Carving up the academic pie: How are academic disciplines divided?

18 Jul

The social sciences are split into disciplines like Psychology, Political Science, Sociology, Anthropology, Economics, etc. There is a certain anarchy to the way they are split. For example, while Psychology is devoted to understanding how the individual mind works, and sociology to the study of groups, Political science is devoted merely to an aspect of groups — group decision making.

One of the primary reasons the social sciences are divided so is because of the history of how social sciences developed. As major figures postulated important variables that constrain the social world, fields took shape around them. The other pertinent variables that explain some of new disciplines in social sciences are changes in technology, and more broadly changing social problems. For example, the discipline of Communication took shape around the time mass media became popular.

The way the social sciences are currently divided has left them with a host of inefficiencies which leave them largely inefficacious in a variety of scenarios where they can offer substantive help. Firstly, The containerized way of understanding the social world provide inadequate ways of understanding complex social systems that are imposed upon by a variety of variables that range from the individual to the institutional. And secondly, the largely discipline specific theoretical motivations lead academic to concoct elaborate theories that often misstate their applicability in complex ecosystems. We all know how economics never met common sense till of recently. It isn’t that disciplines haven’t tried to bridge the inter-disciplinary divide, they certainly have by creating sub-disciplines ranging from social-psychology (in psychology) to political psychology (in Political Science) and in fact that is exactly where some of the most exciting research is taking place right now, the problem is that we have been slow to question the larger restructuring of social sciences. The question then arises as to what should we put at the center of our focus of our disciplines? The answer is by no means clear to me though I think it would be useful to develop competencies around primary organizing social structures/institutions.

Role of Social Science

Let me assume away the fact that most social science knowledge will end up in the society either through Capitalism or selective uptake by policy makers. Next, we need to evaluate how social science can meaningfully contribute to society. One intuitive way would be to create social engineering departments that are focused on specific social problems. The advice is by no means radical – certainly Education as a discipline has been around for some time, and relatively recently departments (or schools) devoted to Public Health, Environmental Policy have opened up across college campuses. Secondly, social science should create social engineering departments that help offer solutions for real life problems, much the same way engineering departments affiliated with natural sciences do, and try experimenting with how for example different institutional structures would affect decision making. Lastly, social scientists have a lot more to offer to third world countries which have yet to be overrun by brute Capitalism. What social science departments need to do is lead more data collection efforts in third world countries and offer solutions.

Arguing ethically

11 Jun

Everyday conversation is generally a site for exchanging social pleasantries, exchanging trivia and anecdotes or ‘shooting the breeze’, and reaffirming identities, among other things. Occasionally these everyday conversations take the shape of amorphous dilettante arguments about politics and culture, and even more rarely they turn into serious arguments. But the habits of casual argumentation and unfamiliarity with formal argument theory doom most of these ‘serious’ arguments. So rather than proceeding teleologically towards better understanding of a topic through measured refutation and agreement, the arguments either become pitched ego fights or exercises in using logical fallacies or non-existent evidence adeptly to ‘win’ the argument or some combination thereof.

“Unethical” (explained later) argumentation can leave people flustered as they realize – much too late – that the other party has changed the entire argument or distracted them with some contestable irrelevant data, or through an outright fabrication.

I use the word ‘unethical’ in reference to argumentation in the paragraph above and it is incumbent upon me to explain what I mean by that. An argument is generally understood as “discourse intended to persuade” and the idea is to stipulate ethics of persuasion. In other words, stipulating that one follow the rules of inference, logic, corroboration, and procedure ‘ethically’. Broadly construed ‘ethics’ in an argument can be seen to convey a person’s conviction in coming up with a better understanding of the issue at hand, and general introspection to all facets of argumentation. Of course ‘ethics’ alone won’t help construct a ‘better’ argument for there are objective criteria for what constitutes a better argument.

I here briefly go over some key tenets, as I see them, of conducting an ‘ethical’ argument.

Issue, Topic, Question

Most ‘arguments’ in everyday life start with an anecdote or an example and not as formally constructed questions. The conversation then slowly slides into an ‘argument’ as somebody identifies the anecdote as a hypothesis and engages with it.
It is important to be alert to this juncture and to take time at this point to think through the ‘hypothesis’, and where possible turn into a broader question devoted to understanding the ‘topic’ underlying the hypothesis. More importantly, it is necessary to pin down the question or hypothesis with more precision. Additionally, one should think through the breadth of the question and see to what degree is the question tractable.

During the course of the conversation one can renegotiate the wording of the question as more information comes along the way and conversants develop their understanding of the topic or as interests shift.

The pattern of argumentation will differ depending on the topic and question at hand. If one is to say argue about a causal claim then one must iterate through possible causes and see which ones apply to what degree and why. On the other hand if one wants to understand historical context around say origins of democracy, the task then becomes listing possible historical aspects including socio-economic and elite key actors.

Hypothesis and Data

One can use deductive or empirical reasoning (or both) to support one’s claims. Both obviously lend themselves to different types of problems. For making empirical arguments, one needs to rely on data and there it becomes necessary to think through how applicable the data is, how generalizable the instance is if you use an instance to say corroborate a claim, and any major data or instances that exist that will rebut the hypothesis or sometimes provide insight into contextual variables. Aside from applicability there is also the issue of how probable each of the datum is and how large the effect sizes are. Of course part of argumentation also involves judging other people’s data. You can judge data using the criteria I describe above.

One may run into problems of insufficient data or unreliable data and there you can choose to continue the conversation at a later stage after getting the data or pursue the argument by making conditional arguments. For example, if X were true, then the following event is likely to occur.

The caveat that accompanies all empirical reasoning is that it is easy to think that you know more than you do, especially about topics that seem familiar but go largely un-inspected. Systematic analysis of an issue will often uncover troubling gaps in one’s own knowledge and one must allay the instinct to fabricate and instead be conscientious in acknowledge the gaps.

Psychology of argumentation

The most pernicious and bankrupt argumentation occurs when the ego gets involved. To avoid it, focus your critiques on the data or argument and offer them in a manner that is broad minded and acknowledges opposing contribution. The unsaid point here is that your commitment should be towards reaching a better understanding of the issue at hand rather than ‘winning’ or whatever that means.

An important part of conducting an ethical argument is to acknowledge gracefully where you are wrong. This habit goes a long way in ameliorating any tensions that may emerge during the course of argumentation.

Another thing to keep in mind is that almost always people don’t start from polar opposites of an argument (that I believe is a function of conversational norm and selection bias as in whom you choose to ‘argue’ with), though there might be sub-arguments where they may have opposing stances. Hence there would be a large number of cases where both arguments can survive.

Avoid Common Logical Fallacies

Straw Man – “A straw man argument is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. To “set up a straw man” or “set up a straw-man argument” is to create a position that is easy to refute, then attribute that position to the opponent.” (Wikipedia)

You can find other common logical fallacies at the bottom of Wikipedia’s page.

All politics is identity politics (or will be)

13 Apr

Identity politics is a phrase that is traditionally reserved for studying politics of third world nations with deep ethnic cleavages like India and Fiji. It is rarely used in the context of American politics yet identity politics is rife in America.

More boldly, I would like to say that in fact all politics is identity politics and the relative success of parties can be solely judged on how successful they have been in peddling robust identities. I use the word “robust” because it is important that identities be “essential”, and fundamental to how one sees himself and hence immune to pressure (or logic) unless of course your identity is based on being data driven. I make this claim because there is a vast literature in political science that lays bare the abysmally low levels of information in general population and it reasons hence that people must make decisions based on identity affiliation, an assertion that largely bears out in the data.

There are two caveats to the claim that I am making – one is that very few political identities are infinitely tensile – they eventually brook to contrary evidence. Identities can be resilient and make people delusional but often times they have limits. Secondly, political identity for many is a shifting idea determined by what is sexy (a reference to meaningless radical positions held by students), and by what is appropriate or comfortable or stokes one’s prejudices the right way (for example – people don’t ever explicitly call themselves racist. they just feel that all black people are lazy and deal in drugs. and that is true isn’t it – Bill O’Reilly certainly thinks so)

A measure of success would involve percentage of partisan media one consumes. Identity politics involves a reshaping of the kind of media one consumes, the kind of messages one gets from it, and how s/he chooses to interpret them and “update” (in a Bayesian way) their thinking.

The law of stable yields

Identity politics is the only that is capable of yielding stable yields and creating a strong unwavering kernel. It is no surprise hence the party in power in US is the one that has had considerably more success in engaging in identity politics.

Media Effects

26 Feb

Context in news has been missing for a long time. For instance, crime news, a staple of local news, almost never includes a discussion of the larger socioeconomic factors. Disconcertingly, even these abysmal standards are slipping.

A big part of the problem is that mass media (television) lends itself very well to dramatic imagery and sound effects. A visual medium hustling for advertiser dollars is not likely to be good at focusing on the dull numerical facts. Perhaps it’s not just dullness of facts that prevents media from showing context but also a deliberate strategy to “frame” news in a way that doesn’t put any pressure on the citizen to act to demand action from government or local authorities. The subtext of crime stories is that all crime is due to bad people and who can prevent the evil within; bad people only listen to authority. Television’s coverage of news not only changed how news was covered there but also had a critical impact on how news was covered in print. For example, the print cycles hastened for magazines from a month to a week, newspaper story lengths dropped etc.

Clearly diminishing context is not the only ailment that mass media brought to the coverage of news. Improvements in technology have not only brought us perennial coverage of news, albeit sometimes the same news, but also ‘live’ coverage of news. These, in turn, have contributed to the diminishing marginal value of news (more on this in next column), and a renewed impetus for newspapers and journalists to get their first rather than get it right. Given that the heaviest coverage of a news story in mass media happens when journalists have the least clear idea about the ‘truth’ (which generally emerges through careful research and interviews with key players over the longer time), the dissemination patterns are catastrophically skewed towards presenting bad quality information quickly.

The theories which my above anecdotal argument dovetails are akin to ‘medium is the message’ and that the ‘popular medium influences coverage in other forms of media’. To fully understand a medium’s impact one must account for the fact that medium not only affects presentation but also stipulates the resources needed (in broadcast medium – a lot), distribution structure (to lots of people), organizational structures within news organizations, self-selection of reporters, managers, and editors (camera hungry bimbos or hard nosed journalists or teenage bloggers), content of the message (what is covered and not covered, how it is covered), the economic landscape of other media organizations etc.

Given the possibility of significant multifaceted effects, it is useful to chart out how our day’s new media – the Internet – will change news media.

‘New Media’

There are three main characteristics of ‘new media’ – most popular ‘new media’ assets are controlled by ‘old media’ organizations, for example prime media assets like or are controlled by old bigwigs, the ‘new media’ departments are generally run by younger people or/and people with comparatively less experience in professional journalism, and ad based rather than subscription based monetization, which is same as the economic model for mass media.

The new media effects

There has been a ‘virtual’ explosion of sites (includes blogs) devoted to politics and news over the past decade prompted by the lowering of the threshold for publishing. Aside from the small positive effect stemming from the factual criticism by bloggers that have made the media companies more cautious of what they write and how they write, the impact of the glut of politics and news sites has been largely negative. Rapid rise in number of people publishing has led to increased competition, resulting in hustle for revenue, market share, and imperatives for controlling costs, and perceived increase in diversity of stories resulting in perceived sense of lower responsibility for writing a balanced context rich story given that other ‘angles’ will be covered by someone else.

Increasingly competitive market and proliferation and popularity of nearly free user generated content have resulted in companies less willing to support quality investigative journalism that is resource intensive. News organizations have also resorted increasingly to third rate punditry which is much cheaper to produce. These trends were already present in the competitive cable news market but have merely been magnified by the emergence of these new sites.

Responsibility in the era of information glut

On the content side, journalists and news organizations increasingly feel that they don’t have to write a well-rounded piece because they are covering only a speck of the spectrum. Reporting tends to be ever more context free, and ever more fragmented. The misguided idea behind this trend is that given the informational options that a viewer or reader has, s/he can build a comprehensive idea about the entire story by reading multiple stories from multiple sources. Of course, media and readership don’t work like this and certainly not in the US.

The second worrying trend is that the role of editor as a guide to what is important has been sacrificed to the role of the public at large and strategic groups at large. The proliferation of top ten lists in newspapers and other link referral and aggregation sites like Digg have helped drive visibility of few articles, generally fluff – a cursory glance at these lists should be enough to prove this contention- beyond their importance.

The most insidious part of the rise of mass media is that it has some how validated infinite subjectivity as a valid model for covering news. The dominant opinion that pervades in the ‘new media’ is that it is a normative good to allow everybody to participate and that everyone’s opinion is equally valid. What we have gotten is a proliferation of absolutely bunk analysis and increasingly readers are getting subsumed in this with little or no idea of what is going on anymore. We read and see more yet we know less. Partly it’s because we see more of the same thing, and partly because reading ten stories about a topic doesn’t tell us exactly how to weigh each of those things and construct a bigger picture.

There are a few solutions that I would like to propose for the kind of problems that we are seeing. Firstly, new media must develop clear standards for ethical discourse that highlights objective information instead of inane opinionating. Secondly, new media firms should start investigating how to bring the editor back as a guide to the common reader. Thirdly, we need investigative journalists and foreign bureaus with a larger understanding of the ‘bigger picture’. We need them to provide context to the small stories media covers endlessly, which I would argue the media can stop doing. Lastly as my friend Chaste mentioned in his column – get journalists trained in statistics. Don’t let journalists mindlessly adorn their stories around with pretty but inaccurate numbers.

Why not to think like a Lawyer

30 Jan

The following article is by Chaste. The article was written as a response to the following two reviews in the New York Review of Books:

I respond to two articles by Ronald Dworkin to illustrate the pitfalls of using lawyerly thinking in our role as citizens. Lawyerly thinking focuses on the controversy as presented, it relies on opinion rather than facts, and it misunderstands the nature of contemporary government and market actions. NYRB published the first a year ago at the time of the Danish cartoons controversy (March); in September, it published a second, which discussed the issue of same sex marriages among others.

Why not to think like a lawyer

As we remember the Danish cartoons controversy that erupted a year ago, and as the issue of same sex marriages takes its course, I offer this reflection on the way we often approach marginalization of minorities by markets and by governments. I will frame my reflection as a response to two of Professor Ronald Dworkin’s pieces published in the New York Review of Books. In his March article on the Danish cartoons, he approved the discretion of Anglo-American media, defended the European press’ right to ridicule, and urged an acceptance of the right to ridicule even when constrained by holocaust related exceptions. In the second article published in September, he argues in favor of the legalizing of gay marriages on dignitary and cultural grounds. He declares that these grounds make the issue different from say religious prayer, and make civil unions an inadequate alternative.

I am disturbed by several aspects of Dworkin’s reasoning, which I will characterize as ‘lawyerly’:

  • Dworkin, as in his Danish cartoons piece, is more interested in addressing the problem as offered to him than in framing the problem adequately. This is analogous to the role of an adjudicator who tries to settle only the controversy presented before him. Yet the needs of a fuller understanding and of justice often demand the examination of additional parties and issues.
  • Dworkin at times relies more on opinion than on fact. This tends to produce principled rather than well-informed pragmatic choices. Judges and by corollary, lawyers rely on legal principle and opinion. Even common law judges seldom see themselves as making laws to address the facts. Yet making pragmatic choices informed by facts is precisely the function of citizens. Unfortunately, most of Dworkin’s stands are principled rather than pragmatic; even his pragmatic stand on religion in the pledge of allegiances couched as an exception to principled choices. Principled stands are particularly unfortunate in humanitarian matters: given the scale of injustice in the world and our tacit acceptance of those injustices, principled choices are likely to project hypocrisy rather than conviction.
  • Dworkin’s solutions are sometimes mal-formed because of an unfortunate understanding of markets and of the government as expressions of common intent. With notable exceptions like antitrust, markets appear before the legal system largely as a series of contracts between consenting parties for securing mutual advantages. Government on the other hand, appears as an instrument of the majority that is capable of imposing constraints on any and all. Such a view prompts a heightened legal scrutiny of government regulations relative to market practices. Yet the consequences of market constraints are no less serious from the market unavailability of abortion facilities to the effects of inane media on the information level of Americans. Therefore, we need to focus on the nature and effect of the constraints themselves, and not overemphasize their source.

Danish Cartoons of the Prophet

Dworkin’s piece on the Danish cartoons shows up the pitfalls of such ‘lawyerly’ thinking. I will begin by laying out the main free speech issues in the order of their priority to the Danish press and government:

  • Holocaust sensitivities: Jyllands-Posten’s cultural editor who commissioned the prophet cartoons was sent on immediate indefinite leave after saying that he might, after review, print Iranian cartoons of the holocaust. The editor-in-chief said that the paper would in no circumstances publish the holocaust cartoons, and the cultural editor recanted with “I am 100% with the newspaper’s line.”
  • Christian / market sensitivities: The editor of the Sunday edition of Jyllands-Posten turned down cartoons about Jesus’ resurrection, saying that readers would not enjoy the drawings because they would “provoke an outcry.”
  • Danish dairy exports: Within five days of the dramatically successful boycott of Danish dairy exports, Jyllands-Posten apologized. The apology preceded most of the violent protests, and was not a response to them.
  • Freedom of expression: Speech affecting the three preceding drew from Jyllands-Posten, suppression and retaliation, suppression, and an apology respectively. Speech affecting the last proved to be no such encumbrance.
  • Muslim sensitivities: Jyllands-Posten made no apology for 3-4 months after Danish Muslims and Muslim nations protested the publication.

Dworkin allows the parties before him to frame the issue rather than framing it himself. The consequence is that he focuses primarily on Muslim sensitivities as a threat to free speech even though it was the only one of the four to be no encumbrance. As for the three that did trump freedom of speech, Dworkin mentions only the one specifically raised by one of the parties, namely, holocaust related sensitivities. This inattention to facts leads Dworkin to the misleading framing of the problem and to the inappropriate principled solution mentioned above.

A fuller attention to facts reveals the problem to be not whether there should be a right to ridicule; rather it is the extent to which large commercial entities can ridicule marginalized groups to seek commercial gain. Recall that Jyllands-Posten was the largest selling Danish newspaper at the time, and had experienced sharper circulation drops in recent years than its competitors. This is not speech that can claim freedom from regulation that it may speak truth to power; such speech is itself an exercise of power. For the minority that constitutes an insignificant market segment, it does not help to know that it is the market and not the government, which has generated the demeaning images swirling around them. There is no good reason why the law should not limit such an exercise of power, much as it limits the actions of other players like the government or of large commercial players in other markets. Such limits on speech would naturally be narrow, and limited to large commercial players. The size requirement will ensure that expression which is not a major exercise of power would stay regulated; the commercial purpose requirement will ensure that such expression is not effectively suppressed by limiting it to minor fringe players. It will safeguard against the abuse of free speech as a commodity to generate profit: a commodity that can evade the usual social cost-benefit analysis based regulations. Dworkin’s tired adherence to a principled position on free speech mixed with calls to marginalized groups to endure unequal legal limits on free speech is as inadequate a solution as his articulation of the problem is misleading. Indeed the only context for which Dworkin’s analysis is appropriate is that of the publication of the cartoons in Muslim countries, a context that he fails to mention.

Same Sex Marriages

Dworkin’s reasoning about same sex marriages in “Three Questions for America” is similarly unfortunate. After a brilliant discussion of the teaching of evolution controversy, he argues on dignitary grounds for a principled position in favor of marriage rights for same sex couples, and for an understanding (not a justification) of the exception of including religion in the pledge of allegiance on materiality grounds.

I will assume civil unions with full rights as the pragmatic alternative to same sex marriages. They are politically viable in several states, yet proponents of same sex marriages like Dworkin dismiss them as inadequate. The assumption also clarifies that Dworkin and other advocates of same sex marriages object to the law’s embodiment of a cultural detriment even when there is no corresponding legal detriment. This is both startling and impractical. It is startling because law is not the best arena for renegotiating cultural detriment or privilege. It is impractical because cultural inequities are generally too embedded even in law for such an effort to be little more than picking favorites. Consider the example of July 4th. Americans undertake legally favored celebrations for an event that was to perpetuate slavery for 30 years after the mother country abolished it. Blacks can justly view such legally favored celebrations as a cultural detriment, but there are few moves afoot to replace July 4th with the day that civil rights became effective.

Dworkin’s habits of view regarding the government and the market prevent him from realizing that in the absence of legal detriment, the different unions on offer resemble cultural products on a market, and hence are more akin to market rather than government constraints. His refusal to view a fuller picture makes him appear oblivious to the fact that his principled position constitutes picking favorites. Indeed civil unions may become a new and more inclusive cultural product: one without the historical advantages/baggage of marriage, but /one capable of adequately competing with it in due course.

Any regulation for mitigating the market constraints imposed by a cultural product should follow the usual social cost benefit analysis. Unlike the inclusion of religion in the pledge, which mandates expression that may be antithetical to a group’s beliefs, marriage laws only deny a cultural product to particular groups. Whereas an unregulated media may inflict countless fresh detriments on insignificant market segments (minorities), marriage laws only preserve an existing cultural detriment. Therefore, it is not clear to me that same sex marriages have a compelling case in the current divided and polarized environment.

Dworkin may argue with some justification that principled positions can be useful in the pedagogical framework that his piece invokes. It is not clear to me that an American high school environment and the stage of maturation it represents is the best arena for forming self-defining opinions. Further, it is likely to exacerbate the American habit of forming opinions without much regard to evidence. When based on evidence of the effect of government recognition of same sex relationships on religious beliefs and practices and on lifestyle choices, there may be some merit to such an experiment since high school is the last structured education environment for many. Yet neither of Dworkin’s suggested readings, for all their eloquence and careful thinking, contain any evidence that addresses the real or imagined fears of same sex marriage opponents.

He said, She said

11 Jul

New York Times in its article on Mumbai blasts and Kashmir Grenade attacks, ended the story with the following, “New Delhi has continued to accuse Pakistan of training, arming and funding the militants. Islamabad insists it only offers the rebels diplomatic and moral support.”

It is amazing to see that a simple relatively incontestable fact that Islamabad arms and trains militants is hedged by words like “accuses” and the ‘accusation’ followed by a rebuttal by Pakistani Government. There is absolutely no doubt – and this comes from reports from numerous non-partisan experts and numerous stories from Pakistani, BBC and other creditable international journalists that Pakistan engages in all of these practices. This form of equivocation which borders on he said/she said kind of journalism in which even the most basic facts are shown as contestable do a great disservice.

‘Objectivity’ doesn’t imply (and certainly doesn’t demand) equivocation, or getting government hacks on either side to comment on issues. Compare this instance to how reporting is done say on 9/11, where the press doesn’t go out of its way to highlight ludicrous claims made by the opposition. And rightly so.

Gender Gap in IT

28 Jul

IT is dead, long live the geek

Contrary to what one might expect after listening about all the news on the downturn in IT, and worries about outsourcing, IT is still a very robust and very well paid field. Median annual earnings of computer systems analysts were $62,890 in 2002. Bureau of Labor Statistics states,

“Computer systems analysts, database administrators, and computer scientists are expected to be among the fastest growing occupations through 2012. Employment of these computer specialists is expected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations as organizations continue to adopt and integrate increasingly sophisticated technologies. Job increases will be driven by very rapid growth in computer system design and related services, which is projected to be one of the fastest-growing industries in the U.S. economy. In addition, many job openings will arise annually from the need to replace workers who move into managerial positions or other occupations or who leave the labor force.”

IT is an extremely important cog of the American economy. Nearly all the increase in productivity over the past 15 years can be attributed to IT. IT will remain at the forefront of innovation and increase in productivity for years to come and with the convergence of IT and entertainment – the sector is poised for another spurt of growth.

Why do we need women in IT?

Recently, Microsoft chief, Bill Gates, lamented the lack of women working in technology and computer engineering. It is widely recognized that the skills of men and women need to be equally tapped in order to be successful in the global economy. We simply need more people to work in IT. One of the key drivers of outsourcing has been the relatively small talent pool in CS in the US. Some people are dismissive of the need for women in hard sciences like physics and computer science, but if the precedent in biological sciences is anything to go by where women play an increasingly important role – the computer industry is missing out on the talents of half of the population.

On the other end, the industry also needs women as consumers of technology. If gaming industry is anything to go by, it appears that technology companies may be at the risk of alienating half of the world’s population, an inexcusably moronic business decision.

IT companies and women

IBM Corp., one of the largest IT service companies in the world, is rated as the 10th best company in the country for women executives by National Association for Female Executives. HP, another computer giant, features among top 10 also. While both cases can be seen as a sign that technology companies are providing decent opportunities to women to climb up the ladder, the examples are not representative of conditions faced by most female IT employees. Most IT professionals work at either small IT firms, or in IT divisions of non-IT firms, where traditional attitudes continue to dominate. In addition, gender-blind structures post hiring shouldn’t be mistaken for gender-blind hiring structures.

Why IT market is so tough for women?
It is necessary to provide continuous training for upgrading skills. Women who have been out of the labor force for some time (due to pregnancy) find their skills obsolete. The counter point is that IT jobs can be done while telecommuting.

Outright discrimination against women

Discrimination in Academic Workplace:
A study commissioned by Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta in 2001 tried to analyze the career trajectories of women with PhD in science. The study, using data from the Survey of Doctorate Recipients, evaluated differences in employment outcomes for academic scientists by gender. It found that women were less likely to be promoted to tenure.

Why is it hard for women to pursue CS in colleges

Some of the engineering/CS classes are genuinely hard where there is a need for a “buddy system”- collaborating on assignments etc. With few women in CS classes, women feel reluctant to join CS classes. We need a critical mass of women in CS classes to really see a quantum jump in enrollment. A recent paper by Murphy and Steele, analyzing data from MSE classes at Stanford, found that Stereotype threat is more salient for women when the gender imbalance is more extreme.

Here’s are results from a survey:

A recent survey done by the Gallup Organization in conjunction with CNN, USA Today, and the National Science Foundation included 744 children in grades 7 through 12. “Telephone Interviews were conducted from March 20-27, 1997 from Gallup interviewing centers throughout the country. The focus of the survey was on students’ familiarity with and use of modern technology with special attention given to use of computers and the Internet.” (Gallup 1997) Some things that they found were that “American teenagers are very interested in and reliant on modern technology.” The paper gives a lot of information about findings regarding students usage of computers and other household technologies. The somewhat surprising facts to us came with the findings on comparisons of boys and girls. The similarities between boys and girls were staggering. “Boys and girls express nearly identical levels of confidence in using computer, with average scores (on a zero to 10 point scale) of 6.8 and 6.7 respectively. … One-third of both boys and girls feel their computer/technology education is on track…”(Gallup 1997).

Unfortunately, these numbers signifying gender equality do not represent the trends seen in boys and girls entering fields in computer science. According to Cynthia Lanius, author of an article, Getting Girls Interested in Computer Science, these results are encouraging because “increasing girls’ computer use may be necessary to increase girls’ interest in computer science”. However, she also feels that this is not enough. “Computer science (which really should be called computing science) is the study of computation; computers are merely the tool performing the computation.” (Lanius) Her basic conjecture is that saying that girls are using computers or even are comfortable with computers just as much as boys means nothing to how it will effect the computer science field. The fact is the number of girls entering computer science is dropping and we would like to figure out why.




Other Links:

Merchants of Art

26 May

“Shakespeare Wallah” was my introduction to the magic of Merchant Ivory Productions. An elegy to a lost era, a bitter-sweet tale of a traveling English theatre troupe in India right after the Indian independence, it is still vivid in my memory. The debonair Shashi Kapoor and Satyajit Ray’s beautiful score are the two other things that I remember from the film. Since then, I have seen many other Merchant Ivory productions. And their films have always left me simultaneously reassured and disturbed.

A constant in all their movies has been the excellent production values, largely a product of Mr. Merchant’s vision, and his acknowledged genius for creating beautiful, authentic sets on a shoestring budget. With the demise of Ismail, we no longer have a producer who fussed over each detail.

The troika of James Ivory, Ruth Prawer Jhabwala, and Ismail Merchant over the past four decades virtually invented a new genre of films. They showed that you don’t need to compromise on art to be successful. And to me, that is the legacy of Merchant Ivory.

I will forever be indebted to their patience, art, and virtue.

Further Reading:
BBC article on Ismail Merchant

Some die young

26 Dec

There are 34 countries in Africa where life expectancy at birth of both men and women is equal to or less than 51.
Data are from the 2003 UN estimates.
Note that life expectancy at birth is strongly impacted by infant mortality.

Name of country Av. Age of Men  Av. Age of Women

Angola      39      41
Benin       48      51
Botswana    39      40
Burkina Faso    45      46
Burundi     40      41
Cameroon    45      47
Central African 38      40
Chad        44      46
Rep of Congo    47      50
DR Congo    41      43
Djibouti    45      47
Equatorial  48      50
Ethiopia    45          46
Guinea      49      49
Guinea Bissau   44      47
Ivory Coast 41          41
Kenya       43          46
Lesotho     32          38
Liberia     41          42
Malawi      37          38
Mali        48          49
Mozambique  37      40
Namibia     43      46
Niger       46      46
Rwanda      39      40
Sierra Leone    33      35
Somalia     45      48
South Africa    45      51
Swaziland   33      35
Tanzania    42      44
Togo        48      51
Uganda      45      47
Zambia      33      32
Zimbabwe    34      33