March 2017 – Dune Scholar

Dune Scholar

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Month: March 2017

A Week of Women in Australasia

During the week before International Women’s Day on March 8, I had the privilege of attending two events about women’s issues with a variety of women speakers, and so for an event that I spoke at on the day, I decided to summarize and share some of the points that these women had made with my audience. These points give an indication of some of the current topics that women are dealing with and raise questions about what the way forward is when women are still less visible and considered less valuable than men.

Indigenous Women and LeadershipIndigenous-women-forum

The first event was the Indigenous Women and Leadership Speakers Forum hosted by the New Zealand Human Rights Commission. Sacha McMeeking, head of the University of Canterbury’s Aotahi School of Māori & Indigenous Studies, spoke about the difference between Western styles of leadership and Māori styles. The Western style is often about having a charismatic leader who is a type of hero figure, whereas the Māori style recognizes a distributed network with servant-based leadership, where the leaders are supposed to be in it not for themselves but for their community. Māori women, she said, have been doing things that the storybooks don’t tell because they are behind the scenes, but we can miss them if we’re looking for a leader at the front. I thought this was a useful way of thinking about issues of gender, because something that comes up quite often is the struggle for women, especially in male-dominated fields, between adopting ‘masculine’ styles or operating in a different way and perhaps being penalized for it. Shifting our conception of leadership and not thinking that there is only way to be a leader is a way of breaking out of that mindset.

The next speaker was the president of the Māori Students Association, Hana Skerrett-White, who reiterated that she is who is today because of a long line of strong women modeling leadership to her. She said leadership isn’t singular, and even though women’s voices and indigenous voices have been muted at times, that doesn’t mean they weren’t there. The final speaker was Arihia Bennett, who is Chief Executive of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, and she encouraged young women to not wait until they’re older to step into leadership. She emphasized some characteristics of leaders that she thought were important, including competency, compassion, and character. She said to be confident, courageous, and speak your mind—don’t hold back—but also have someone alongside you to push you beyond your comfort zone. You can be humble while still recognizing that you have something to contribute, so listen to people who are encouraging you.

All About Women Satellite (#allaboutwomen)All-about-women-satellite

The second event was the annual All About Women Satellite streamed from the Sydney Opera House by WORD Christchurch. The actor Geena Davis spoke about women and the media, specifically how underrepresented women and girls are in films and television. She started a research institute to gather data and the results aren’t pretty. The good news is that the media is powerful and can be used to change people’s perceptions, and she said the year The Hunger Games and Brave movies came out (2012), girls’ interest in archery went up over 100%. Forensic science is attracting many women, even more than universities can keep up with, due to women in shows like CSI and Bones. But when it comes to the television shows made for children, the percentage of female characters is still pretty low, around 20%. This is similar to the percentage that women have stalled out at in other professions like engineering and IT. Crowd scenes are only about 17% female, making it seem like women don’t gather or aren’t valuable enough to be portrayed. The numbers are even worse in fiction than in real life, so women scientists and other women workers are a smaller percentage in media than in the real work force. There’s something called symbolic annihilation, which happens when you don’t see anyone who looks like you or reflects you. By feeding children this imbalance, she said, we are unwittingly teaching them that girls and women don’t matter as much or aren’t interesting.

Davis noted that overall, the ratio of men and women in film has remained about the same as it was in the 1940s, and when women are portrayed, they are often the sidekicks or romantic interest.  But although making changes in real life leadership, etc. are hard, she said that media could fix the problem it has created almost overnight if it changed to include more women. The next movies could show gender equality, show 50% women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, 50% women as presidents and members of parliament. One media producer has made the commitment to have 50% women crew behind the scenes as well, so that might be another way of driving change in the industry – for men in positions of power to commit to gender equality and actually follow through in their hiring practices.

Then there was a Nasty Women panel featuring Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Van Badham, and Lindy West, and chaired by Fauziah Ibrahim. They discussed a range of issues, including the need to stand together to gain strength and how to deal with trolls. West said that we have power and leverage only in numbers. If one woman stands up against sexual harassment in the office, she might be fired or ignored, but if every woman stands up against it, change can be more likely to happen. Abdel-Magied reminded everyone that historically it hasn’t been people in power saying Yes, we want to help the marginalized, it’s been masses of people demanding it. And if you’re fuming but don’t do anything about it, like contacting your representatives and talking to other people about the issues, nothing will change. West said that she tells people that running for office is not something that other people do, it’s something that’s part of civic responsibility. Regarding trolls, West said that it just wouldn’t happen that a panel of men would be sitting discussing Oh, yeah, I got a petition to have myself fired today, you know.. She said she’s tired of being told it’s just the internet, that’s the nature of how things are. We’re just trying to do our jobs, she said. The culture has to change. Badham said she would rather die on the right side than do nothing. When it gets hard, remember the women who went before you and the ones who will come after you. Women have died for the vote, for rights, for the freedoms we take for granted. Your actions are the most powerful political statement you can make, so make them count, she emphasized.

The broadcast is supposed to be made available sometime on YouTube.

Effective Altruism

I first heard about effective altruism through a guest lecture by Dr. Catherine Low from Students for High Impact Charity on “Effective Altruism and the Environment” in December 2016. At the end of the lecture, the audience split into small groups to debate the merits of several charities that she had pointed out were effective in various areas, and then everyone voted on which one to donate $500 to (with the funds provided by her organization). There was also an opportunity to sign up to receive a free copy by mail of a book by William Macaskill entitled Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference (first published in 2015), so I signed up, not being able to resist a free book and wanting to learn more about the evidence behind this emerging movement. effective_altruism_bookThe thinking behind it offers an interesting critique of the personal-responsibility kind of changes we’ve been led to believe we should be doing, and I’d like to offer some highlights from the lecture and book that people may not have considered before (especially regarding Fairtrade and sweatshop goods!).

Dr. Low’s main thesis was that effective altruism is about using evidence and analysis to do the most good we can do, and that many things we might think are really good aren’t actually making the best use of our money, time, or resources. One of the examples was that the BBC in 2006 was freaking out about Brits keeping phone chargers plugged in because of the ‘ghost energy’ they were wasting. But it turns out that they hardly consume any energy (.01% would be saved by unplugging them). Yet people choose to focus on these minor, inconsequential issues rather than looking at the bigger picture. There was also a study by David Anderson that found that up to 75% of social programs in the U.S. had little or no effect. It turns out that many initiatives aren’t really studied at all and are based on someone’s gut instinct on what will do good rather than research. An example that she mentioned and that is in the introduction of the book is the Playpump, which was rolled out in Africa to get children to help pump water while playing but turned out to be quite ineffective. It was created with the best of intentions, but not enough research and design went into seeing if it would actually work.

Regarding New Zealand charitable giving, she asked us to compare the $40,000 cost of training a guide dog (which who could argue against that cause) with the $25 for cataract surgery to prevent blindness in the Global South. It is clear which one is a better value for money, but that doesn’t mean that people donate according to that criteria. There was also the comparison between $9,000 for a Make-a-wish holiday for a sick child compared to a far lower amount to buy bednets against malaria and save a couple lives in Africa. Again, the former is a nice cause, but the latter makes the money not only go farther but can actually save lives.

Dr. Low said that part of the reason why effective altruism is more possible now is that we have more information to make better decisions about giving. She listed the following places that provide this kind of information:

There is also Stanford’s Carbon Footprint site where you can calculate how much greenhouse gas your activities produce. If you see how much your airline travel is producing, for example, you could offset it by donating to an organization like CoolEarth, which for $350 can protect a hectare of rainforest. This might be more effective than buying an electric car, because there are other costs and issues you need to weigh — if you don’t do that much driving, you could have spent the extra money on a more effective way of protecting the environment, for example. In the same way, you probably don’t need to fret over the Energy Star Rating for appliances, because the $100 or whichever amount you would have spent on buying a more efficient device might be better spent on a charity, since you’re unlikely to get as much energy savings as you think, especially if you use it infrequently. One of questions she left us with was: Are we more morally obliged to prevent human-made suffering (like climate change) or naturally-occurring ones (like malaria)? It’s something to consider as we choose which causes to support.

The book reiterated the point that some ideas are good but are not actually the most effective, or the best use of resources, and most are not evaluated to see if they are working. It offered several seemingly harsh realities, including:

  • You probably shouldn’t give to disaster relief because there is likely to be a large number of people hearing about and giving to those causes, so your contribution will make less of an impact.
  • It is possible that people could have been better off without a charitable intervention, or might actually have been harmed by it, so some intervention is not necessarily better than none. Some problems work themselves out.
  • Looking at overheard percentages, which some evaluations do, is not a good measure of effectiveness. Spending a lot on good administration and fundraising does not mean a charity is not also being very effective at its programs. Outcomes are more important.
  • Following your passion in terms of a career is bad advice because you can have impact in all kinds of fields and don’t need to necessarily go to work for a non-profit or charity to change the world. The book states: “Research shows that the most consistent predictor of job satisfaction is engaging work, which can be broken down into five factors (this is known in psychology as the ‘job characteristics theory’): Independence…Sense of Completion…Variety…Feedback from the job…Contribution” (Macaskill pg. 187). Basically, personal fit is a better indicator to go by, and you can gain a passion out of a variety of types of work. You can look up what you might be interested in at the site 80,000 Hours.
  • Sweatshop goods are sometimes providing better jobs for people in developing economies than other forms of labor and are considered the ‘good’ jobs, alternatives to backbreaking farm work or unemployment. In one case in 1993, a child labor bill brought to Congress prompted factories in Bangladesh to lay off 50,000 child workers; UNICEF then investigated and found that many of them had to turn to more desperate ways to survive, including hustling and prostitution (Macaskill pg. 160-163). So although boycotting sweatshop goods may seem like a good thing to do, it may be more effective to work to end the poverty in those countries that makes those jobs so attractive.
  • Buying Fairtrade-certified products is another example of how what may seem like a no-brainer thing to do may not actually be the best use of that extra money you spend for the Fairtrade product. One of the issues is that only a very small percentage of the money you pay for Fairtrade reaches the farmers. In one analysis by the World Bank, less than 1% at a British cafe chain reached coffee exporters in poor countries; in an analysis in Finland, only 11% reached the countries that produced the coffee; and in an analysis in the US, for an extra $5 per pound for Fairtrade coffee, only 40 cents or 8% would make it to coffee producers) (Macaskill pg. 165). A lot goes to the people in the middle, so you would be better to put the money you would have spent on Fairtrade toward a more effective charity to help the poor in those countries (such as GiveDirectly, in which 90 cents of $1 donated reaches the poor).
  • Thinking rationally rather than emotionally sounds harsh–especially because it might mean saying no to local causes or people asking for money on your doorstep–but it is necessary to be able to evaluate charities and see which programs are most effective.

As presented in the lecture and the book, effective altruism makes a lot of sense from a rational perspective. The trick is that so many charitable appeals work on an emotional level (or religious level), and the urge to help others we can see, in our community, probably won’t be going away any time soon. Thinking more abstractly about giving is certainly a new concept to consider thoughtfully.

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