Statistics on women in business leave little room for interpretation. Even though study upon study prove that companies with women in leadership positions enjoy greater returns on equity, are more profitable, and have greater client satisfaction, at our current rate of progress, it will take another full century for the U.S. to achieve gender parity in the C suite. Programs that encourage gender diversity in hiring and promotions still center their narratives on men. It took the U.S. more than two decades to award just 5 percent of government contracting dollars to female-owned companies.
In case this stream of numbers and charts fails to leave a memorable mark, economists, artists, and advocates have put systemic workplace discrimination into terms people in power can understand. There’s Equal Pay Day, a day about nine months into the year that indicates when women, were they compensated at the same rate as men, would stop getting paid and work for free for the rest of the year. And now, theoretical neuroscientist Vivienne Ming has calculated the average monetary amount—the “tax,” she calls it—women, people of color, and queer people must pay for the extra education, training, and experience they need to get the same jobs and promotions as straight white men.
Ming, who is transgender, was inspired in part by her observations on how people treated her differently once she transitioned in her 30s. Using data gleaned from websites such as LinkedIn, Bitbucket, and Facebook, Ming and her team analyzed programmers who do good work, and those who excel in their careers, to determine who companies hired and why. The tax, which also takes into account the cost of lost work, comes from Ming’s data model that estimates “how good people were at jobs they never had.” From Quartz:
It costs about £38,000 ($54,000) to be a gay man in England; women in the U.S. tech industry pay a tax of between $100,000 and $300,000; and women in tech in Hong Kong or Singapore face an even steeper $800,000 to $1.5 million. … It’s a tax, [Ming] says, that doesn’t pay for anything, like roads or schools. In scientific terms, “it’s heat loss in our economy,” Ming says.
Ming’s privilege tax might find a practical application in a forthcoming app that divides a restaurant bill among a table of friends, taking into account the race and gender wage gaps. EquiTable began as Equipay, which won the grand prize at Cultivated Wit’s Comedy Hack Day in January and is set to launch as an actual app this month. It promises to calculate a fair tab split using wage information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and a system it calls “affirmative fractions”; the Comedy Hack Day version also let users track whether their friend group is Oscars-level white, college brochure–level diverse, or somewhere in between. Promising “reparations, one meal at a time,” EquiTable will automatically add a surcharge to high-privilege dining groups, which the organization says will subsidize other diners’ meals and go toward some kind of charitable endeavor.
EquiTable’s wealth redistribution–as–performance art calls to mind a brilliant GoFundMe project from 2014 entitled “I need some white privilege!” Built by a black student named Yaya in response to the white guy who made a Kickstarter to fund a batch of potato salad and netted more than $55,000, the fundraiser asked for the $135,000 Yaya in theoretical lost wages as “someone who has historically been classified by the United States government as a Black/African American woman” in the workforce for 15 years. Yaya wrote:
From being assumed to have “cheated” my way into programs for gifted children AND college (via affirmative action), to having my natural hair viewed as unprofessional amongst professional peers, to having people make negative assumptions about my competency level, interests, and job knowledge, to being viewed as naturally dangerous or threatening, my lack of white privilege has created numerous obstacles as I’ve struggled to successfully compete in a white dominated workforce. I am hoping that, through this campaign, I will begin to make some headway towards closing the gap that white privilege has created in my life.
In return for donations, Yaya offered perks that included “[agreeing] to be the black friend you are referencing when you tell people ‘I’m not racist, I have a black friend!” and following contributors around, dressed like a cop, to harass them and thereby imbue them with some “street cred.” Yaya earned just over $1 for every $10 her white potato-salad counterpart made.
Of course, not all privilege can be monetized. Take this recent McSweeney’s meditation on the workplace privileges of a white man:
Joining an all-hands staff meeting a half-hour late, I immediately take control of the room through constant interruptions, derisive snorts, and loudly slurping two-dozen chilled oysters. When the meeting breaks, I am taken aside and told I have management potential. The fact that I don’t work there is never brought up.
Bigger paychecks might make the yacht-club fees go down easier, but the joy of unselfconscious oyster consumption is priceless.