Shaista E. Khilji
Feb 4 · 7 min read

Understanding Inequality — Beyond the Numbers & As a Human Experience

Photo Credit: Pixabay- https://pixabay.com/illustrations/mental-human-experience-mindset-2197585/

Over the last few decades, rising levels of ‘inequality’ has emerged as a wicked problem, with ill-defined scope and malignant impact globally. In highlighting inequalities, we have paid particular attention to the economic aspects. There is no doubt that numbers are striking. According to a recent Oxfam report, world’s richest 22 men hold more personal wealth than all the women in Africa. The report argues that prevailing economic policies are sexist, and are persistently fueling inequality by favoring the wealthy elite, while disadvantaging particularly women and girls. We also know that 1% of the world’s population controls 44.8% of the world’s wealth. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the CEO compensation has grown 940% since 1978, compared to 12% for an average worker during the same period. These numbers are appalling and compel us to take action.

As is clear from the aforementioned economic data, inequalities are varied, and overlapping. Let us take a look at organizations, which (by many accounts) have consistently perpetuated socio-economic inequalities. For example, rapidly increasing CEO compensation (see above), widening gender pay gaps (women on an average make 80% of men), prevalence of glass ceiling (there are significantly more men in leadership positions than women) and bamboo ceiling (barriers Asian Americans face in trying to reach leadership positions), and low levels of intra-generational mobility are all distinct forms of socio-economic inequalities that overlap, and reinforce each other- and through the process of organizing reproduce a complex pattern. Collectively and individually, these inequalities have a significant economic but also deep psychological impact on individuals.

Most discussions of inequality begin and end with the economic data and numbers. Consider that inequality is at core of daily individual experiences- in how we live our lives and the way we organize work. We are continually affected by it, yet we know very little about its impact on individual social and emotional well-being; for example, how do individuals experience inequalities; how do they make sense of these inequalities, what emotional response does it evoke, and what coping strategies (if any) does it produce. A lack of awareness of the deep psychological impact, may make inequalities invisible and even more legitimate within organizations, further aggravating the problem.

This brings me to my research, which focused on individual experiences with inequality. I became interested in studying the growing levels of inequalities a few years ago, as a by-product of my career-long research that has focused upon exploring globalization and its impact on individuals, organizations and societies around the world. As I witnessed rise of global inequalities, I started questioning the role and scope of globalization. As a result, I began to focus on the role of leaders and particularly organizations in perpetuating and/or addressing inequalities. Eventually, it led me to my current research study, in which I focused on a diverse groups of individuals (including men, women, young, old, as well as different races) and studied their individual experiences with inequalities. I wanted to study inequalities beyond numbers, and in terms of the human experience. Here, I would report a few findings (focusing upon women of color) that may help us move the needle forward in understanding inequality.

Inequalities are Multiple: Gender, Racial and (yes) Social Class

First and foremost, my study found that individuals cope with a variety of cultural, relational and structural challenges that perpetuate many different types of inequalities within organizations. Race and gender inequalities were probably the most frequently mentioned categories by the participants. Social class also emerged as a powerful category with far-reaching consequences on individual earnings, promotions, and social mobility. First, it was the parent’s position in the social class that initially impacted participants’ access to education, and career choices- more than (probably) they realized themselves. Consequently, participants’ own social class also impacted their access to opportunities and promotion within organizations. I saw it as the silent salience of the ‘social class’, that no participant mentioned directly, but always referred to. We all know that Americans feel awkward talking about social class- but I would like to emphasize that the social class exists in a powerful way, and impacts access to human, social and cultural capital.

Inequalities have an Intersectional Impact

While the participants’ view of inequality was unidimensional (as demographic stereotypes), however, their experiences shed light on multidimensional, dynamic and overlapping or intersectional effects of inequality. For example, being a young African American woman exposed individuals to triple jeopardy, on account of age, race and gender.

Privilege is Both Visible & Invisible

Privilege emerged as another unsurprising but important finding. The study indicated that privilege is invisible to those who have it, and visible to those who don’t possess it. Male privilege was most visible to the female participants, but invisible to male participants. People of color referred to the invisible but enduring power of the white privilege. And again social class privilege was something that impacted all participants, regardless of their race. Even white participants, whose parents didn’t have the income and education, lagged behind (first) in educational attainment, and (then in) climbing the social ladder within organizations. It took them a long time to gain the confidence, credibility and the social networks to advance in their careers. Based on these findings, I believe that it is important for us to re-examine the role of social class within organizations.

Inequalities Create Exclusion

Participants described various layers and enduring patterns of exclusion within their organizations that proved challenging for their well-being as well restricted their career and social advancement. Individual experiences with inequality illustrate persistence of rigid social categorization that perpetuate and create inequalities within organizations. Non-neutral expectations can overwhelm those with little, limited or no access to power. Oftentimes, these expectations also collided with their self-perceptions- making them feel like ‘space invaders’, being ‘otherized’, and placed them in the ‘absence-presence’ dilemma, where they were not valued for their contributions. In order to survive and succeed in these environments, participants spoke of covering their identity, struggling with the ‘doubleness’ of being the same while also being different, as well as making sense of the ‘paradox of belonging’.

As an example, Ellie (a pseudonym for anonymity), a Latina immigrant who is practicing as an attorney, spoke about ‘identity cover’ as:

It always struck me. I knew that I was the only person of color. The only different one. And, one of those things that I think was I learned was to figure out how to blend in, and how to sort of gel with the dominant population. You just sort of adapt yourself to being less different than and to assimilate a little bit to what the expectations are from the dominant group. And, I did that quite a bit… I wouldn’t necessary share or be as open… I think, by hiding who you are, the relationships became superficial rather than meaningful or deep.

Scarlett (a pseudonym for anonymity), an African American professional woman, spoke of the ‘doubleness’ in her first job, as follows:

My memory of the first two years is that these were the most painful. Day in and day out, I struggled with if I belonged (because I knew that I was competent) or maybe I didn’t belong (because I didn’t have a support system). I felt like I had to constantly prove myself not only to others, but also to myself (sometimes).

Faced with these challenges, participants learned to become resourceful, strategic and proactive- demonstrating both individual agency as well as utilize collective action with the support of their mentors, advocates, and champions- in order to succeed at work.

Organizations can be Dehumanizing

Individual experiences with inequality illustrated systemic dehumanization within organizations, that both tested and challenged their self-worth, contribution and well-being. I found several examples of participants deliberately engaging in ‘equalizing’ efforts to overcome ‘othering’ in their organization. The most common equalizing factor that the they spoke of was ‘skill development’, or the human capital. Many of the participants also managed the micro-aggression they faced , by proactively building their social, intellectual and psychological capital.

Human Experience is Complex

Overall, my study offered a glimpse into the complexity of human experience. Participants described experiencing inequality in childhood as a defining moment- that stuck with them forever- consequently shaped their outlook in life. Inequality emerged as having a lingering impact, as participants described how their experiences with inequality paralyzed as well as mobilized them. Some participants sought a career in social justice and fought to champion for the under-privileged (as they came from immigrant and under-privileged backgrounds). Another (faced with her parents’ bankruptcy) developed an emotional relationship with money and vowed to make sure her kids never face economic insecurity. Yet another participant fought racial and gender injustice through her quiet optimism. Participants spoke of the pain that institutionalized inequality and every day experiences inflicted upon them.

The study leads me to conclude that there is immense ‘humaneness’ in how all of us like to be treated in our interactions with others- with kindness, sensitivity and respect. It is hence, important for organizations to act with responsibility- and to address inequality by focusing upon promoting equal dignity and well-being for all. Overall, I believe that if we want to truly address the growing levels of inequalities in our society and organizations, we must begin by focusing on humanity.

As a final thought, I believe it is important to understand inequalities as a human experience; and if we do, we must be prepared for the complexity that we would encounter. Aggregating human experiences isn’t likely to lead to neat and tidy categories (that most of us are used to), but complete messiness- and may be that is how we will begin appreciating the beauty of humanity.

Acknowledgements: I would like to acknowledge all of the study participants who willingly shared their very personal experiences with me. All errors are mine.

For full reference of this work, please contact me directly.

Published: Feb 4, 2020

Shaista E. Khilji

Written by

Shaista E. Khilji is a Writer, Professor, and Creative & Strategic Director of George Washington University’s Organizational Leadership & Learning program.

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