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