research

Just Say No

In every workplace there are tasks that aren’t enjoyable to do, or that aren’t part of formal job descriptions but are important for building positive relationships and community. However, research has shown that these kinds of tasks – which some researchers have labeled “office housework” –  tend to be done more often by women and by members of demographic minorities. It’s also been suggested that doing these tasks can have a negative impact on the careers of those who regularly take them on.

The new book The No Club: Putting A Stop To Women’s Dead-End Work, by Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, Lise Vesterlund, and Laurie Weingart,  is a very thoughtful analysis of this phenomenon. Coincidentally, I came across the book when I was thinking about how “office housework” functions in academic workplaces. I recently left an academic job, but I still regularly get requests to (more…)

“It’s Beyond Frustrating”: Why Athletes are Still Being Abused

The Olympics are supposed to be an exciting and enjoyable experience, for athletes and for spectators. But for figure skating fans, the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing could best be characterized as stressful and depressing.

After the team event – the first skating event on the schedule – it was revealed that 15-year-old Kamila Valieva, the favourite to win the women’s event, had previously tested positive for a banned drug intended to treat chest pain. After an emergency hearing by the Court for Arbitration in Sport, Valieva was allowed to continue competing, but the medals in the team event were not awarded. Valieva ended up placing fourth in the women’s event, and her teammate Alexandra Trusova, who came second, had an emotional meltdown at rinkside, shouting that she hated skating and would never go on the ice again.

While watching all of this drama and turmoil unfold, I couldn’t help but think that for almost 30 years we’ve known there were problems in the sport of skating. In 1995, sportswriter Joan Ryan’s book Little Girls In Pretty Boxes painted a terrible picture of abusive coaching, unhealthy training practices, and incredible stress placed on young figure skaters and gymnasts. Thankfully, as an adult skater, I got into the sport when I was old enough to be in control of what I did. But it’s no secret to anyone who follows skating that, even after well-documented investigations like those in Ryan’s book, there are still very significant problems within the sport.

So I decided to get in touch with Ryan and see if she would be willing to be interviewed about whether anything has changed, 30 years after her whistleblowing. She kindly agreed, and we talked this week. Here’s a transcript of our conversation.

 

Fiona McQuarrie [FM]: What’s your take on the doping scandal at the Olympics?

Joan Ryan [JR]: The Washington Post asked me to write an op-ed on that a couple of weeks ago, and, you know, I wrote this book 27 years ago now. There has been change on the gymnastics side, unfortunately because of Larry Nassar, and because of the gymnasts themselves. They have risen up like an army, and they are the ones that are going to make sure it finally changes. That’s the only reason I have any hope that it’s going to change now after all these years.

I haven’t followed figure skating as closely over those 27 years, but the US skaters certainly seem healthier to me. I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, but clearly the total destruction of two of the three Russian figure skaters is a clear sign that it’s dysfunctional. There’s clearly (more…)

I See You: The Effects of Representation

Many organizations think that being inclusive is simply an issue of hiring members of underrepresented groups. But people hired on that basis are not going to stick around if they feel isolated or that they stand out, or that they’ve been hired just because they’re “diverse”. One very important element in inclusivity is representation; people want to see others like them, and also want to see those other people being respected and valued.

Part of a new study by a group of US researchers looks at the effects of representation in a place that isn’t often examined: the readings that students are assigned in university courses. There has been plenty of discussion over the past few decades about “the canon” in various academic fields and what determines whether a work is a “classic”  that all students should be familiar with. The researchers investigated whether the gender balance of assigned readings in a political-science course – the number of readings written by men and the number of readings written by women – affected female and male students’ self-efficacy: their confidence in their own ability to succeed. The study looked at (more…)

The Right to Disconnect

The boundaries between home and work became blurred when the COVID-19 pandemic caused many jobs to be shifted online. Workers who were not permitted to come into their workplaces were working on computers in their living rooms, dining areas, spare rooms (if they had one), and even closets and bedroom. But even before that, boundaries were already being blurred by communications technology such as cellphones, text messaging, and email, allowing employers to contact employees at any hour of the day or night – which for many workers made them feel as if they are never really off work.

Ontario’s labour minister has proposed a legal “right to disconnect” is a step toward solving the problem of employers expecting workers to always be “on”. This is an important initiative, and the problem needs to be addressed. But this on its own is not going to fix the more fundamental and widespread workplace issues that the pandemic has highlighted, and which should be more of a priority.

The legal “right to disconnect” was first implemented in France in 2017, allowing employees to not answer work-related emails or calls during their time off. Canada’s federal government struck a task force in 2020 to explore the possibility of similar legislation for federally regulated occupations.  Ontario’s proposed legislation would require organizations with 25 or more employees to develop policies around work-related communications, such as establishing expectations for response times to emails.

It might seem that policies like this could cause even more stress for workers and employers, by compressing working time while maintaining expectations of continued productivity. However, (more…)

Jonah Lehrer’s “Mystery”

An unexpected benefit of mask-wearing is being able to say things without being heard. That came in handy a few weeks ago at my local public library, when I uttered “what in the actual f***?” at the completely unexpected sight of a new Jonah Lehrer book.

As you might remember, Lehrer’s writing career derailed nearly 10 years ago when numerous instances of plagiarism and inaccuracy were uncovered in his books and magazine articles. Two of his books were withdrawn from sale by their publishers, and most of the publications he wrote for dropped him as a contributor and removed his discredited articles from their websites. Lehrer gave a controversial speech of apology and co-operated with author Jon Ronson for a chapter in Ronson’s book on public shaming, but since then his writing has mostly been seen on his own blog and in two books that slipped by without much notice.

Mystery, the new book, is indeed mysterious in that it seems to have sprung out of nowhere. I couldn’t find any online news about a new Lehrer book on the way, and there doesn’t seem to have been much advance promotion for the book. So, being intrigued by that additional layer of mystery, of course I read it.

I posted about Lehrer’s previous problems several times on this blog, including an analysis of his now-withdrawn book Imagine which became a featured post on WordPress and attracted thousands of readers. I don’t say this to be boastful, but to be forthright about the reality that I’m familiar with the controversial history of Lehrer’s writing – and that inevitably colours how I look at his current work. I didn’t deliberately go through Mystery looking for things to pick on, but I have to be truthful and say that there were several places where information in the book just didn’t read or feel right. When I encountered those places, I did additional research on the information that Lehrer presented.

The book (more…)

Into the Gap

Happy 2021!

The Globe and Mail newspaper is currently running a series of articles titled Power Gap: a data-based investigation into gender inequality in Canadian workplaces. I’m really pleased to see attention and resources being directed towards understanding this issue. To date, the articles are doing a very good job of unpicking why there are more men than women in positions of power in Canadian workplaces, and why men are generally better-paid. But the series also shows how difficult it is to address these imbalances in a substantive way, because of data limitations. It’s hard to solve a problem without fully understanding what’s causing the problem.

The complete explanation of the Power Gap project methodology is paywalled, but to summarize it, the analysis relies on data from “sunshine lists” – lists of public sector employees with an annual salary above a certain level, which most Canadian provincial governments release every year. Because these lists are not consistently formatted across provinces – for example, not all provinces release employees’ full names – the data on the lists had to be combined and then adjusted so the data were comparable.

Also, since the purpose of the Power Gap project was to investigate gender inequality, the employees’ gender had to be added to the data set. Gender data were collected through several different methods, including (more…)

Pandemics, Productivity, and Gender

After ten months of pandemic-related lockdowns, rescheduling, and cancellations, it’s almost becoming clichéd to say that “work as we know it may have changed forever”. But it’s true. The key word, though, is “may”. We don’t know if the way many of us are working now is going to be the way we’ll always work. We don’t know if employers and organizations are permanently changing the way that they’re going to organize or run their operations.

But one thing we do know is that the pandemic has had an unequal effect on workers’ productivity. Both women and men are working at home more, but (more…)

Using “Blind” Hiring To Increase Workplace Diversity

One of the best-known studies of bias in hiring is the “blind audition” study. This study, conducted in 1997, explored hiring practices at American symphony orchestras – specifically, whether “blind auditions”, when musicians play for the hiring committee while hidden behind a screen, made a difference in how many female musicians were hired. The “blind audition” study demonstrated how bias could affect hiring decisions, even when the hiring process was designed to be as neutral and objective as possible. 

However, the study only addressed gender bias in hiring. Now there are suggestions that the findings from that study could be built on to address racial and ethnic bias. Although, like the “blind audition” study, these suggestions are based in the world of symphony orchestras, they have relevance to any kind of workplace.

Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse, the authors of the “blind audition” study, were curious as to why the number of women in US symphony orchestras had dramatically increased from the 1950s to the 1980s, even though the percentages of women graduating from classical music schools did not significantly change during that time.

They suggested that (more…)

Anders Ericsson

I found out a few days ago that Anders Ericsson passed away in early May. Ericsson was a professor of psychology at Florida State University, and his research on the relationship between practice and achievement was the basis for Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-hour rule”.

As I wrote in an earlier blog post, Gladwell selectively interpreted Ericsson’s findings, and overlooked some of the key concepts that are important in understanding the results of that research  – for example, that the quality of practice (“deliberate practice”) is as important, if not more important, than the amount of practice.

David Epstein, whose excellent book The Sports Gene explores all of the factors in addition to practice that make athletes successful, has written a lovely tribute to Ericsson and the impact of his research. I was going to write a longer post myself, but David has said everything that I wanted to say and said it much better. So I’ll link you to his article instead. You can read David’s tribute here.

A Crisis of Confidence and A Triumph of Nonsense

Business is the most popular major at most universities and colleges around the world. In Canada, business-related programs enrol almost 20% of all post-secondary students. But business has always struggled to define itself as an academic discipline. Business schools started in the first part of the 20th century because of the need for managers in an industrial economy. It was assumed that scientific research could identify the qualities of a good manager, and that people could be trained to develop those qualities themselves.

Historians of management education have since pointed out that those assumptions were wrong. For one thing, the ideal manager in the early 20th century used a hierarchical “command and control” managerial style. But that type of management doesn’t work well in every situation or in every organization.  Collaborative and supportive forms of management can also be very effective, but most management training still assumes that managers have formal authority over the workers, and that managers should use that authority to control how the workplace operates.

There are some managerial skills that can be taught, such as understanding financial statements. But one of the most important skills of a good manager is being able to understand a situation and to respond appropriately – and that is mostly learned through experience. Even after nearly a century of research into management and organizations, we really can’t identify the “best” way to manage, or how to effectively teach that. And that’s a big problem for a very prominent and powerful academic discipline.

Two newly published essays have bravely spoken out in very blunt terms about the sad state of management education, along with suggesting some ways to start fixing it.  Both of these essays (more…)