Monday, August 24, 2009

Old Man Walking

This afternoon I found a wet parking ticket plastered to my car’s windshield. A $42 dollar fine is not that remarkable, even if an enterprising police officer had issued it at 4:16 pm, 14 minutes before the posted 4:30 pm no-parking limit. The more interesting point is why I had left my car on a busy thoroughfare full of conflicting parking regulations, and not at the perfectly-legal-park-as-long-as-you-wish space I had initially found. The reason is simple. While I was looking rearward over my right shoulder, preparing to back into the world’s most beautiful spot, a 107 year-old-man rapped on my car window. I rolled it down. He then said matter of factly, as if he were resuming a long, habitual conversation with an intimate. “Chus crevé, et il mouille.” I’m dead tired and it’s raining. The bus doesn’t come by here for another half hour, and it won’t stop pouring. Can you drive me home to Drolet Street?”

            I was dumbfounded at first. Every woman knows it’s against the rules to open your car door to a strange man and let him in.  But this guy looked ancient and he had made a daring move. He had shattered the urban cone of silence. He had made eye contact, and seemed perfectly lucid, to boot. What would I lose other than the opportunity of showing up on time for my meeting—a rare enough occurrence—and the chance to slide into the perfect parking spot?

            When I asked his age, the man in the passenger seat of my Toyota—who had shoved aside my unplugged GPS and Levon Helm CD to sit down-- answered that he was 107 years old. Was this an exaggeration? Maybe--he didn’t look a day over 90. But his only son lived out west, he told me. So the centenarian lived alone in the house he’d always lived in, a dwelling that predated cars, parking tickets and air-conditioning—all ubiquitous features of this steamy August afternoon in the city. Our time together was short—an interaction that spanned six city blocks—and when I dropped the elderly gentleman off he thanked me kindly, lisping slightly over his ill-fitting dentures.

            This unlikely incident underscores two misconceptions. First, it’s a myth that  older people are too passive to alter their social isolation. If you’re lucky enough to be mobile, it’s not that hard, as this gentleman demonstrated, to make a connection with someone. And second, the modern North American city is more a locus of serendipitous interaction than of violence. There are more people chatting up strangers at Starbucks, or playing bridge, bingo and chess in community halls, than victims of violent urban crime. Since the nineties, urban crime has dropped, while life expectancy has risen . Men like my father, pictured here with me and his two coaches before his Dragon Boat practice the night before my ticket, are much more likely to live to 100 by going out for dinner after paddling with his team-mates, than by studiously avoiding would-be muggers by staying home and locking his door. Some people say that the Broken Windows approach —where people are arrested for small crimes like spraying graffiti or breaking windows—is what makes our cities safer. I’m more of the Rapping on Windows school myself. After all, it worked for the 107 year old man walking. 


Saturday, July 4, 2009

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

My friends and family know that I’m an inveterate matchmaker. But after some spectacular successes, I gave up this pastime after a colleague fell hard for a beautiful, inscrutable single friend I’d introduced him to at brunch. He fell so hard, in fact, that after their first rendez-vous he started to lose weight, stopped shaving, and looked downright gaunt and dejected, as the emails, flowers and chocolates he sent her after their first meetings were rebuffed. He was lovesick. She wasn’t. I had failed.

Now I’ve decided to resume the practice right here, this time setting up prospective female directors with recruiters and the companies who want them to fill out their boards—so to speak.  A Globe and Mail column I wrote about the paucity of women on corporate boards prompted passionate responses, from both sides: the qualified women who want board positions, and the recruiters and senior executives who were trying to find Ms. Right. What jumpstarted the column was a question from a reader about who wrote about how difficult it is to find qualified  women to sit on boards in the energy industry. Some readers in that industry agreed. “At (name of energy company) a senior female executive tried to promote women to the top, with the idea of creating a larger pool to draw directors from. Quotas were used  but were difficult to achieve due to the limited pool. Sometimes positive reverse discrimination was used, whereby if two candidates of equal qualifications applied, one male one female,  the female would get the nod. It’s working but it will take at least 10 to 15 years before there is enough talent to reach critical mass,” he wrote, adding that a  number senior women still drop out of sight before they can offer their expertise. The recent departures of the head of Alternative Energy at BP, Vivienne Cox,  and that of Linda Cook, of Shell along with six other female senior executives, are evidence that this is more than a rumor.“There is a lot of competition for their time,” was my male reader’s understated view. As progressive as his opinion might seem to some, female directors in Canada have described quotas as “repugnant” and say they prefer merit-based appointments to affirmative action. Like my friend who didn't want to be desired for her beauty alone, they don't want to be seen as tokens, after all.

Still other readers were incredulous. When a letter from a reader begins with “with all due respect,” I sit up and get ready to be flamed. Happily, this time I wasn’t pilloried but simply encouraged to let my readers know about the Institute of Corporate Directors, which keeps a database of men and women who have completed their directors’ training course, and which offers a matching service. This reader was a happy customer of the ICD, and felt others in need of directors should do their shopping there.

Lest you think, then, that my match-making services are  now redundant, consider this: all of the women I interviewed for the column on female board members were sitting on multiple boards. And there was little cross-over between the public and private sectors. In that respect they belonged to a modern version of the “old boys’ clubs” that preceded them. Like the handful of adolescents who are responsible for a high school’s intellectual and social life, they were the life of the party. But surely there are talented, more diffident candidates hidden in the wood-work, who are not on the radar when directors are picked. If they're women, perhaps they should add their names to directories,  like the ICD listed above, which act as lofty matchmaking sites, and include both debutantes and eminences grises.

So what does the research say about which companies are most likely to seek women on their boards, and why? Is it for moral reasons (an ethical company should have female directors to reflect its client base,  or as a link to the community), for profitability (some research shows that companies with more women on their boards are more profitable than their competitors, a leitmotif for positive discrimination), or for legitimacy in the public eye (the investors demand it, and it burnishes the company’s international image…sort of like recycling).

A recent paper just published by a Dutch researcher shows that it’s the latter. The bigger, and more global the company’s reach, the more visible it is, the more likely it is to have women on its board of directors. Seventy five percent of enterprises with female directors on their boards are in the financial or production sectors, and 38 percent are listed on the foreign stock exchange. The service sector, which comprises the traditionally female "pink collar" jobs,  is the least likely to have female directors on their boards. When it comes to match-making, I should keep in mind a maxim for the future:  opposites attract.



Monday, June 15, 2009

Get Thee to a Military Academy

It was during  a sabbatical in France in the early nineties that one of my sons first confronted gender stereotypes—his own. He had scarlet fever, and as he waited naked on a clinic gurney for the doctor to appear, his eyes widened in terror as an older male physician suddenly swished into the cavernous examining room. “Mom! Can a man be a real doctor ?” he whispered. 

At home he had a female pediatrician, a female family doctor, and a female dentist. I couldn’t blame the 3-year-old for thinking that clinical medicine was women’s work (at that point his ambition was to be a pirate).

We reminded him of his initial skepticism about male doctors when he entered McGill University as a biology major last September, and found himself surrounded by nose-to-the-grindstone female biology and  pre-med students taking their prerequisites. He says he’s pleased to be surrounded by women, which is a good thing, as 60% of university students (and medical students)  are female, not only at McGill University, but everywhere in the industrialized world. According to Mark Perry, an economist at the University of Michigan, there are now 148 women earning university degrees for every 100 men. At the Masters level, the ratio is 159 women to 100 men.  

The only place this isn’t true is at military colleges like  US Air Force Academies, where women constitute just 17% of the student body. But this gender gap is not the only way these educational institutions differ from other colleges. Military students pay no tuition fees and receive an $850 monthly stipend for expenses, in contrast to the tens of thousands a university education costs elsewhere in the United States. Air Force academy students also take a predetermined set of  courses and are obliged to serve five years in the military after they graduate—conditions that might deter students who have other ambitions and other choices.

Finally, these schools may attract students-- and staff-- who crave belonging to highly structured community--where the clues to how and where they fit in are made perfectly explicit. In psychologist Jonathan Haidt's  interesting essay, Hanging Out with the Boys, he refers to the social aspect of human beings as "bees without hives." And individual differences being what they are, I suspect that some of us crave a hive more than others.

 Yet despite these clear differences in their student populations--in gender, socioeconomic status, and the need for  structure--a recent paper by researchers based at the University of California, Davis  extrapolates from their small pool of atypical female students (fewer than 800 students  in a total student body of 4,500) to make sweeping conclusions. According to their study, gifted female students would fare better in science (i.e. they would be much more likely to graduate with a physical science, technology, engineering or math--STEM-- degree) if they had female, rather than male teachers. And though female teachers don't affect whether students then  drop out, or feel happy  or keenly interested  in their discipline, the authors conclude that this such a desirable outcome, that women studying science should have only other women as their teachers.

The authors, Scott Carrell, Marianne Page and James West,  write about their own student population that:

“..among the highest ability women, those whose introductory math and science professors are exclusively female are 26% more likely to major in STEM careers than those who had exclusively male faculty..."

They then conclude that “increasing the fraction of female professors from 0 to 100 percent would completely eliminate the gender gap in math and science majors."

This study can’t actually make that prediction, or say that female teachers are causing that 26 point increase. What’s more likely is that the female students and teachers in this study are a highly select bunch.  There may be a profile of the kind of woman who wants to go into the army (and stay there), perhaps one who feels that this is her best, or only stab at a university education. Or, it may be a certain type of woman who feels quite comfortable "hanging out with the boys " (as the college is 83% male, there would be quite a lot of that). Still, when she sees a woman teaching biology or chemistry at her military college she thinks, yeah, I’d much rather do that than go to Iraq.

So it's hard to tell what's driving this mild boost in science, especially given that this study also shows that having female teachers is also correlated with poorer performance in the humanities-- for  students of both sexes. I do know that the gifted women who have chosen, completed a major, then left STEM disciplines don’t attribute their lack of enthusiasm to having male professors, but to having broader interests. They say things like “I just got tired of debugging software,” or “I’d rather be reading literature and history than mixing petrochemicals.” And this is what recent data tell us, that women talented in math and science often choose people-oriented work, like clinical medicine, the humanities, or cognitive psychology. Many avoid technical careers because they have  discursive interests or crave a social purpose in their work. That’s not to say that having female science professors isn’t a good thing. It’s just that, as my young son discovered that day in Montpellier, it’s not whether a professional is male or female that really counts. It’s how good he or she is at identifying an anachronistic  infection, and whether that person cares enough to comfort the little boy who has it.











Monday, June 8, 2009

A Grave Error

This week six different people emailed me an article from the New York Times describing how women’s opportunities in science and engineering are now are comparable to men’s. That's great news, as I agree with Arthur Brooks, "To focus our policies on inequality, instead of opportunity, is to make a grave error.."

 The article also mentioned a new study showing that any gender gap in math performance has now disappeared, according to research by Janet Hyde at the University of Wisconsin, and therefore any previously reported gaps were due to gender bias. I’m skeptical.

            While I agree that (a)  there are many girls and women who are terrifically talented in math,  and that (b) strong or weak, people should have every opportunity to learn, and  (c) the averages  in math performance between boys and girls are pretty similar, I also think that many journalists who report on this issue are still confused about whether little differences in averages means there are no differences between the sexes at all (there can be a huge difference in variability--how many are in the extreme high and low brackets—and still, a lot of similarity in group averages). Their confusion affects public understanding. Let’s face it, many of us want there to be no differences between boys and girls in math (even though no one mentions girls’ consistently stronger reading scores everywhere in the world).  But when parity in math test scores is reported, there’s a reassuring “aha!” feeling-- also called confirmation bias. It helps us discount any evidence that doesn’t fit our values, or our expectation of how the world “should” work. But science is not about “should.” It’s about “is.

            Whatever our values,  it’s important not to dumb down or gloss over science because it doesn’t fit a preconceived notion of a mathematically divided world, and for better or worse, since the Sexual Paradox first came out, greater variability among boys and men has continued to pop up in various countries and on different types of tests. In Norway, for example, a 2009 study of the birth weights of 48,000 babies shows that there are more extremely underweight and overweight baby boys born than girls; both are linked to later health problems. The researchers also found more dramatic highs and lows among males when they measured adult height and weight, when they looked at teenagers’ performance on the 60 meter dash,  and at how well university students do on their exams.[i] Almost everywhere researchers look—whether in birthing rooms, childhood intelligence tests, high school track meets, on college transcripts, or on math tests, boys’ greater variability shows up. And sometimes, the greater number of boys with developmental and genetic syndromes means that the bell curve is more bottom heavy with males than it is at the top.[ii]

            Nonetheless,  preferences and male extremes were overlooked in Janet Hyde's study of  math performance.  Prof. Hyde examined math averages from 7 million American students between the ages of 7 and 16  tested through the No Child Left Behind initiative, and concluded that “our analysis shows that for grades 2 to 11, the general population no longer shows a gender difference in math skills.” This is a cheerful conclusion—but it leapfrogged over two reasons why gender differences that show themselves everywhere else were suddenly invisible in this study. First,  every state is motivated “not to leave any children behind” lest they lose out on federal funding. As a result No Child Left Behind tests have a very low threshold of success. Their low ceilings mean that higher performing  students disappear into the mix. And  sex differences are most remarkable at the extremes. While Professor Hyde is surely right that any difference between boys’ and girls’ average performance is insignificant—and that there are a great many girls who are excellent at math—greater male variability means that the bottom and top one percent of math test takers are typically male. The second problem is that math gaps typically emerge in high school and college, not in primary school, as Professor Hyde herself noted in 1990. By including second and third grade scores along with those of  kids graduating from high school, Hyde and her colleagues diluted any variability,  and thus  nothing significant showed up.[iii]


[i] Ibid


[ii] Wendy Johnson, Andrew Carothers and Ian J. Deary. “Sex Differences in Variability in General Intelligence,” Perspectives in Psychological Science 3, no.6 (2008)


[iii] Janet S. Hyde, Sara M. Lindberg, Marcia C. Linn, Amy B. Ellis, and Caroline C. Williams, “Gender similarities characterize math performance,” Science 321, no. 5888 (2008)., accessed December, 2008.


Thursday, May 28, 2009

Why the Good Die Young

Why the Good Die Young

The suicide of former South Korean president, Roh Moo-hyun, earlier this week was a tragic reminder of the all too high suicide rate, especially among  extreme male high achievers living in industrialized nations. If there was full acknowledgment of this well- documented vulnerability in men, you’d think assistance would be close at hand.  Yet men like Mr. Roh, who have made genuine contributions to society, too often take their lives rather than lose face or seek help for depression or despair. Mr. Roh had spent the first part of his career as a human rights lawyer and had committed his second act to public service and clean government in South Korea. But according to a suicide note, he couldn’t face the “shame” of a political smear campaign, and after a period of insomnia  and loss of appetite—both typical symptoms of clinical depression—he jumped off a cliff. Hence, no third act. Like 10% of male leaders in democratic countries (and 85% of male rulers outside democracies) Mr. Roh’s ended his political career in a casket. Given the odds, it takes a an extreme personality—one not afraid of mortal risks—to enter public life. An insouciance about one’s future, combined with single-mindedness—is also why a climber named Frank Ziebarth  died after an ascent to Everest this week. He was a purist who wanted to scale the death zone of the summit without the “help” of oxygen. Like David Foster Wallace, who  Los Angeles Times book editor David Ulin called "one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years," and who sadly, took his own life last September, these are extreme, yet vulnerable men  could have continued to make their unique contributions if they had moderated their standards, or sought perspicacious assistance before it was too late. Instead, unlike most women who are more likely to reach out to others for help when in distress, they were more likely to die young, and to die all alone.




Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What You Want


            As spring advances and retreats, more and more of my friends and relations are telling me about their exciting summer plans. And it occurs to me that, uncharacteristically, I have none. One reason is that it’s my intention to read up and do research for my next writing project. With any luck I’ll do some of that in a hammock. But another is that there’s a recession and I’m supposed to be saving money. But aren’t there cheap ways to have fun and see new sites, other than the landscapes provided by Amazon?

            Several ideas pop into my head that don’t require airfare. How about a 4-5  day biking trip through verdant Vermont, one of the most lovable states in the union? A dear friend on the west coast said she was biking through Napa valley with a well -organized group, Vermont Bicycle Tours. After just 2 clicks I discovered that a 5 day trip with some, but not all meals included  would cost $1545 USD. Hmmm. That would be more than $4500 for three: me, my husband and my youngest son—for an experience that would last less than a week. Can that be worth it? Instead, we could pack our bikes onto our car and do-it-ourselves…  planning our own route and most certainly getting lost…schlepping our bikes on the car, and tents on the bikes, and setting up camp after 50 miles of cycling --then cooking, washing up, and sleeping in the rainy, buggy, albeit pristine, New England woods hardly sounds like a vacation to me. When it comes to end of a big day on holiday, I much prefer a hot shower with those twee littletea-tree scented soaps , then spending the night under a thick  duvet--preferably after eating a nice meal served on real, breakable plates—a meal I don’t cook myself, of course.

            The real question is whether any future indulgence is worth it. Will we regret doing without when the market, and our bank accounts recover? After all, youngest sons grow up and aging knees give out. Vermont will always be there, but a summer holiday is highly perishable, especially in Canada. In the Anne Enright short story I  just read, What You Want (part of her brilliant collection of stories, Yesterday’s Weather), an Irish single mom sacrifices the present;  she works as a cleaner in a department store so that in the future her only son will have everything. Then she regrets it. “Jimmy has all the CDs in their box sets… he has it all now,  down to the slice of lime in his gin and tonic, and he never—he very rarely—gives himself away. Oh, be careful what you want.”

             In fact, having 20-20 hindsight about what you want, or looking down from an imaginary perch on the fun you  wished you had makes experiences, even pricey experiences,  worth more to most people than having cash in the bank right now, according to research on “hyperopia,” or  the far-sightedness of planning too far ahead. Ran Kivetza professor of marketing at Columbia Business School, summarized his research this way: “People feel guilty about hedonism right afterwards, but as time passes the guilt dissipates. At some point there’s a reversal and what builds up is this wistful feeling of missing out on life’s pleasures,” he told John Tierney of the New York Times. So the question is not whether I spend a small fortune to huff and puff up the Green Mountains, all for a superb view of church spires from the top. The question is whether I can really get that hill-top perspective while swinging in my hammock down here. 

Women’s Secret Weapon

Some people collect elephant figurines, cranberry glass, first editions or vintage sports cars. I collect weird facts, especially ones that differentiate the two sexes, though to be frank, I never decided to amass these bits and pieces. They just drift towards me as if equipped with their own magnetic charges, often via email messages from acquaintances and virtual strangers. Sometimes the facts are actually handed to me in person. That’s what happened yesterday as I sipped a tall glass of iced coffee in Em Café, in the Mile End on a balmy spring afternoon in Montreal. The journalist, Éveline, who was writing about me in a French psychology magazine, flounced in, as blond and breezy as the day, and spotted me right away, having seen me give a public lecture on the Sexual Paradox at a library ( just a few days before. Even before we shook hands she proferred a ragged clipping from that morning’s French newspaper, le Devoir, entitled: L’Oestrogène, l’arme secrète des femmes (Estrogen, Women’s Secret Weapon):

The clipping described the latest research of Dr. Maya Saleh and her team of microbiologists at McGill just published in yesterday’s PNAS ( which shows how estrogen offers a measure of protection against illness that men just don’t have. Apparently, estrogen blocks production of an enzyme called Caspase-12. Caspase-12 makes us weaker—more vulnerable to marauding infections by preventing inflammation, the body’s way of telling an invader to back off. Without this chemical shield provided by estrogen, males are more likely to get sick, one reason why men everywhere have a higher rate of just about every chronic and infectious illness around, why they’re 70% more likely than women to die from hospital based infections like C-difficile, and why, despite dying with the most toys, they tend to die a whole lot younger. Yale anthropologist, Richard Bribiescas summed up the male lifespan as Stud, Dud, Thud. But that was before hormone replacement therapy for guys. Dr. Saleh said that dosing men regularly with estrogen instead of multivitamins might work as prevention, but might not be such a great plan because then their bodies might start to acquire female features. Now that’s what I call a trade-off, exchanging a few inches of biceps and body hair for a few extra years of life. Any takers?

Meanwhile, last week an email mysteriously arrived from a guy named Patrick, who for the last few days has been dosing my inbox regularly with tidbits like this one: Without estrogen, the brain doesn’t process sounds too well. Apparently, estrogen tells the brain to lay down the neurons that make us highly sensitive to sounds ( The researcher, Raphael Pinaud, extrapolated from his findings from birds and how they use songs to communicate with each other. Apparently, estrogen is not why the caged bird sings, but why she’s very likely to remember the song. Now, that’s what I call a secret weapon.