Economic Woman

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Twenty percent?!

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When I saw this tweet, I’m ashamed to say that I did not believe it. I clicked through and read the fine print, expecting to find something misinterpreted or at least out of date. But instead I found this fact sheet, which in turn referenced the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. The figure is part of a 2007 report on the state of higher education. (There does, at least, seem to be an upward trend.)

It’s funny that I doubted the number, really. There isn’t exactly a surplus of women profs around my department, and thinking back, I wasn’t taught by many during undergrad. While my MA cohort is about 50-50, a classmate recently observed that many of the men and few or none of the women are planning on doing a PhD. She suggested that it is because a PhD would make us unmarriageable. Our classmates, for what it’s worth, disagreed.

Written by Allison

18 April 2011 at 8:04 pm

Equal to what?

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I know that I should be all over Equal Pay Day, but it usually leaves me frustrated. I’ve never seen a statistic on the wage gap that didn’t leave me with questions. Does that estimate account for differences in work hours, education, occupation, or childcare responsibilities? What age group are we talking about? What time period? What has changed since then?

Different answers to those questions lead to a different numbers, and that’s one reason we see so many conflicting stats. That’s also why we have some people claiming that the wage gap no longer exists.* So I’d like to ask what I hope will be a clarifying question: What would the end of the wage gap look like?

1. Radical parity

The most popular wage gap statistic is that American women make 77% of men’s earnings. That ratio is calculated based on the median earnings of men and women who work year-round and full-time. This doesn’t account for differences in occupation, education, hours above and beyond the full-time threshold, or any number of other factors. While it corrects for differences in current labour force participation, by excluding the larger proportion of women who work at home, it doesn’t correct for past participation, the reality that among full-time workers more women than men have taken time off in the past.

If this ratio is our indicator, then the wage gap can close in a couple ways: (1) when women working full-time are paid exactly as much as men, even as we continue to work fewer years in total, in occupations that tend to be lower-paid, or (2) when men and women participate in the labour force in exactly the same way, i.e. are equally likely to take time off or cut their hours to raise children, and equally likely to choose any given occupation. I’m not sure this is what most people have in mind when they quote the 77% stat.

2. An end to pure discrimination

Another view holds that the wage gap will be closed when men and women with exactly the same characteristics make the same amount of money. Folks in this camp are only worried about the gap that we can’t attribute to any characteristic other than gender. They are less concerned with the fact that women are more likely to work in lower-paid fields, and take on the labour market penalties of childbearing. This is the gap that tends to be measured by economists, and while it is smaller than 23%, it is non-zero.

3. The right to live like a man

An extreme version of this view is that the wage gap is fine so long as there is some set of choices women can make that allow them to earn as much as men. These people tend to compare the wages of childless men and women, often only young and/or educated, in the same occupations. Don’t like the 77 cent deal you’re being offered? Go to law school, strap on some shoulder pads, golf with the big boys and never, ever marry.

So what is a reasonable finish line? I don’t think #1 is likely, in the short run, though it’s worth pushing back against the restrictive gender roles that got us into this bind. But the weakness of narrower views is that they gloss over the process by which women come to be primary caregivers, the element of coercion in what we tend to characterize as choices.

Plenty of women would spend more time in the workforce if they could find a daycare near work, work more flexible hours, convince their husbands to help out around the house, or be taken seriously by their bosses.** I find #3 especially frustrating, because of the double standard it presents. If men can have kids without making big sacrifices at work, women should be able to do the same. But that’s not really my point. I’m just saying that any measure of the wage gap comes, implicitly or explicitly, with some assumptions about the finish line.

* The other reason, of course, is that people misunderstand or wilfully obscure the truth. Luckily, Echidne is around to set them straight.

** Also, as long as some occupations remain almost entirely segregated by gender we can’t separate the effects of occupation and gender. When we control for segregated occupations, as we do in #2 and #3, we can’t rule out the possibility that nurses for example are paid so little because they are women, not the other way around.

Written by Allison

15 April 2011 at 4:55 pm

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What will our vices look like in the history books?

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This term I’m learning some more microeconometrics by way of a health policy class, so I have epidemiology on the brain. I’m about halfway through Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. I am enjoying it, but a little less than I thought I would, from the reviews. Mukherjee has a grating fondness for overwrought metaphors and several unconvincing theories relating attitudes towards cancer to America’s place in the world. But the middle chapters on efforts to compare cancer rates and outcomes over time and how researchers worked out the link between smoking and cancer are fascinating. Here’s one stat that I’ve been thinking about:

By 1953, the average annual consumption of cigarettes had reached thirty-five hundred per person. On average, an adult American smoked ten cigarettes every day, an average Englishman twelve, and a Scotsman nearly twenty. (241)

It reminds me of a similar passage from another recent nonfiction hit, Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.

By 1830 Americans were guzzling, per capita, a staggering seven gallons of pure alcohol a year. […] In modern terms those seven gallons are equivalent of 1.7 bottles of standard 80-proof liquor per person, per week—nearly 90 bottles a year for every adult in the nation, even with abstainers (and there were millions of them) factored in. Once again figuring per capita, multiply the amount Americans drink today by three and you’ll have an idea of what much of the nineteenth century was like. (8)

So this is what I’m wondering: What current habit will seem as absurd to future readers as these do to us now? Salt or saturated fat consumption? Physical inactivity among office workers? Some food additive or packaging material?

Written by Allison

21 January 2011 at 2:02 pm

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The pitfalls of relying on American social science

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WCI has a fantastic post up about the disproportionate amount of economic research that is about the United States. Frances Woolley suggests that this is in part a matter of data availability, and that’s something I can second. But the post really shines when she gets to the implications of this imbalance:

American experiences are seen as general. (A particularly absurd manifestation of this occurs in international relations, where people will write “A superpower like the United States…” There is no superpower like the US. [...])

[...] In medical research, it probably doesn’t matter whether Canadian or American data is used. A medical treatment that works south of the border will generally work north of the border as well. Indeed, drug trials are not-uncommonly carried out in low-income countries to save costs. The generalizability of studies based on US economic data to Canada is less well-established.

I worry that this is especially true in some of the areas I am most interested in, like education. Of course, that’s difficult to verify without more research. It’s kind of a circular problem, really.

If the US is a bad model for other developed economies, what are we likely getting wrong?

Written by Allison

15 January 2011 at 11:54 am

A hypothesis about social media

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Indulge me, and I promise I won’t start calling myself a social media expert.

I’ve noticed that some media improves when you share it. Actually, I’ve noticed this about television. It doesn’t matter how many times I watch the first episode of the West Wing, say, or Friday Night Lights. If I’m watching it with someone who has never seen it before, I enjoy myself. On my own, I’d be bored.

Also: I am a compulsively social reader. By which I mean, I have to read all the best parts out loud to you. This is one of the things that is great about Twitter, or Facebook, or the “email to a friend” buttons on newspaper websites, right? I can pester you even when you’re out of earshot, and that makes reading more fun.

Speaking of which, via Mathew Ingram, you should read this review of Timothy Ferriss’s new book. Here’s a teaser:

Mr. Ferriss offers advice about so many disparate things — not simply losing weight and building muscle and improving sex and living forever, but learning to hold your breath longer than Houdini (!) and hit baseballs like Babe Ruth (!!) — that paging through “The 4-Hour Body” is like reading the sprawling menu in a dubious diner, quite certain the only thing you’d dare order is the turkey club.

And that’s not even the best part.

Written by Allison

7 January 2011 at 12:41 am

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Building data journalism skills

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I’m really excited about the data scraping guide ProPublica’s Dan Nguyen published a few days ago on their Nerd Blog. On a related note, I will be spending most of my reading week at Investigative Reporters and Editors’ 2011 CAR conference in Raleigh.

And finally, if you’re in Toronto you should know that we now have our very own Hacks and Hackers chapter. I wasn’t able to make either of the first two events because of midterms and then exams, but I will definitely be at the next event, whatever it is.

Written by Allison

4 January 2011 at 12:01 pm

The truth wears off indeed

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I see that the New Yorker has ungated Jonah Lehrer’s The Truth Wears Off, on how statistical significance seems to decline over time. Lehrer’s is one of those rare features with a punch line, so if you want to enjoy the piece fully you should read it before this post.

Lots of smart people have weighed in online. The best follow-up I’ve read so far is from Andrew Gelman, who links to his own piece from American Scientist. (H/t to Chris Blattman.) But as plenty of good has been said about the piece already, I’d like to point out the one thing about it that bugged me.

Early in the piece, Lehrer writes at length about Jonathan Schooler, a psych researcher who has found that he has difficulty reproducing his own results.

…while Schooler was publishing these results in highly reputable journals, a secret worry gnawed at him: it was proving difficult to replicate his earlier findings. “I’d often still see an effect, but the effect just wouldn’t be as strong,” he told me. “It was as if verbal overshadowing, my big new idea, was getting weaker.” At first, he assumed that he’d made an error in experimental design or a statistical miscalculation. But he couldn’t find anything wrong with his research.

The central insight of the piece is that declining statistical significance in a field overall is one of the effects of publication bias. When an idea is new, strong positive results are required for publication. As it becomes accepted knowledge, contradictory results become interesting enough to publish. That’s a brilliant, important observation.

The problem is that Schooler’s experience can’t be explained by publication bias. He is just one researcher. If publication bias was the only force in play, individual researchers wouldn’t see their results change over time, only their chances of getting those results published.

Schooler’s problem is probably better described as regression to the mean following a few anomalous results, as the article acknowledges. (Though it is a pretty weird case, and I’d love to hear a better explanation, especially for his tests of the decline effect itself.) That’s a less important issue than publication bias.It’s not a problem with the scientific method if anomalous results are gradually disproven, but publication bias can twist our perception of the world over the long term.

If the piece is really raising questions with the scientific method, why do we read so much about Schooler? And why do transitions throughout the piece seem to relate his research to the decline effect in fields as a whole? I suspect it’s because even though it isn’t illustrative of the articles’ central point, his story is interesting.

This is the sort of compromise that writers and editors make during revision. Some characters seem too compelling to cut, even as inclusion confuses the point, as I believe it does in this case. But we’re supposed to be servants of the truth, not just great stories, and I expect better of the New Yorker. Maybe it’s an unrealistic standard.

Written by Allison

3 January 2011 at 11:48 am

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Speaking of numeracy…

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From Monday’s Globe:

Mr. Lopez, who has designed fitness nutrition plans, recommends options for healthier dining and drinking.

“When Dawn’s at the pub, a turkey burger or sweet potato fries would be better alternatives. On average, one chicken wing has 100 calories, seven grams of fat and 100 grams of sodium.” As for alcohol, “vodka with soda or champagne are her best bets – both are below 100 calories.”

So I’m trying to picture 100 grams of sodium. Sounds like a lot, right? And when you multiply up, the numbers become really silly: There’s a full kilogram of sodium in ten wings? Obviously, it’s supposed to be milligrams. This might look like a typo, and I do think pointing out typos is kind of petty. But this kind of mistake doesn’t surprise me nearly as much as, say, a misspelling of the word “grams” would. And that’s frustrating.

Much more at Regret the Error.

(H/t to a sharp-eyed friend, Mike Markovich.)

Written by Allison

21 December 2010 at 1:26 am

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Data literacy in the Washington Post

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This is a bit late, but last week I was quoted in the Washington Post’s ombudsman’s column. The piece includes a link to one of my This Mag columns. Finally, one of my comments was quoted over on ScienceBlogs, in service of an interesting point.

Written by Allison

6 December 2010 at 12:19 am

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The worst sort of filter

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On this story, I’ll make one obvious comment: What kind of aspiring State Department staff wouldn’t be discussing the cables? The kind you probably don’t want to hire, I think.

Written by Allison

6 December 2010 at 12:13 am

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Data journalism 2.0

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Last night, thanks to a productive procrastination binge, I finally got around to watching this documentary about data visualizations in journalism. It’s nice to see data journalism getting some attention, but I also hope that the shiny side of the field doesn’t eclipse writing and analysis.

Even the best visualizations can’t represent more than two or three variables. To analyze most complex problems, we need to discuss data that we can’t imagine in 3D. One of the things I’m trying to wrap my head around is how to bring real regression analysis, or at least some knowledge of statistical significance, into journalism. If we really want to use the avalanche of information that is hitting the web, we need to communicate better about statistics and statistical methods.

Interactive visualizations are supposed to replace old-fashioned, static infographics. Today, most writing about statistics is equivalent to the bar charts of old. You know: This number is bigger than that number; some other indicator is going up. Let’s take for granted that the difference isn’t random. Don’t worry your pretty little heads about selection bias. You don’t need to know how or why this survey was conducted. Let’s imply that any two studies with competing conclusions cancel each other out. And on and on and on. It’s time for a new model.

(h/t to kottke)

Written by Allison

11 October 2010 at 12:30 pm

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Why do we vote strategically?

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This is related to another question, namely, why anyone votes at all. The chance that your vote will alter the outcome of an election is extremely small, which makes the marginal benefit of that trip to the polls effectively zero. This piece suggests that if you care about social good in general, your payoff is very high in the unlikely event that your vote is pivotal. I think this argument is complicated by the relative similarity of front-running candidates, among other things. As far as I can tell, I vote for some sort of emotional and social return.

Strategic votes express a preference for some second- or third-best candidate. They are, on some level, an attempt to increase the marginal impact of a vote. But their effect is still very close to zero, and in my experience, voting strategically doesn’t bring anyone much joy. And yet we continue to do it. In fact, in the aggregate, strategic voters can be pivotal. In Toronto’s despair-inducing mayoral campaign, every other candidate is scrambling to collect votes from the otherwise disenchanted anyone-but-Rob-Ford contingent.

A few years ago, I vowed that I would never cast another strategic vote. This has made voting more fun, but in some ways it’s similar to Gordon Tullock’s decision not to vote at all. (That’s a reference to the first  link.)

Written by Allison

4 October 2010 at 10:32 am

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Links

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On a trial basis, I’m going to post some links on gender and economics without (much) comment. Let me know if you find them useful or interesting.

Frances Woolley calls out Steven Levitt on Emily Oster’s gender balance research. A good summary, though I find her conclusion a bit unreasonable.

Via Economix, US women are leaving the financial services industry; it’s not clear why.

In US graduate schools, women are in the majority in most fields. Between 1999 and 2009, they caught up somewhat in engineering, business, education and a few other fields. (But not math.) To comment briefly: This is a pretty imperfect metric for occupational achievement. Graduate school, especially at lower-tier universities, isn’t a guaranteed job, and in many cases it’s a backup when good jobs aren’t available.

Mothers seem more likely than fathers to pass on resources to their children. Why?

Written by Allison

4 October 2010 at 10:10 am

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Malcolm Gladwell’s weak ties

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I just read Malcolm Gladwell’s piece about online activism. I find the social media expert industrial complex pretty obnoxious, and like Gladwell, I don’t think the micro-donations and “awareness raising” that characterize most online activism can challenge the status quo. But this piece, like so much old media coverage of new media, is lazy and dumb.

(Note: I wrote this before reading other commentary online. That was lazy and dumb of me. Alex Madrigal has made similar points, better than I ever could, here.)

One of Gladwell’s main arguments is that real-life activism is based on “strong ties,” while social media enables “weak ties.” (I’m breaking out the scare quotes to remind myself, as much as anyone else, that Gladwell has an unnerving ability to make a concept feel true just by labelling it. For a good takedown of this concept, check out this post, via Madrigal.)

This ignores the strong ties that are reinforced online. But in my experience, Twitter is also a tool that can turn weak ties into strong ties. And while it isn’t automatic, social media is particularly suited to creating friendships across traditional social divides like age, class, and race.

A couple years ago, most of my time was spent with other students and high school friends. The folks I followed on Twitter were ex-colleagues, casual friends, and strangers. But all of that communication has bred intimacy, and lead to more face time. The divide between online and offline relationships is increasingly fuzzy, and as a result, I interact with a broader group of people.

Gladwell doesn’t account for this because, as far as I can tell, he hasn’t bothered exploring or even thinking deeply about social media. At one point, he sets up Wikipedia in opposition to hierarchical offline activist groups. The implication is that all online networks are leaderless and chaotic. The thing is that Wikipedia has both a leadership structure and institutionalized structures for dispute resolution. There isn’t one editor who reads every entry, but there is definitely one guy with final say on strategic direction.  And yet we get nonsense like this:

If Martin Luther King, Jr., had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure.

There’s no such thing as a “wiki-boycott”—it’s just a funny combination of words, a diminishing shorthand for all online organizing. The internet, apparently, is the one thing the New Yorker is allowed to be inaccurate about. And that’s too bad, because whether the revolution is tweeted or not, I’d hate to see it missed by the world’s best magazine.

Written by Allison

2 October 2010 at 12:19 pm

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Arrival City

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When I started university, one of my majors was urban studies. After a couple years I formally transferred to economics (which had made up part of my interdisciplinary curriculum) mostly out of frustration with the discipline. The study of cities, outside of geography departments, is pretty new. In many ways, that’s great for young people, because there are so many opportunities for original work.

But I felt like the tone of the discipline was set. While I learned a lot about rigorous qualitative research (it exists!) the mediocre qualitative work, and lack of quantitative rigour, drove me crazy. It seemed telling that my major didn’t require a single methods course. I couldn’t help but notice how much of the discipline was lifted more or less entirely from Jane Jacobs‘ work. We seemed to have only one intellectual giant, and academia couldn’t claim any credit for her work.

Thank god for Jacobs, though, for having the good sense to take on slum clearance, Le Corbusier, and half a dozen other destructive urban fads. And thank god for her latest successor, Doug Saunders.* Saunders’ new Arrival City builds on Jacobs’ work (it even includes an interview with her) by placing neighbourhoods like the ones she observed in a global context:

What will be remembered about our century, more than anything except perhaps changes to the climate, is the final shift of human populations from agricultural life to cities, the effects of which are being felt around the world. Arrival City gives us an on-the-ground view of this phenomenon—from Maryland to Shenzhen, from the favelas of Rio to the shanty towns of Mumbai, from Los Angeles to Nairobi. Doug Saunders [...] makes clear that the cities and nations that provide citizenship and opportunity to migrants stand to benefit as the migrant class evolves into a middle class, and he explains why those that ignore these people will see increased social unrest, poverty, and religious fundamentalism.

More than that, I think Arrival City is this decade’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. (I’ve been saying this to everyone, and now the Guardian agrees with me.) Like Jacobs, Saunders has depended primarily on thoughtful observation. In retrospect, his insights seem so simple, so self-evidently correct, that it’s hard to imagine that no one has made exactly this case before.

Since reading the book, I see support for its thesis everywhere. I find myself thinking and referring back to it often, which, let’s face it, doesn’t happen with most trade nonfiction. If you’re interested in cities, migration, equity, or social policy, you should be reading this book. If there’s any justice in publishing, it will sell more copies than The Tipping Point. Saunders’ Canadian book tour starts today; events are listed here.

* Regular readers will know that I’ve done a little bit of work for Saunders, but it was in no way related to the book.

Written by Allison

25 September 2010 at 10:46 am

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