research

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 Two of his books were withdrawn from sale by their publishers, and most of the publications he wrote for dropped him as a contributor and removed his discredited articles from their websites.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I posted about Lehrer’s previous problems several times on this blog, including an analysis of his now-withdrawn book Imagine which became a featured post on WordPress and attracted thousands of readers.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…)

From Small Things….

Economics is a male-dominated profession in post-secondary education and in industry. In the last few years, some economists have been challenging that norm and calling out institutionalized practices and conditions that discourage more diversity in their profession. Both the Canadian Economics Association and the American Economics Association have undertaken surveys of their membership to identify the representation of different demographic groups, and to hear from members of those groups about their academic or workplace experiences. Now, a group of 101 economists has released the results of a study that looks at gender-related behaviour in a significant part of academic work: the research seminar.

At these seminars, (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…)

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…)

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…)

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…)