board members don’t know how to do that, then they may come up with the wrong answer. So, actually, a lot of it is about training directors to look for the right things.

And right at the end of the process, when a fabulous woman has been found, the executive search firm also has to gee up the Chairman to appoint a woman:

The critical moment is often towards the end where there are two candidates, and the female candidate is maybe the less experienced one.  And it’s preventing the Chairman from losing his nerve when somebody else around the boardroom table may say, well I like them both, and Jim looks like a terrific chap, but look at his record, but she’s never sat on a FTSE Board before, she’s been on the Board of her own business. So there’s a danger of constant voices of conservatism, and actually part of the value that we add is just helping the Chairman say ‘No, remember what we’re after.’

This opinion piece from Allison Pearson in the Financial Times breaks down the research for those who don’t feel like reading an 80 page report:

A report this week by Cranfield School of Management bears out my theory. It says the appointment of women to FTSE 350-listed non-executive director roles is being held back by selection processes which “ultimately favour candidates with similar characteristics to existing board members”. Or penises, as they are more widely known. Chaps are more comfortable with other chaps. Only when a woman has been foisted on them and does a terrific job without crying or talking about Tampax do they start to see that we can be quite useful.

McKinsey has done the most definitive research on why this matters – performance of companies generally improves with greater gender diversity at senior levels. But the final word should go to this post from a Silicon Valley venture capitalist :

This is why I personally care about diversity: it’s the canary in the coal mine for meritocracy. When we see extremely skewed demographics, we have very good reason to suspect that something is wrong with our selection process, that it’s not actually as meritocratic as it could be. And I believe that is exactly what is happening in Silicon Valley.

There’s plenty of good research on the subject of team performance that shows that diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams on many different kinds of tasks. The problem is that this research doesn’t argue for demographic diversity, but rather for a diversity of perspectives. So, again, racial or gender diversity is not an end in itself. But we have to ask ourselves: if teams are consistently being put together with homogeneous demographics, what are the odds that they also will contain a diversity of perspectives? Shouldn’t we be worried that the same selection process that produces homogenous results in one area might be accidentally doing the same in the area that we care about (but that is harder to measure)?

Cross posted at Actuarial eye

Sheryl Sandberg tells Barack Obama how to create jobs (source Reuters)

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, always leaves the office at 5.30 so that she can have dinner with her kids at 6 (via Laura at 11d). I’m pretty sure that her commute is not like the average commute of the working mother of young children (bluemilk nails it as usual), and she probably has someone at home preparing the dinner, too, so she doesn’t have to spend the first half hour with tired, hungry, fractious kids while she scrambles some food together for everyone. She almost certainly spends lots of time later in the evening working in some way, and when she is in Washington talking to the President, she might have to be a virtual presence at dinner.

But that doesn’t invalidate the value of someone that senior speaking out about the value of family time. Too often the speech is from a man like Michael Hawker talking about how he spends 80 hours a week at work because he loves what he does. And so the model of a senior person is of someone who necessarily spends all their life at work. It becomes the only model of success.

I have found that when I am open about the fact that I leave the office early (I say 5, but it is more often 5.30 when I actually get out the door), a surprising number of senior people will admit to doing the same. But nearly all of those early leavers sneak out. They tend not to admit to wanting to have dinner with their kids, or any other reason for spending time with people not from work, in case some unspecified person thinks they aren’t serious enough.

We need to have more senior people, male and female, talking openly about the ways in which they carve out time in their lives for their families. And, of course, we need more senior people actually doing it.

Cross posted at actuarialeye

Missing girls

Crossing the Nile to go to school - But how many girls live to go to school in Africa?

Last year I read a fascinating book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, by Mara Hvistendahl. She talks about the issue of missing women, how demographically, there should be more women than there are in many different countries of the world. The issue was the subject of an Economist cover nearly two years ago.

Tyler Cowen has alerted me to a fascinating paper on the subject, soberly entitled, Missing women: age and disease, by Siwan Anderson and Debraj Ray.

The authors, instead of doing a fairly high level comparison of ratios between men and women at birth, and men and women in the population as a whole, look at projections of the relative proportions of men and women given the same relative birth and death ratios between genders that happen in the first world. They readily point out that there are many different ways to work out what the “appropriate” relative birth and death rates are, but nevertheless they come up with some fascinating conclusions.

Our study of excess female deaths by age yields two key findings. First, once we control for natural variations in the sex ratio at birth, sub-Saharan Africa has as many missing women as India and China: significantly more as a percentage of the female population. Second, the majority of missing women are of adult age. Sub-Saharan Africa has no missing females at birth, while the corresponding proportion for India is under 11%. China’s missing females, in contrast, are largely prenatal. About 37–45% of them may be classified as missing at birth. But all these regions display missing women at a variety of ages. For instance, excess female mortality up to age 15 does not account for more than a third of the total in India or sub-Saharan Africa.

So the fascinating thing about this study for me is the complexity it adds to the story. While the standard story of why there are “missing women” is sex specific abortion and female infanticide, that is only really the explanation in China. In other countries, the story is much more complex, with relative female death rates much higher than males at a variety of ages, and in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly because of maternal death rates and deaths from HIV-AIDS.

Ultimately, the conclusion of the paper is not that different from the Economist’s attention grabbing “100 million missing women”. But the reasons are far more interesting.

We find approximately 20 million missing women in India, 58 million missing women in China, and 8 million missing women in sub-Saharan Africa. Look at the enormous difference between China and the other two regions (in flows all three regions were about the same). This comes from the fact that excess female deaths in China are clustered at age 0. We reiterate, though, that these estimates must be treated with a great deal of caution.

The missing women in India and sub-Saharan Africa are largely because a variety of causes (injury, suicide, various diseases) disproportionately kill the women there.  That’s a reason to worry, and potentially an easier issue to fix, if the will and the resources are available.


Cross posted at my new blog actuarial eye.