Thursday, December 27, 2012

Good looks 'work against' female academics

BEAUTY is beneficial in most workplaces but not universities, where students' regard for 'hot' lecturers can be outweighed by colleagues' disapproval.

Cassandra Atherton, literary studies lecturer at Melbourne’s Deakin University, said good looks played well with students but not fellow academics. And with careers more dependent on peer perceptions than student ratings, glamour could be a drawback.

“We’ve still got that stereotype of the professor as socially inept and not particularly attractive,” she said.  “If you don’t fit that stereotype, you’re not working hard enough on your academic career.”

Dr Atherton said good looks disadvantaged researchers when they fronted academic boards. “The research is considered to be somehow not as rigorously intelligent. Even if you’re looking at a fiercely interesting topic, the suggestion is that you spend more time in the beauty parlour than on the article.

“After reading about how good-looking people do so well in other industries, it was shocking to me that looks could be interpreted as a statement about intelligence.”

A US study has found that on a 5-point student evaluation scale, attractive professors receive ratings an average 0.8 points higher than their plain colleagues. But Dr Atherton said they were no more likely to receive promotions, because research was considered more important than teaching.

The study was based on the ‘Rate My Professors’ website, which allows US students to judge their lecturers “hotness” as well as their helpfulness, clarity and accessibility. Lecturers considered “hottest” are identified with an exploding hot chilli pepper icon.

Dr Atherton said US academics tolerated such observations despite considering them demeaning and irrelevant. “They feel it’s something that they have no control over, and it’s not going to stop.”

She said Australia could expect the same. Local websites such as the student-created ‘My Lecturer’ and its secondary school equivalent, ‘Rate My Teachers’, already allow anonymous assessments of teaching staff.

One of the “hottest” lecturers on the American website, Bonnie Blossman of the University of North Texas, started receiving negative reviews after joining a reality TV show.

Dr Atherton, who interviewed Dr Blossman while researching a book on high profile academics, said UNT was pleased with the profile gained from having its lecturer on ‘Big Rich Texas’, which profiles women at an exclusive country club.

But colleagues – particularly women – were critical, while viewers, journalists and fellow cast members routinely questioned the developmental physiologists’s credentials.

“Blossman’s expertise as a scientist is rarely put to use on the show, and her PhD is often called into question.”

Criticism of Dr Blossman had been fuelled by her colloquial language and her association with an “anti-intellectual” television genre, but her looks were the main factor.

Dr Atherton said Canadian psychology professor Judith Waters had identified a “beauty penalty” in academe, where it was important to look acceptable “but being gorgeous can be a problem”. Dr Blossman had highlighted the issue by being filmed having a nose job and botox treatment.

Dr Atherton said it would be impossible to study how many academics had cosmetic surgery, because they wouldn’t discuss the issue. “They’re entrenched in this idea that brains over beauty is what counts.

“They would fear being judged as less intellectual because they cared about that kind of thing – surely they could have been banging out another article rather than recovering from some procedure.”


Some Labor party life

For sheer longevity and entertainment value, it's hard to go past the epic falling-out between past Labor prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, once politically indispensable to each other.

Outbursts tend to be triggered whenever one has the effrontery to burnish his own record at the other's expense, as happened in mid-2010 when Hawke's second wife, writer Blanche d'Alpuget, published "Old Silver's" biography.

Keating was infuriated with d'Alpuget's suggestion that his lack of a formal education was behind his eclectic range of hobbies and passions.

"The preposterousness of it is faint-making," he said in a return fusillade, adding in a letter to Hawke (which he made public) that the latter had been hobbled for years as PM by an "emotional and intellectual malaise".

For his part, Hawke launched a well-aimed barb on ABC TV's 7.30 about the Keating-esque propensity for bitterness, congratulating himself on being "more of an optimist about life, I think".

The exchange had another former Labor leader, Bill Hayden, sadly shaking his head and describing the pair as "old men croaking like cane toads".

Hawke threw one last New Year's Eve party at The Lodge in Canberra in 1991 before handing over to his one-time treasurer and usurper. Fairfax writer Tony Wright, who was an invited guest, quotes Hawke as saying, "There's a f---ing load of French champagne in the cellar here; make sure you drink the lot of it so that c--- Keating doesn't get a drop."

That the mutual animus has persisted in the more than two decades since is a testament to sheer staying power, if nothing else.

"Paul never forgives," says one-time Labor kingmaker Graham Richardson, whose own relations with Keating have long since crumbled into dust.

The executive director of the conservative Sydney Institute, Gerard Henderson, and former Labor leader Mark Latham are another pair of political adversaries who have taken to each other with gladiatorial glee.

According to Henderson, their dispute – of more recent vintage – was triggered when he wrote about Latham's run-in with a taxi driver, which left the man with a broken arm.

Writing under the banner of "Henderson Watch", the acid-tongued Latham has appointed himself monitor and critic of Henderson's "Media Watch Dog" blog, which is hosted on the institute's website.

"There are two types of people: those who like Gerard Henderson, and those who have met him," Latham sniped in a recent post. "He is that most despised of Australian characters: a non-stop whinger."

Henderson, he adds, is addicted to pedantry "like heroin". "Without his weekly fix, his existence has little meaning or purpose," Latham says.

An unfazed Henderson served it right back, describing Latham as looking like "a director of Dodgy Brothers Funerals Pty Ltd who is about to advise relatives of a recently departed that the corpse has gone missing".

With a flair for alliteration, he occasionally refers to Latham as the "Lair of Liverpool".

"What I find about Mark," Henderson says, "is that he is very good at criticising others, and doesn't mind so much being criticised himself. But if you laugh at him, he gets terribly upset. So I just laugh at him occasionally . . . and have a bit of fun."


Wheeled workers heroes of hospital

THEY don't take sick leave or smokos and their manners are impeccable. But the newest employees at Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital did not attend the staff Christmas party.

For the past month, these automated guided vehicles have been going about their work, transporting the heavy trolleys of linen and food throughout the hospital's new main building and politely telling anyone who gets in their way to "please step aside".

There are 13 of the machines, which communicate with the building via Bluetooth and GPS technology.
The new Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) at Royal North Shore Hospital which have been put into place to help staff at the hospital with tasks such as carrying meals from the kitchen to the wards. 20th December 2012. Photo by Tamara Dean

Behind-the-scenes machines … the automated guided vehicles at Royal North Shore Hospital, which move linen and food. Photo: Tamara Dean

The hospital is the first in Australia where the technology has been built into the fabric of the building.

The hospital's general manager, Sue Shilbury, said the machines delivered about 2000 meals a day for patients and carried 25,000 kilograms of linen. Another major benefit of the $4 million system was that it helped free staff to focus more on patient care.

"It has enormous benefit for the individuals working in the hospital in that it removes a lot of the repetitive manual handling tasks, which does lead to injuries, so it provides a safer working environment," she said.

The vehicles manoeuvre underneath trolleys before attaching to them via magnets. They communicate with the building, telling doors when to open and lifts when to stop.

Darryl Prince, the director of people and culture at ISS Australia, which is implementing the system, described the technology as "very clever".

"The food operator or the linen operator will order the AGV by putting the card [with a computer chip] in the call spot, a bit like you'd call for a taxi," Mr Prince said.

"The AGV will then pick that up through its wireless technology, zip up through the relevant station and then wait. It then sends a note through the paging system to tell the operator to say: 'I'm here and I've either got food with me or I'm an empty AGV ready to pick up whatever it is you want me to take."'

The machines have little contact with the public, operating mostly behind the scenes. They move at walking pace and sensors prevent them bumping into walls and people's legs. They also warn people when they are approaching with the words: "Attention, automatic transport. Please step aside."

However, during Fairfax's visit, one vehicle ran over the photographer's foot, while another could not detect a bed being wheeled by as the bed height was above its sensors.

Project manager David Newman admitted the machines had "a slight blind spot" but said there had been no problems in the past month.

Ms Shilbury said the machines had raised eyebrows in the hospital.

"People have been fascinated," she said. "They've really captured people's imagination. A lot of people have been making comments about bumping into machines that have asked them to 'mind the vehicle'.


Greens go mainstream with policy rework

THE Greens are dropping their demands for death duties as part of a new platform of policies aimed at presenting a smaller target to critics in a federal election year.

The platform does not resile from the party's core beliefs and positions, but like the main parties' manifestos it now presents them largely as "aims" and "principles" with fewer explicit policy measures.

After a year in which Labor figures have attacked the Greens as "loopy" and "extremists" who "threaten democracy", the new platform gives the federal elected MPs - nine senators and one lower house MP - more flexibility in negotiating legislation when holding the balance of power.

But it also makes it harder for opponents to attack or ridicule the party over specific policies.

For example, the new platform no longer specifies the Greens want to abolish the 30 per cent private health insurance rebate, but rather talks about "redirecting funding from subsidising private health insurance towards direct public provision".

And it no longer calls for a freeze on Commonwealth funding to private schools, but rather states that funding should be based on school need and that money not provided to the very wealthiest schools be instead given to the public sector.

The new platform was agreed at the party's November national conference and has now been approved by all the party's state branches.

It still makes clear the Greens want to increase the marginal tax rate for people earning more than $1 million, but no longer specifies that it should be put up to 50 per cent.

It advocates increasing the minerals resource rent tax and applying it to more commodities, but no longer proposes an increase in the company tax rate to 33 per cent.

It says the Greens want tax reform that improves housing affordability by no longer rewarding speculation, but it doesn't specifically call for an end to the concessional arrangements for the capital gains tax.

And - removing one of the critics' favourite lines of attack - it no longer specifies that the Greens support death duties or an "estate tax".

The Greens have had disappointing results in several recent elections, including the ACT poll when they lost three of the four seats they had held in the territory assembly.

Founder and long term leader Bob Brown retired this year and the new leader, Christine Milne, has sought to appeal to new constituencies, including rural voters and small businesses. But the Greens are attracting about 10 per cent of the national vote in most major opinion polls, compared with the almost 12 per cent they achieved at the 2010 federal election.

The party has begun a national fund-raising effort through microdonations to build a $3 million war chest for the federal election year.

Labor minister Anthony Albanese said this year that if the Greens "stood on their real platform, they would be struggling to get to 3 per cent of the electorate". AWU national secretary Paul Howes said they were "loopy" and were extremists who threatened Australia's democracy.


No comments: