Inequality: perception or reality?

Comments on various threads here have made me think about an issue I’ve always had. People (women, blacks, Latinos, just about everyone) complain about inequality a lot, but in my experience there is more complaining than there is inequality. This is not to say that inequality doesn’t exist. But I still think it’s sometimes more perceived than real.To give an example:

Once in high school I was at a math competition. There was a reporter there who was interviewing several girls about whether they felt like they were at a disadvantage studying math and science as girls. They all said yes. I thought, “Bullcrap.” I had the same opportunities to study math and science as any of the guys at my high school. They had the same opportunities as me. We had the same teachers, took the same classes, studied the same subjects, could join the same clubs, could get the same books from the library. Where was the difference?

One interesting thing I noticed was that all of these girls had on suits or skirts, and had makeup on and their hair done. I, on the other hand, had on no makeup (I never wore makeup) and jeans and a flannel shirt, because I was there to take a written test, and figured I should be comfortable. The reporter didn’t try to interview me. Then again, I also wasn’t sitting around in a group of girls gabbing — I was drawing some interesting features of the campus we were on. I still have those drawings. And I was the only girl to win the competition, or even place in the top three (there were different competitions for each grade level).

I couldn’t help thinking that if those girls were more concerned with the math and less concerned with their hair and makeup they would have been just fine. But then again, I’ve always been a little elitist about my refusal to conform with social norms.

So I wonder, was there really inequality? I certainly had no problems. Was this because there was no inequality? Was it because there was some, but I refused to acknowledge it? Was it because there was some, but I was just talented enough to overcome it? Were the other girls disadvantaged simply because they thought they were?

How much inequality is real, and how much is just perceived? And how much do we perpetuate inequality by believing that it’s there?


  1. These are really important questions. And difficult to anwer. It can be very un-PC to suggest that a person who is claiming to have been discriminated against or treated unfairly is imagining things. But it does happen. There is also a lot of actual unfair treatment happening.

    I once attended a panel discussion on women in the sciences and there were several anecdotes shared by the panelists, all of whom were professors, as well as by people attending the discussion. A lot of the anecdotes were obvious instances of unfair treatment—one of the professors was the first female professor at the university and she was routinely excluded from all kinds of opportunities for social and professional integration; others told of stories where they weren’t even given consideration from their superiors for opportunities that were given to their male counterparts. But then there were some anecdotes that struck me as unfairly indicting people for sexism when other explanations were more likely. There was one student who talked about a professor that often disregard her questions. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person in the room who knew enough about this student to know that the reason the professor disregarded her questions was probably not that she was female, but that she was asking dumb questions.

    That said, not all discrimination and unfair treatment is overt or easily identifiable. My university just published a report on the status of women and a main part of their conclusion was that one of the reasons women aren’t advancing like they should is not because of overtly sexist policies, of which they identified none, but because of subtle cultural factors. For example, it seems that in higher-level administration-type positions, promotions often go to people who are in a kind of social network with superiors from which women are more likely to be exluded, not because they’re seen as inferior or incapable, but because guys are usually buddies with guys. The recommendation was essentially to, at a policy level, eliminate the advantage of being a buddy with a boss. This struck me as credible, and as a problem worth addressing for the good of women, as well as men who aren’t inclined to buddy up with people in the workplace.

    [Naturally, the report also made a lot of wrong-headed (in my opinion) recommendations of what amount to quotas and unfair discriminatory policies to fix disparities, to which I object on principle.]

  2. I think the same can be said of people taking offense from others in church. How much of it is your own attitude and perception?

    My husband has a few issues that are hot buttons for him, areas where he is likely to take offense. He’s mellowed over the years, but he recently spoke to his father about it. His father had been a Bishop when my husband was a teenager. My f-i-l asked him how much of the attitudes he perceived in others was actually there, and how much was he projecting? Good question, I thought.

  3. Now as someone who also hates wearing make-up, hates shopping for clothes, and usually sits in church wondering how people make their hair do that, and more importantly, why would they make their hair do that, I get where you are coming from. There is a huge time effort involved in making a woman look like a perfectly groomed woman.
    That effort probably could be directed elsewhere; however, I suspect the problem is more complex than poor time management decisions on the part of women. I know lots of smart guys who waste a significant amount of time playing computer games, probably more time than most women spend on their appearances. These men can do quite well in their math-related fields.
    I think in today’s world, the perceived inequality is often more cultural. Parents give their son a science kit, but their daughter a barbie doll. I know a family where all of the men excelled in math, while none of the women did. The women were smart, but were never encouraged to develop their math skills, and never encouraged to take the more challenging math courses. Also, its been my experience that in math-heavy, science-heavy fields, women who look like they spend a significant amount of time and effort on their looks were treated differently from the men (and not in a good way). Women who didn’t were more likely to be treated like one of the guys, and would therefore be less likely to perceive a difference in treatment. Women who also had similar interests, hobbies and a sense of humor as the men were also more likely to be included in the men as a friend/equal. If your hobbies are typical girly type things, you probably would have a hard time finding a buddy at the lab. I suspect much of this anti-girly girl bias is simply because men currently dominate the field, but there may be more going on there. The culture surrounding math/science related fields, and the personalities that are drawn toward it are quite different from other fields that women have had an easier time breaking into.


  4. Slightly related–

    Two weeks in a row, at the end of a church activity (one a baptism, the other a move), one of the counselors in our bishopric came up to the person I was talking with and invited that person to go to dinner with him and his wife that night. At first it bothered me that the guy couldn’t even wait until we were through talking so my exclusion wouldn’t be so obvious.

    Then I reminded myself that neither my wife or I like him or his wife. We probably wouldn’t go even if we were invited, and if we did go, we would both be miserable wasting a perfectly good Saturday night with people we can barely stand.

  5. To pick up on a few of the previous comments. I agree with what Matt #3 said. When I feel wronged or made to feel unequal somehow, I tend to start seeing everything through that lens. Then, I see the other as acting with motivations that I project onto him or her. So, me and Latina friend might have the same experience and both get offended. I’ll just think that the other person was a jerk, but my Latina friend will think that the other person was racist. Same “reality,” different perception.

    This is what I find problematical in any kind of survey or opinion polls. On one hand there can be over-reporting, but also underreporting by those that are not culturally aware, or un-attuned, to the inequality. It makes it tricky all around.

    Also, along Tom #1’s answer, there are indeed many cultural inequalities that tend to disadvantage certain groups. I’ve often encountered this in speaking with women and minority lawyers. A law firm will hire a woman, maybe even a women with children (!), and the firm will tout this fact to potential recruits. This woman will become the poster child for the firm being open and family-friendly. She will be asked to sit on the recruitment board, hiring committee and all sorts of things. While this may seem great, what this woman is missing out on is working on substantive stuff at the firm and earning her stripes that way. She’ll have a harder time meeting her billable hours requirements and it will come back to bite her when partnership determinations are made. Much of the client cultivation takes place in male-dominated fields, the proverbial deal made in the sauna, which isn’t all that proverbial.

  6. Vada,

    This is a good post because it recognizes the difficulties that are inherent in self-assessment. We can start with two assumption which are undoubtedly true. 1)Uneqal treatment exists, and 2)sometimes treatment that is perceived as unequal really isn’t.

    I think it is possible to become so sensitized to a particular issue that everything is seem from that context. When I was little, we lived just outside the city on a small farm. I wasn’t allowed to participate in the city sponsored little league baseball games because our house was just outside the city taxing authority. My perception was that I was being excluded because I was a country bumpkin. Two years later we were annexed into the city and suddenly all those mean city kids were my teammates and best friends.

    And Vada, major props to you for using the word “bullcrap” on this blog. In a forum populated by so many PhD wannabes, it’s good to hear plain English now and then.

  7. Vada,
    I need to add that my personal experience is much closer to yours. I’ve never felt discriminated agaist, my parents encouraged me academically, and quite frankly, from personal experience I’d much rather work in a lab full of men than a lab full of women. If I haven’t reached my potential, that probably has more to do with some personal issues of mine, and I really can’t blame anyone else for that. But I’ve heard other women say differently, hence my speculation/observations above. So I agree, what they perceive it is not really discrimination against a gender, but is a bit more complicated than that.


  8. Mark IV,
    there ought to be a 3rd on your list- sometimes treatment is unequal but not noticed as such. self-assessing could be wrong both in overreporting and underreporting.

  9. Parents give their son a science kit, but their daughter a barbie doll. I know a family where all of the men excelled in math, while none of the women did. The women were smart, but were never encouraged to develop their math skills, and never encouraged to take the more challenging math courses.

    I would not discount the cultural influence outright, but neither do I suspect that it’s all or most of the story. In my observation, parents give their daughters Barbies because the daughters want Barbies. My husband is a scientist and would be overjoyed to give his daughter a science kit, if he believed she would be as happy to receive it as she would to get a Barbie. My father was a scientist and made a valiant effort to interest all four of his daughters in science. None of us was a taker. (Except maybe me, since I at least married into the field. Heh heh.) This isn’t to say that encouragement makes no difference, but that as painful as it may be to admit, a lot of girls just aren’t that into science, for whatever reason. For the record, my only brother wasn’t too into it either, though he did end up majoring in math. And speaking of math, I wonder how much encouragement the brilliant math students in that family needed to take the challenging math classes? I didn’t need that much encouragement with math. (Tutoring, on the other hand, I did need. 🙂 ) I wasn’t a genius, but I liked it, so I took harder math classes and developed those skills.

    I believe almost everyone can develop higher math skills, just as I did, even though they may not have a particular gift for it. So this is not to say, oh well, it doesn’t matter if girls learn math or not. I share my husband’s strong feelings about improving the state of math and science education for all students. However, if a girl prefers dolls and tea parties–or art and music, or some other more “socially acceptable, historically feminine” pursuit–she shouldn’t be given the impression that what interests her and what she’s good at are less valuable than what might more naturally interest her brother (or even another girl). I’m against giving your daughter a chemistry set when what she really wants is a tea set. I’m not accusing anyone of being against tea sets, but I never want to give my daughter either of these messages: 1) that math and science are more “boy” things than “girl” things, or 2) that “girl” things are less valuable than “boy” things.

  10. I want to add that I would also encourage any of my children to stretch and challenge themselves beyond what interests them or what they’re naturally good at, regardless of their sex.

  11. I find it ironic that a lot of this site is devoted to issues of how women are discriminated against.
    Yet here, on this thread, most people are saying, “no, it’s actually all about my perception.” It’s as though discrimination happens to others or the aggregate, but not to us individually?
    My two cents on this issue: It’s all about expectations. This is actually my life’s motto, which I really haven’t internalized well because I’m always expecting my family to keep the house clean, my husband to earn more money, my children to live in harmony with each other, etc. With expectations as high as mine, my husband wonders how I make it through the day without committing suicide.
    Needless to say, I think my expectations for any given scenario determine my perception of the experience. As it relates to discrimination, if I expect to be mistreated, perhaps I will notice things that could be interpreted that way. Much like Nate compared his experience to his Latina friend’s, perception has a lot to do with discrimination, and expectations have a lot to do with perception.

  12. I think the results of this study may help explain how perception becomes reality. Men who were subtly reminded of their gender before taking a test had statistically higher scores than other men, but women who were subtly reminded of their gender before taking the same test had statistically lower scores than other women.

    from personal experience I’d much rather work in a lab full of men than a lab full of women

    If I were a woman considering a science career, that statement would discourage me because I would feel like not even other women scientists would want me working with them. Can anything be done to make a lab full of women an equally productive and engaging environment for their fellow scientists as a lab full of men is?

  13. While reading through this thread, two quotes (both attributed to the always witty “Anonymous”) came to mind:

    It’s funny how the world lives up to all your expectations.

    (Obviously, two interpretations of this quote are possible.)

    And the second (slightly more humorous) quote?

    Reality is for those who lack imagination.

  14. I was always very good at math. I never EVER knew that girls weren’t “supposed” to be good at math until my late teens. I had never gotten that attitude from parents or teachers or classmates. I was used to being the top math student in the class, the first one finished with my test, the highest score in the class, etc.

  15. cont. from above
    It just occurred to me that I DID have that perception about science. I didn’t like science. And I did always think that boys were more into science. I was uninterested (with the exception of one semester of chemistry in high school that I enjoyed until I moved). My younger sister WAS interested in science and I remember her getting a microscope and talking about being a doctor and I thought–how boring.
    I think that the only difference between math and science for me was my own inclination which then affected my perception of the field.

  16. How many people’s divine and perfect potential is thwarted and retarded by the world’s imperfect temporal expectations? This is the question that comes to mind as I read through the responses and question of this blog. Many of you have pointed out the significance of subtle cultural influences. I don’t think this can be underestimated. At the same time, individual choice and agency should not become completely attributed to external influences. Following ones heart is a hard thing to do because every culture and society subscribes to labels that can both limit and project an individual to success. As children of God we are all given talents and gifts to be developed here upon earth. Unfortunately, due to many cultural expectations, many of them subconscious, we hinder this development in both ourselves and others. The challenge is seeing ourselves and those around us as individuals and not as a man, a woman, black, white, Latin, Mormon, Muslim, Catholic, etc. These are labels that strangle individual potential. However, these labels can also give us insight to another person’s behavior and be conducive in establishing a dialogue of understanding. So, how much inequality is real, and how much is just perceived? And how much do we perpetuate inequality by believing that it’s there? Well, I really don’t think there is a quantitative answer to this. To completely ignore it’s existence would be childish ignorance. The glass ceiling, 79 cents to the dollar, the worry many parents feel when their little boy plays with dolls and wears heels, hate crimes, etc. prove that inequality still exists. For example, how many boys did you see at that the competition with their hair done and in heels and a skirt? There was a definite difference right? This would be an example of subtle gender expectations. Why can’t a boy wear a dress and still be considered a man? Well, it has to do with the labels and expectations we have attached to the term man. A cross cultural example of this concept can be found in the Bri Bri tribe in Costa Rica. Here they believe that only women can be musicians and if you’re a man playing music, you must be gay. Can you see the correlation between cultural expectation and individual achievment? On the other hand, things are changing and becoming more equal, and I give you major kudos for being the girl that wore the flannel shirt and jeans. A woman after my own heart:D

  17. Inequality: perception or reality? INEQUALITY IS REALITY. Do you not have friends who lookover a person because they are Colored (anyone who is not white). I do; I have not personally, but have known many cases where this has been the fact and will continue to be the thing which is done. I have lived from New York City to Nothern California (least racist place)and from Chicago to New Orleans and have friends in all of these place now. They Know it some of them Do it. If you do not know anyone who has treated a colored person badly for the sake of a white, let me know where you live.


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