Iniquity & Privilege at Work: Does Merit Really Exist?

Note: I originally published this article on LinkedIn. Please follow me there for the latest content. I am typically pretty slow to syndicate my posts here. 

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We have not achieved equality in the workplace, in the United States. And yes, I am talking about racism, sexism, homophobia, and other types of discrimination.

If you disagree, I hope you’ll take a chance, and continue reading this post. Trust me when I say that there are still people being paid much less for the same job as someone else, regardless of their skills. Some people who have been passed over for opportunity, in favor of others, not because of merit. Some people who cannot even see the doors to an opportunity from where they stand, let alone walk through them. Merit isn’t what people think it is.

And even if you do agree with the statement that we have not achieved equality, I think this post is still for you. It will hopefully give you a framework for talking about iniquities with others around you.

By the end of this, you’ll see what I mean when I say that inequality starts way before the finish line. I’ll be tackling the discussion in three parts:

  1. Defining the problem
  2. Offering potential steps you can take to positively affect change
  3. Tying it all together and hopes for the future

As you read, I ask that you assume positive intent, and give me the chance to correct any mistakes, before judging me too harshly. This topic is sensitive but is one we need to bring into the light. Also note, this post is going to focus on the specific angle of how iniquities affect career opportunities. This is LinkedIn after all.

1. Defining the problem: Inequities start way before you think they do

I was just a part of thread recently, where someone was questioning why we had to actively seek out underrepresented groups to highlight. They said, “Nobody should care about looks or the diversity of looks. What matters and what’s rational, objective, and just is: merit/objectivity/ability, which has no color, sex, sexual orientation etc.” (Note: This is not a coworker, but a person I do not know out on the LinkedIn-o-Sphere). When I saw this post, my belly flipped, and a fire lit inside of me. THIS. This is the problem.

The assumption that you can judge merit by only looking at the finished product is completely flawed. Meaning, you can’t measure or rate a person’s skills just by where they are in their career today. That ignores the millions of micro-choices, and privileges that it took to get them there! In the past I’ve seen this explained with the metaphor of a marathon race: imagine entering a race, where some people’s starting lines are waaaaay further back than others, but their starting placement isn’t based on anything they’ve done. And it’s not something they can change themselves. The race is rigged.

The finish line isn’t a good measure for merit.

What does it mean to have a head start, or be much closer to the finish line than someone else, based on something you didn’t earn? It means you have privilege.

I think bout privilege across Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. What are all of the advantages someone has at every step of the pyramid? What are all the headstarts that helped them skip a grade in the school of self-actualization? What are all the things they didn’t have to actively earn for themselves, that ultimately helped them access and realize opportunities?

image of a pyramid with levels that outline Maslow's hierarchy of needs from physiological needs up to self actualization

You might not be convinced. Because, like me, you might be a really literal person, and these theoretical musings don’t mean much. So, let me use myself as an example. I did a little self-examination to identify what privileges I’ve had that have helped me get to where I am in my career today.

Privileges are things that I did not earn. Some of these are things that my parents–who immigrated to this country with next to nothing–earned, and gave to me. But, I did not. I feel the need to also add that I have hustled and busted my ass on top of these privileges, because of the aforementioned immigrant parents’ work ethic instilled. But I want to be really honest that I’ve had it much easier than many of my underrepresented peers.

This next part is going to look like humble-bragging, but it’s meant to be a mirror for those of you who also had privilege to look at your own lives and question whether you’ve taken stock. And, whether you’ve given credit to those who did not have it as good as you.

Let’s work our way up the five steps of the pyramid:

Step 1. Physiological needs: air, water, food, shelter, clothing, reproduction

Growing up, I never ever had to worry about whether I would have a roof over my head, or food on my plate, or clothes on my back. Sure, I was wearing my sister’s hand-me-downs and she is 8 years older with a much smaller frame. But, I was never without a coat, shirt, pants, shoes, or socks.

As a little aside: My parents also always made sure I was clean. Their parents, my grandparents, survived the holocaust–being called dirty jews, and forced to live in the worst human conditions. As survivors, they passed down an almost obsessive focus on cleanliness. A priority to keep ourselves, our belongings, and our home immaculately clean. So no one could ever again call us dirty Jews. This story is meant to highlight the fact that trauma follows you from generation to generation in some very unexpected ways. It’s wild to think that when I do something as simple as cleaning my apartment, I do it with the weight of anti-semitism in my mind.

Imagine what someone whose family and friends were killed based on the color of their skin, the texture of their hair, and the way they look, must be carrying every day they wake up and get ready for work.

Why do physiological needs matter? If you do not have physiological needs filled, you cannot make your way up the ladder. It’s quite literally the foundation for everything. How can you think about getting an A in school, if you’re starving? If you’re freezing? If you’re sick? So, if you’re working with someone who dealt with a lack of food, clean water, or shelter, know that they have traveled a MUCH farther distance than you to get here.

image of basic needs including food, clothing, and housing. photo credit: united way

Step 2. Safety needs: personal security, employment, resources, health, prosperity

I grew up in an extremely safe suburb in Silicon Valley. I was never in any clear or apparent danger. Of course, in the 90’s when the internet was fresh and new at home, we were all acting a little unsafe online, and I probably was harassed by more than a few perverts, but on the whole, I did not worry about my safety or fear violence on my walks home from school.

The three times I was pulled over by police, I was not worried for my life. One time was late at night when I was 21, and I was actually pretty scared that I would be sexually assaulted (men, please tell me if this has ever been something you’ve worried about? if not, that’s privilege) because I hadn’t done anything wrong when the cop’s sirens lit up and he pulled me over. It was a dark street and I was alone in the car. I was shaking when the police officer came to the window and said, “Oh! I’m sorry, we were looking for a car with a similar description to yours, but we’re not looking for nice girls like you.” While extremely high on the creep factor, this was not life-threatening. The second time I was pulled over, was for speeding. I cried like a baby, but I deserved the ticket I got, and I was not afraid for my life. The third time I was pulled over, the policeman ended up being a boy (now a man) with whom I’d gone to high school. He asked me how my parents were doing, and he let me go with a warning. As you’ve probably guessed, also not life-threatening.

My parents were both working professionals who provided a very steady middle-class lifestyle. The house we lived in was in a good school district, which enabled me to go to a good public school with quality classes, extracurriculars, and even a made-for-TV level homecoming float parade. My parents paid for my sports dues, they bought me extra school workbooks every summer (they did not believe in kids having 3 months without school work). They were actively involved in my education and always helped me with my homework at night.

My parents spoke Hebrew to me, giving me the gift of not one but two languages. They taught me how to listen and understand people who sound differently than I do. How to move about the world and fit in, especially if I was an “other.” They taught me about how to save money, how to clip coupons, how never to pay full price. They taught me how commercialism is a trick, and that Ross, TJ Maxx, and Grocery Outlet Bargain Market have just as good stuff as their higher-priced, name-brand competitors. They said no to me enough times to teach me gratitude and yes enough times to teach me how to enjoy life.

They helped me open my first checking account when I was 12 years old, in which to invest my babysitting money. Thanks to their hard work (and NOT my babysitting savings), they were also able to pay for my college tuition. They gave me the ultimate gift of graduating without student loan debt.

Imagine not having the resources to do the things that have catapulted you to where you are. Maybe it was living in a good school district. Maybe it was the college you went to. Maybe it was just having parents who had the time and ability to teach you how to do trigonometry homework. These are not things we earn, these are given to us by circumstance. Every part of my upbringing was full of privileges around safety. And they were privileges I didn’t even acknowledge.

Why does safety matter? I didn’t have to worry about the basic safety of survival. Far beyond that, I had thousands of advantages given to me by my parents, and also because of the color of my skin. I could walk through the world without fear–I was completely ignorant to the fear others less privileged were dealing with. With that privilege, I had the luxury to concentrate on the things that continued to push me forward, and up the ladder. While they were simultaneously the same things that were holding people of color back.

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Step 3. Love and belonging: friendship, intimacy, family, sense of connection

I grew up in a two-parent household, with an older sister. My sister loved me to so much she would tote me around like a poodle-in-a-purse. My parents always said they loved me. My dad would read me to sleep at night. My mom would (lovingly) yell at me to practice piano. I had school friends, sports friends, speech friends. I had a community of people who would lift me up if I ever fell. I was not alone.

Of course, there were the normal trials and tribulations of any young person making it in the world. And yes, it was in High School that I experienced anti-semitism, hearing terms like “Kike” and “Jew me down” more than once. And yes, I was made fun of for my appearance. But I found community with the other first-generation immigrant kids. We understood each other. We couldn’t go to parties because our parents were much stricter. We were not strangers to a little corporal punishment. We were all obsessed with academic accomplishments (see: corporal punishment). We had a shared vision of “getting out and becoming something.”

Even though other kids would make fun of us for being nerdy, not being “cool,” or even the way our food smelled/looked, we still knew we had a community where we belonged. Where we were not afraid for our lives. We had a group with whom we could let our hair down. But don’t let your hair down in the house because you don’t want to get hairs on the floors, because then you have to clean it up. And, please do NOT wear shoes in the house, what are you kidding me? (see: cleanliness obsession in step 1).

Let’s also not forget the age-old saying of it’s not what you know but whom you know. My second job after college came by way of a friend I met at school, who was connected to a job through her dad. Yep, 3 degrees of separation is what got me one of the most seminal jobs of my career. The people you’re connected to create a network of opportunities. Whether it’s actual jobs, or information, or insights. I can’t tell you the number of times colleagues have reached out and said, “Oh hey, Shanee, can you talk to my son/daughter? They’re about to graduate and they’re looking at jobs. I wanted them to hear from you about marketing.” Those kids are PRIVILEGED. They have parents who know someone in senior leadership and they can just send a quick email and get them on the phone. I can share with them what has taken me 15 years of work to learn in 30 minutes. Talk about jumping the line.

There are millions of people who do not have this advantage. Those new graduates without strong networks are starting the race at the same time as the privileged people, and they are already behind.

Why do love and belonging matter? If you do not have love and belonging, it’s like you’re wearing a weighted vest. Carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders, with no one to help bear the load. Walking a tight rope without a net. The only word I can think of is: overwhelming. How overwhelming it is to worry without a safety net? Imagine all the risks you wouldn’t have taken if you knew there would be no one there to catch you. Imagine how many fewer options you would have had, if there were not a community of people pushing and pulling you forward.

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Step 4. Esteem: respect, self-esteem, status, recognition, strength, freedom

Esteem is a funny thing. It’s both what you think of yourself, and what other people think about you. And the two do not always have to meet. But, for people with privilege they often do. To be honest, esteem is where I feel the least confident and also where I think my privilege starts to break down just a little…because I am a woman in the workplace.

As a woman, I have definitely been passed over in favor of my male counterparts. Have been the only woman in a room. Made less than men. I have been in many situations where I was the most senior person, but when customer or partner would walk in they would address whatever man was also in the room as the leader and not me. I have self sabotaged, not taking a seat at the table because I didn’t think I deserved it. I have not gone for opportunities because I didn’t think I was good enough, while men around me had no notion of undervaluing themselves. I have been told to be more nurturing (an ask I am sure happens more to women than men), to make efforts to make myself smaller so that I’m non-threatening (again, not something men are asked), I have been sexualized rather than respected. I’ve waxed poetic on this subject before, so I won’t go on much more here.

But what I will say is that I also had the privilege of role models who showed me how to navigate this iniquity. And, allies and advocates who helped raise me up. Who went out of their way to help me bridge the divide. Who told me, under no uncertain terms, was I to accept that I was less than. And, I listened.

My sister is a huge example of an inspiring role model I’ve been fortunate enough to have. She is an immigrant, she is a lesbian, she’s a mother of two, and she’s a BAD ASS. She showed me that glass ceilings are meant to be broken. She showed me that I could earn more than I did. That it’s better to start the fight and demand what you deserve, than quietly accept short shrift.

One interesting thing I recently realized that my sister also introduced to me, was the concept of going to a nice dinner. It sounds stupid and small, but to me it’s an example of how representation changes your view of the world. I grew up in a household where we were always trying to save money, and we couldn’t really afford a nice dinner. So I never considered that I could earn enough to be able to afford a nice dinner. When my sister reached that level of success, she took me and my parents out to an extraordinary dinner. She lifted us up. And, she demonstrated to me that I too can get to that place of earning enough for a nice dinner. More importantly, earning enough to pay it forward.

I am so lucky to have an example like Liat. But it’s just that. Luck.

I didn’t earn my amazing sister (although, I have many times given her really great comedic content, so I feel like I might be a slight contributor. But, truly, on the whole, it’s mostly her own merits.) I am privileged to have seen how a human being who looks like me and sounds like me (literally, on the phone we’re indiscernible) and comes from exactly the same background can MAKE IT. It inspired and motivated me!

Why does esteem matter? What if you don’t have an example of someone who looks like you, demonstrating the path forward? Becuase everyone around you has also been the victim of systemic racism. Even beyond that, what if the media doesn’t show people who look like you in leadership positions? How the hell are you supposed to conjure up a future in your mind when you’ve never seen it? I couldn’t even conjure up the concept of going out to dinner–and I consider myself a pretty smart person.

You have to admit, it’s WAY harder to envision something you’ve never seen before, than it is to replicate a model set forth by others.

And, then there’s the other side of esteem. What if others don’t look at you the way you want to be seen? What if they are burdened by systemic unconscious bias and they don’t even realize they’re holding you down? All of this is why we must actively take steps to ensure representation, inclusion, role modeling, allies, advocates. We have to make an effort! It won’t happen on its own.

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Step 5. Self-actualization: the desire to become the most one can be

And finally, we’ve reached the peak of Maslow’s hierarchy. The apex of life. What some people refer to as thriving. Or, you could say, this is actually where the finish line exists.

Just look back at the number of words you had to read to get here, the number of ladder rungs we had to climb. And this post is a tiny snapshot of the journey to success. When you look at how many hurdles you have to overcome, you have to acknowledge that the finish line is not the same for everyone. That merit must be a much more nuanced conversation than we’ve been having.

One needs physiological needs met, safety ensured, love and a sense of belonging, esteem for themselves and esteem from others. And, then, and only that do you have a fair crack at self-actualization.

Most of us are not starting with all of these needs equally fulfilled. And given that the race starts from the moment we’re born, you can see how many of these things are based on factors that are out of our newborn hands. Factors that continue to influence us all throughout our lives.

It’s also why, if we think we should be a society based on equality and merit, we need to zoom out from the finish line and look at the entire racecourse.

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Revisiting the problem

Inequities start way before the finish line. Because of that, we need to do more to help level the playing field early and often. We also must stop using finish lines as the main measure of merit.

2. Potential Solutions

So what do we do? Lest you feel hopeless at this point, I want to say that there are many paths forward. I am by no means an expert, so I will just share how I want to move forward. Take from it what you will, and please feel free to offer additional ideas in the thread below.

A. Understand and acknowledge privilege.

This blog post is one way to do this. I encourage anyone who’s interested in going on this journey to also take inventory of their Maslow’s privileges. It is an extremely eye-opening exercise and creates much more nuance than some of the oversimplified rhetoric out there.

B. Understand and acknowledge the discrimination.

I am taking inventory of what my surroundings look like at work. If they do not reflect the same ratios that exist in society, I must acknowledge that inequities are somehow at play. And yes, I have heard the “it’s a pipeline issue” but that’s just further evidence to my point. The problems start early and that’s where I can and will focus my efforts. I am reaching out to colleagues and friends from underrepresented backgrounds, offering to be an ear, if they want to share. This isn’t a time for me to talk or offer advice. I am here to listen and learn, and demonstrate that I care (offering esteem and belonging).

C. Use my privilege to lift others up, and actually try to level the playing field.

I am doing this in three ways to start. I am sure there are many more.

  • Help advocate for the existence of this issue, and thus the need to address it. This blog post is one example. I am using my platform to shed light on the issue because I can. I have the luxury of all Maslow’s needs mostly being fulfilled. Those who are impacted typically do not have extra time to advocate, because they’re busy trying to survive. So, I’m using my privilege to spread the word to the groups I can influence. Even if all you do is have a conversation with someone who disagrees with you, you can help use your privilege for positive change. Change can happen even with small steps.
  • Give a platform to people who might not already have one. I will actively look for ways to highlight people from underrepresented backgrounds who have overcome the many points of iniquity on their journey. Part of this is through my day job, where my company spotlights the great work from the LGTBQIA community, people of color, and women, in the startup space with our community of millions of users. Part of this is through my personal social media. I have made an effort to follow different groups on social media so that my newsfeed is full of a more diverse and inclusive set of voices, and I will reshare and amplify so that my network can also get exposed.
  • Give back. I will donate my time and money to organizations that are trying to tackle the systemic racism that is simultaneously creating unfair advantages for white people, and holding back minorities. Here are just a few that I’m personally contributing to right now. This is by no means a complete list: Year Up (this organization trains young people and offers them skills so they can go “from minimum wage to meaningful careers in just one year”), San Francisco & Marin Food Bank (offering basic food staples to the hungry), NAACP (working to secure “the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights in order to eliminate race-based discrimination”).

3. Conclusion

Iniquities are everywhere. Especially in America right now. Where black people are being killed by the groups that are supposed to create safety. And while this post focused on the way iniquities impact work life, I wanted to show how all these pieces are intertwined. You cannot talk about someone’s work life, without talking about the sum impact of their other experiences.

If you are among the groups being targeted by hate and discrimination, there’s no way you can concentrate on something as trivial as your next promotion. Those of us lucky enough to be able to leave the house without these worries, must acknowledge that privilege and do what we can to help raise awareness, call out discrimination, lift up the oppressed, and level the playing field.

Thank you for reading. I am hopeful that America will find a way back to the unified, loving, opportunity laden, equality-driven country that many of us immigrated here to find.

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