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Equality of opportunity vs equality of outcome

7 min read

Lately I've increasingly encountered arguments for "equality of opportunity vs equality of outcome", which is usually shorthand for a bunch of nastier opinions held by people who don't think we should be aiming for a more inclusive society. As far as I can tell, this is largely due to the rising popularity of Jordan Petersen, a conservative pseudointellectual who is fast becoming the voice of unreconstructed dudes who like to complain about feminism.

A good example of a distinction made between the two goes as follows:

Equality of opportunity provides in a sense that all start the race of life at the same time. Equality of outcome attempts to ensure that everyone finishes at the same time.

Painted as such, equality of outcome is an oppressive, Harrison Bergeron idea. Everyone must be completely equal! That means we must suppress achievement! We must make everybody the same!

Of course, nobody wants that at all. It's a disingenuous argument designed to avoid talking about systemic inequalities, and to thwart efforts to correct the balance. In this fictitious world, for example, highly-qualified male software engineers are being overlooked in favor of less-qualified women engineers. And by using diversity and inclusion metrics to measure progress, we're erroneously baking in discrimination against highly-qualified straight, white men.

At best, it's a half-understanding of reality. At worst, it's a deliberate subversion of reality in order to maintain the status quo.

The reality is that women and people from underrepresented backgrounds are being discriminated against. Sometimes this is overt and intentional: open racism and sexism exist in depressingly large numbers. Beyond that, it's got a lot to do with who has traditionally had power and privilege. When 80-85% of jobs are landed through networking, the people whose networks contain more people with the ability to hire win. In venture capital, it's considered bad form to reach out to an investor cold (a practice that I believe needs to change - please do pitch me cold!); the people with more investors in their network will win.

Who is going to do better from those systems: people whose ancestors were sold into slavery, who suffered racial oppression, who were persecuted for political reasons, who fled their countries, who hid aspects of their identities in order to survive - or people whose communities have enjoyed relative privilege for generations?

"Ah," the dudes will argue. "You're talking about white male privilege. But white male privilege is a myth." And lo and behold, we see the same stats about university admission statistics, and wage differentials between young men and women. For example, we'll likely hear an argument that the 79 cents women earn for every dollar earned by me is a myth because "women choose different jobs".

Choose. Sure. Okay.

Back in reality, the racial differential statistics are hard to argue with. And the idea of women choosing different sets of jobs - perhaps that they're biologically more suited for, if you want to throw in an extra layer of bigotry (without, of course, interrogating why those jobs are less highly-valued) - is not supported by research. As Catherine Pearson notes in the Huffington Post:

Sure, many women choose to stay home or cut back their hours after having children. But many others don’t opt out. They’re forced out because they cannot afford child care, or find a full-time job that affords them any kind of flexibility. And, culturally, Americans remain ambivalent about women working outside of the home. A little more than 30 percent of Americans still believe women should stay home full-time to care for young children. These biases, which play out both in the workplace and outside of it, affect how much “choice” some women feel they actually have, and speaks to the types of judgments women face for making said choices. Plus, women face a well-known “motherhood penalty.” They’re less likely to be hired for jobs once they have children — unlike men, whose prospects improve.

Fairly or not, I find myself thinking that many of the complaints come from people who are bitter that the attention isn't on them. Maybe they feel like life is hard for them and it's unfairly portrayed as being easy. Rest assured, disgruntled dudes: the overall balance is still very much in your favor. And you're in no danger of having less than equal opportunity. But when you've enjoyed outsized privilege for so long, any reduction is going to feel like oppression. And you should know that however hard you find life, people from other backgrounds are likely to find it harder.

From my perspective as a former business owner and current investor, systemic bias presents an important opportunity. There are all these amazingly talented people who unfortunately haven't had the same opportunities. As an investor, I get to back them, and because diverse companies outperform industry norms and companies with women in leadership roles do better, I'm more likely to do well out of the deal. The same goes if I'm hiring. Your loss, bigots! As well as being the right thing to do societally, it's a great business decision. Inclusion isn't altruism - although I also think it would be okay if it was.

Over time, as more women and people from underrepresented backgrounds - who venture capital superhero Arlan Hamilton calls underestimated founders - become present at all levels of hierarchy within our networks of power, the system will become more equitous. Until then, seeking out these founders and employees and proactively providing opportunities is the right thing to do.

Obviously, there is huge diversity within every broadly-defined demographic group. But people are discriminated against based on the superficial labels they carry, whether we like it or not. Measuring progress against those labels is one way to determine whether we're bucking trends when it comes to discrimination. That doesn't absolve us from thinking hard about intersectional issues. For example, neurodiversity is still not spoken about enough, but is an important part of inclusion. And I strongly believe that if I only invest in people who grew up wealthy, I've failed.

People often complain that "SJWs" ("social justice warriors", as if there's anything inherently wrong with wanting social justice) are loud and angry. Sure. They should be, and there's a long history of this. During the civil rights movement, people described activists then in similar terms. When your voice hasn't traditionally been heard, you need to raise it. And one way to help is to amplify those underheard voices.

So, back to equality of outcome. While we're not trying to create that Harrison Bergeron universe, outcomes do matter, and are logically inseparable from opportunities. Because we're talking about network effects and a society heavily based on who you know, the more diverse the networks, the better the opportunities for diverse individuals. And because we're talking about generational inequalities, the outcomes in one generation will affect opportunities in the next.

But outcomes also matter for another, even more fundamental reason. I strongly believe we should care about disadvantaged people in society. It's not enough to say that the market will take care of it when people are living on the street, or when the people of one nation are oppressed by the army of another to meet capitalist needs. Compassion for others is a core part of basic human decency.

As Matthew Yglesias wrote in Slate:

The question of what happens to the person at the bottom genuinely matters. Whether you want to phrase that in terms of the gap between the bottom and the top—inequality, as such—or simply look at the absolute condition of the people at the bottom, you can’t escape the conclusion that outcomes matter, and not just in terms of procedural fairness. Today, even poor people are able to take advantage of things like electricity and antibiotics that were rare or nonexistent 100 years ago. That’s the kind of opportunity that matters—the opportunity for everyone to enjoy a better life.

If you're against that - well, then, I don't know if there's anything we can talk about.