Archive for January, 2010

A friend of a friend had warned me about British understatement. Specifically, she had mentioned professors and grading. She said if a professor says “Good,” they mean C-worthy. If they say “Very good,” then you’re headed for a B. If they say “Very good indeed,” then congratulations, that was A-range work. In addition to this warning about British understatement in the academic context, I’d long thought that calling the conflict in Northern Ireland the Troubles was a particularly understated manner of addressing a decades long conflict that involved numerous bombings and deaths and nearly killed a Prime Minister. The newest addition to my collection is “unforeseen circumstances”, something my uncle said on Sunday.

I’ll have to back up a bit first. About a week ago my uncle began behaving oddly. He missed an appointment of some importance, and that was totally out of character for him. Also, he was acting in a way I can only describe as drunk, or, well, his ability to communicate seemed in the near inebriated range – very simple conversation only. Tuesday and Wednesday evening family were advising that he see a doctor and offered to call an ambulance, but he repeatedly refused. We didn’t know what was wrong, but imagined some sort of mental illness, depression or schizophrenia were high on the list. Little accounted for the sudden and dramatic change in behavior that we could understand. Prior to this, he went out, he ran errands, he was a healthy functioning adult. Skipping over some of the details, by Friday evening I was calling an ambulance because of his erratic behavior. Three cheers for the London Ambulance Service by the way.

In the small hours of Saturday morning my uncle was transferred from our local hospital to a much larger hospital in central London. That afternoon he had surgery. A cousin and I were at the hospital. When my uncle came out of surgery, he had what my cousin described as half a Mr. T haircut. There was a semicircle, an arc really, where they had operated. The doctors had removed “a collection of blood in his brain”.

Essentially, it was like the doctors had flipped a switch. The uncle of Friday night was despondent. He was hollowed out, his personality had disappeared, what made him him was gone. My uncle Saturday evening bore no resemblance to my uncle on Friday night. The despondent mood was gone completely. He was talking, laughing, and joking. It was less than 24 hours between my calling the ambulance and my uncle being himself again – 180 degree turnabout in under a day.

What was an odd and unsettling experience for me was profoundly and utterly bizarre for him. He said he could not remember Tuesday to Saturday pre-surgery. In effect, his memory of the past week begins being aware he is in hospital, not knowing where and not knowing why. Imagine stopping time now, and waking up a week later in a hospital bed. Unforeseen circumstance indeed.

I do not know what perspective the doctors and nurses in the neurosurgery ward must have on the world, but the entire episode reminded me of a discussion of free will at Missives from Marx (here and here). Particularly my uncle’s refusing to see a doctor early last week, which he only sort of half remembers. Who was that? I can connect his body to his behavior last week, but I can’t connect his mind, so once again, who was that? That fake uncle, that uncle imposter.

So, Damocles’ sword hangs over all our heads. I learned this in a way I had no appreciation of before I’d been to a neurosurgery ward. You’re a blood clot away from not being you anymore. Not in terms of having to learn to walk and talk again, that’s somehow easier to deal with intellectually. Death and being in a persistent vegetative state are also easier to deal with intellectually. That all falls into the taking away stuff you can do category. But I hadn’t considered who you are as being one of the things you can do. Who you are seemed more intrinsically connected to your you-ness. Your identity is also wrapped up in your brain – which now writing that seems totally obvious. Of course your identity is in your brain, where else would it be? I guess seeing it demonstrated so clearly, so starkly, right before my eyes in 24 hours is what struck me, and prompted this post. That and “unforeseen circumstances”.

Happy endings, knock on wood, my uncle is out of the high dependency unit and will be transferred to a local hospital later this week. Hopefully, he’ll make a full recovery. A strange beginning to 2010, but I’ll take eventual discharge from the hospital and full recovery any day. Three cheers for the NHS too by the way.


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The Economist has a trio of glass half full articles about women’s workforce participation (I, II, and III). During the course of their discussion, the Economist invokes “old-fashioned meritocracy” and pooh-poohs the idea of affirmative action, writing, “To begin with, promoting people on the basis of their sex is illiberal and unfair, and stigmatises its beneficiaries.”

I disagree with the Economist’s assessment of affirmative action. For instance, I support the UK government’s Equality Bill (though diluted) and the French government’s proposals to

see women make up half the figures in France’s leading boardrooms by 2015, under a bold plan to impose gender equality on the male-dominated business world.

In a bill submitted to the French parliament this week, all companies listed on the Paris stock exchange would have to ensure female employees made up 50% of their board members by 2015. If passed, a gradual implementation of the law would see businesses obliged to have women in 20% of board seats within 18 months, and 40% within four years. (Guardian)

It is remarkable that the Economist goes for a glass half full perspective when in various areas the glass is nowhere near such lofty heights, the Economist writes, “Only 2% of the bosses of America’s largest companies and 5% of their peers in Britain are women.” Additionally, “…only 10.5% of board members in CAC 40 (French stock market index) companies are female.” (Guardian).

…in the UK, 12% of FTSE 100 directors are female and one in four boards are exclusively male. Sweden and Finland boast more women at leading companies at 22% and 17% respectively.

The proportion of female directors among US Fortune 500 firms is 15.2%. (Guardian).

The celebratory title, “We did it!” hardly seems to fit the circumstances.

As for the “old-fashioned meritocracy” the Economist praises, grim simulacrum of meritocracy is a more apt description. The mechanisms that reinforce and reproduce privilege impede, “Fairness at entry, fairness in discretionary pay, and fairness in progression.” (Trevor Phillips via DJFN). From all male social clubs to conducting business at the boom-boom room, a variety of structural mechanism can slow change to a glacial pace.

Mad Men doesn’t seem so distant, consider,

In addition to triple-X-rated sexual harassment, Antilla’s subjects also suffered cold, hard job discrimination. Many of their firms paid them lower base salaries than their male equivalents, blatantly yanked away clients and commissions, welcomed them back from maternity leave with pay cuts and demotions and refused to supply them with the study materials that helped male brokers earn their licenses. As of 1994, male sales assistants at Smith Barney were more than eight times as likely to make broker as their female counterparts.

The book’s title, with its connotations of stock market heights, sounds allegorical. But the Boom-Boom Room was a real place: the basement rec room of a Shearson brokerage office in Garden City, N.Y., where some of these abuses took place. Antilla reports on a number of companies, but the Boom-Boom Room is her Tailhook. She spends the first half of the book enumerating the humiliations women suffered at the Garden City branch, and the second half describing the ill-fated lawsuit in which they tried to gain redress.

Quotas aside, a wide array of proposals fall under the umbrella of affirmative action (aka positive discrimination in the UK, and temporary special measures in UN human rights treaties). While I favor the most forceful measures, quotas and timelines à la France and Norway, alternate policies include:

  • soft targets with comply or explain as the only sanction,
  • recruitment efforts and mentorship programs to encourage participation of the underrepresented,
  • longlists or shortlists that prescribe diversity,
  • guarantees that some portion of the underrepresented reach a certain phase in the application process (second look, first interview, etc.).

The policy landscape includes far more choice than deadline driven affirmative action measures or inaction.

Overall, the Economist does not reach a holistic vision (entry, pay, and progress) of women’s workforce participation, though to the Economist’s credit, they recognize the slow pace of change and some social structures’ contribution to inequality. Perhaps the Economist’s triumphalist “We did it!” is right in the sense that the Wright brothers also “did it” when they flew a few meters off the ground for a few seconds. But that sets our sights awfully low when our aim should be far, far higher than that. For instance, a quarter of FTSE 100 boards being all male is simply not good enough. The history and ongoing discrimination in terms of pay and positions makes for less than inspiring reading.

I’ll close by saying, representation of women on the boards of the largest companies in a handful of wealthy Western nations is just one, fairly narrow axis for looking at women’s workforce participation. I purposefully argued in this field of the Economist’s domain, avoiding some of the broader and more obvious sources for analysis of women’s human rights, Human Rights Watch and the US State Department’s annual country reports. Taking into account this larger optic, it becomes even clearer that the cause for celebration of progress is limited indeed.

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