Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Jen Dah

I’m mostly through reading Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind. I’ve got some issues with it and in some places I was hoping for some more depth than I found. But there are definitely some things to ponder in it and some things to try. One of his recommendations is to “Celebrate Your Amateurness” and with that he cites Marcel Wanders. After checking out Wanders’ own Web site, I found this interview with him, which is quite interesting although my first reaction to the page was, “this guy is really hip and I’m definitely not, so what am I doing here?” To my surprise, the interview itself read well. Perhaps people who seem worlds apart really aren’t after all. Here is the specific question and response on amateurness.
what is your approach to the question of ecology and
sustainable design?
I have found lots of ways to deal with it, but I'm not the kind
of guy to work on lil' inventions to save the world.
I work with durability in design.
products worth bonding with for a lifetime.
it is important to make ‘aged’ products, objects that feature
conventional elements with modern, lasting materials...
which will last time as well as concept.
in the face of a throwaway culture that consumes meaningless
products, I want my creations to have more quality
... and more qualities.
I’m a sort of amateur, amateurs aren’t so sure about things so
they investigate and sometimes find an interesting solution,
bringing new ideas to it that experts might overlook.
I have an overall respect for ourselves and the world
- and I think this is the basis of ‘good design’.

I suppose that my entire blog represents this notion of the amateur, but to the extent I’ve mostly contained myself to teaching and learning with technology issues, I also claim at least some credential as an expert. In this post, however, there is no such credential. I’m a ditz on gender matters, marrying rather late in life, with no particular flair at all outside the confines of academia, and finding increasingly frequently that I prefer to be alone with my own thoughts than to interact with others, especially of the opposite sex. Nevertheless, I find myself drawn to writing about gender and in the spirit of celebrating my amateurness, I will write about something I don’t fully understand.

* * * * *

Driving from a party at a friend’s house on July 4 to the fireworks, we had a bunch of kids in the car with us; some were our own others were the children of our hosts and one was a friend along for the ride. There were 2 girls and 3 boys, ages 12 – 14. Guess what they were playing........ Give up? They were each coming up with “pick up lines,” laughing at the good ones and critiquing the others. This is something I don’t recall ever doing as a kid. And while it clearly was influenced by what they’ve learned from TV (my kids really like to watch Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) and DVDs (is that why they like The Simpons?) they were doing this face to face, aloud, parents listening in, not aided by IM or any other electronic communication. Hmmm.

* * * * *

At the same party, the adults divided up more or less along gender lines. Many of the guys sat outside, drank beer and discussed economics and sports (as one topic not two). There was a brief foray about Moneyball, how now every team in major league baseball now seemingly drafts college players (this was one of those deviant behaviors that supposedly gave Billy Beane an edge on the competition), and how difficult it is to consistently identify talent that the market undervalues. There was further discussion about Sandy Alderson, Billy Beane’s mentor and predecessor as GM for the Oakland A’s, and how he reformed major league baseball by getting the umpires to call the strike zone as it was originally intended (width of the plate, from the knees to the letters) rather than how they had reinterpreted it, (3 to 6 inches wider on each side of the plate and from the knees to the waist). Following that we talked about how the change gave an advantage back to the hitters and that the very dominant pitchers with superb control (particularly Greg Maddux) lost out on this move, which was partially the reason for making the change, because batters can more readily make up or down adjustments than they can inside or outside. I chimed in with an additional supporting argument. With the up down issue batters can better read the type of pitch, because no pitcher intends to throw a high curveball.

I’ll admit we’re not the most social lot, probably a descriptor that would apply to most economists, but the point I want to emphasize is that our geekiness encourages the gender separation and further that gender splits of this sort may disadvantage girls, particularly when it comes to quantitative reasoning and most importantly on being able to tie story telling into an analytical model framework (which as a social scientist I would argue is THE SKILL). The point was brought home to me earlier this week in a discussion I had with an instructor here who teaches introductory statistics. She told me one of her own motives was to get girls to be able to think quantitatively, enough so that they could evaluate on their own the correctness of an article in the New York Times that presented statistical information. Collecting baseball cards way back when taught us certain things about statistics. I hadn’t thought about it that way. Girls don’t seemingly have any alternative play that delivers essentially the same lesson. Hmmm.

* * * * *

Speaking of statistics, I’m confused on the issue of whether the ratio of males to females among traditionally aged students attending college is a problem or not. Here’s a piece that says it is something to worry about. Look at the table at the bottom of the article. Only look at the columns labeled 2003-04. For the upper income students, I read this as a dead heat between females and males – meaning gender is not a factor. For middle income, and especially lower income students, however, gender does seem to matter – there are more females than males enrolled. But what is one to make of this? Is this a latter day James Dean (Rebel Without A Cause) effect? Or is it simply a rational response to the current labor market. (If the males defer going to college until they are more established in the labor market they won’t show up in this 24 and under demographic and if they find decent work perhaps they don’t attend at all.)

In aggregate, the issue doesn’t seem to show up on my campus. (Scroll down to “People” toward the bottom of the page.) We have 53% males, which partly may be attributed to our College of Engineering, a very highly ranked college that regarding student body (and I believe this is true among the faculty as well) is heavily male dominated, and that may suggest that if one disaggregates elsewhere on campus one will see the distribution swing the other way. I don’t have the data in front of me but I’m guessing that if one looked at the numbers for those majoring in humanities or the fine arts, that segment would be disproportionately female.

There certainly have been overt attempts to recruit women into engineering careers, but should there be overt attempts into recruiting men to apply for college admission across the board? More hmmmm.

* * * * *

Returning to Daniel Pink’s book, one of the main arguments is that because “left brain skills” are increasingly being valued as commodities by the market (that means the value of these skills is falling), in large part because of the emergence of India and China, the rational economic response is to recast work along lines that requires more “right brain” thinking. Males are more disposed to the left brain approach. So if Pink’s logic takes root broadly, the upcoming decade and perhaps the entire 21st century should mark the ascendancy of the female. Sounds plausible, but I wonder if it really makes sense as an argument.

First, and most obviously, by Pink’s own logic if more people go into right brain occupations, that will have the effect of commoditizing those professions, perhaps not to the extent of what is happening in computer programming now, but certainly to some degree. Second, there is the superwoman issue, and the reality that culturally child rearing is not a 50-50 thing. Third, Pink doesn’t get into the issue of risk taking at all in the book, at least as far as I recall. If you think of running a business today as mimicking, more or less, the type of high stakes poker that is now a favorite for TV viewing, then it’s bluster and bravado that counts. (Certainly the poker on TV is heavily male dominated.)

Put a different way, the top of the corporate ladder exerts an enormous influence on all the rungs lower down. Pink is right that there is a need for more right brain skills within the corporation, but if that’s not part of the job description for the CEO, then people might not chase down the acquisition of right brain skills to the extent that Pink considers. On the other hand, some aspects of right brain thinking – Story Telling and Symphony certainly, maybe other components too – are necessary pieces of the CEO arsenal. Maybe this will be the century of women after all. Hmmm.

* * * * *

I’d like to close with a point I’ve made before. It’s hard to be a nerd during childhood, there is a lot of social stigma attached to it. For boys, however, it is easier than for girls. My experience when I was a kid and at least for my older son he seems to have replicated that, it is possible to find a cohort of like minded kids and so one doesn’t have to bleach out all the idiosyncrasies. For girls who are inclined to be intellectual in a geeky way, however, I believe they are less likely to find a cohort that is unobtrusively nerdy. I’m of the mind that these kids will feel impelled to suppress a good part of their personas just to achieve some form of social acceptance. I’ve really not seen this issue discussed as much as I think it deserves.

No comments: