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.


5 responses to “Outliers, privilege and gender

  1. Well, Malcolm Gladwell is a very intelligent writer, but he also writes to sell books, and unfortunately it’s not cool to acknowledge that sexism exists, I guess.

    For that, we have to go to A Room of One’s Own.

    I’ve read only the first two chapters, but at least those two don’t really seem to be making the point about background being important.

    The first chapter has to do with rather arbitrary circumstances and self-fulfilling prophecies, using the example of youth hockey talent training camps having a cut-off by birthdate, leaving most of the professional players born somewhere in January or February overwhelmingly, even though they may have had the same innate talent as some folks born in October or July.

    The second chapter talks about how all “geniuses” and outliers put in at least 10,000 of practice before ultimately achieving their best work in whatever they do.

    Maybe he covers privilege in later parts of the book (I was just reading in the bookstore, so I didn’t get to all of it), but it sounded to me as if he was making it sound as if it’s a combination of all sorts of things.

    After all, it’s not all white, male, straight, wealthy, well-educated, able-bodied folks who become extraordinary figures of history.

  2. Haven’t read the book, but have noted it. I think privilege is one of those subtle, pervasive notions, that possessors of said privilege so take for granted that they don’t acknowledge it. Privilege can be having an inclusive family, one that spreads unconditional love around its members.

    I think the middle classes rarely get to feel the instruments of hegemony because, by and large, they get the big tick from the powers that be. Their family and social networks uphold and protect them. They don’t get viewed through the same lens as those further down the social ladder. Having disposable income means a wider variety of experience to be had, particularly for children. I’ve known working class kids from the bottom rungs who’ve never been out of their suburb until they left school – they have no idea of what possibilities there may be and, even if they did, they probably can’t partake of them or would feel unable to.

    If no mentor comes along, or there is no group a person can join that might offer new possibilities, then what? The ease with which privilege provides opportunities, contacts and possibilities – relatives in other cities or foreign countries for instance, to smooth a traveller’s way – make a difference. The strugglers are competing against those with all sorts of bonuses that make life easier – and the strugglers probably can’t define what it is they want or where they’re going.

    As a teenager I walked everywhere because there was no family car and I had no other choice. Plenty of times i hid in gardens or ran into brightly-lit peopled spaces to escape harassment of the threatening sort – could so easily have ended in tragedy. It simply made it harder to partake in a normal social life and be independent.

    I just read a review of The Slap by a Greek Aussie guy – Tsiokas? – which sound interesting on the Aussie culture thing, breakdown of the old working class culture and fear of poverty as background. Have you read it?

  3. Ha. I’ve not read the book, but Ray forwarded me a link about it today. And then we talked about it on the train and decided that we didn’t understand the point that he was trying to make. But maybe it’s worth a read after all.

  4. (Here via Shakesville.)

    Just for the record, Elizabeth I inherited a throne and vast power, but England was practically bankrupt when she got it thanks to the clever managerial stylings of Henry VIII and Mary after him.

    The book sounds really interesting; thanks for bringing it (in a roundabout way) to my attention. 😀

  5. Thanks for the nuance regarding Elizabeth I, stonebiscuit. I was aware that she was a talented and able ruler, but not that she had started with a bare treasury. It makes her achievements a little more remarkable. I guess that Gladwell would point to her advantages of power and position to explain her wealth, as well as her own hard work.