Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Hidden gendercide

The Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of the Armed Forces has published a new book called "Women in an Insecure World". I haven't read the book, just the summary, but it has a horrifying catalogue of all the different ways in which women can be damaged in today's world.

It starts with an eyecatching headline - Hidden Gendercide - which has my middle class eyes rolling at the drama.

But then the next statistic - that there are more than 200 million women and girls "demographically missing" in the world today - that is that if you look at all of the women who should be alive today given the ratio of boys to girl at birth, there are around 200 million "missing", shows that there are no drama queens writing this report. That implies that 1.5 million to 3 million girls or women each year die for some cause related to their gender.

The catalogue of ways in which those 200 million women and girls have disappeared is comprehensive:

- gender specific abortion and infanticide - the ratio of girls to boys at birth in China is 100:119, rather than the biologically normal 100:103
- not receiving as much food as their brothers, fathers and husbands - women comprise more than two thirds of the 2.5 billion people in the world categorised as "poor"
- domestic violence - globally women between the ages of 15 to 44 are more likely to be injured or die from male violence than cancer, traffic accidents, malaria and war combined.
- complications from pregnancy and childbirth - 585,000 women die every year

It's a depressing litany, and one which required a huge amount of research to put together. The main recommendations seem pretty sensible

Prevention - awareness raising and research of statistics (particularly collecting gender separated statistics on violence)
Protection - through law and institutions
Empowerment - through education and participation in decision making.

My actuarial brain loves the idea of more statistics, and my female heart sinks at the struggles most of the women in the world have just to live.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Selective schools

Once again, the SMH has an article about the enormous success of Asian immigrants in NSW's schools. This time, it's a much better researched article, which goes to the trouble of looking at the actual background of students, rather than counting the ones with Asian names (I blogged about this on November 12th). But it still suffers from the same statistical flaw. A quote:
"More than 5000 of the 16,000 selective school students say they have a Chinese-speaking heritage and all but 100 of those students live in Sydney, where 4.9 per cent of the population speaks a Chinese language."
The flaw is that 10% of the population aged 15-24 speaks Cantonese at home, and 7% speaks Mandarin. There are a whole lot of other chinese languages spoken at home - Hokkien being a common one, as it is spoken a lot from ethnic chinese from Malaysia. So of the children who might go to a selective high school, let's say 20% (a conservative estimate) have a chinese speaking heritage, and 30% actually got in (i.e. 50% more than you expect). That's a completely different story from 6 times as many as you expect, which is what the article implies.

The real story is buried in the middle of another related article (clearly the Herald is doing a series):
"This year 52 per cent of applicants were from a non-English-speaking background and of the students who got into a selective school, 53 per cent had a home language other than English."
So non-english speaking background children are just as successful as english-speaking background children in getting into selective schools. What a non story.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Book Review: The Power of Babel - A Natural History of Language

Today's book review is The Power of Babel - A Natural History of Language, by John McWhorter. I've never noticed it in a bookshop, but a friend bought it for me, and I'm very glad she did.

My foreign language ability is pitiful (I did three years each of french and german at school) but I've always wished I could speak another language, and I've been fascinated by language differences for as long as I can remember. In fact, perhaps the starting reason I enjoyed this book is the anecdote at the beginning of the author, as a four year old, discovering for the first time that there were other languages when his four year old soulmate speaks in Hebrew to her parents.

Unlike me, John McWhorter goes on to learn as many languages as he can cram into his head, but he retains a fascination with what makes languages different, how they change over time, and what makes something a dialect rather than a language.

McWhorter is a lover of languages for their own sake, which shines through in the description of the many weird and wonderful grammatical flourishes that languages manage to have. This is at its most enjoyable when he systematically demolishes the myth that "primitive" societies have primitive languages.

In fact, as he shows, it's the reverse - the longer a language has been spoken without the preservation of writing, or the sandpaper of many non native speakers, the more baroque grammatical flourishes it is likely to have preserved, and the harder it is for a non native speaker to learn it. So grammatically and structural (if not in vocabulary) English is one of the simpler ones around.

The book is a fast clip through information about what seems like every language in the world, illustrating the way in which languages change and mutate - what makes it happen, how grammar is far more important in the process than vocabulary, but we generally notice vocabulary far more, all the while with fascinating examples and little cultural diversions.

He ends with a plea for more linguists to study and at least record all of the fast disappearing languages around the world; not because he believes you will preserve some wonderful understanding of the universe, but because they are worth preserving for their beauty and flourishes.

If you are at all fascinated with language, and the amazingly varied ways in which human beings choose to express themselves, you will enjoy this book.

Saturday, November 26, 2005


The world gymnastics championships are on this week in Melbourne. I did gymnastics all through high school, and I have really mixed feelings about the sport.

I was OK at it, not elite, but moderately serious (six hours of training a week), and for me it was a great sport. The training wasn't that serious, and was with a group of girls that I got on with really well. There's a lot of sitting around waiting for your turn when your doing gymnastics training, so it's quite fun. Although we did talk about our weight from time to time, no more than any other group of teenage girls I was in at the time. And I was tall in gymnastics (I'm 162 cm), which is an experience I always enjoy, as it happens so rarely.

But I've also read Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, which is a pretty damning indictment of the sport at the elite level. I judged national championships in Australia for a while, and got to see some of the anorexia promoting behavior, and the clear way in which major changes were made to body chemistry in the name of sport. I saw many 18, 19 even 20 something year old retirees from the sport suddenly go through puberty. As a judge, I saw many elite gymnasts judged on their body type, not their performance - even a muscular body type could be implicitly punished as not giving a clear line in the dance elements.

To some extent, most elite sports involve a degree of self sacrifice that seems ridiculous to someone who isn't as driven as the participants. Most elite women's sports have terrible records with eating disorders compared with the general population. But the difference with gymnastics is that it takes place so young.

I don't have daughters (and I won't), but if I did, I wouldn't let them start gymnastics if I thought they were in danger of being any good at it.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Unconscious sexism

I had a meeting with a new client this afternoon. On the way up, I had been getting the briefing from my colleague about who the people were, X who the meeting is with, and Y and Z who might come, depending on what X decides (all male names).

So when "Katie" meets us at the door, I immediately assume that she is X's secretary and make polite secretaryish conversation (about their Christmas party tonight). I hope it wasn't too blatantly obvious that that's what I thought, because she joined us at the meeting to (as X said) take the notes of the meeting and do all the work.

I was really annoyed with myself. People never assume I'm a secretary because I don't look right (I have really short hair, wear no makeup and I always wear trousers), but I remember what it was like when they did and I hated it.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Increasing storms

Are the storms that we've had this year a sign of global warming? Or is it just coincidence (after all, we've had a pretty horrible year for earthquakes and tsunamis too).

I went looking for evidence, but couldn't find it in a casual sweep; I'm finding that global warming is becoming like a religion - either you believe in it or you don't, but it's really hard to find any information that seems impartial enough to trust the conclusion.

Anyway, from the insurance gossip I've heard, all you can conclude from the statistics so far is that there are more and more people in the world, so they are filling up places that were regarded as marginal, and not paying enough attention to building codes. If you look at the destruction in New Orleans, the parts of the city that were built 200 years ago did better than the recent parts.

There have been more hurricanes than average in the US season this year. But the increase is not yet statistically significant. They have also been in worse places, so the human cost, in lives and property, has been much greater. And so far, at least, that's what's creating the real impact in increased insured losses at lesat - we're richer, so we lose more, and there's more of us, so we live in more marginal places.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Families and work

In search of an idea for a post, I went looking on the ABS website for statistics about women and work. I got sidetracked into this fascinating summary of lots of different research they've done into work, families and childcare.

I was particularly struck by a graph that shows the combined weekly hours worked by both parents (where there are two). Not so much by the information in the graph itself (although that was really interesting), but by the mindset that it is important to look at the total amount of work that happens in a household and how it is shared. I'm inclined to think (from the position of someone who works 45 or so of the 60 hours worked for pay in this household) that the best outcome is for the total work of this household to be about 30 hours - shared 50/50. But I know that's not going to happen.

Other interesting snippets:

- 70% of families with children under five had a total paid working hours of less than 60 hours a week (with 3% being over 100 hours a week!)
- 33% of fathers working full time used flexible working arrangements to help themselves care for children - mostly flexible working hours (70% of mothers did the same)
- 40% of fathers and 44% of mothers are entitled to paid paternity/maternity leave
- 72% of public sector employees and 36% of private sector employees are entitled to paid parental leave
- Since 1986, women's participation in the labour force has gone up from 61% to 70% between the ages of 25 and 34 (but the study links to another study that points out that the proportionof women aged 25 to 29 without children has increased from 40% to 53% between 1986 and 1996)

Any conclusions?

Australia as it is today is a society where some of us are working more hours than ever before (in 1994 we had more men working more than 45 hours a week than any country than the UK, and more women than any country than Japan), but there does seem to be genuine progress in sharing the load between men and women. It's glacial, but it's there. I'm increasingly thinking that a tipping point may start to come. It's anecdotal, but there are a lot more stay at home dads around, at least where I live.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Using my brain

I'm on a course at the moment. Learning about economic capital and Basel II. Surprisingly, I am enjoying it more than I thought I would. It's run by a former senior banker, with a physics background, who, while he is very senior, can't let go of the fact that he understands the mathematics of risk management.

So he's stuffed what was supposed to be a course helping reasonably senior people understand economic capital full of mathematics. I don't think it's because he wants to show off. I think it's because he loves it.

I became an actuary because I really loved maths. But it's probably been ten years since I've had to do any serious maths. I usually don't have the patience for it, and really I should get someone more junior to do it who did it more recently at university anyway.

But right now, I'm revelling in the fact that I can only just keep up with him, but I can, and I'm being forced to think with a part of my brain that I've forgotten that I enjoy using.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Access to medical care

A recent article in the SMH about health care in Australia surprised me. It was a review of reasonably sick people, and how likely they were to skip treatment because of the cost in different countries.

The study was based on interviews with 7000 adults, from six industrialised countries, who said their health was fair or poor, had been admitted to hospital, or had had a serious illness in the past two years. It was described as being by a "left leaning" think tank (by the SMH), but the only evidence of that in the study was in the questions that they decided to ask.

I wasn't surprised that adults in the US came out pretty much worst of all on all the criteria (the study's abstract says "The United States often stands out for inefficient care and errors and is an outlier on access/cost barriers") but I was surprised at how much better the UK was on access criteria. In answer to the question about access problems due to cost over the past 2 years, only 13% of patients in the UK reported any form of access problems, where as 22% of Australians didn't access health care for cost reasons (similar in Canada and Germany), and a whopping 51% of citizens of the US.

I had previously had the vague impression that the UK spends a significantly lower amount on health care as a % of GDP than we do, for roughly the same outcomes (with a lot less patient choice).

The general standard of care doesn't seem that much better or worse in the UK. But the NHS certainly seems to be doing something right for the ability of sick citizens to actually get health care when they need it.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Book Review: Affluenza, When too much is never enough

This week's book review is Affluenza,when too much is never enough, by Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss. Clive Hamilton is the Executive Director of the Australia Institute, a left leaning independent public policy research centre. Richard Denniss was formerly Chief of Staff of Natasha Stott-Despoja, when she was leader of the Australian Democrats.

I found the book inspiring but frustrating. As you can guess from the title, it is a book about how all of the increasing consumption of Australians is failing to make us happier. While it has a lot of good points to make, it suffers from two faults, to me.

First, it finds the most extreme example of something to make a point. For example:

"One parent reported how thrilled she was at the special service she received in shops because of her 'funky' toddler, Ponie, who was wearing 'a pink cashmere cardigan, striped Genko T-shirt and minature Vans runners from Japan'.
She added, 'She is wearing the worst shoes for her outfit, but I let her go.'"
Does this actually mean that the whole of Australia has a problem with ridiculous overdressing of babies? or just that there is one mother somewhere in an overly trendy suburb who overdresses her daughter? Another anecodote:

"A young man working in the highly competitive finance sector was called in by his bosses to discuss the progress of his work. After a few minutes he broke down in tears, confessing that he had been working so hard that he had not once seen his 10-month-old daughter awake"
Now this is very sad. But I work in the highly competitive finance sector (I do my share of mergers and acquisitions) and I have never met anyone who works hard enough to make that possible.

The book is full of anecdotes like this that you are meant to shake your head at what has come to modern Australians today. They don't show much sign of being representative or even particularly common.

There are also some real statistics (such as the size of modern houses compared with 50 years ago), but they almost seem peripheral; when the authors are trying to make a point, they wheel out the devastating anecdote.

And the suggested solutions are not particularly helpful. Their main conclusion is that we need a:
"political philosophy of wellbeing, one that focuses on those aspects of our personal lives and the social structure that do improve our welfare."
They go on to outline a political manifesto for wellbeing, which if adopted, will fix all our problems of being addicted to consumption. While this manifesto seems very worthy, it doesn't actually seem all that helpful to me. It contains things like 'provide fulfilling work', 'reclaim our time', 'discourage materialism and promote responsible advertising', 'build communities and relationships'.

The one thing that I (being an actuary) thought might be worthwhile was 'measure what matters' - build a set of national accounts that measure what they call 'national wellbeing'. Apart from the cheesy name, I'm inclined to agree with this one. It's crazy that (for example) unpaid childcare is not counted in the GDP and paid childcare is counted, and that a devastating bushfire will increase our national accounts because we have to pay to rebuild the houses.

Overall, it's a good read, if you avoid the feeling of needing to shout at the authors about the extremeness of their conspicuous consumption anecdotes. But its not an effective call to action.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Medical malpractice

Last week's New Yorker has another great article from Atul Gawande, this time about Medical Malpractice (print only, Q&A with author here).

It's a musing on what the right remedy for medical malpractice is. The example that encapsulated the article best for me was towards the end of the article, when he compared being a doctor with a baseballer. He said that a good third baseman will make a stupid mistake that costs a home run, and sometimes a game, maybe 2% of the time. That doesn't sound like much. But if you're a surgeon, and 2% of the time you make errors that injure or disable someone, and every now and again they cost someone's life, then what should happen?

His suggested solution is the NZ system, which is an accident compensation system for any kind of accident. If you are the victim of an accident that causes personal injury (there are a bunch of exclusions, but its basically anything other than illness) then you are entitled to compensation which is limited to a maximum lump sum amount if you are catastrophically injured.

I used to think that a no fault system like the NZ was the best system for any kind of injury compensation, until I realised that there is potential for an adversarial legal system to create change; i.e. if you know you are likely to be sued for something that is your fault, you might do something about it. I realised this when I watched the NSW education system completely change their system for coaching rugby union in schools not when a 15 year old boy became a quadriplegic from a collapsing scrum, but when the courts awarded him a $2m payout.

The trouble is, the legal system is a very blunt instrument. The system described in Atul Gawenda's article, which seems pretty similar to what I know about the NSW system, is one in which the adversarial nature makes it almost impossible for doctors to learn the real lessons that arise when something goes wrong. A big payout like the rugby scrum payout might change behavior because it is new and different, but a smaller payout like a moderately routine case that reduces someone's mobility might not be noticed by anyone other than the doctor involved.

Some errors might be completely unavoidable, and it doesn't matter how you compensate people. But some errors may be about processes that are flawed, that could be changed if the system of compensation made learning lessons possible. A system like NZ's, by having all errors centrally administered and compensated, does also allow for people to learn from their mistakes, if the systems are set up to do so.

I'm currently thinking that on balance, the collective system (a la NZ) is best. But I don't believe it is cut and dried, and I do wish that policymakers thought more about how any compensation system might ensure an overall lower error rate when they are thinking about how a system should work.


Margo Kingston's webdiary (which I don't read, but probably should, now I've become a blogger) has a really thoughtful submission from Platinum Funds Management on the proposed new anti-terror laws in Australia. As I've said before, I feel I should be worried about these new anti-terror laws, but they're so depressing that I find it difficult to work up the energy.

I feel shown up by Kerr Nielson, managing director of Platinum Funds Management - one of the biggest and most successful of the boutique fund managers (i.e. not owned by a huge distribution arm), who has taken the time to write a serious, thoughtful submission on why human rights are important to maintaining a vibrant economy in this country.

As a cynic, I could think it's about the parts of the laws that are about financing terrorism (and how badly they will affect fund managers), but he and/or Platinum Funds Management has taken the time to look at the bigger picture as well.

Thursday, November 17, 2005


I went to the soccer last night. It was fantastic. I am so glad I was there. I made a vow after the Sydney Olympics that I would go to world class sport if it was ever in Sydney. Almost immediately, I got pregnant, and changed focus. But it's reminded me why it was worth while. I think being a woman I was more outnumbered than I would have been supporting Uraguay (and that's saying something!), but I loved every minute of it.

The experience of having a stadium of 80,000 people singing their national anthem with their hearts on their sleeves.

The experience of being one of a crowd that was invested in every half chance, that rose as one when a goal got close, that turned to the stranger next to them when we scored the goal that gave us hope, and started chanting and singing whenever our team looked like flagging.

It was one of those games that in 10 years time, 800,000 people will be earnestly telling their friends they were there. I was lucky enough to be one of the people in the crowd when Cathy Freeman won her gold medal. This was just as good.

Last time Australia made the World Cup football final was 1974. Since then, we've had heart break after heart break, the worst in my personal memory being 1997 against Iran, where we looked a shoo-in at two goals up with half a match to go, and then Iran scored two goals against us to win on the away goal rule.

Now we're there again!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Children and society

Jody at Raising WEG has a great post about the relationship between children and society as a whole (sparked by a storm in a coffee cup in Chicago).

It prompted me to try to find some research I'd read a while back about cultural differences in society's attitude to children. I didn't find it (except a few tantalising comments in the study I did find) but the thrust of it was that German children have more freedom to roam their neighbourhoods and the public transport systems than equivalent anglo (Australian or UK) children. The price they pay for that freedom is that any adult feels quite justified in telling them off if they are doing something anti-social, and they pay attention.

But the flipside of that is that the adults around are generally looking out for the children; so parents can feel a bit safer that the major stranger danger is some annoying old biddy telling the child what to do, rather than some terrible pedophile abducting them never to be seen again.

While looking for it, I found a an interesting article referenced in the Sydney Morning Herald today - a study about what makes a child friendly city, in particular, the link between good public transport and child friendly cities. A quote:

"Two important reasons for the restriction by parents of their children’s independent travel, particularly as pedestrians and cyclists, are traffic danger and stranger danger. Yet there may be an important link between traffic and fears of assault and molestation in residential streets.

As traffic levels increase, more and more people (adults as well as children) cease to use the streets as pedestrians. This is partly a response to traffic danger, but also a response to the loss of local shops and services, and hence greater reliance on the motor vehicle for access to these shops, schools and even playgrounds. Eventually, residential streets are perceived as being deserted, lonely and hence dangerous places for children, in terms of the fear of assault and

When people do leave their private homes, they do so behind the closed doors of their private motor vehicles. Thus there are few adults around on the streets to provide surveillance and support for children. In particular, there are few adults who know their neighbours' children and can look out for them. In contrast, if traffic levels are low enough to allow streets to be used for walking, cycling, social interaction and playing (all of which are important activities for children) it can be argued that potentially at least, streets become reinvigorated with supportive community life."

This quote really sums up for me the gradual reduction in neighbourliness we've had over the past 30 years. Reading it makes me believe that the issue hasn't been the change in the proportion of stay at home parents (that's part of it, but only part) but that it's our retreat, greatly assisted by the car, into the private sphere where we are only interested in our own lives, and not those of our neighbours, or our neighbours children.

So we end up with the situation that instead of engaging with the naughty child who is creating havoc in the coffee shop, and diverting them (as best we can) from inappropriate games in the middle of the coffee queue, we self-righteously ignore them and talk later to our friends about how bad that child's parents were.

Monday, November 14, 2005


I have a role which involves marketing professional services, by effortlessly networking with the senior people around town, which isn't necessarily my favourite thing to do in the world. Right now, for various reasons, I don't care as much as I usually do about being successful about it. And when I don't care, I'm not so worried about making a fool of myself in marketing situations as I usually am.

Which in turn, seems to result in my being much better at it! I had two marketing situations today, where instead of being overawed by the senior person I was dealing with (as I sometimes am), I chatted naturally about their business, and the things I knew about that they would be interested in.

If I only I could get that level of ease with my ability without having to decide first that I didn't care.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Book Review - The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations

This week's book review is The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations by James Surowiecki.

I remember a friend getting very annoyed with one of those "management training" exercises designed to prove that eight heads a better than one. In her experience of the exercise, the group decision making was less likely to get the right answer than she (a smart person) was. I like to think of myself as a smart person, so was inclined to agree with her.

This book talks about the situations, more than you might expect, where adding input from more people will help you get to the right answer. A simple, but powerful, example comes from the TV game Who wants to be a Millionaire. The studio audience is right, when asked, 91% of the time. The "phone a friend" pre-arranged expert is only right 65% of the time.

But where I found the book most useful is in understanding the conditions for that to work. They are simple, make sense when you think about it, but easy to forget when confronted with a situation when a group needs to make a decision.

You need diversity - ie the extra people you add need to be different from each other. This is important, as a diverse group will each have a different piece of information to help you come up with the right answer. You need independence - people's views need to be unchanged by the rest of the group. And finally (and most difficult), you need a method of aggregation that doesn't lose the information contained in the group. This is easy in the case of Who wants to be a millionaire. Much harder when trying to figure out the answer to a difficult problem. In particular, in a small group, it is very common for a chair to fail to take into account all of the viewpoints of the group. And if the question is more complex than a right or wrong answer (in the book there is an example of a group trying to find a lost submarine, and Bayesian statistics were used to get to the answer) then you need an equally complex aggregation method.

To me this book was useful in pointing out why diversity is useful (apart from the usual fairness arguments) and in helping to think about how in a business sense you can try to harness the inherent wisdom that is available to you. I think it has made me less impatient with some of the business meetings I go to where the opinions of the group are solicited before decisions are made.

And, more importantly, it is a fun read, as you would expect from a frequent New Yorker writer.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Bad statistics lead to racism

There's an opinion piece in the SMH today from Michael Duffy that really has my blood boiling. The thrust of his piece is that the combination of the last 20 years of emphasis in our immigration intake of Asians, and the much greater educational ability and aspirations of those Asians - "Asians are the first significant group of immigrants to this country to come from, or at least aspire urgently to enter, the middle class" means that "they could form a majority of Australian professionals within a generation or two".

I have a whole lot of problems with this argument. But I'll just mention one. The appalling statistical analysis inherent in his main piece of evidence - "For instance, in the 2004 HSC, about 350 of the top 1000 students had Asian surnames. As people of Asian background comprise about 7 per cent of the population, this means they did five times better as a group than other Australians".

To analyse this statistic properly, you have to first analyse the actual group doing the HSC. Given the proportion of Asians over the age of 50 in Australia is considerably less than 7%, the proportion of Asians aged 17 or 18 is likely to be considerably more than 7%.

I've been irritated by this before, and this time I tried to find the answer from the ABS. It, of course, depends on your definition (surprise, surprise, the ABS doesn't have a category called "asian names as defined by racist columnists"). The best test I could find was second languages spoken at home in the age group 15-24. In 2001, for Australia as a whole, 10% spoke Cantonese at home, 7% spoke Vietnamese, and 7% spoke Mandarin. There are likely to be some who speak Cantonese and Mandarin at home, but balancing that against a whole bunch of asian languages that wouldn't be included here, such as Hokkien, Laotian, Cambodian, etc etc (only the top 6 were shown in this report), it seems reasonable to say that at least 25% of HSC students might speak an Asian language at home. And there are probably a few more with Asian ancestry, who only speak English at home.

Australia is a nation of immigrants. The population of Sydney is 38% born overseas. If you add second generation immigrants, you almost certainly get over 50%. Surely we should therefore expect that our professional class should eventually be reflective of the population as a whole?

I used to have respect for Michael Duffy - sure a right wing columnist, but I thought a sensible one. No more. This whole column just seems like casual racism to me - he's invoking the old fashioned yellow peril, but just talking about asians taking over the professions, rather than over-running the country.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Gender roles

I'm the main breadwinner in our family. My husband, E, takes care of our boys, and is also on our local council (which is a part-time, mainly evening, role).

I've been wondering what impact that has on our boys' understanding of the role of gender in our society. Neither of them seem to have particularly strong understanding of gender. C, who is four, still occasionally says he instead of she, about both strangers and people he knows (eg his grandmother). D, two, told me his favourite part of a recent Bananas in Pyjamas concert was Angelina Ballerina. His four year old friend said "but that's for girls", which shocked me, as I didn't expect her to be so definitive so young. And C's favourite colour is pink, which I don't think anyone has ever told him is supposed to be a "girl's colour".

They know that E is better at fixing things than I am. But they also know that E is the only one who cooks. Given that the other families they know have a mother who cooks, and a father who fixes things, they don't particularly think of cooking or fixing things as the role of either mothers or fathers.

Mostly, I'm totally happy that they have no pre-conceived ideas about boys doing one thing, or girls doing another. But occasionally I wonder whether that's going to lead them into trouble when they get into the real world of more rigidly defined gender roles.

Thursday, November 10, 2005


Rebel Dad loves to collect statistics on stay at home dads (in the US of course). Elizabeth at Half Changed World joined in with some income analysis.

I found an interesting Australian survey, mostly about childcare. A table at the back shows the hours of work of mothers and fathers, and the type of childcare used (if any). I had a quick play with the statistics, and found the following:

4% of Australian children under 12 have no non parental childcare (childcare includes informal care such as grandparents), and a mother who works >35 hours a week. Since neither of our two children would be included in this statistic (although I work >35 hours a week, they both go to preschool for 2 days a week), I think it's probably safe to say that at least 1 in 20 of Australian children has a stay at home dad for the majority of their childcare.

These dads have been recently joined by one Mark Latham, who extolls his new stay-at-home dad life at every opportunity.

I think I would believe his sincerity more if (a) he hadn't spent the previous (at least) three years in a job which meant he could spend no time with his kids and (b) he wasn't getting paid a very nice parliamentary pension for the privilege.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The medical bell curve

Atul Gawande recently wrote in the New Yorker about standards of medical care, in an article entitled the Bell Curve. I couldn't find the article on line, but here is some Q&A about it.

The thrust of the article is grappling with the issue that some doctors and care centres are better than others. If we can identify which doctors or surgeons are below average in survival rates, standards of care, etc. what should we do about it? First of all, should we tell people, and then if we do, what do we do about it when nobody wants to be cared for by the below average physician?

At the heart of this problem, to me, is the tension between individual and group needs. The group as a whole is better off if the below average physician continues to practice. Because below average care is better than no care at all. But the individual, of course, will want the best possible care. It's possible that the only way to continue to have all those below average physicians practicing is not to tell their patients that they are below average.

At some point, the below average care becomes medical malpractice. But where is that point? And if you draw that line too high, then poor care, which is better than no care at all, becomes unavailable.

It's easy for me to pontificate on this. I'm healthy. But I do have some experience. I've had two caesareans in my life. I strongly believe that the second one (a locum) would qualify as below average. I had much poorer recovery, and a much worse scar. But, even given that, I would prefer to have had the caesarean than to have had to wait another two weeks with increasingly high blood pressure and eventual pre-eclampsia for my regular doctor to return from holidays. (let's pretend that there weren't other intermediate options). In this case, poor care was definitely much better than no care at all.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Turning the tables

As I've mentioned before, I'm the breadwinner in our family. My husband stays at home and looks after the kids. So while I've got an impressive corporate job, I sometimes wonder whether I am advancing the cause of women and families generally in the workplace.

Have I just bought into the dominant paradigm that a serious corporate job needs a "wife" to go with it? Would I be setting a better example if we both had a serious corporate job (which was the position we were in for our older son's first year of life)?

On balance, I think that I am better doing it this way than the reverse. I am more likely than the average man to leave work at a reasonable hour to try and have dinner with the family. I am also more likely to say no to extra work for that reason, or at least question whether it is really adding value. I also like to think that I am reasonably sympathetic to others who have work life issues that mean that they'd rather not spend all hours in the office.

But I do sometimes wonder if I'm just behaving like a man in woman's clothing.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Anti-terror laws

I've been too depressed about the new anti-terror laws to seriously read them and try and understand them (not to mention not being a lawyer). But as far as I can tell, the main arguments boil down to:

Government - trust us we will only ever use these laws against people who are creating a serious threat to the state. Australian law is full of unwritten conventions that stop really stupid laws being used. (here's one right leaning blogger on the topic)

Anti government - look at the laws themselves, and ask yourself what government (or more to the point, police force) ever restrained themselves and manged to avoid locking people up unjustly when it had the power. (here's a relatively restrained blog view)

You can probably tell from my summation above which way I'm leaning. I'm starting to think that I should stop ignoring these kinds of issues in my comfortable middle class life and start getting involved.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Book Review - Stasiland

Today's book review is Stasiland, by Anna Funder. Stasiland is the former East Germany, and this book is the story of people who Anna Funder met in East Germany, and what life was really like for them. It is a powerful story, and told in wonderfully evocative language that gets you deep into the reality of a totalitarian state.

It really forces you to think about what a police state is actually like. I've always known, theoretically, that a police state is a horrible place. But deep down, I've also secretly thought that it would be a problem for other people. I would be one of those people who were outraged at what was happening, but would manage to live my life reasonably comfortably. Sure, I'd be happier in a democracy, but I wouldn't be one of those disruptive people who got punished.

This book skewers those deep assumptions, and makes you realise how important freedom is to everyone, not just the protesters, the ratbags, the intellectuals. The most striking example to me is the story of Julia, who had a teenage love affair with an Italian. Julia is almost exactly my age, and when she was 16 she had a long distance affair with an Italian businessman who she met when she was showing him around her town.

Whenever she was with him, she was subject to intense surveillance. She probably got sent to a distant boarding school (rather than her local high school) because of it. She failed her entrance exam to translator school, and was told there was no point in trying again. She tried and failed to get jobs in hotels as a receptionist, with her excellent language skills. Because of a teenage love affair (with a foreigner, who was not even subversive by any rational measure), her professional and educational life was over. She was only rescued from permanent unemployment by bringing the whole thing to a head by threatening to write to Erich Honecker (which she is still surprised had any effect on the Stasi). The thing that still weighs on her from the experience is being forced to confront the fact that there were people who genuinely watched everything she did, and knew everything about her.

I very much doubt whether the people who originally set up the East German Stasi thought that destroying someone's life over having an italian boyfriend as a teenager would be a sensible outcome. But forty years later, in the dying days of the regime, that's what happened.

Thursday, November 03, 2005


Jody over at Raising WEG has a new post about surnames, and why she changed her surname when she got married. I didn't change mine, which seemed a very simple decision at the time. It's only later it seems more complex. It meant though, that we had long long discussions about which surnames to give the children when they arrived. In fact, the main reason we found out the sex both times was to give ourselves enough time and information to have the discussion.

Its not enough for women just to keep their name - that just defers the problem for a generation - you need to think about what names to give the children as well. I've always thought that a sensible strategy that works down the generations is to give the girls the mother's name, and the boys the father's name.

I'm quite proud of my distaff line - I'm the oldest daughter of the oldest daughter and so on back until about the 1850s. So creating a strategy that would keep that heritage alive using one single name makes a lot of sense to me.

Many people (including, unfortunately, E, my husband) don't like that - they particularly don't like members of the same family having different surnames. Luckily, as it turned out, we had two boys, so we both agreed on their surname. But as the only member of my family with my surname, I'd quite like having company. And if everyone did it, it would seem pretty natural.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

School funding

I love The Economist magazine. Perhaps its my politics, (left of centre on social issues, in favour of market solutions on economic issues), or perhaps its the good writing. Or maybe its just the only adult magazine that generally covers the world.

One thing that has been bugging me lately is its view of school funding. Basically, the Economist's general view (and its hard to point to one article that encapsulates it) is that the best way to fund schools is to allow the money to follow the child. In other words, you figure out how much it costs to educate a child for a year (say $10,000), and pay that money to any school that the government approves as following the curriculum. Given my general approval of market based solutions to things, it feels like I should approve it.

The trouble is, Australia is probably the system closest to this at present. And the outcomes are perverse. We don't go the whole way. Poor private schools get around 80% of state schools per child. Rich schools get more like 20%. In total, in NSW, private schools get 63% per student of what state schools get. (A lobby group's report). And the consequence is that children who go to private schools end up having more money spent on their education than children who go to state schools (115% according to that same report). Let's make a leap of faith and say that spending more money improves the education.

So in the end, the consequence is that rich kids get a better education. And if the system was totally voucher based, then rich kids would get a substantially better education.

And as that becomes clearer, state schools lose pupils, and the scale that helps them give good educations. They also lose the educated, richer parents, who have the skills to lobby for good state educations. Those educated, richer parents start lobbying for the funding to follow their kids (as has happened more and more in the past 10 years) and the state system starts being a last resort for those who can't afford better.

And poor kids, immigrant kids, with the capabilities to use their education much better than (say) Rodney Adler, have less chance to experience educational opportunities.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Feminism - a success?

Laura at 11d has a post asking whether feminism has been a success. A big question, but an interesting one. In my personal experience, my life has been much less predicated on my gender than my mother's was.

She gave up her PhD at age 26 to marry my father, have children, and basically never work for pay again.

I am now, in my late 30s, the sole breadwinner of my family of four - two children and stay at home dad, and have, by most measures, a successful professional career.

More scientific analysis from me will have to wait. It's too late, and its my turn to get up with the kids in the morning. But my take is that huge gains have been made, but we're a long way from real equality. If we were at real equality, my husband couldn't get featured in a newspaper article in our local paper just by describing his life as a stay at home dad.