Friday, May 18, 2012

Of days we remember

A group of my friends meets to discuss soul searching questions like how does one live a purposeful happy life. Recently we talked about the purpose of commemorating dates - birth(day)s, anniversaries (of events and people), graduations and so on - in our lives. Dates are an opportunity to reflect on the paths taken, the successes achieved and the lessons learnt. They are also a way to remember the people who came into and those who left our lives, and to renew our old resolutions and make new ones.

With this thought, here is this post, to commemorate a day in mine!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Economics of Household Labor and Pay Differences between Sexes

The Economist recently published a summary of recent study on division of household labor which reinforces a lot of what we already know.  The previous studies that it references are worth mentioning, and some of the other conclusions that it draws are probably new. Even in a developed country like America, women spend three times the time doing housework on an average day as men. The traditional economic explanation of this has been that since an average American woman earns 20% less than a man, the family earnings would be maximized if the lesser paid partner did the unpaid work at home.  There is some evidence to support this hypothesis. Women who earn more do less work at home. The recent study, however, has found alternate explanations for division of labor. It suggests that how much housework an average man does is proportional to how much he likes to do it.  For a man the time he spends on housework is not correlated to how his income compares to the average. For a woman unfortunately, her preferences play no role in the time she spends on household work.

On the question of the pay gap, you always wonder whether it is the cause or the effect. Do women do more housework because they earn less or do they earn less because spend more time and effort in managing the house (and consequently less time on activities that build value). That an equally educated woman earns less over her lifetime than a man is a reality true even for those with the best qualifications, and part of the explanation is logical. A women takes more breaks from her career, whether to support her spouse or to raise children. In fact, way back in 2005, I came across a study of female graduates of Harvard which found that as many as 40% of them took time off at some point in their lives. The post is here.

In 2009, New York Times reported a study done by Payscale. It found that adjusted for the type of jobs taken up by a female, industry, type of company and other factors, at least for jobs earnings less than $100,000 an year, the 20% pay gap between men and women disappeared. So the difference can be explained by career choices than discrimination, except at higher salaries.

This has always been an area of interest and the relevant sources are documented below. I have always believed that - if you control for other factors - how gender roles were played and household labor was split between parents is significant determinant of how much responsibility a man takes at home. One day, hopefully, I will find a study that explores that.

1) 2012: The economist article, “The ironing lady”, is here.
2) 2012: The Research Paper, “The Role of Preferences and Opportunity Costs in Determining the Time Allocated to Housework”, is here.
3) 2009: The New York Times article, “Women Earn Less than Men, Especially at the Top,” is here.
4) 2004: My own post, “Work, Family, Personal Life: Why Not All Three,” about the conference and study at HBS is here.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Life Changers - Finding meaning through Amy

As I look back, whenever I thought I was struggling (professionally or personally) in life is when I have done the most meaningful work. This post is meant to be a part of the series of reminisces of those time periods.
A few years ago, I was involved with an organization dedicated to the cause of the domestic violence victims in the tri-state (New York - New Jersey - Connecticut) area.  Let’s call it – ‘Life-Changer’. Life-Changer is very particular about confidentiality to ensure the safety of their clients and people who work with them, their staff and especially volunteers.  It office location and shelter addresses are secret. It doesn’t give references to its volunteers. It also avoided social media presence and web activism till recently.

Apart from the fact that women’s causes naturally resonate, a big reason I joined Life-Changer was guilt. I regret not doing enough for someone very close who went through a tough situation in her life. But as I look back I realize that the work I did gave me a sense of purpose to anchor my own life. Apart from helping with their outreach, marketing and activism, I worked closely with few of Life-Changer’s clients. This portion of my work was the most rewarding.

On my first such case I advocated for Amy (by now you know that’s not her name). Amy married someone from her own country and moved to the United States with him.  She needed to get a US passport for her recently born baby. The Life-Changer staff member who was working with me had told me the details of the case. Amy had been here for less than a year. Like many women who move with their husbands, Amy wasn’t eligible to work, and had no source of income.

I met Amy at the steps of the court-house. This was her third visit. Passport application for a child needs to be signed by both parents. Only problem was that Amy’s husband deserted her before the child was born and Amy had no idea where he was.  We said hello and talked a bit using signs. Amy spoke little English. This was a woman living alone with a newborn baby in a shelter. Amy was in a country different from her own; she was not very fluent with the language and had almost no support structure. For someone going through all this Amy was really strong. I was worried earlier, but I realized apart from the language, Amy didn’t need me much.

We went in the court. I did my part – filled up the baby’s papers, presented them to the officer and just before she was about to put the rejected stamp on our application - told her Amy’s story, mentioned the relevant exception to the law and presented the documentary evidence. She was sympathetic and filled an additional document to expedite the case while we were standing at the window and the others were waiting. I thought she must have seen many such cases before.

Amy was happy when we came out of the court.  She understood that her application was accepted because the officer hadn’t given it back to her. I tried to tell her that she should get her son’s passport in week to ten days.  I wanted to walk with to her public transport location and make sure she could take the right route to the shelter. She politely refused. As we said good-bye she hugged me. I watched her go. Amy was ready, to take the world on her own. She would be first of the many women who I will learn from.

Now that I am in a different geography, not actively involved I think I can actually use the real name instead of Life-Changer. I should think about that.

Book Update :  After my recent tryst with psychology and history am back to fiction. Read, 'A Walk Across the Sun' and 'The Girl Who Played with Fire'.  

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Every great man has a secret .. and it's not a good one

We often idolize men who are successful and ascribe to them greatness which is a heavy burden. It is in this light that the rest of this piece needs to be read. My point, which I give three examples for, is that we are all human. If one avoids the baggage of expectations, it is easier to accept people without the need to be blinded by their greatness.
In his book on the life of Socrates, Paul Johnson, the historian, writes about Socrates' average looks and pleasant demeanor. Socrates is very well respected today for his contribution to ethics. Paul writes that all great men (and women) are difficult to live with. Something only their spouses know. Socrates never wrote anything himself and most writings from the period focus on the Greece while Plato focuses on his ideas and philosophy (or rather Plato’s interpretation of Socrates' ideas), so we will probably never find out for sure.
John F. Kennedy, the president whom America loves, had an affair with a nineteen year old intern. Saw the interview of the lady yesterday during a news magazine. The interviewer used pretty strong words to describe the relationship between a forty-five year old man in the position of power and a nineteen (how young that is ?) year old girl.
I am a great fan of Apple’s products. I use some religiously. Having said that and having eulogized the man who wanted to make – and actually made - a dent in the universe, elaboration is needed.
Steve Jobs, at one point in time, was not so favorably thought of by the FBI who had a file that recorded his drug use. Jobs' brash and unlikeable nature – especially in his early years – is well recorded in books. But this comment is sterner.
Several individuals questioned Mr. Jobs’s honesty stating that Mr. Jobs will twist the truth and distort reality in order to achieve his goals.  

Of course when you become Steve Jobs, your personal brand turns weaknesses into strengths and terms such as “reality distortion field” are coined. Other mentions in the FBI report – such as the fact that at least in the early part of his life Steve neglected his daughter and his girl friend - are corroborated in his recent biography.
I have great respect for Jobs, Socrates and Kennedy. But the gist of the story is that none of us is infallible.  We try but we are all human.  If someone appears faultless to you, it only means one thing, you don’t know them yet. On the other hand one of the first signs of knowing someone well is that you think almost everything about that person needs to be improved.
The article on Steve Jobs is here. Paul Johnson's book is called Socrates: A man for our times and is what I am reading right now .The then nineteen year old intern is now seventy eight and has written her story in a book.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Happiness : Do you earn to live or live to earn ?

The age old question! How important is money in our lives ? This what the recent coverage of the Facebook IPO reminded me of. A lot has been said about the IPO - the possible price per share (from ~$27 to $31) , the money various people will make from the founder, to the employees to their financial adviser - and how it compares with the other technology stocks.

A commentator on Bloomberg mentioned that Zuckerberg has never taken money out Facebook unlike the executives of few other technology companies that recently came up with IPOs. As you read the text of the Zuckerberg's letter to his investors you can't miss the fact that he believes in what he is doing. The letter is in part an attempt to build an ethos among the people associated with Facebook. 

Though there are a lot of ideas, the following few caught my attention:

...Simply put: we don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services. 

... These days I think more and more people want to use services from companies that believe in something beyond simply maximizing profits.
Since the man is worth billions, you need to put his statements in context before you start renouncing the too much (or the too little) that you have. I agree that money is important because in a social setting or a relationship it often becomes a proxy for power and authority. I have a friend who insisted on paying (though we always split the check and paid him back) whenever we went out because he believed it gave him the power whenever there was decision to be made, even if was simply about where to go.

But the undeniable fact is that money is the means not the end, and the two are different. In the end Zuckerberg knows what is most important for Facebook because it is most important for all of us.
There is a huge need and a huge opportunity to get everyone in the world connected, to give everyone a voice and to help transform society for the future. starts small — with the relationship between two people.
 Personal relationships are the fundamental unit of our society. Relationships are how we discover new ideas, understand our world and ultimately derive long-term happiness.
While I write this I am reminded of a conversation I had with a friend. I was at a crossroad unable to decide. She helped me think rationally with the simple question, " What would make you happy ?"  I am grateful for the people who enrich my life. I realize that they are the end in my life, and not the means and the distinction is critical.

But there is more worth reading in the letter. The full text is here.