The girl effect, or why being smart just isn’t enough

This blog originally appeared on the Power to Persuade web site; see it in its original from here.

The highly-publicised gender pay gap matters for reasons of equity and fairness, but also because women are disproportionately disadvantaged as a consequence.  Research and Policy Specialist Susan Maury, from Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, unpacks some of the reasons for gendered disparities as well as some actions that can be taken to mitigate them. 

Gendered disadvantage across the lifespan

Research indicates that girls tend to excel academically in all areas and have higher rates of university enrolment than boys.  The research is unequivocal: girls out-perform boys in the classroom in all subjects.  This is verified with global studies across 30 countries and has been true for the past 100 years.  Additionally, recent studies have dismissed the popular misconception that girls are unequal to boys in their math capabilities, a robust finding with global data. In Australia, 55.6% of university enrolments were female in 2014.

However, despite these capabilities, Good Shepherd knows that women and girls experience disproportionate economic disadvantage over their lifetime.  For example, the Australian gender pay gap is well documented at 18.8% – that is, women are paid significantly less than men for equal work.  This gap is influenced by a variety of factors, such as carer’s responsibilities and pay scales in preferred fields, however it is already present upon graduation from university, at 9.1%.  Some suggest that the gap is due to women working in lower-paid professions (although it is questionable why such professions as teaching, social work, or nursing – often requiring advanced degrees – are not held in higher regard). However, in higher-paid professions the pay gap is actually worse: for professional, scientific, banking and technical services industries the pay gap is at 30.1%. The pay gap also widens as women progress in their careers; in Australia, women managers in full-time employment earn 27% less than their male counterparts.

Lack of economic security has profound consequences for women in Australia, including making it difficult to leave violent relationships and reducing financial security into retirement, with a superannuation gap of 47%.  This results in 29% of Australian women over the age of 65living in poverty, with a startling increase in homelessness for older women.  The consequences are clearly detrimental to society at large.

Key points of leverage for change

We know that it is not a lack of skill or ability that is leading to this undervaluing of women’s contributions in the workplace; the reasons behind these trends are quite complex.  But there are actions that can be taken that will help mitigate these dismal outcomes.  For example, research indicates:

Gender stereotyping has a very real and profound negative effect on performance. Because it is directly measureable, maths performance is a handy indicator of this phenomenon; see for example research reports here,  here, here and here.  On the upside, girls’ increasing ambition has also been credited with creating the grade gap between girls and boys.

Reducing gender stereotypes removes very real barriers to women and girls.  This needs to begin at home, where effects of both beliefs and actions held by parents concerning housework (it matters!) directly correlate to girls aspiring to less traditional, higher paying jobs for themselves. Both social and cultural norms and the beliefs and example of the mother explain differences across countries in Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores for girls.  At a societal level, learned cultural norms and patriarchal societies reduce competitiveness in girls as they age, putting them at a disadvantage for leadership positions. This includes an acknowledgement of gender-appropriate behaviours and career pathways, where deviating from the norm results in social correction.  This starts in childhood but is engrained in society; for example, a company’s stock is likely to fall when a female CEO is appointed (due to beliefs about women’s leadership capabilities), although it recovers in the longer term (as the leader ‘proves’ herself).  When gender stereotyping is activated in political campaigns, women candidates lose votes.

In this context, the question of how to engage men and boys in order to increase gender equity is an important conversation.  Simple approaches, however, will have limited effect. There are clear linkages between gender stereotyping, objectification of women, and constraining male behaviour.  It has also been proposed that ‘manhood’ is a concept that needs constant social reinforcement, which further leads to maladaptive behaviours.  Amongst other things, there is a need for clarifying misperceptions about what the norms actually are amongst men, and also altering what is considered acceptable behaviour. What is required is resetting the norms around relationships between males and females, creating a healthier, freeing environment for everyone.

Role models of empowered women are also critical.  In a fascinating longitudinal study in India, villages which reserved leadership positions for women showed a marked increase in aspirations by girls and their parents, a reduction of time spent in household chores by girls, and an elimination of the gendered education gap.  Role models also increase self-efficacy for girls and a sense of belonging in traditionally male-dominated fields.  However, even in the absence of female role models, women are more likely to enter a career pathway if they feel welcomed.

Employment models are arguably outdated.  There are many barriers to women’s workforce participation in Australia today, but the primary barrier appears to be juggling child care with employment expectations.  Current models are organised around the assumption that a breadwinner (traditionally a man) is freed up to work over-long hours by a spouse/partner who cares for the home and children (traditionally a woman).  While in this traditional structure the carer may work, external paid employment must fit in around the primary duties to children and the home.  In response, there is increasing focus on workplace flexibility – a major emerging trend in global working norms.  Flexible work opportunities now outrank remuneration, career advancement and corporate culture as the key deciding factor for senior staff when job-seeking – for both males and females.  Within Australia, the right to request flexible work arrangements is protected for certain employees, including parents and women experiencing domestic violence; this is a good start, but is a far cry from normalising more flexible arrangements. Traditional employment models are also constraining to men who are looking for healthier relationships and work-life balance, including in Australia. However, it is mothers who most often sacrifice career status and higher pay for more flexible arrangements.   More flexible work arrangements are something that can be driven by employers, which is a positive change for everyone.

Policy and institutional responses

There are many ways that policy can support a meaningful change.  First, it must be recognised that carers require better financial support.  The superannuation gap must be addressed.  Access to affordable, quality childcare assists women back into the workforce.  Parental leave ought to be available to parents regardless of gender – as in Sweden.  Banks and other institutions should actively screen for economic abuse, and collect data which allows them to analyse the unique financial requirements of women.

Government and larger institutional responses as employers can further effect cultural change.  At the moment there are some exciting initiatives underway. The example of the Canadian government’s gender-balanced cabinet is one that ought to be mirrored here in Australia; EMILY’s List is leading the way in this area.  The recently-launched SAGE initiative to increase female participation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields is another important contributor.  And the Equilibrium Challenge is encouraging gender-neutral workplace flexibility.  However, there’s still much to do – and meaningful actions must permeate our culture, including not only institutional or policy responses, but also everyday interactions with one another.  Achieving gender equity is not only good for women, it’s also good for men, for children, and for our society as a whole.

Why well-being matters in the policy debate

Government policy ought to be designed to help its citizens flourish in a sustainable environment (in all its manifestations). When considering policy changes, it’s helpful to use evidence from a range of disciplines. Psychology tends to be an under-utilised area, yet it is rich with explorations into human motivation. Susan Maury, Policy Researcher with Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, has written previously about motivation research and changes in unemployment payments. Here she discusses why policy should be crafted to support creative thinking – particularly for those who struggle.

Creative thinking is known as cognitive flexibility in the research literature, and is defined as a style of fluid cognitive processing that successfully pairs concepts and ideas that are generally not associated, resulting in creative or insightful thinking. This process is in contrast to applying an inflexible and rule-bound application of information, also known as entrenched thinking (a nice summary can be found here). Because of the individual and social benefits of both creativity and insight, there is great interest in cognitive flexibility – who experiences it and under what conditions.

Creativity can be defined as idea generation that is both novel and useful and is also generally judged by the third criteria of fluency, or number of ideas.Insight involves unusual combinations of information, which together produce an innovative and useful solution to a presenting problem or situation. Entrenched thinking reviews only obvious solutions in a systematic and transparent process. An insightful solution, on the other hand, often transcends disciplines and knowledge centres through an unidentifiable logic pathway, resulting in an “Aha!” moment. Both cognitive styles can achieve solution, but insightful solutions tend to be reached much faster and are often judged to be more innovative.   Both creativity and insight depend on cognitive flexibility, which enables an individual to quickly scan and combine dissimilar information, and recognise a viable match that results in a solution to the problem.

Increased cognitive flexibility allows an individual to identify and implement novel but appropriate solutions to problems or barriers they may face. It is therefore logical that individuals who are more likely to face an increased number of barriers stand to benefit most from increased creative thinking. Yet we know that poverty negatively impacts on these skills, first manifesting in infancy and school-ready children. (This relationship becomes more difficult to disentangle in adulthood because low-socio-economic status is correlated with other markers that affect cognitive flexibility, such as depression, poor health and addiction.)

Government policy can and should play a role in improving the creative thinking abilities of individuals. The potential for dramatic improvement is highest for populations in the lowest socio-economic quintiles. And the key to improvement is a very simple concept: Emotional well-being.

Emotional state clearly impacts on cognitive flexibility as well as overall executive function. Findings are that individuals high in positive emotions have enhanced cognitive flexibility, while high levels of negative emotions – particularly stress and anxiety – inhibits these processes. The groundwork in identifying this link was conducted by Alice Isen and her colleagues. Through a range of experiments, they report that positive affect correlates with altruistic, selfless behaviour; cognitive flexibility, creativity, innovation and openness to information and increased creativity and innovation. Their findings indicate that even small increases in positive emotions have an immediate impact on behaviour and neural patterns.

Alternately, stress, anxiety and other negative emotions inhibit cognitive flexibility. Chronic stress in particular has life-long consequences for higher-order cognitive functioning and healthy affective response. High stress puts both the mind and body into a survival mode, in which decisions are made in a highly linear fashion. These mood states reduce attention to a few salient points, which are interpreted as a source of threat; as a result the potential for cognitive flexibility (and by extension creativity or insight) is severely hampered.

Government policy can therefore be assessed on the basis of whether it adds to or detracts from people’s stress and anxiety levels, and whether it improves overall well-being – including such items as good health, social connection, employment, and meaningful relationships. Stress reducers are often very specific, easily measured items: are such things as childcare and public transportation available and affordable? What are the employment opportunities? If unemployed, can individuals meet their needs and pay their bills? Those things which improve positive emotion states may require more effort: How welcome are people who may have a disability or don’t have a firm grasp of English or Australian cultural norms? Do cultural norms reinforce gender and other forms of stereotypes? What access is there to public space and how is it put to use?

The message from research in this area is overwhelming – individuals who experience emotional well-being are more successful in every area of their lives, including meaningful relationships, health, income levels and career status. It is therefore in the best interests of Australia to consider approaches which in the past may have been considered too “soft” to come into the policy debate.

This post originally appeared on the Power to Persuade web site on 11 June 2015. See the original version here.

Is music a form of phatic communication?

Human communication is complex.  It is commonly understood that non-verbal communication is just as important if not more so than spoken language.  But communication can also be parsed into its function.

Malinowski (1923:315) proposed that there are two types of human communication. The first is transactional, and is intended to give specific information.  The second is phatic, which is used to create and reinforce social bonds.  Malinowski says that this type of talk is more common, which can be “talk about nothing” but which is nonetheless important and rewarding in and of itself.

It could be that a much wider range of communication processes fit into this dichotomy.  For example, Ian Cross borrows this idea and applies it to music.  Could it be that music has persisted throughout time and across every known culture because it provides a very specific benefit related to social bonding?

We know that the emotional messaging of music seems to be its primary function.  For example, when the lyrics of a song are sad but the melody is happy, most listeners report positive emotions associated with listening.  One of the primary reasons given for listening to music is to regulate emotions – that is, to reinforce a mood or to attempt to shift it. Research indicates music engagement is a successful method to do so.

This emotional messaging of music is, for most people, a very powerful experience, which can result in physical responses such as chills, dilated pupils or increased heart rate.  Emotions are contagious, transferring from individuals and groups- but also through music (e.g., from performer to listener).  People who have amusia – that is, an inability to decode musical phrases – also demonstrate deficits in decoding emotional content communicated in spoken language through tone of voice used.

It is because music so effectively communicates emotional content that identifying it as a form of phatic communication may be a helpful construct.  Shared emotional experiences enhances social bonding;  and the converse is also true – social bonding enhances shared emotions, even amongst strangers.  Shared music experiences facilitate a shared emotional experience, which in turn reinforces social bonds.

Outcomes: who decides?


There is plenty of debate about outcomes in the social services sector at the moment: how to identify them, how to measure them, how to use them for continuous improvement, and how to report back on them. Recently, Susan Maury, Policy & Research Specialist with Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand  presented on an unusual approach to developing outcomes. Here she expands on the possibilities.

Outcomes are higher-order effects from programs – the things we do that result in a significant change in the community. Selecting the right ones to track is important because it influences all of the decisions made for a program. While there is a great deal of interest in taking an outcomes-oriented approach to addressing social issues, it is perhaps telling that I had an exasperatingly difficult time finding a working definition of “outcome” as it is used in relation to social interventions. The best definition I could find is provided, perhaps not surprisingly, by the Department of Health. The health sector knows that definition is the first step to measurement.

Recently, Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand was invited to present a conference paper on an action research project that takes an unusual approach to identifying and tracking outcomes. The Uplift project was looking at ways to increase parent engagement at a primary school that services a low-SES community. The intent of the research was to not just collect information from the participants, but to provide a methodology that might increase engagement through active participation in the research project. We chose to use the concept of empowerment to develop the project. What could be more empowering than to facilitate the parents in selecting their own outcomes and indicators?

Three short workshops led the parents to create a vision for their children, identify actions that needed to be taken to achieve the vision, and then advocate for their plan – that is, get the right people committed to taking action. This led to five vision statements that could be used as outcomes, and a set of specific actions for the parents, the school, and the community to take in order for it to be achieved – serving as indicators. The method also allows for the parents to self-monitor progress on the indicators.

In two days of listening to presentations on identifying, tracking, and using outcomes data for program improvement, there were no other presentations on how outcomes might be generated by a client population. There was much reference, however, on the tension of incorporating client perspective and/or achieving client compliance in measurement processes.

Understanding where the concept of measuring outcomes has come from may explain this bias towards a top-down process. There is a close relationship between outcomes measurement and social impact investment. Social impact investment is part of a movement to align social services provision with a business model; governments or private investors fund social change which is likely to yield positive social benefits (see, for example, the Government of New South Wales’ web site on this topic, or the recently-established Impact Investment Australia). And, like a business model, investors want evidence that the approach will yield the anticipated benefit. And, like a business, it is predominantly a discussion between funders and funded.

There’s much hype over the potential for this new approach to address old problems. The introduction to the “visionary and compelling” Social Impact Investment Report developed for the G8 claims that “the world is on the brink of a revolution in how we solve society’s toughest problems. The force driving this revolution is ‘impact investing,’ which harnesses entrepreneurship, innovation and capital to power social progress.” The US-based Jason Saul, a leading expert on measuring social impact, is creating a “universal outcomes taxonomy” and further claims to have developed an algorithm that “can leverage predictive analytics to forecast a program’s efficacy in producing a desired outcome.” (It should be highlighted that many of these claims come from The Stanford Social Innovation Review, which is not peer-reviewed, but rather intended to bring “cross-sector solutions to global problems.” Additionally, some of these claims have been challenged in the same journal.)

I support systems change and collaboration. Identification of high-level social problems and a multi-dimensional response is often the key to creating lasting change (the dramatic drop in smoking rates in response to gradual changes in public policy is a stellar example). Much of Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand’s advocacy is focussed on creating structure change that advantages people who are marginalised, and we are known for our collaborative ethos.

However, it’s also important to consider the theories underlying new ways of working, which the social services sector is often forced to adopt through pressure from funding agencies. In this particular case there appears to be an implicit assumption that

  1. businesses operate more effectively than not-for-profit organisations;
  2. an economics approach is always the best approach;
  3. when the “best minds” get onto this issue, it is at long last solved; and
  4. the recipients of these services have little or nothing to add to the discussion.

My frame of operation, and many whom I know in the not-for-profit sector would agree, is that:

  1. everybody is an expert in their own life experiences;
  2. given the opportunity even highly disadvantaged and marginalised people are quite capable of identifying strengths, barriers, and possible avenues for positive change – and can articulate these eloquently;
  3. the process of creating their own narrative is itself a positive force for change; and
  4. organisational ways of working need to be congruent with what’s known to be best practice.

Perhaps another point could be added in here as well, about respecting the knowledge and practice base of the not-for-profit sector and recognising the incredible achievements that it by and large produces despite a range of systemic constraints.

I would argue that it’s not a common set of indicators that we need in order to better achieve high-level outcomes or societal impacts; rather, it is a common, shared, and promoted set of values. One of these values ought to be to ensure the dignity and active participation of our clients in identifying outcomes.

The not-for-profit sector carries different values than for-profits do, and those values are our key distinction. Working effectively with people is not a business, and a business model is seldom an appropriate response to the kinds of needs our clients face. When we appropriate models or responses from other sectors, we must ensure they align with our values of providing dignity, respect, compassion, and voice to those who have not had their share. My experience has been that it is through these values that problems are solved effectively.

Getting back to the research project I piloted with the parents at a disadvantaged school, the results were far beyond my expectations. The parents advocated for their plan with community leaders, staff at the school, and other parents. The few hours I spent with them resulted in a range of positive changes in the community. They are being supported, but it is their vision, their plan and their actions that are making a significant, lasting change in the community. It’s what we know works well. As a sector, we need to recognise and appreciate our strengths and our values. When we adopt a new way of working, processes must be tailored to ensure congruence with proven ways of working effectively. This is an ongoing negotiation and one we need to actively manage.

This article was originally published as a guest blog on the Power to Persuade web site, on 13 April 2015. You can view the article in its original format here.

Stump the chump: Looking at the funny side of singing

On 14 January 2015 I spoke with George McEncroe and Josh Thomas about my research on ABC Radio National.  Being interviewed by two stand-up comics led to some funny discussion topics: Why do babies enjoy their mothers’ aggressive singing, and at what age do they develop some taste?  Why do children sing so badly?  What are whales discussing, anyway?  And who, exactly, are those nomids? 

The Benefits of Singing: Radio interview with Sam Baran at 2ser in Sydney

This short radio interview aired on 23 January 2015.  Follow the link below to access the audio file. 

The Benefits of Singing

Singing. It seems pretty safe to say that you’ve indulged in a warble in the shower or some discreet street humming in the past week, but have you ever wondered why we sing? As with so many things, it seems that singing – especially group singing – plays a number of very important roles from an evolutionary standpoint.

Susan Maury, a part of the School of Psychological Sciences at Monash University, joined us on The Daily.

Producer: Sam Baran

All together now – three evolutionary perks of singing

This article originally appeared in The Conversation, on 24 December 2014. You can view the article in its original format here.

We’re enjoying the one time of year when protests of “I can’t sing!” are laid aside and we sing carols with others. For some this is a once-a-year special event; the rest of the year is left to the professionals to handle the singing (except, perhaps, some alone time in the shower or car).

Music – and singing in particular, as the oldest and only ubiquitous form of music creation – plays a central role in our lives and shared community experiences, and this has been true for every culture for as far back as we can trace our human ancestors.

So does singing in a group provide specific and tangible benefits, or is it merely a curious ability that provides entertainment through creative expression?

This is a question currently of great interest to evolutionary theorists, linguists, psychologists and musicologists. The debate took off when psychologist Steven Pinker stated his opinion that music is a spandrel – a useless evolutionary by-product of another, useful, trait. In this case, he suggested that music is a spandrel of language development, providing no advantage and serving no purpose.

There are strong links between music and language development, although there is no consensus on the actual nature of the relationship. Arguments include theories that:

  • language developed from music
  • music sprang from language
  • they both developed from a proto-language that was musical in nature
  • they developed concurrently.

A strong body of research conducted with choirs indicates that membership has many benefits to individual wellbeing and physical health. It is possible these effects are due to people – the singers – participating in something they enjoy doing. Or, there may be something more elemental taking place.

janwillemsen/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA
Click to enlarge

If these findings are viewed through an evolutionary lens, though, there is compelling evidence that music making provided some very specific benefits for our ancestors. Specifically, there are three theories which have been proposed that, if true, may explain these effects while suggesting that group singing is still beneficial to all:

  1. singing creates a shared emotional experience
  2. singing increases social bonding
  3. singing improves cognitive function.

Sing us a song, you’re the hominid

Our hominid ancestors used music to create shared emotional experiences. This would have been particularly important for early hominids struggling to survive, because emotions serve as a kind of “red flag” to our cognitive processing systems, signalling that something critical requires attention.

Emotions prioritise the many options that we may have at any given time, and reduces “data overload” from the bombardment of senses that we experience. Hominids, like many other primates, could have developed very small social groups, or even no social groups.

But the ability for a large group to work cooperatively together was more advantageous than individuals attempting to survive alone. In order to cooperate, individuals needed to subsume their individual priorities for action, and learn to delay gratification so that the good of the group could take precedence (such as forgoing eating or sleeping in order to build a shelter). Group singing likely provided a rewarding, positive activity where emotional empathy could be developed.

Only Boys Aloud at a Britain’s Got Talent audition.

We know that interacting with music today is, for almost everyone, both an emotional and overwhelmingly positive experience. Music is also used to reinforce positive moods and manage negative moods. Adolescents regularly use music as an effective mood regulator.

Others put music to targeted purposes; many athletes use music to put them in a mood state that supports peak performance (and research shows it to be an effective strategy). Music’s ability to change or reinforce a mood relies on the same principle of emotion contagion.

Social significance

Second, music engagement would likely have led to increased pro-social behaviours. This would be supported by a shared emotional state, which relies on empathic skills (empathy) to spread.

But music is also at the centre of where we first learn to be sociable – in the mother-infant bond. Infants are mesmerised by their mothers’ infant-directed singing. It is a communication tool between mother and infant, and is highly companionable in nature.

Mary Helen Leonard/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA
Click to enlarge

Listening to a mother sing has an immediate and profound impact on an infant’s arousal and attention, including physical responses. These musical communications are highly effective despite the infant not understanding the linguistics involved. They are also universal; lullabies are recognisable as such in virtually every culture on Earth.

There are strong indications that group music making and social behaviours are still linked today. Individuals with Williams Syndrome, in addition to profound cognitive deficits, are known for both their love of music and their incredible sociability.

Music therapy has been shown to reliably improve social behaviours in individuals on the autism spectrum. Choir members consistently report that social bonds are one of the primary benefits of choir membership.

More experimental studies indicate that instrumental jazz musicians use the communication centres of their brains when coordinating play, and that guitarists and even audience members experience synchronised brain waves when a duet is played (see video below).

Studies also show that musical interactions increase both empathy and pro-social behaviours in children.

Taken together, the evidence points to a strong link between co-creation of music and improved social bonding.

Getting ahead

Finally, evolutionary theorists argue that it was their musicality that allowed hominids to develop what is known as the “social brain”, while others argue that the complex brain we enjoy today developed to keep track of large social networks. It may have been a bit of both.

By creating a shared emotional experience and increasing members’ pro-social behaviours, group singing supported complex social networks. Tracking and managing complex social networks may have led to the development of the neocortex. This brain region supports the suite of abilities known as executive function, which provide the skills necessary to make and implement long-term plans.

It also supports cognitive flexibility, which is a style of fluid cognition that allows humans to successfully pair concepts that don’t generally go together, resulting in creative, insightful, and elegant ideas and solutions.

We already know that a positive mood state supports cognitive flexibility, while stress and anxiety act as inhibitors. Co-creating music may support improved cognitive skills through other pathways as well, although these links have not been explored.

Of course all theories concerning the use of music by early hominid groups is conjecture, resting on the scant pieces of evidence the fossil record leaves us as well as what we know about our own musicality today. But the questions are important, because it can inform us about our own relationship to music.

If the theories outlined here are correct, it may benefit us both as individuals and as a community to normalise and promote music co-creation. Participating in singing ought to be more than a once-a-year activity.