Two people are hired to do identical work. They have the same amount of experience, training and education. They put in equal effort and produce equal output.
One person is paid $10 per hour and the other $7 per hour. Each month, the lesser-paid person’s hourly rate will be increased by 25 cents. So, progress is being made. In a month, the lower wage earner should be happier than today because the hourly rate will be closer to the higher paid employee’s, right? The lower wage earner can look ahead and know that, in 12 short months, their pay will be equal. They only need to wait a year! They can look back and see they are better off and forward knowing their lot in life is improving. Sure, they feel gratitude toward the employer.
Two customers buy gas at the same gas station once each week. One customer pays $2.50 a gallon and the other is charged $3.10 a gallon. With each fill-up, the person paying more will have their cost per gallon go down two cents. In 30 weeks, they’ll be paying the same amount per gallon. That’s progress! Everyone should be happy! The person paying more has been assured that they won’t pay more for the same product forever and, each week, they are paying less than they were the week before. Real, measurable progress. That’s success, right?
Of course, these situations are completely unreasonable. The underpaid employee should be paid equitably immediately. The gas customer should never have been expected to pay more. Both parties getting the short end of these situations would be completely justified in feeling mistreated, angry, and expect things to be made right — yesterday.
Recent studies conducted by researchers from Boston College, Boston University and the University of Michigan found that children develop a sense of fairness as early as 12 months old. As they grow into preschoolers, they will frequently choose to give up a portion of what they have “earned” if they see that fellow subjects are being unequally rewarded. Children between ages 6 and 9 will most often choose to receive no reward, rather than see a peer who has put in an equal effort receive less than they did.
Somewhere along the line, fairness, empathy and compassion often take a back seat to more comfortable assumptions that those with less have less due to some fault of their own. Others reassure themselves that history shows that various groups used to have it worse and progress is being made.
It’s far too easy for those on the winning side of inequities to look the other way, rather than take a hard look at potential systemic causes, including deeply rooted implicit and explicit bias.
One of the great challenges in accepting that systemic bias exists is that most people do work hard for what they have and certainly don’t feel that anything has been handed to them or been particularly easy.
Most have experienced a mix of successes and failure. Some of those who fall into what is described as the most privileged group, white men, had far fewer opportunities than others in that same group. For those who struggle despite their best efforts, hearing again and again that white men are privileged, must feel like a gut punch.
Unfortunately, to make cultural change, we must look at the overall experiences of groups, not merely individual cases.
For groups that have faced systemic discrimination for generations, and still face discrimination, pay inequity, unequal treatment in the criminal justice system, less personal safety, inferior public education or fewer opportunities for higher education, etc., it is cold comfort to be told that you’re better off than generations before you.
Far too often, when members of these marginalized groups speak up and push for equality and equity now, not later, they are labeled as “angry” or criticized for lacking an appreciation of how much better off they are than those before them.
When you hear those arguments, remember the simple example of the $7-per-hour worker being asked to wait patiently to reach $10. Do you feel gratitude toward that employer, or anger?
Now, imagine that, rather than measuring your progress toward equity in months, you’re asked to measure it in generations. Grateful yet?
Lisa Senecal is co-founder of The Maren Group, a writer, and member of the Vermont Commission on Women. She lives in Stowe and is a Vermont native.