Equity in the office, and so on

Penned on the 1st day of February, 2020. It was a Saturday.

The Western white collar working world finds itself very occupied with human equity at the office, often in an intersectional sense. Much is said on Medium, Twitter and other new money establishment stomping grounds about these things, chief among them the hiring and employment of women in STEM.

To be brief about the technicals, such activities are a prime example of legal grey area and are a favourite for doublethink. But whether it is or isn’t matters not, since the legal system is overrated anyway. To get an idea of what this is all about, exploring why people are doing it from a variety of angles is most empowering.

The framing for this is simple. Two constructs outline the basis for the things that everyone does, simultaneously covering the individual and the collective: incentive structures, and feedback loops. The former provides reason, and the latter motivates, since humans are definitely not the most reasonable when it comes to doing things. Another important tidbit about the former is that it is a structure – what many don’t realise about incentives is that they can be several—potentially even hundreds—of links away from the ultimate, basic reason why a given action was taken. Each link therein introduces indirection, mystifying the big picture from detailed inspection at roughly three people-paces out. ‘People-paces’ means links which change hands: sometimes several links of incentives are internalised in an instant of a single person, and these don’t add indirection.

Defining the idea: a thought experiment

In the social sense, equity is the notion of a degree of entitlement to a specified outcome. For example, given a primordial jungle of green apes and blue apes, there is a distribution of canopy resources: green apes maintain propriety of 60% of those resources, while blue apes hold 35%; 5% of the resources are taken by non-ape flora and fauna. One argument by equity could assert this is unjust, as one group holds more resources than the other; this would imply an argument for all groups created equal.

However, it could be expanded to additionally specify that by head count, green apes comprise 70% of the population, while blue apes comprise 30%. So, per capita, green apes are under-accounted for by resources, and a different argument by equity could assert that this is unjust, as one group holds more resources per capita than the other. There are two subtle implications: the disadvantaged group, by pure argument alone, has been reversed; and also, the new argument fails to even implicitly account for non-apes. Where is their share of the canopy resources?

To make this thought experiment truly intersectional, one can account for apes not just by colour or tribe, but also by build. While we have green apes and blue apes, we also have tall apes and small apes. Additionally, a highly prized canopy resource, the berry bush, is coveted by all apes, as it is an easy food source near the forest floor that tastes delicious. It is observed that tall apes monopolise 80% of the berry bushes, with a normal distribution of green and blue apes among them for population.

An adept reader might have already noticed the pattern here. For each additional variable added, the number of possible arguments by equity increases exponentially. More possible arguments arise as additional members are added to the given gradients of each attribute, and as new attributes are introduced. Remember any rhetoric about ‘X is more like a spectrum?’ That’s essentially an argument for infinite members of X.

Well, real people aren’t so mathematical. In the real world, it will likely play out something like this. The first thing spoken of will be the berry bushes and how the tall apes are hogging them. One could say that the tall apes deserved it, as they were naturally fitter to gain access to the berry bushes, being tall and all. Since the ideology of equity is already in place, this will not fly. Neitzschean slave morality has been firmly established to permit its flourishing, and so this will be dismissed as it implies all apes were not made equal to begin with. There are not many other strong arguments besides; indeed, much of history’s resistance to this invocation by the weak-minded has been to distract, bury or ignore, via various means ranging from propaganda to outright genocide. Needless to say not the best ways to convince anyone of an idea.

Back to the office

The good news is, the real world isn’t an epic medieval seven-part movie about destroying the One Ring to Rule Them All. Not only are people’s incentives and motives much simpler, they are also much easier to snuff out as a matter of fact rather than inference. The icing on top is, the scope of such equity games is already limited: when the office doors close, the show is over. In all of their tryhard yuppie performal powerclimbing splendour, the white-collar west enshrines such limits beautifully. Perhaps somewhere, deep down, everybody knows the world would truly catch fire if it weren’t for that.

Notice the chief concern with the apes: the berry bushes. A host of factors drove those things way beyond all of the other provisions of nature in priority. Also notice how no attention was given back to the non-ape flora and fauna – this will be important later. The berry bushes are an analogue for wealth in the human world, especially the monetary kind for those who don business casual. The berry bushes were a highly coveted resource by everybody, for natural reasons. Somebody noticed the disproportion among population groups who had access to them, decided it was unjust, and mounted an argument by equity in an effort to dismantle the arrangement.

Why though?

Generally, two sorts of motives exist that can explain why a person would do such a thing. Either they are part of a group statistically disadvantaged with regard to berry bush access, and are motivated by both self-interest and in-group social credit to act, or they are part of a group statistically advantaged with regard to berry bush access, and here is where things get interesting.

When I said earlier that few arguments besides survival of the fittest exist to dismantle the argument by equity, I kind of lied. The first case is simple: person is disadvantaged, therefore it stands to reason to change that to become advantaged instead. The second case is more confounding: why would somebody who is entitled to a disproportionate share argue against their superior position?

One could argue that they wish to appear moral, selfless, or even pious. While this argument could work, generally those with more wealth already have plenty of social credit for their wants and needs in life, so alone it cannot stand.

I got your nose!

Here lies the secret: Remember the 5% of the canopy resources once allotted to non-apes? Notice again how that is strangely missing from the argument now? Yeah, that was very convenient. As it turns out, those 5% of resources were left out because, well, in the view of those with more berry bush share, it would be preferable to quarrel about the bushes instead of, say, something more crucial in the pile of canopy resources that they would not want to risk losing. Whatever that thing of concern is, it’s definitely not being talked about.

Divide and conquer is an age-old adage describing the manoeuvre of a ruling class to keep other groups fighting amongst themselves, so that they can remain out of the spotlight, and avoid being threatened by said groups. Marx’s conflict theory details this well. Realistically, the object of the quarrel isn’t even at high risk of being lost. Even if it is lost, it is easily replaced with some other distraction, keeping the whole thing going. The only incentive against losing the object is that it serves less time as a chew toy.

What is to be done with all of this is once again very simple. The quarrel has been unveiled as a red herring, and this means the argument by equity falls apart, because the proponent was dishonest about even caring about such a thing to begin with. Given how powerful they probably are, this won’t likely be of any use, but hey. Who knows.

Back to respecting women

In the office, equity for hiring women is all the rage, or so they say. Understanding that dividing people by gender is kind of the secret sauce in the magic trick here, we can instead opt for a smarter division that’s more relevant: people who are hired, and people who are not.

Something that’s increasingly easy to forget in our modern world, even as it constantly winks us in the face every hour, is that incentive structures have fallen far from efficient at the office. The reasons why people at HR may care about equity hiring could be as simple as wanting to impress their boss, or because they’ve got nothing better to do and couldn’t live to be caught swiping through their phone, or a lot of other simple behavioural psychology tidbits that everyone tends to grow out of. In the wild, people who back up such efforts have their own, again admittedly selfish, reasons for doing so, and given they aren’t in the process, don’t have much worth considering and could be better done in a separate breakdown anyway. Like the insecure office temp, they could have some silly reason or reference point, and life simply placed them into that viewpoint, end of story.

A lot of our dearest and least apprehensible ideas about the world are like this. A biased collation of life experience led to these conclusions, and there certainly isn’t an argument that would dismantle those outright. When we observe that these experiences are the real drivers of our feedback loops, we can break away from the incentive structure the office is providing and start to make better decisions about it.

Maybe somebody grew up with a mom and sister that were tossed around and abused by the dad in the family while growing up. Those women in their family grew up disempowered as a result, and there is little anyone can do to reverse that. For their perspective, they will likely hold some pretty strong beliefs driving towards counteracting that disempowerment directly, often by any means necessary. From their life’s resultant viewpoint, it is obvious, and it is right. And furthermore, anyone actually in their shoes would do the same. Even if it’s useless, this is still worth pointing out.

My experiences in life have been a bit different. I grew up with a mother who raised us to choose what belief we really felt fit us for ourselves, as she worked tirelessly for years on end to take care of us. She was never good with money, and she was never college-educated. Her best years were in factories with machinery, and she relied on nobody to make all of those things happen. My mother-in-law is similarly independent, running one of the largest native advertising firms in Indonesia. She made her fortune alone, on her own merits. She once had a magazine interview, and in her responses to questions about defining her success, she said that even as she has made so much money and influence, it really doesn’t count until her children make it too. My mother quite literally lives for my sister and I. I would be as inclined towards confusion or even laughter at the notion that women need extra help getting hired as either of these women are. Who would have thought that powerful women would be mothers above all? How on earth did they do that without help? God only knows, but in any case, equity isn’t fitting the bill here for any part.

To close this out, these experiences aren’t something people can share. I know that runs contrary to the buzzwordy support group lingo involving ‘sharing experiences’ and such, but it’s true. That said, they are the best we have for empathising with others, and perhaps if the office wasn’t so predisposed to status games, no one would need to worry about looking busy, and no one would have a problem with asking the question, “Is this really an issue right now?” That might be nicer for everybody, who knows.

Until next time,
Άλέξανδερ Νιχολί


This is another bit I deleted from the main work above. I wanted to tack it on here as it stands okay by itself, and I think it’s a nice analogy.

Large-scale social structures are complicated things. While they are definitely something that can be studied at many levels, taking the leap to change them from within the structure can be quite disastrous. Even now, little is understood about human social structures, as humans are the most socially complicated animals on Earth. While a bee colony may seem complicated on the surface, under the hood it’s a concert of pheremones and birthright. Most bugs are like this; it’s quite straightforward. Even as humans have the unique power to think about their situations, they are still as trapped into our own society as the bee is. To leave society is to give up being social, a fate which humans are, like the bee, biologically hardwired to require.