Creating an equitable world

socioeconomicThere are two major problems that the world faces today – (1) climate change and (2) societal inequality. I will refrain from talking about climate change at this point as it has gained significant conversational momentum since the Amazonian fires. What I will focus on is justice, equality and social mobility.

I am a staunch believer in meritocracy. After all, that is the direction the world wished to move towards. It makes perfect sense because meritocracy not only leads to increased fairness disregarding accidental birth into a particular caste, creed, location or economic status; it also creates efficient systems. However, when compared to this ideal state of meritocracy, India has a long way to go. In India, like in many other countries, pure meritocracy needs to take into regard the fact that not everyone is born equal, has access to the same resources and hence need some leverage to level the playing field.

India collects reams of data and does a fairly good job of it. A large part of this data is reliable. One such data set shows an interesting yet unsurprising fact. It shows that on an average 70-80% of children of laborers grow up to enter a similar profession as their father. While the Hindu rate of growth is increasing, the social upward mobility of the country is marginally decreasing. One would expect that with an economy on the uptick, increased wages, and jobs opportunities, the upward mobility would rise. It hasn’t. The inequality in the country has only increased.

A natural instinct is to believe that given the disparity, quotas might be good. In an ideal world when leveraged correctly, quotas are not a bad idea. Research has shown that quotas have increased access to those who need it. However, access alone isn’t enough. This access has done close to nothing for our social mobility. What is it then that we need to do?

As organizations, this has far reaching impact for we are clearly underutilizing the talent in the country. However, before I jump into what organizations can do on their part, let’s take a look at why access is not enough.

There are six reasons that I will quote below (am sure there are more) why differences emerge between professionals with different socioeconomic status (SES) ten years after graduating from the same business school with the similar jobs post-graduation.

  1. Limit of discretionary time: Those less privileged have responsibilities that adds a strain on their time.
  2. Controlling for the current SES: The focus on maintaining the current status reduces the probability that they’d spend time on acquiring additional skills that they may or may not need 10 years down the line.
  3. Variance in political skills.
  4. Networks created: The privileged tend to create large disparate networks with structural holes as opposed to the dense networks created by the rest.
  5. Controlling for childhood SES: This impacts the risk taking index and is directly proportional to the mother’s SES.
  6. Stereotypes held by others; for even well intentioned people discriminate. Self-fulfilling prophecies are hard to dodge.

What can organizations do? If you look at the modern day organization, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that they are designed for the middle or higher SES. Right from selection to the benefits we provide and the actions we reward, they are all stacked against those hoping to emerge from the lower social economic strata.

Here are just a few things that you may consider to change:

  1. Scrub CVs: This isn’t new and is done to eliminate bias against gender, race etc. However, they need to be done better. The hobbies that one pursues and the educational institutes that one attended, all point to the socio economic status. Only the privileged hold a hobby like polo or graduate from Harvard. Remove anything that doesn’t add real value (we may imagine that hobbies & educational institutes hold value. They don’t. That is perceived value. Scrub.).
  2. Benefits: The modern day benefits are designed for the privileged millennials. Those struggling may value medical benefits for parents and siblings more than flexible working hours. Shift focus away from what ‘people like us want’ and broaden the scope.
  3. Tailored trainings: Expand the training offering to include honing political skills, resolving family conflict, basics in family dispute law and so on. Allow anyone interested to enroll and do not attach stigma to these offerings.
  4. Networking opportunities: Enable employees to form large disparate networks by encouraging mentorship, sponsorship and the like.
  5. Performance measures: What does your organization reward? It is usually rewarding those who are always available, can spend disproportionately large time & effort at work. Figure if these measures are truly fair.
  6. Awareness: This is tricky and thus falls at the bottom. It begins with awareness amongst those who design organizations, especially the HR department.

It isn’t the responsibility of the underprivileged alone to solve the problem for themselves. It is ours. Our organizations will be poorer for not being able to tap into the entire talent pool available to us.

P.S: A large part of this piece if not all is quoted from the talk delivered by Prof. Madan Pillutia from London Business School at the recently concluded 22nd NHRDN conference held at Chennai, India. It was without doubt the best talk of the conference. If I can come out of a conference with just one thought that shapes the HR professional I become, it is worth it. To come away with multiple like I did at this conference, is a privilege. It is also a big reason why I try and attend as many as I can. I come away eagerly looking forward to the next one.

If you want to see a movie along the same lines, I’d recommend The Hate U Give.

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