Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Outliers, privilege and gender

Cross posted

Like his previous efforts, Blink and The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers, is an entertaining read, with a serious point. It's a straightforward one too - when you see something that looks like an outlier, such as extraordinary individual success (Bill Gates), or catastrophic and inexplicable disaster (various air crashes), if you look hard enough, you will see that it is the outcome of a particular pattern of events. In particular, individuals may seem to have achieved success and fortune through their own singular and astonishing efforts, but in reality, their success is enabled by the circumstances they encounter as much as by their own hard work. Check out the New York Times review if you want more detail on the book and its message. It's a fair review, and for my own part, should you happen to come across a copy of the book, and you're looking for some engaging, enjoyable, non-fiction holiday reading, then you could do worse than spending a few hours on it.

But it's not perfect, and I don't think it's even all that original. Gladwell's message - "Background matters, background matters, background matters" - sounds awfully like privilege to me, a topic well rehearsed in feminist and anti-racist and GLBTI and PWD circles. (I'm white, able-bodied and straight, so my apologies - up-front - if I'm not getting some of those terms right. Add a comment or send me a message to let me know.) There's a whole great mass of material on privilege, and analytic discussion of it and the way it is constructed. It's a shame that Gladwell didn't even acknowledge the idea of privilege, or use it to unpack some of the empirical data he deploys.

And then there's the surprising gap in his analysis. In one section, Gladwell gives a list of the 75 richest people ever, calculated in current USD. From that list, he draws out what is to him the most astounding sub-group: of the 75, 14 are Americans born within 9 years of each other in the 19th century.

Well, yes, that is amazing. But in a book that is focused on how background really makes a difference, and arguing that circumstances can make all the difference, no matter how much hard work an individual puts in, to me it's astonishing that Gladwell didn't notice the other critical criterion for being wealthy. Of the 75 people on his list, 72 are male. Just three are female, and of those three, two inherited their wealth through position (Cleopatra and Queen Elizabeth I). In other words, if you want to be wealthy, it would be best if you could arrange to be born male. It's almost certainly better if you are white, too, but the list of names isn't race-marked (c/f gender marked).

In fact, women barely feature in Gladwell's book at all, except as wives and mothers who provide suitable conditions for youthful achievement. He doesn't stop to consider the extra barriers that might be placed in a girl's way; as a teenage boy, Bill Gates was able to hang around the university and stay out late nights, programming, using public transport to get there and back. Do you think a teenage girl would have been allowed to do that?

Gladwell does have the great good grace to write about his family history, and in particular, about the grandmother who created the conditions to allow his mother to leave Jamaica and get a superb education at a top flight school and then at University College, London, creating the conditions for his own success. But it would be nice if he could have at least recognised the story that his own statistics tell him - if you want to succeed, outrageously, then your chances are much, much better if you are male.


barvasfiend said...

Good post. Just yesterday I was blathering on about 'multiples' which refers to Eureka moments that happen at the same time - major innovations in technology that occur at different, unrelated locations. It's a similar argument - that a zeitgeist of ideas bubbles away in similar ways, training brains and approaches in similar ways and then promulgates revelations at the same time.

Julie said...

Very interesting post Deborah. I get so frustrated that many people don't see what's missing from a picture, in terms of a lack of diversity amongst participants.

Who was the third woman on the top 75 list?

captiver said...

Unrelated, but more on gender gaps, this time in toys, courtesy of the guardian --
a slide show -- it's wonderful.

Deborah said...

Who was the third woman on the top 75 list?

Hetty Green, who inherited $7.4m (US) in 1864, and then parlayed it into an even more massive fortune.