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Archive for the ‘Feminism’ Category

Cheering the women

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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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Cross posted at my new blog actuarial eye.

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Statue of Jeanne Mance in front of the Hotel Dieu in Montreal

Jeanne Mance was one of the founders of Montreal. A devout Christian, she moved from looking after the sick in France to founding a hospital in Montreal, as well as raising money from the cream of French society to continue the project of healing the sick and developing the tiny French outpost of Ville Marie into the town (and later the city) of Montreal.

Jeanne Mance was born in 1606 in rural France, the second of 12 children of a haut bourgeois family. After seeing her brothers and sisters into adulthood, she moved smoothly into religious service, nursing the victims of the 30 years war and the plague that killed nearly half the people of her town. Through a cousin, she learned of the New France settlement in what is now Canada, and was inspired. After spending some time in Paris trying to work out a way into the religious groups who were moving to New France, she met Angélique de Bullion, a rich woman who wanted to provide money found a hospital in New France, if Jeanne would found it for her.

So Mance, with her 40,000 livres, joined the founders of Ville Marie (now Montreal) and sailed to Quebec in 1641. They arrived too late in the year to start the settlement, so after wintering in Quebec, they sailed down to Montreal island the following spring. Mance had wanted to go and work directly with the Huron, the local tribe, to convert them to Christianity and heal the sick, but because of her promise to Angélique de Bullion, she stayed in Ville Marie and built a hospital.

This was at the beginning of the Iroquois wars – the Iroquois were an Indian nation east and south of Montreal, who were allied with the British. The Huron, who were north and west of Montreal, were allied with the French. So the new settlers of Ville Marie (which was the border at this stage) were frequent victims of Iriquois attacks, meaning that Mance had plenty to do in her new hospital.

Once she had set things going, she returned to France to look after the funding and political side of things. She did this three times altogether, each time bringing back more money from the various sponsors, and also (on her second trip) bringing back more staff with her. She lent the money to the Ville Marie township at least once, as they needed it to keep the township going, and also dealt with many other issues as part of her role as leader of her hospital.

The weather of Montreal was (and is) harsh – much harsher for a population that were living in log cabins. The Iroquois were always close, and frequently attacked, leading to danger for the hospital, as well as complex injuries to deal with. Her second trip to France was partly a personal one – Mance had broken her arm badly and was unable to use it – she was hoping (unsuccessfully) for some better medical care there. And one of the biggest challenges she had to face was a society that wasn’t especially used to women in leadership roles, even religious ones.

Nevertheless, by the time she died, Mance had seen her hospital, and her town, well established. Today she is well remembered for her impact on the city – the Montreal musuem of archeology and history describes her as Montreal’s cofounder.

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Dona Catalina de Erauso was also known as the Nun Lieutenant. She was born in 16th century Spain, and destined by her family for a nunnery. But she rebelled, and escaped at the age of 15 for a life of adventure. She managed to get to South America, where she became a soldier in the Spanish Military, where she was very successful until, after one too many brawls, she confessed her secret on her (she supposed) deathbed. The catholic church accepted her back into the convent (as she was still technically a virgin, despite many affairs with women), until she got sick of the convent life, and went back to adventuring in Spain.

She was born in San Sebastian, Spain, in 1592. She was part of a big family, and a younger daughter, so at the age of 4 she was sent to a nunnery. But at the age of 15, just as she was about to take her vows, she rebelled and escaped. She cut her hair, donned men’s clothing, and decided to seek her fortune. This was the time when Spain was conquering South America. There were enormous riches to be had there for an adventurer. So she became a cabin boy for a ship bound for the Indes, jumped ship in Panama, and ended up in Peru.

In Peru she found a job as a store manager. In the first of many ambiguous sexual encounters, she duelled with a relative of her employer, and as a solution, her employer suggested she marry his mistress (which would have kept both of them handily available for him). But she escaped to Lima where another encounter with a pretty woman led to trouble that Dona Catalina had to escape from quickly.

Luckily, the indigenous population in Chile was revolting, so the Spaniards needed soldiers. Dona Catalina enlisted, becoming a second Lieutenant and distinguishing herself in battle. She met up with one of her brothers there (who didn’t recognise her) and was generally very successful. Sadly though, after three years, she accidentally killed that brother in a duel. They were both seconds to others, and jumped into the fight on opposite sides when the fight started getting dangerous.

Dona Catalina was so devastated that she had killed her brother that she deserted the Army and wandered through the Andes from town to town, gambling, picking fights, and generally gaining a reputation as a serious outlaw. In Cuzco, getting into yet another brawl, she was seriously injured, and convinced she was dying. After receiving the Last Rites, she confessed her gender, and then astonishingly, recovered.

She fled, pursued both for being an outlaw, and for being a woman, until she surrendered to a local Bishop. He had her examined by midwives, who pronounced her both female, and a virgin, so she was placed back in a convent in Lima. Unfortunately communications were better than you might expect in the 17th century, and word came from Spain that she had never actually taken her vows as a nun, so she was tossed out of the convent.

She decided that Spain might be a better place for her, so set out for Spain, to be astonished by crowds hailing her everywhere she went. After a few false starts, she managed to get to Rome to appeal to the Pope for dispensation to continue dressing as a man, and to appeal to the King of Spain for a pension for her military service. Both appeals were successful, and she lived out her life back in South America (in New Mexico) as a mule driver, dying in 1650 at the age of 58.

Her memoirs were published in 1829 (allegedly written in 1626) and translated into English in 1908, with substantial corroborating documentation proving beyond doubt that she did really exist and that many of the bizarre things she claimed did really happen.

She was clearly a transvestite, and had many affairs with many willing women. But it is easy from this historical distance to interpret her life in ways that reflect your own view of a standard life for a woman back then. The most astonishing thing that Dona Catalina did was to live her own life, without regard for the box that women were put in at the time. She seems to have rebelled at every aspect of that box that was possible – dress, gender appearance, sexual relationships, violence, power, independence, religious freedom…

An amazing person, who took her own course through life, and enjoyed the adventure.

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Note on pronouns: Different sources on Dona Catalina de Erauso use different pronouns. I have chosen to use the feminine: “she/her” despite the fact that she spent most of her life as a man.

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