Saturday, January 24, 2009

Finally - Some Backbone

Marjorie Eskay-Auerbach, a Tucson, AZ orthopedic surgeon, is chair of the North American Spine Society's (NASS) Ethics Committee and a leader. The medical society, representing U.S. spine surgeons, proposed a new transparency standard mandating that NASS members who present research findings at medical conferences disclose the existence and the dollar amount of financial ties to medical-device companies. The new disclosure standard is "a binding covenant:" violations would constitute "a sanctionable offense" that could result in a member's suspension, expulsion or public letters of censure.

The logic is inescapable: if researchers are proud enough to report their medical findings, they should also be willing to report on who paid them how much to conduct the work.

See: Wall Street Journal, January 24, 2009: "Spine Doctors are Adopting Strict Rules on Payments" by Thomas M. Burton.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

How The Brain Learns – One Woman’s Perspective

The brain receives external information through the eyes. What does it do with the huge quantity of data to which it is exposed from text, video, and sensory sources? How does it remember all of that stuff?

In a Dale Carnegie course they taught us, right from the beginning, how the master salesman developed his unparalleled ability to remember names. His trick, if you will, was to associate names either with commonly referenced information or possibly unique, exceptional information. One student from the class said he would remember my name by thinking of the Queen of England riding a huge elephant on safari: Elizabeth (The Queen) Ghaffari (safari). The elephant was just a tool to connect the two images logically.

The brain easily retrieves the interesting image whereas it might struggle with trying to remember the strange name. Information received is redistributed to different areas of the brain according to past best-practices for filing and retrieving. Some information is allocated to areas of the brain best utilized for image or pictorial representation. Other information is channeled to areas that best accommodate emotional data. Analytic information is routed to areas that best hold and retrieve combinations of text, equations, or symbolic representations.

Perhaps remembering is something like the facial recognition software on Abby’s computer at NCIS (the television show) where the brain “maps” or connects together prominent pieces of information and then matches the image before us with another image constructed in memory.

The more practice the brain experiences in sorting and retrieving disparate information, the better the brain becomes at re-assembling pieces of retained data into complete concepts. Practice DOES make perfect, whether it’s training your self to improve your tennis swing, solving advanced math problems, or trying to remember unfamiliar vocabulary in a new language.

Experiences which provide more and varied stimulation to the brain can foster new and creative thought processing. The driver of a meals-on-wheels truck who serves the same construction crews every day for breakfast, lunch, and snacks will have a limited thought process and probably a limited memory. The driver of a taxi in a complex urban community will have more complicated thoughts and problem-solving experiences. People who travel to new and different lands might be expected to be more open-minded with even more complexity of thought than those who stay in their small towns.

The brain retains both the raw data and the emotions or feelings that were experienced when the brain received the information. Traumatic memories can be re-triggered, almost exactly, by re-playing similar stressful experiences which remind the individual of the original experience.

Another part of remembering might be like following a treasure map down associative pathways to re-assemble stored information from different locations. If I want to remember to retrieve the folder containing the name of a window shade company from my home office, I might create a treasure map. I would tell myself: "When you go into the upstairs office, you will see the computer on the desk. Look six feet to the right, and there you will see the window. Under the window, you will see a file cabinet. Go into the file cabinet and get the file on the window shades company." By creating a map as a pathway of inevitable discovery, it is possible to remember something that otherwise might be easily forgotten: "Don’t forget the folder for the window shade company."

It is amazing how much of our daily exposure to visual and audio information does not register on the brain consciously, but very likely has registered subconsciously. Especially in today’s world of information overload, we are inundated with audio, video, and sensory information -– some of it good, but much of it not that good for us.

We are beginning to see more women in positions of leadership in government, politics, academia, the law, science, engineering, math, the arts and entertainment, business and entrepreneurship. As we see women take on positions of leadership, we also are receiving a host of other, supplemental information: in journals, reports and articles; in television shows; and in news reports.

Memories of Mia Hamm and the U.S. women’s soccer team celebrating their Olympic Gold Medal victory in 1996 are stored both as emotional information and as factual information. The same is true of memories of Billie Jean King beating Bobby Riggs in tennis in 1973. We can easily remember seeing Sandra Day O’Connor or Ruth Bader Ginsberg wearing their long, dark robes as U.S. Supreme Court Justices, even though most of us cannot remember the specifics of the court cases they helped to decide over the years.

The data component of these memories includes women who performed very very well. The emotional component includes the thrill of victory, of having met a great challenge and of having overcome adversity.

If the associated or supplemental information is negative, that data also will be stored and retained along with our memories of the woman in leadership. For example, if we repeatedly use a phrase like "she broke through the glass ceiling" whenever we introduce a woman leader, we will always remember her either stooping down contorted under some barriers that limit her posture or beating up on glass boxes that confine her. We will not remember her upright, cheering, celebrating, and jubilant.

Another example might be when we highlight groups of women of achievement, and at the same time we also prominently present data that alleges that "women will not achieve parity for 50 years" or that "the number of women are declining" in that field of endeavor. That limiting supplemental data stored will also be retained and will condition our expectations about whether women can or will progress toward positions of responsibility and leadership. We might remember a few women of achievement, but it is now far more likely that we will remember what women WON’T be doing for the next 50 years.

When we speak about women in positions of responsibility, if the supplemental information consists only of road markers that mentally take women down the same old route of self-doubt and debate as to whether or not they might have met other’s expectations to have children, to tend for children, to tend to husbands, or to sacrifice one’s self and ambitions in the interests of others, then women will always follow that over-worn path and limit themselves by guilt and uncertainty, rather than seek out new journeys providing the treasures of family collaboration, more effective partner delegation, team building, and the enthusiasm of a successful Mom worthy of emulation.

Dr. Elga Wasserman described how the brain of young women absorbs messages and information based on society’s stereotypical view of "what women should be:"

"Younger women internalize stereotypes that dampen their aspirations and cause them to wonder whether they belong in science at all." [The Door in the Dream: Conversations with Eminent Women Scientists (National Academy Press: 2000), p. 219.]

Today’s brain researchers can find social benefit from doing functional MRI studies to discover whether and how young women are receiving, storing, and replaying the very many old wives tales and stereotypical messages from a world that might have existed 30 to 50 years ago.

Meanwhile, perhaps what women could do is to take a more conscious approach to the data, the videos, the images, and all of the information being presented to their brains by today’s media. Perhaps women themselves can filter out the obvious negative messages, consciously focus on retaining the positive messages, and enjoy the experience of learning about how women today are making their dreams come true.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Women Conductors

We enjoy watching public television, including the major arts and entertainment channels. As a side-benefit of my research into women in leadership, we started to ask ourselves: How many orchestral conductors were women in the U.S.? Where were they? Was there any new research into the contributions they bring to our cultural experience?

Ask and ye shall learn.

The following are just a few interesting “notes” on the subject of women orchestral conductors from around the world.

An interesting article for a now defunct college music journal was written in 1998 by Dr. Shelley M. Jagow, Associate Professor of Music at Wright State University, director of the Symphonic Band and Saxophone Quartet, professor of Saxophone and Music Education courses, and Conductor of the 2009 National Youth Band of Canada. See her bio.

"Women Orchestral Conductors in America: The Struggle for Acceptance — An Historical View from the Nineteenth Century to the Present," in College Music Symposium, Vol. 38, pp. 126-145 by Shelley M. Jagow (Wright State University), 1998

Two particularly interesting tables include the listing of women-only orchestras, sinfonia, or ensembles that were founded between about 1920 through the end of World War II, by women for women, because of the limited opportunities available within traditional music collectives. Good examples of "making lemonade out of lemons."

Even more impressive is her Table 3, where she listed, as of about 1996-1997, the Contemporary Women Conductors in the United States.

A second in-depth article on the subject is "Pioneers of the Podium" by Anita Mercier for the March 2005 Julliard Journal Online: A Women's History Month Special.

The article brings us forward through the 1980s, discussing "the second wave in the history of women on the podium," including many very gifted women from Asia. Mercier says that, "Emerging conductors like Co [Nguyen] are the third wave. They have the opportunity to train, compete, and prove themselves, and they can look to older women in the field as role models."

There is the January 2008 program of the League of American Orchestras: Opportunities for Women Conductors, which provides grants, training, and mentorship for prospective women conductors.

One woman is among the five current American Conducting Fellows:
Mei-Ann Chen, Assistant Conductor/Conducting Fellow with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; Robert Spano, Music Director

And 3 out of 5 of the past American Conducting Fellows, established in 2005, are women:

Joana Carneiro, Conducting Fellow with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Music Director
Laura Jackson, Conducting Fellow with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano, Music Director
Rebecca Miller, Conducting Fellow with the Houston Symphony, Hans Graf, Music Director.

Finally, the very impressive Kapralova Society’s web site is dedicated to Women Conductors. It is a most comprehensive resource.

Now, all we need is for mainstream media to wake up and give these talented women the air time they deserve.

Monday, January 12, 2009

This Time, Confirm The Guy

The "nanny tax" controversy cost Zoe Baird the chance to be U.S. attorney general in 1993. Clinton appointee, U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood also withdrew as a nominee for attorney general after Zoe Baird in 1993 due to hiring an undocumented immigrant as a household employee. In 1994, Bobby Ray Inman was a Clinton nominee for defense secretary but withdrew amid accusations that included questioning his failure to pay the Social Security taxes. Linda Chavez withdrew as President-elect George W. Bush's nominee for secretary of labor in 2001. Christie Whitman, head of the Environmental Protection Agency; the late Ron Brown, former commerce secretary; Federico Pena, former transportation secretary; and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA all have been accused of not paying domestic help taxes.

Now comes Timothy F. Geithner, nominee for the position of Secretary of the Treasury, who allegedly failed for several years to pay Medicare and Social Security taxes while technically a self-employed contractor at the International Monetary Fund and who employed a housekeeper who lost her immigration status in the few months she worked for him.

Should we say, "Off with his head?" No! We should confirm a guy who, finally, has first hand experience (much of it negative) with the Kafka-esque world of trying to accommodate federal tax laws as either a household employer or a self-employed contractor. Why? Because the head of the U.S. Treasury "owns" the Internal Revenue Service. Finally, we may have a nominee who actually knows, from personal and painful experience, what a hell-hole the U.S. Tax Code is today. We could collect billions of dollars more in revenue if we would simply stop penalizing our citizens for trying to earn a decent wage and to hire people to help take care of families and households.

Federal law requires families to obtain proof of eligibility to work from household employees. The IRS says it has made it "easier" for families to report and pay employment taxes for maids, babysitters, and other household employees. The average family income earner knows the trauma behind these rules and regulations: there is nothing "easy" or "simple" about any of them.

The real goal of the IRS should be to make the federal income, Social Security and Medicare tax laws so simple that the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York could understand it. Make the household employer rules clear enough so that a University of Chicago professor of economics could do his own taxes. Or, as we are threatening to do with health insurance, make the tax rules so simple that even members of Congress could pay the same taxes as the people they represent.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Obama's Ten Point Plan

Frankly, I have a little difficulty understanding "political speak." It's so fuzzy, blurry, filled with righteousness rather than substantive. Still and all, I'm hopeful about the new guy on the block, Barack Obama. But, I think he needs a better wordsmith on his staff. I struggle: "Where's the beef?"

I've condensed his last two speeches into an Obama Ten Point Plan in an attempt to see exactly

What is he saying he will do?

Why does he think it should be done?

See my summary here as of January 2009. Try to see if we can keep him accountable.

Note also, that there is zero mention of the automobile industry as one of the top ten priorities, which might raise questions about why the rumors have started about the naming of a "car czar" from a major hedge fund/private investment company, especially one with media/entertainment expertise rather than auto manufacturing or alternative energy competence. That's just one example of what I mean by "accountability."

Monday, January 5, 2009

Katty and Claire

Katty Kay of the BBC and Claire Shipman of Good Morning America have disappointed us with their definition of Womenomics. These two talented women are pushing their new book, Womenomics: The Workplace Revolution That Will Change Your Life using their editor’s delightful introduction, "What do women really want?" (Oh, yes, women are sooooo incomprehensible!) Here’s an insightful quote:

"Isn't it possibly the case that the number of women on board seats and in corporate officer positions hasn't increased very much because that's simply not where women want to be? We don't want to do the 60 or 70 hours weeks it takes to get to the very very top. Yes we want interesting work, yes we are committed, educated and diligent but more and more of us are saying we want to invest less not more in our professional lives. According to the FAMILY AND WORK INSTITUTE, fifteen years ago over half of women said they wanted more responsibility at work, today that figure has fallen to 28%.

"This is a fundamental shift but it is not a defeat. Quite the opposite. After decades of scrambling up a career ladder that never really suited us, women are molding the workplace to suit our real needs. It means we are increasingly happy to take steps sidewards or even backwards in order to win that most precious of feminine commodities, more time.

"So next time you read woe-is-us figures on the scarcity of women in the corner office - remember, if we're not there, it's mostly because we don't want to be. If we wanted that board seat, we're certainly smart and efficient enough to get it. But do we really want it? Sane and balanced sounds better to us.

Katty and Claire”

Isn’t it interesting that some women, once they make it to the top, tell you, "Do what I say, not what I did." Do we really think these two women would be in their current positions if they had, instead of doing the job, spent more time on themselves? Why are they telling YOU NOT to work hard and excel at your profession -– are they trying to keep the next generation of competitive women at bay? Why are these women advocating that women sit back, pop a few bonbons, paint their nails, get a facial, and "be ever so nice to themselves?" Why are they arguing that women don’t need to educate themselves, get the appropriate experience, and prepare themselves for top leadership opportunities in corporate America because women now have The Sour Grapes Theorem from Katty and Claire and the Family and Work Institute (what do you suppose THEIR agenda might possibly be?): women really really don’t want all those positions, anyway!

Now that we’re starting the 13th month of a recession, there are probably many women who have a LOT more time to think about their careers and balancing budgets or families or whatever. Jobs were just such a discretionary earnings option after all: who really needed that Dining Table Sculpting business plan? Or that ScrapBooking business idea? Those businesses took soooooo much time away from the really important things.

Maybe the problem is not the work-family "balancing act." Maybe it is the challenge of women learning how to build more effective teams on both side of the career-home equation. Wouldn’t you expect that Katty and Claire have massive resources at their beck and call: nannies, corporate cars, secretaries and assistants, researchers, and personal shoppers at Berghdorf’s? So, if these two lovelies can’t figure out how the balancing act works -- how to delegate to hubby the job of picking up the dry cleaning, the shopping, the kid from day care -- then what chance do we mere underpaid mortals have?

I don’t know about you, but I’m already beginning to see the "workplace revolution" where hordes of working women take more personal time for themselves. I can’t get an appointment with my lady doctor before next year. I can’t get anyone at my bank to actually talk to me: all women. My lawyer and my accountant, both females, seem to always be on extended leave. Even when I write tirades to journalists, who "specialize" in the field of telling women to take more time for themselves, I get "Out of office on pregnancy leave" emails in reply.

Here’s an idea. If Katty and Claire really believe they have the workplace solution for the 21st Century, then why don’t they leave their cushy TV News Idol jobs, talking with talking-heads on someone else’s dollar, and start companies where their employment, their revenues, and their costs are based on their recommendations and are supported by -– yeah -– themselves? Why is the "Institute" for family and work not a real for-profit business? Is the only business model that this concept can sustain based exclusively on charity? If that is the case, then what is the difference between (a) the charity of hubby paying all of the bills so she can be the one to take it easy and (b) the charity of well-intended women giving donations to pay all of the bills so that, again, she can be the one to take it easy?

It really is too bad that these very talented women are choosing the "opt out" easy road. It’s unfortunate that they are so able, but so unwilling.

I’m switching to Gwen Ifill (The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama) and Christine Amanpour -– two very hard working women who’ve earned their credentials without crying.

It’s really not the hours -– it’s whether you truly love what you’re doing.