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Harder for Some

Jiab Wasserman

IS SUCCESS WITHIN reach for anybody willing to work hard? We like to think of the U.S. as a meritocracy with a one-to-one correlation between effort and achievement. It’s a notion that allows us to feel that we’re in control of our destiny and that we’ve fully earned the success we enjoy.

But in truth, there are many factors that continue to tilt the playing field one way or another. Socioeconomic status, race and gender still sway the game. While the impact of such factors may have been reduced, comprehensive data show they remain important.

Warren Buffett is clearly a winner at the success game, but even he says that not every person gets an even chance. Acknowledging persistent gender and race discrimination, he used the phrase “ovarian lottery” at a 1997 shareholder meeting.

The ovarian lottery is “the most important event in which you’ll ever participate,” Buffett said. “It’s going to determine way more than what school you go to, how hard you work, all kinds of things.” He noted that he didn’t have to overcome barriers of race or gender. As Buffett admitted, “We won it by being White. You know, no tribute to us, it just happened that way.”

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Buffett’s comments from 24 years ago are still valid today. Consider three recent studies:

  • A 2019 study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation examined inequality and concluded that, no matter where you’re born, “life will be harder if you are born a girl.”
  • A large genome-based study of economic data bluntly challenges the idea of our system being a pure meritocracy, summed up by the headline, “It’s better to be born rich than gifted.” It found that the least-gifted children of high-income parents graduate from college at higher rates than the most-gifted children of low-income parents.
  • Federal Reserve data show that the typical White family has eight times the wealth of the typical Black family and five times the wealth of the typical Hispanic family.

The bottom line: There’s clear evidence that factors beyond our control conspire to affect our ability to play the game before we even arrive at the table. But despite such studies, many folks remain skeptical, noting they’ve never observed such discrimination and citing stories of women, minorities and those from poorer households who got ahead. Perhaps, however, we can all agree on three things:

  • Anecdotal stories that “she made it regardless of” shouldn’t override what the data say. Just because we ourselves don’t experience discrimination—or just because we know of people who have succeeded despite it—doesn’t mean discrimination doesn’t exist.
  • We all benefit the closer the system comes to fully employing the talents of all citizens. As Jackie Robinson showed, you want the best player on the field for the good of the team, regardless of how choosing players was done before.
  • Most of us are privileged in some ways and less privileged in others. I didn’t win the ovarian lottery, but I consider myself extremely privileged in many ways. I was born in Thailand, a developing country with its fair share of political turmoil. But I was lucky enough to be born into a family with progressive and well-educated parents who insisted I got the same education opportunities as my three brothers.

I’ve met many Americans who happily acknowledge they were “born on third base” because they had the good fortune to grow up in the U.S. rather than in, say, Myanmar. But maybe it’s time we also acknowledge that we’re fortunate and unfortunate in other ways that are beyond our control. As Buffett warned, the great “enemy of change” lives in “the ingrained attitudes of those who simply can’t imagine a world different from the one they’ve lived in.”

Jiab Wasserman, MBA, RICP®, has lived in Thailand, the U.S. and Spain. She spent the bulk of her career with financial services companies, eventually becoming vice president of credit risk management at Bank of America, before retiring in 2018. Head to Linktree to learn more about Jiab, and also check out her earlier articles.

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Carl Book
Carl Book
2 months ago

We should spend more of our time encouraging others to achieve and less time explaining why the system prevents them from doing well.

John McHugh
John McHugh
2 months ago

Oh great, the usual blah blah socio-political sermon on Humble Dollar too. Repent ye sinners.

Please Jonathon, stick to your knitting. Let this place be a respite from it all.

Mik Cajon
Mik Cajon
2 months ago
Reply to  John McHugh

Touché

ishabaka
ishabaka
2 months ago

Possessing a victim mentality has been scientifically proven to be the number one guarantor of success.

Mik Cajon
Mik Cajon
2 months ago
Reply to  ishabaka

Nailed it !!!

R Quinn
R Quinn
2 months ago

I would not question the data, but I do think much has changed in the last ten or more years. Many corporation are actively creating opportunities for women and for minorities. Look at the makeup of Congress compared to the 1950s, Even the White House. Also, instead of just looking at the data, we need to look at the why behind the numbers, much but not all is past discrimination. We are looking to change thousands of years of history of the role of women in society. It seems to me a great deal has changed and is changing on an accelerated basis.

jim jack
jim jack
2 months ago

If you really want more to succeed, why not instead write an article that encourages people to strive and work for success, rather than this one that provides pre-packaged excuses for failing? The Buffett quote in your last line is more telling than you see.

parkslope
parkslope
2 months ago
Reply to  jim jack

Your post is more telling than you can see.

Andrew Forsythe
Andrew Forsythe
2 months ago

Excellent, well reasoned article, Jiab. I’d never heard Warren Buffet’s “ovarian lottery” comment before, but I’ve heard it put another way: “The most important choice you’ll ever make is your choice of parents.”

Paula Karabelias
Paula Karabelias
2 months ago

While I hesitate to speak for Buffett , when he says the “ovarian lottery” he may be referring to the fact that the gene for intelligence comes through the mother’s side. And presumably a white, well educated , upper middle class mother

stelea99
stelea99
2 months ago

This is such an interesting puzzle. When you add talent and work habits to circumstances of birth it just gets more complicated. In the NBA, among players, race seems to be irrelevant with talent, work habits, and intangibles responsible for success. Yet the few great players get most of the $$. Why, among a large group of mainly white, European ancestry programmers, do 20% of the workers write 80% of the code? And, within groups of similar people, why do some end up with enough saved for retirement while others end up poor? There is obviously no easy answer.

parkslope
parkslope
2 months ago
Reply to  stelea99

Research shows that the distribution of performance in high complexity jobs is positively skewed with the difference in output between high performers and average performers much great than it is in a normal distribution.
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232449893_Individual_differences_in_output_as_a_function_of_job_complexity

Last edited 2 months ago by parkslope
The Drake
The Drake
2 months ago

The Jackie Robinson comparison is valid. Gender or ethnicity is, or should be, irrelevant. The bigger issue is how the problem gets solved.

Don Southworth
Don Southworth
2 months ago

Thank you Jiab for speaking truth. It’s too bad so many deny/downplay their privileges. I’ll never forget visiting the Philippines. I met so many women who could have been CEOs in the US but instead were leading villages and their churches while taking care of families. All in what we would call poverty.

Rick Connor
Rick Connor
2 months ago

Jiab, terrific article about a challenging issue. Thanks.

Mik Cajon
Mik Cajon
2 months ago

Reverse discrimination is a topic that is rarely acknowledged and/or discussed…the proverbial discrimination knife cuts both ways.

Last edited 2 months ago by Mik Cajon
Jiab Wasserman
Jiab Wasserman
2 months ago
Reply to  Mik Cajon

Mik,

Any kind of discrimination is terrible. I am so sorry if you’ve experienced it. You should write about it and share it. And if you are mad about it, imagine people of color living their whole life in systematic discrimination that exists over centuries.

Mik Cajon
Mik Cajon
2 months ago
Reply to  Jiab Wasserman

I personally refuse to accept any personal responsibility/guilt for any prior generations behavior…creating a bogeyman only causes further discrimination and division…it’s time to get over ourselves and join the human race.

Last edited 2 months ago by Mik Cajon

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