Advantages and Disadvantages

As part of the College of Engineering Honors Community, we talk a fair bit about privilege, and what it means to have privilege.  We also talk a lot about diversity and considering other people’s path through life. Additionally, I listen to a lot of podcasts where there are discussion on how some people see the world through the wildly varying lenses. It is sometimes extremely difficult to understand how people can view the world in radically different ways. So, I wanted to open a conversation about how some of us have advantages over others and some of us are disadvantaged compared to others.

Here is a simple example that everyone can probably appreciate. Let’s say that you have a chronic illness that causes you to miss one day of work a week. Over a full year, this is about 50 days of work missed, or about 20% of the time. That is a lot of work. Pretty much by definition, this person will fall further and further behind a person without a chronic illness. They won’t be able to accomplish as much as their co-workers. Let’s say that their employer treated them very fairly, and basically compared them to other workers hour-by-hour (like 1600 hours of work compared to 1600 hours of work to another person), and gave them appropriate raises.  Then the chronically ill person, in the best of circumstances, would get roughly 80% of the raise of a person of similar work performance.  Is this fair?  Because someone is born with a chronic illness, they fall behind others of similar talent.

Let’s consider another example. When a professor tries to get tenure, they may end up working a lot of hours. The more hours the professor works, the more papers and proposals they can write.  While there is a lot more to it, if you assume that you have two people who have exactly the same abilities, the person who works more will produce more. Consider sleep.  If you are the type of person who needs 8-9 hours of sleep a night, you basically have a disadvantage over someone of equal ability who only needs 5-6 hours of sleep a night.  The person who needs less sleep, literally has more hours in the day to work. You could argue that this is a HUGE advantage. If you assume each person spends 7 hours a day with family and eating and stuff, and they sleep for either 5 or 8 hours, then the person has either 12 or 9 hours of work time, for a difference of 30%. This can make for a 45 hour work week or a 60 hour work week.  That is massive when considering the amount of time it takes to write papers and proposals, prepare lectures, and advise students. Is this fair? Because someone is born with the need to sleep more, they naturally fall behind someone who needs less sleep but has similar talents.

A professional basketball play is another example of someone who is born with certain advantages over another person.  I could never be a basketball player.  I have super short legs and have almost no hand-eye coordination at all. But, let’s pretend that I wanted to be a basketball player and tried really, really hard at it. There is no way that it would happen. This is a somewhat different type of example, though, since I will never have similar talents as someone who is two feet taller than I am and can actually dribble a ball.

Let’s then consider two people who are identical in their talents, except they just have a few differences. Let’s say that one is a man and one is a woman. This shouldn’t matter at all if they are identical in their talents. But, in the real world, it does. For example, when sending resumes to perspective technical employers, men receive more callbacks than women, even when the resumes are identical.  In teaching evaluations, men are typically given higher ratings, even in online classes, when the only thing that is different about the entire class is the name of the professor. When competing for the exact same technical job, women are disadvantaged compared to men.

This is also true of race – black and brown people are disadvantaged compared to white people when applying for the same jobs. There are many aspects of life where black and brown people are at a disadvantage: law enforcement and banking to name just two. Imagine being pulled over by the police multiple times in a month for trivial traffic violations (or no violations at all). I would definitely have to change my driving habits and would have to add 20-30 minutes to every single trip that I take, just in case I got pulled over.  It would change a huge aspect of my “just in time” lifestyle.  I have also been extremely lucky with banking.  We built a house just before the recession, and had a very difficult time selling our old house. The bank basically bent over backwards to help us out of our situation.  If they had not done this, we could have lost our brand new home that we had spend thousands of hours building with our own hands. I am extremely grateful for this, but it really could have easily turned out differently if the bank had decided that I was not the type of person that they wanted to take a huge risk on. Like if my skin were a different color.

(It should be noted here that until recently, there was clear discrimination in our mortgage lending, where banks would turn down black people who had significantly better credit than white people who were given loans. This is not fantasy. It was standard practice. Now there are laws specifically prohibiting against it, but there is unconscious bias where questionable cases are tipped one way versus the other depending on the race of the person applying. The Supreme Court even acknowledged it.)

Is it fair that by luck of birth you may have huge advantages over someone else? Or put another way, is it fair that someone else, by luck of birth, may have a huge disadvantage compared to you?

Take me for example. I am a middle aged white male who is very healthy, was born to parents who were not rich, but were not suffering, and had access to a very nice safety net. I am a professor at a major research university who has tenure and basically can’t be fired. I am extremely lucky. I have worked hard and am smart enough to succeed in my field, but there is no question that if I was born with different skin color, had parents who were much poorer, had a lower IQ, suffered from abuse and neglect as a child, went to worse public schools, or was a woman, I would have had a significantly harder journey.

We just had a meeting with four women faculty and four men faculty and all four men stated that they typically made mistakes or did something dumb in class specifically to try to make them seem more approachable to students, while all four women reported that they got bad teaching evaluations when they made mistakes in class. What a different perspective.

What does this mean?

First, we should all understand that advantages and disadvantages come from all different directions. We are luckier than some people and unluckier than others. Some of us have a lot of advantages, while others do not. Just knowing this and thinking about its ramifications is a good start.

I try to keep the understanding that others might have fewer advantages than I do in the forefront of my mind.  I see that I have many advantages compared to the vast majority of Americans, and it has really changed the way that I think about how I get things accomplished. I feel like I have a responsibility to use the advantages that I have to help others who may not be as lucky as I am and continue to be.


I totally stole this image from the web. I am sorry.



About aaronridley

Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Climate and Space Science and Engineering.
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