Author: Fiona McQuarrie

a few words

Economics and Change

Esther Duflo has been chosen as one of the three winners of the 2019 Nobel Prize in economics. Duflo, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was recognized for her research that explores how conditions of poverty can be most effectively addressed using economic principles. For example, a research paper she co-authored looks at whether giving high school scholarships, in a developing country that charges tuition fees for high school education, can affect students’ future educational opportunities and employment income.

In the words of the Nobel award committee, Duflo’s research is exceptional because of its “experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”. Duflo is the youngest winner to ever received the award, and is also only the second female winner.

The gender imbalance between male and female Nobel economics laureates is not surprising, since only 14% of university economics professors are women. But, ironically, Duflo’s win occurred just a few weeks after the release of a troubling report by the American Economic Association (AEA), the largest international association of economists. The report described a problematic “professional climate” in economics.

Several recent events, including a professor being elected to the AEA executive despite being accused of harassing employees and students, caused the AEA, and the economics profession in general, to be (more…)

Unions and Their Unions

A lot of people don’t realize that unions that represent workers in interactions with employers are also employers themselves. The union’s leaders are members of the union and are elected by the other members – but most unions, especially larger national or international unions and labour federations, also have administrative, executive, and staff employees. These employees keep the union running day to day, and might have special expertise, like researching or negotiating, that the union can use during its organizing campaigns or collective bargaining.

What a lot of people also don’t realize is that employees of unions are often unionized themselves. The employees don’t belong to the same union that they work for – that would be a conflict of interest. So they are members of a different union, usually one that includes workers in similar occupations. As an example, the employees of the union I belong to, at a provincially-funded university, are members of a local of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, a national union that represents many public sector workers.

A union’s employees being unionized also means that, like any other group of unionized workers, they negotiate with their employer for a collective agreement. And that is where things can get kind of tricky. (more…)

Invisible Systems, Invisible Women

Reading one book right after another book can make you think differently about both books.

Caroline Criado Perez’ Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men and Chris Clearfield and András Tilcsik’s Meltdown: Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do about It are both very insightful. Invisible Women describes, through numerous and very depressing examples, how a world that pretends to be “gender neutral” is still a male world, because gender does matter.

When gender isn’t considered in system development or product design, or isn’t separated out in data collection, outputs that are supposed to serve everyone often don’t work for women. For example, first-responder safety gear designed for “average” (read=male) bodies can actually be dangerous for women to wear, because the components don’t fit correctly and thus aren’t as protective as they need to be.

Another of Criado Perez’ examples (more…)

Diversity, Bias, and Workflow

Last Friday, the website of the Vancouver Sun newspaper posted an op-ed article titled Can Social Trust and Diversity Co-Exist? The opinion piece, submitted by Mount Royal University instructor Mark Hecht, argued that “a not insignificant proportion of Muslim immigrants have no intention of assimilating into any western society” and concluded that “the minimum requirement is that we say goodbye to diversity, tolerance and inclusion if we wish to be a society that can rebuild the trust we used to have in one another, and start accepting a new norm for immigration policy”.

As you might imagine, the article caused a firestorm of criticism, and it was pulled from the newspaper’s website – although it still appeared in the Sun’s Saturday print edition, which had already gone to press. Many commentators were asking why anyone at the Sun would have approved this article for publication, with its shoddy argumentation, lack of solid evidence, and anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim bias. (The article is still available on several other Internet sites; I don’t want to give it any more attention by linking to it, but you can find those sites by Googling the article title.)

The Sun’s editor, Harold Munro, posted an apology to readers that included a commitment to a “[review of] our local workflow and editorial processes to ensure greater oversight and accountability”. Since then, he met with Sun staff in person and promised further changes, although it appears there’s still a great deal of internal dissent and dissatisfaction around the matter.

As a former Sun employee, I was deeply upset that this article made it into print and online. I was also very impressed that many current Sun staff members publicly expressed their opposition to the article. But when I read Munro’s apology, I suspected that the “workflow” issue relates to the ongoing extensive staff cutbacks throughout Postmedia, the company that owns the Sun. It may be difficult for Sun editors to identify potentially problematic content if they’re overworked and on deadline, and have a space on a page that needs to be filled right away.

But then I wondered: how difficult is it to tell that Hecht’s article is problematic? So I sat down with (more…)

“Life Is Short and So Am I”

Although this blog is about work and organizations, regular readers might have noticed by now that I enjoy watching professional wrestling, and I enjoy reading books about it. Professional wrestling includes some very big organizations; World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), the dominant professional wrestling company, had revenues of nearly $500 million US in the first half of 2019. So understanding the experiences of workers in professional wrestling is as worthwhile as understanding the experiences of workers in any kind of organization.

People who aren’t familiar with professional wrestling often look at the characters that wrestlers play and criticize what they see as stereotypes that promote racism, sexism, and ableism. I agree with a lot of those criticisms, and former WWE performers have also told  disturbing stories of the company’s attitudes toward female and minority performers. So I was really interested in reading Life Is Short And So Am I by Dylan Postl, who wrestled in WWE from 2006 to 2016. Postl has a distinctive perspective on stereotypes in professional wrestling because he’s a midget (Postl says he’s fine with that term).

Professional wrestling has a long history of midget wrestlers, going back to (more…)

Business Schools Need More Women Professors

I wrote an article for the Gender Avenger website about the uneven numbers of male and female professors in business schools, and some ways to change that. You can read the article here.

Fifteen Paths

When I saw the description of David Weitzner’s book Fifteen Paths – “the work of a disillusioned business professor who gave up on old arguments and set out to learn about the power of imagination” – I knew this was a book I wanted to read. As the readers of this blog know, I am a business professor, and while I don’t think I would call myself “disillusioned”, I definitely have a lot of problems with the standard curriculum in business degree programs and with the negative effects of traditional business structures. ECW Press was kind enough to provide me with a review copy of the book, and I also had the opportunity to speak with David about how Fifteen Paths happened.

Fifteen Paths is an unusual business book. Unlike most business books, it doesn’t have (more…)

Un-Cooperative

The co-operative business model is intended to be an alternative to the traditional capitalist business model, in which the business’ owners or their representatives (managers) run the business and receive the profits from the business’ operations. In a co-operative, the customers of the business are also the owners of the business. Customers usually have to purchase a membership in the co-operative to use its products or services. The members elect a board of directors which is responsible for overseeing the business’ operations, and profits from the business are returned to the members in the form of dividends or reduced prices.

Many co-operatives were formed in areas or industries that traditional businesses refused to serve – either because they did not think there was enough of a market, or because they did not think they would make enough profit. So the co-operative business model is not only an alternative to capitalist business; it’s also a direct challenge to that model. As such, you would think that co-operatives would also challenge the traditional top-down relationship between managers and workers, and treat their employees fairly and respectfully. But workplace disputes at three different co-ops are showing that unfortunately this doesn’t always happen.

In Saskatchewan, unionized workers at the Saskatoon Co-op, (more…)

Unionizing Comics

I probably stopped reading comic books in the middle of my teens (although I love comic strips in newspapers), so my knowledge of the comics industry is pretty outdated. However, I’m always interested in unionizing campaigns for any type of worker, so I was intrigued when I came across the Twitter account Let’s Unionize Comics. Sasha Bassett runs that account; she is a Ph.D student at Portland State University and a self-declared “all-around pop culture junkie”. She has also conducted a survey of workers in the comics industry about their working conditions and their workplace concerns. Sasha graciously agreed to be interviewed via email about the comics industry and her vision of how it could become unionized.

Fiona: For readers who may not be familiar with how the comics industry works, can you describe its structure? For example, is it dominated by major companies, or is there a significant number of independent firms? Do comics artists work on their own and then try to sell their work, or are they usually commissioned to do specific projects?

Sasha: The structure of the comics industry is complex and fairly non-standardized. The market is absolutely dominated by (more…)