academic

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…)

…And More Change

In my most recent post, I summarized the recent “professional climate” report by the American Economics Association (AEA). This report surveyed the association’s members about sexism, racism, and other actions that were reflecting badly on economics on a profession and on the AEA itself.

There were many fascinating outcomes in the report, as detailed in the earlier post. But there’s one more set of results that I also want to mention. The report’s authors were curious as to how the “professional climate” they uncovered compared to the “climate” in other academic associations. So they identified similar surveys that had recently been conducted by similar organizations, and compared the results of those surveys to theirs.

The comparisons are presented in the report with the warning that the survey questions were not identical in every survey, that some of the guidelines for the surveys were different (e.g. the length of thetime period that the respondents were asked to report on), and that the characteristics of the respondents (such as gender and age distribution) were not consistent across the surveys.

However, even at a broad general level, the comparisons are very interesting. Here’s a quick summary, (more…)

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…)

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…)

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…)

Human Resource Management and Mistreated Workers

Jobs in “human resource management” – the part of organizations that manages employee-related functions such as hiring, training, and pay  – are becoming more professionalized. Professional designations such as Certified Human Resource Professional, which require human resource (HR) practitioners to demonstrate specific HR-related knowledge and skills, are becoming more common among HR staffers. But at the same time, working conditions for many employees are becoming worse.

This doesn’t make sense, because most human resource management (HRM) professional associations have codes of practice that explicitly state HR professionals should promote ethical and fair treatment for workers. For example, the guidelines of the US Society for Human Resource Management’s code of professional responsibility include “strive to achieve the highest levels of service, performance, and social responsibility” and “advocate for the appropriate use and appreciation of human beings as employees”.

Also, the concept of “socially responsible HR” has emerged as part of discussions of corporate social responsibility (CSR) – the idea being that organizations have responsibilities to society as well as to their stakeholders, and that HR practices within the organization should align with an overall CSR strategy by encouraging fair treatment of employees. So if organizations have publicly committed to making positive contributions to society, but at the same time are allowing their own employees to be disrespected and mistreated, why aren’t HR practitioners doing something about it?

Two research studies – one from 2013, one just published – have explored that very intriguing question. The two studies (more…)

‘Fed Up’ and Emotional Labour

The genesis of Gemma Hartley’s new book Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward was an essay she wrote for Harper’s Bazaar, titled “Women Aren’t Nags – We’re Just Fed Up”. The essay described her own experience of inequality in how she and her husband did, or didn’t do, housework – and the reaction to the essay showed that it wasn’t just her who was tired of doing everything. The essay went viral, and that led to the book.

Well, I’m fed up too, but not from doing emotional labour. I’m fed up with writers who grab a catchy-sounding term from social science research and misuse it for their own purposes. Hartley certainly isn’t the only author who’s done this, but what she calls “emotional labour” is clearly not what a substantial body of research says is “emotional labour”. That’s not only misleading to readers, but also insulting to the many researchers whose work has produced fascinating insights into this aspect of the workplace.

It’s telling that when Hartley mentions the first in-depth research investigation of emotional labour – Arlie Hochschild’s 1983 book The Managed Heart – she omits the book’s subtitle. The full title of the book is (more…)

The (Mis)Use of Teaching Evaluations

Student evaluations of teaching (SETs) are standard practice in almost every Canadian university and college. These are in-class or online questionnaires that students fill out anonymously to rate and comment on the instructor and the course, with the results passed along to the instructor and, usually, to their supervisor.

But although SETs are standard practice, they’re also controversial. SETs can provide instructors with valuable feedback that they can then use to improve the course or their teaching – the so-called “formative” purpose of such  evaluations. But SETs are also often used by universities and colleges as a measure of the quality of the instructor’s teaching – the so-called “summative” purpose. Using SETs for summative purposes can be a problem because there are lots of factors beyond the instructor’s control – such as the difficulty of the course material, the class schedule, the timing and content of the evaluation itself, and even the instructor’s gender or race – that can unduly influence students’ ratings. That is why we’ve seen pushbacks from faculty members and unions at several Canadian post-secondary institutions on SETs being part of (more…)