Utopian dreams

On Saturday I attended a seminar where we were divided into groups and asked to present some ideas on how we would run a business. All the groups except mine said they would achieve gender equality by staffing their businesses on a 50:50 male to female basis. All but four of those presenting were women, mostly in their early twenties. Someone asked how they would manage sexual harassment issues in such an environment, and the answer came quickly from a bright young woman:

“There would be zero tolerance; anyone who engages in sexual harassment would be immediately fired.”

At this point I piped up to say that sexual harassment is notoriously hard to define, and that a huge number of graduate employees end up in relationships, and often marrying, someone they met on the same program. Will this be outlawed under a zero tolerance regime, or is it only sexual harassment if the girl isn’t interested in the guy? Just then an NHS doctor chimed in with an anecdote. She knows of a case where a doctor asked out a nurse (of about the same age) and she filed a sexual harassment claim against him. The management started trawling and found, to everyone’s horror, he’d asked another nurse out. This was enough to get him suspended for 6 months and, although he’s now practicing again, his name has been dragged through the mud. My doctor colleague  thought this was extremely unfair. Having listened to this, another bright young woman said:

“Well, he should have thought twice about sexually harassing women, then.”

There then followed a discussion on sexual harassment in which someone proposed that, if more than one woman makes a complaint against a man, he should be fired even in the absence of any proof because there’s no smoke without fire. A chap sat behind me didn’t think much of this, and thought people are innocent until proven guilty. I realised that if this is the future, men will simply refuse to engage with women in the workplace beyond speaking in heavily-guarded sentences and ensuring there is always another witness around. Does anyone remember this story, about the professor who was accused of sexual harassment for making a joke about ladies’ lingerie in an elevator? Well, he’s had his appeal rejected. If this keeps up, segregated workplaces will look like an increasingly attractive proposition. At the very least, sensible men will avoid certain women at all costs – and certain companies.

A little later in the seminar, I shifted the conversation. I pointed out that all the business plans I’d seen involved some sort of manufacturing or production process. This will inevitably involve machinery, technicians, warehouses, forklifts, and large trucks. While you will find some women involved in such activities, the overwhelming majority of applicants will be men. However you cut it, women in general don’t want to be working the night shift loading lorries at the back of a paper mill or crawling around under a steam press trying to get a nozzle attached to a grease nipple. So whereas their intentions might be noble, they’re going to really struggle to fill 50% of the available positions with women: there simply won’t be enough of them applying. Women, in general, prefer to work regular hours in offices. In a business where the money is made in manufacturing or production, this makes them overheads.

The response was that very soon all these manufacturing jobs will be done by robots, and in the near future company roles might be better suited to women. I replied that anyone who thinks that has been nowhere near a production facility. The robots replaced the humans way back in the industrial revolution, but wherever there is machinery you still need humans maintaining it and doing the thousand tasks which don’t lend themselves to automation. A modern oil and gas facility can, in theory, run itself 24/7 without human intervention. Yet they have a small army of people monitoring the dials, ready to jump in when things go wrong, and another army working full time on maintenance and inspection. So I remain sceptical that robots will make all these jobs obsolete in the near future.

But the exchange confirmed what I already knew, having written about it before:

It beats me why people are currently wringing their hands at the prospect of robots taking all the jobs, and worrying over how the work will be shared around when we’ve already found the answer: we’ll invent jobs, and pretend it’s real work.

And it’s no secret which demographic is going to be fully engaged in these make-work schemes. But I fear some young women are in for one hell of a shock. When Laurie Penny fantasised last year about robots making men’s work obsolete, she didn’t seem to realise that mindless, repetitive, paper-shuffling in compliance and HR is a far riper target for automation than the stuff men do.

There seems to be money to be made filling the heads of young women with fantasies about 50:50 workplaces in profitable industries where men are fired on the spot for the slightest transgression. These efforts have succeeded to the point many think this is the inevitable future of global businesses. One thing is certain: the manufacturers of antidepressants have a rosy future ahead of them.

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46 thoughts on “Utopian dreams

  1. “There seems to be money to be made filling the heads of young women with fantasies about 50:50 workplaces in profitable industries where men are fired on the spot for the slightest transgression. These efforts have succeeded to the point many think this is the inevitable future of global businesses. One thing is certain: the manufacturers of antidepressants have a rosy future ahead of them.”

    And it seems to be that they always find the profitable companies and then demand they become 50:50 with all the accompanying bureaucracy to enforce it. Where are the 50:50 companies that become profitable?

    The other target is the civil service and other government funded organisations and NGOs that aren’t expected to be efficient, let alone profitable.

  2. There are several TV programmes featuring the work of emergency services (including outfits like the RAC). Episodes I’ve watched regularly film call centre staff saying that “A lone female is our priority”. Given that the vast majority of the breakdown response crews are male, perhaps these “young women with fantasies about 50:50 workplaces” would stop harping on if they were told that – due to the risk of sexual harassment claims – they will now have to wait for a female operative to become available…

  3. “she didn’t seem to realise that mindless, repetitive, paper-shuffling in compliance and HR is a far riper target for automation than the stuff men do.”
    Oh, it’s much worse than that. It’s the jobs where expertise & decision making are going to go. We touched on this in an earlier post.
    Think about how any big organisation actually works. Basically, you have a task. Say build a supertanker. It’s far too large a prospect to be contained in one person’s head so it’s split up into a multitude of individual tasks & done in a lot of heads, each with its expensively educated in, mental toolkit. The vast majority of the energy is then expended by the heads communicating with each other to coordinate what’s going on. That’s all the white collar staff of any business are. Distributed processing.
    See where I’m going with this?
    Day may well come when the only jobs left are for blokes crawling under machinery & greasing grease nipples. Because the human physical form & its attached data processing unit will probably be still better suited to some tasks than robots.
    But goodbye to people sitting at desks in front of screens & phone calls & memos & meetings. And definitely HR departments full of power skirts.

  4. Also the threshold for reporting is unequal. White man complaining about an ethnic minority woman would have a higher burden of proof than a “must be believed” type. So it’s not like all harassment is equal.

    This isn’t justice. It’ll be self denunciation and self criticism a la Maoism next.

  5. You will have a hard time finding enough men to equalise the 80:20 balance in my workplace (and every other workplace that does what I do).

  6. Their entire education has been a stream of classes just for women, company visits just for women, etc.

    Why wouldn’t they expect that to continue?

  7. This is why I wonder about the value of MBAs, and in fact what the actual F most corporate careers are for. I like actually doing stuff, I have to manage things as well, some of which is fun, some of which is boring. But what I really detest is that part of management that is totally unnecessary process. A process should make it at least one of easier, quicker, or cheaper, to get the real stuff done, and good processes achieve this. But most of the time we see bad process. Ticking of boxes, pro-active prep for audits that will never happen, things that can’t be progressed because we are waiting for sign-off from one of 20 managers. And chasing that person for their signature. And explaining to everyone else that it’s not our fault that the project is delayed.

    At the extreme it can foul up completely the real job, taking so much time and eating so much resource that the work cannot be done well, or on time. Much of this process requirement is imposed on us by corporate box-ticker types who have never actually done the job. Or 23-year old “management” “consultants” who have never done any kind of job.

    If I had a blog I would write a post about the “Process Event Horizon(TM)” – you read that phrase here first and it’s mine! The Process Event Horizon is that point at which all available and budgeted resources are fully occupied in monitoring, planning, timeline-shifting, chasing people, dealing with IT problems, and ensuring to-the-letter compliance with byzantine SOPs, that the job itself can no longer be done.

    Beyond the Process Event Horizon is the Process Singularity, at which there are no longer sufficient resources to fulfil all process requirements, let alone do the actual job.

  8. Wow, sounds pretty totalitarian right there…

    How many of the ladies in question were in favour of rebalancing female-dominated workplaces to 50:50, or does the river only flow one way?

    Given that the vast majority of the breakdown response crews are male, perhaps these “young women with fantasies about 50:50 workplaces” would stop harping on if they were told that – due to the risk of sexual harassment claims – they will now have to wait for a female operative to become available…

    That made oi larf, it did. But it’s the logical conclusion.

  9. The more gender liberated the country, the more women’s preference for women’s work is revealed. India has a far larger % of women doing STEM subjects thanSweden, for e.g.

    How can 50/50 jobs equality work in these circumstances with coercion?

  10. I am pretty chuffed that I am exposed to zero of this.

    And nothing at all wrong with the timeless adage…

    “Don’t get your meat where you get your bread.”

  11. I welcome female applications to work with me and my 4 employees doing construction work, preferably to start immediately.

    We’re in Canada, -10, snow on the ground and we need to dig a trench manually on a tight site to get at a 4 inch broken concrete-asbestos sewer line. The camera showed a vertical displacement fracture and invasive tree roots. The roots probably broke the pipe. So obviously we’re chopping our way through tree roots as well.

    The pipe is also bellied down and full of very attractive human waste and toilet paper. Plus, the asbestos in the pipe means safety gear as well.

    Ladies, never mind resumes, just get my email from our host here, contact me and you can start right way. Bring your wellies, it’s starting to sleet.

  12. We’re in Canada, -10, snow on the ground and we need to dig a trench manually on a tight site to get at a 4 inch broken concrete-asbestos sewer line. The camera showed a vertical displacement fracture and invasive tree roots. The roots probably broke the pipe. So obviously we’re chopping our way through tree roots as well.

    Can’t the robots do it?

  13. “There seems to be money to be made filling the heads of young women with fantasies about 50:50 workplaces in profitable industries where men are fired on the spot for the slightest transgression.”

    Well, you’re a novelist, so go to it!

    I imagine a sort of updated Mills & Boon, where sassy young career women get to fuck the best and sack the rest.

  14. I welcome female applications to work with me and my 4 employees doing construction work, preferably to start immediately.

    Hiring females? How many more powerskirts do you need in your HR department?

  15. Not that I needed a reason but I am so happy I’m finished with work plus when I did work it was always 99% male workmates.

  16. “All but four of those presenting were women, mostly in their early twenties.”

    Herein lies another problem. They’ve done what 18 months, maybe 2 years, from leaving university before starting their MBAs? They will then expect to be dropped in to big corporations in middle management positions telling those who’ve got a wealth of life experience how to do their jobs. MBA theory will then overrun corporate memory and chaos will follow in the form of BiG’s Process Event Horizon (TM).

    Or maybe they think they can walk in to a senior position in a management consultancy and waltz around the world lecturing CEOs on how they businesses should be run? That really isn’t going to happen.

    There was a time when business schools expected MBA candidates to have had a minimum of 5 years experience, maybe a bit more, and have demonstrated some competence.

  17. “Or maybe they think they can walk in to a senior position in a management consultancy and waltz around the world lecturing CEOs on how they businesses should be run? That really isn’t going to happen”

    But I suspect that it’s what they have been lead to believe, by a liberal/left dominated, politically correct edjurkayshun system…

  18. The real risk is when these non-working companies are given favoured bidder status by government. Then instead of crashing and burning like they should, they are expensively propped up above the process event horizon.
    Mere failure in a competitive market economy solves this. Taxpayers endlessly on the hook, not so good.

  19. This “robots will take all the jobs” BS is very thick in the minds of a great number of people, not just millennials. And trying to explain the frozen sewage tree root problem only causes them to roll their eyes. They’ve read all about it in Wired or wtf future sci-fi reddit free think chat rooms and university class rooms, etc. They’re immunized against thinking things out for themselves.

  20. So these geniuses are basing their business plans on technology that doesn’t yet exist? Sounds like a recipe for success.

  21. @WTP

    80 years into Keynes “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” and he is looking pretty good for all but one of his predictions, the leisure state. Hasn’t, won’t and can’t happen.

  22. “I realised that if this is the future, men will simply refuse to engage with women in the workplace beyond speaking in heavily-guarded sentences and ensuring there is always another witness around. ”

    Mike Pence does not look silly for refusing to dine with any female other than his wife.

  23. WTP
    “This “robots will take all the jobs” BS is very thick in the minds of a great number of people, not just millennials”

    This is very disheartening. I’m keenly awaiting my army of Maria Sharapova look-a-like sex slaves.

  24. Those young women are indistinguishable from robots programmed
    to spout feminist boilerplate…

  25. mindless, repetitive, paper-shuffling in compliance and HR is a far riper target for automation than the stuff men do.

    Already happening. Two years ago the large multinational I worked for outsourced all its benefits administration to a self-service SaaS company and eliminated 90% of its HR staff.

    My most recent DevOps job was at a small startup creating the same thing for the Canadian market. Despite the fact that the app didn’t work and wasn’t going to be ready for at least a year, every single major benefits/insurance company in Canada was lined up to throw money at them. It’s going to be a bloodbath.

  26. Re Keynes “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”. Haven’t looked at that in 30 years. Only got about a dozen paragraphs in and couldn’t take it any longer. I suppose in the context of the times it is excusable, but with 20/20 hindsight I still don’t get why he was so highly regarded. Smith and Bastiat still read much brighter to me and they were a century or two behind.

  27. @Theo – “Those young women are indistinguishable from robots programmed to spout feminist boilerplate…”

    Yes if we got to have female robots, then I am getting myself a stay at home Stepford Wife. I could make that kind of relationship work.

  28. TBH I prefer working in a mostly male environment. Women don’t seem to get sarcasm, irony etc. They also take criticism personally & cry/huff, if I’m told “doing it wrong/badly” I listen and learn.

    @Tim N,

    Rather you than me on that feminazi MBA. You should take-up boxing or there will be “Mass murder at Geneva Uni” headlines.

  29. Theophrastus
    “Those young women are indistinguishable from robots programmed
    to spout feminist boilerplate…”

    This is where that NPC meme has been so on the mark.

  30. Any woman who is asked nicely and respectfully if she wants to go out and reports that as sexual harassment deserves to be fired herself.

    If I had a company the questions asked of her would be structured to bring out exactly what happened and to reveal if she is a marx-femmi-got-at bitch. If all that has happened is that the bloke mistook her for a normal human female then she is the one being fired not him.

  31. I don’t understand this prediction that HR jobs are going to be automated. I would say that HR jobs are the last jobs which could possibly be automated successfully.

    The purpose of HR is to create a secondary power hierarchy in the organization to curb the power of the regular bosses, and provide an outlet for employees. It also allows the CEO to influence corporate policy in fields which are not directly work-related. Replacing this with an automated system is a non-starter, because an automated system does not have power in the human sense.

    An employee wants to cut back his hours for the next few months because his wife gave birth to twins. His boss wants him to put in even more overtime because of an urgent deadline. What does he do? He goes to HR. But if all he has is an automated system to submit a request, he won’t take it seriously because it does not have any political weight to measure up against his boss.

    A boss needs to fire 30 employees. HR delivers the hard news. How are you going to automate that, by email? Two months after some poor sob throws himself from the 20th floor after being fired, the widow will be awarded $5M in damages and everyone will go back to humans following a company-approved protocol so they cannot be blamed.

    Consider a sexual harassment complaint. You can’t take human judgment out of the equation, even if the human is a maoling. Are you going to submit a complaint via a SAAS website? Either no-one will ever use it, or it will degenerate into a ‘Fire Boss’ button within a day.

    Even the sinister aspects of HR will not be implemented in such a system. Consider the Lindsay Shepherd case, where 3 HR goons were sent to bully her into complying with a system whose rules no-one could explicitly state. How’s an automated system going to do that? By sending a vaguely-worded email which everyone will ignore? By spelling out that which cannot be stated explicitly?

    I would say that even if your factory was completely automated, without a single blue-collar worker (replacement robots are shipped by amazon prime whenever anything breaks down), you would *still* have a 50-strong HR department, ensuring compliance. There was a ‘Yes Minister’ episode that that effect. The Compassionate Society, I think. There was a hospital with zero patients and zero doctors, but a hundreds-strong administrative staff that was seriously overworked. That seems far more likely to me than automated HR.

  32. Philosophical question:

    At what point do the internally-looking, non-client-facing process-driven roles start to dominate the life and activities of an organisation?

  33. The purpose of HR is to create a secondary power hierarchy in the organization to curb the power of the regular bosses, and provide an outlet for employees.

    That’s what’s supposed to happen. In reality, HR have abandoned their basic functions in favour of endless compliance-driven box-ticking activities, e.g. sending emails telling all employees to complete mandatory online business ethics training.

    Proper HR, as it should be done, cannot be automated. It also doesn’t need a large HR department to manage. Most of the issues you describe could and should be managed by the departmental manager, who has HR skills as part of his or her skillset.

    would say that even if your factory was completely automated, without a single blue-collar worker (replacement robots are shipped by amazon prime whenever anything breaks down), you would *still* have a 50-strong HR department, ensuring compliance.

    Exactly. But for how long?

    That seems far more likely to me than automated HR.

    Companies are beginning to realise sprawling HR departments are expensive, so are repatriating the HR functions back to the line managers where they belong. The compliance guff that HR currently does will be automated, or sent overseas.

  34. At what point do the internally-looking, non-client-facing process-driven roles start to dominate the life and activities of an organisation?

    I think it was the erstwhile dearieme who said the rot starts when HR are granted their own department. When they get a seat on the board, the decay is irreversible.

  35. @Tim

    In reality, HR have abandoned their basic functions in favour of endless compliance-driven box-ticking activities, e.g. sending emails telling all employees to complete mandatory online business ethics training.

    But there is a bit more to it than that. The reason the employee completes the worthless training for the 10th time is that he knows what will happen if he doesn’t. Some automated process will notify some HR flunky that he didn’t do it, the flunky will talk to Boss flunky, and the Boss flunky will talk to his boss, and his boss will talk to him. If you take the HR Boss out of the picture, and the power hierarchy which he represents, then the email reminding him to complete the process will be treated like spam.

    In any case, the actual production of these training workshops is already outsourced. What the HR people do is force the workers to pretend they take it seriously.

    Consider also things like organizing a 1-day retreat with horseback-riding activities to build a team spirit. The actual organization is already outsourced to lots of companies who cater to this sort of rubbish. The HR person spends several days choosing between 6 different options, and coordinating with the bus supplier and making sure there are enough vegan sandwiches. That’s not going to be done by an automated system. That’s not going to be done from Bangalore, either.

  36. This:

    “Consider the Lindsay Shepherd case, where 3 HR goons were sent to bully her into complying with a system whose rules no-one could explicitly state. How’s an automated system going to do that? By sending a vaguely-worded email which everyone will ignore? By spelling out that which cannot be stated explicitly?”

    is exactly and precisely why HR is going to be automated. It is a perfect illustration of what happens when you let HR start to determine how relations between actual humans are managed.

    Just look at it: you’ve said it yourself: ” whose rules no-one could explicitly state. “

    That’s the whole point. If they had explicitly stated the rules, the HR goons would have exposed themselves to ridicule.

    Any business owner worth his salt is going to look to any opportunity they can to automate the nonsense to prevent this kind of crap taking root.

  37. “…sending emails telling all employees to complete mandatory online business ethics training.”

    This is automated.

    I think, because I consult, I have hit the process event horizon earlier than most people in real companies. But, believe me, Processmageddon is coming.

    I have to do and track this shit for half a dozen clients at any one time. All the process stuff is repetitive (all supplied by the same management consultancies), mostly pointless (procedures that are not followed, or site visit safety stuff that doesn’t apply in the air-conditioned offices on the occasional time I do a site visit). All the real work-related stuff is worthless, being stuff that I fly around the world to teach people all the time anyway.

  38. @The Pedant-General

    That’s the whole point. If they had explicitly stated the rules, the HR goons would have exposed themselves to ridicule.

    But the rules can never be explicitly stated for reasons that are much stronger than any CEO. The reason is this: The rules are constantly changing, and are being applied retroactively. Thus your 100% woke policy of 2005 is thrashed as LGBT-erasing in 2008, and your new policy from 2009 turns out to be Transphobic in 2015, and just wait until 2020 and 2024 when we get to trans-age/trans-race/trans-species.

    The bullying has to be done – the CEO has already decided that the company has to be woke-compliant. So the question is – how? If you have looming HR goons who say “That’s problematic” in a kafka-esque fashion, you get the job done with minimal collateral damage. The goalposts are always moving, and companies who want the Woke Seal Of Approval have to adapt themselves. Companies which don’t care don’t have these procedures in there in the first place, so they don’t have this dilemma.

    To a certain extent my point is invalid because large companies already have internal written policies which they update yearly. But imagine the liability risks in outsourcing the HR training. Imagine that 7 years from now, some SAAS HR website enforcement-company gets its database of employee answers posted on wikileaks. So every training procedure, questionnaire, and test result of every employee in, say, Microsoft is now available online. Within a day, every single embittered attention-seeking ex-employee will identify as Trans-Seal or Martian-Kin and sue the company on the grounds that their HR sensitivity training from 2018-2025 was guilty of Erasure/Invalidation/DeadNaming/WhoKnowsWhatism.

    I’m familiar with two periods in history which seem to match this situation, neither of them very reassuring. In both of the society was fumbling towards a new orthodoxy. The first was the slow establishment of the Catholic creed in the third and fourth centuries AD. It was always safer to say what Christ was *not*, rather than what he was, because the consensus kept shifting over the decades. The second was the slow development of Maiestas laws in the early Roman Empire. In the Republican period, politicians hurled the grossest abuse at each other with impunity, but when Republican traditions died out, the Emperor became exalted above other mortals. A new code of conduct was necessary, so the legal reality slowly groped towards the proper degree of respect required, leaving a trail of legally-sanctioned corpses. Each new Maiestas trial revealed a new thing which could not be said or could not be done, until a century later every trace of Republican freedom was gone.

    The power of the idea is precisely in that no-one knows exactly where its limits are. You cannot defeat such a beast by defining it once and for all, because this just plows the field for the next guy who wants to redefine it a few years down the road.

  39. To me, the scariest line is this one:
    “Well, he should have thought twice about sexually harassing women, then.”

    It shows that the speaker cannot distinguish between a value judgment (that action is sexual harassment) and a plain fact (that man asked that woman for her phone number), cannot distinguish between an accusation (that woman claims she was sexually harassed) and a verdict (that man committed sexual harassment), and has no inkling of the importance of the Presumption of Innocence, and cannot imagine that two people might interpret the same action in different ways. Soon enough such people will fill the ranks of our judiciary, and then we’re screwed.

  40. This sort of thing is why I’m skeptical about MBAs. It’s not about creating managers. It’s about creating functionaries for the Right Sort of Organisation.

    I cried off management for years. Some years later I realised the problem wasnt management. It’s that management in huge places is just bureaucracy. Smaller places, you get to manage. You need a webserver? You’ll be buying it. Need to book a hotel. You pick the place. Now, this is all supposed to be less efficient but the reality is that you spend as much time telling the travel department what hotel you want than just hitting booking.com. plus, they cost money.

    It’s why places like Microsoft killed IBM. IBM had piles of bullshit. Microsoft didn’t. Bill’s whole focus was that expensive programmers were unimpeded. They had free drinks machines because it meant they got back to work fast. They had cupboards with spare mice and keyboards.

  41. Root of the problem is that humans do bureaucracy and hierarchy very badly once you get above the level of hunter-gatherer band/football team/infantry squad. No matter how hard you try, or how good the founders were, your organizational entity eventually winds up being taken over and filled with careerist hacks.

    My take on it? We need to come up with a different paradigm for large-scale organization. The current “build an immortal bureaucracy” to solve every transient problem we encounter is just… Stupid. Name me a government agency that is still working its original mandate past the first generation of problem-solvers that established it, outside of basic things like defense and revenue. There aren’t any, because once they have dealt with the original problem, instead of disbanding, they go looking for new horizons and new rice bowls to rob. Same-same in any major company, as well…

    Dunno what that new paradigm would look like, but one thing it needs is for there to be a finite lifespan for anything organizational past basic function categories, like sales. The minute you have an “established system” is the moment when organizational entropy begins.

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