fact checking

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…)

LabourWatch is Back

The Canadian LabourWatch Association claims that it exists to “advance employee rights” and to provide “balanced” information about unionization in Canadian workplaces. However, this group’s real intention is to undermine Canada’s labour unions and Canadian workers’ legal right to choose to be represented by a union in their workplace.

In recent years, LabourWatch was one of the main supporters of Bill C-377 – a proposed federal law that would have required much more stringent financial reporting from unions than from other federally-regulated organizations. LabourWatch has also lobbied against mandatory union dues, and has been used as a resource by companies with unionized workers on strike in encouraging those workers to decertify their unions.

After the defeat of Bill C-377, and after the Conservative party lost the 2014 Canadian federal election, LabourWatch gradually became much less visible. The last newsletter posted on its website is from February 2017, and despite initiatives such as a review of federal minimum wage rates that would seem to be relevant to a group allegedly promoting “employee rights”, LabourWatch has been all but silent.

Until now.

On June 24 and 25, LabourWatch is (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…)

Good Jobs and Bullshit Jobs

Recently, the New York Times Magazine had a special theme issue on “The Future of Work: What Makes a ‘Good Job’ Good?”. As it happened, the issue came out while I was reading the new book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by anthropologist David Graeber. This was a lovely bit of symmetry, because both the book and the articles in the magazine address similar questions: with more automation in the workplace, why are we not working fewer hours? If we know as much as we do about organizations and work, why are so many workers so unhappy? Shouldn’t work be getting better, instead of getting worse?

These are very big questions with complex answers. I won’t try to cover everything that’s discussed in the book and the magazine articles, and have a wide-ranging but superficial discussion; I recommend that you read the book and the articles for yourself. But I’m going to pull out a couple of themes that I found particularly fascinating.

Both the book and the articles look at the worsening relationships between workers and employers and show that this trend isn’t just anecdotal. Surveys of job satisfaction over time show (more…)

Helping Workers Get To Work

In recent years, there have been dire warnings about work becoming more automated.  There’s also been much attention paid to telecommuting, remote work, and other technologically-assisted ways for workers to be able to work anywhere. But the reality is that many jobs still require humans to do them, and many jobs also require those humans to actually be at the workplace. Robots haven’t replaced everybody yet, and telecommuting isn’t something that’s feasible in every kind of job.

The city of Seattle is facing a particularly challenging situation right now in “the Seattle Squeeze” – a three-week closure of the major north-south highway that runs through the city, including its downtown. Although there will be some improvements to public transit during the shutdown, it’s anticipated that a lot of workers are going to experience unusually long commutes getting to and from their workplaces. So what can workers do if they have to be at their workplace and it’s going to take a really long time to get there? (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…)

Mediation, Arbitration, Mediation-Arbitration, and Back-To-Work Legislation

Last week, Canada’s Parliament started the process of passing a law to end the rotating strikes at Canada Post. The Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) has been negotiating with Canada Post for more than a year for a new collective agreement, and the union is showing it’s serious about its bargaining demands by strategically timing its strike actions for when people and small businesses are relying on Canada Post’s services for holiday deliveries. However, complaints about backlogs of undelivered mail and the lack of progress in negotiations apparently made the federal government decide it was time to intervene in the bargaining process.

There seems to be a lot of confusion about the types of interventions that can be used to resolve bargaining disputes – particularly mediation-arbitration, which is not used very often, but which is what this law proposes to settle the contract. An explanation of each type of intervention will help in understanding the potential outcomes of (more…)

The “Skills Gap”

A lot of recent discussion about the labour force in Canada and elsewhere has focused on the “skills gap” – the alleged mismatch between workers’ skills and the abilities that employers need. One reason for the alleged gap is “digital disruption” – the automation or digitization of job tasks – which is changing how some jobs are done and thus changing the skills needed to successfully perform those jobs. These changes are so rapid that workers’ skills may quickly become outdated. Along similar lines, the Royal Bank of Canada recently released a report calling for post-secondary institutions to improve their graduates’ “human skills”, so as to better equip them for the parts of their future jobs that will involve working with people rather than with computers.

The narrative around the “skills gap” has mostly been controlled by employers and by the business community, and the business media have, generally, uncritically bought into the narrative. But the narrative is misleading in how it portrays the problem. It ignores (more…)

Post-Secondary Institutions and Precarious Work

In February, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released a study of precarious employment in Ontario colleges and universities. Last week, some of the challenges identified in this study became very real when contract workers at York University in Toronto went on strike. The bargaining issues that the union and the university haven’t agreed on include job security for contract workers and guaranteed funding for teaching assistants.

The CCPA report is extremely valuable – not only because its analysis has suddenly become even more relevant, but also because (more…)