The costs of being “different” in society can be staggering. Those costs not only exact an emotional and social price, but they also take a financial toll. This unpleasant truth is what drives Dr. Vivienne Ming‘s work, and while her research might be scientific, it’s also deeply personal. Ming came out as transgender when she was in her 30s, and is now the board chair of StartOut, an organization dedicated to leveling the playing field for LGBTQ entrepreneurs.
When I caught up with Dr. Ming by phone, she acknowledged that if she not made the decision to live her truth, she wouldn’t be doing the work she’s doing now. “Maybe today I’d be a fairly happy scientist at UC Berkley still,” she reflected, before quickly dismissing the idea. “Or actually, I wouldn’t be. I’d be a very unhappy — but modestly successful — theoretical neuroscientist.” Instead, the mother of two has devoted her career to pursuing equality for people of color, the LGBTQ community, women, and those with physical disabilities through her research. Specifically, she examines the tax on being different: how people who are viewed as “other” in society are financially impacted, in real dollars and cents, by discrimination throughout their educations and careers.
“What I decided with my transition is that I wanted to do much more. I had already laid out for myself a real purpose in life of making other people’s lives better,” she explained. “I was trying to think of, how do I do that, as a scientist?” Ming’s own internal journey clearly fueled her desire to turn outward. “I was inspired to found companies, to found nonprofits, to go out and talk not just about my science, but about all the aspects of my life and the world as I would love to see it.”
That meant confronting the injustices that people in her community face with hard facts and data, all driven by her desire to change the ingrained discrimination that impacts people’s very livelihoods. One example of this is StartOut’s 2016 study on LGBTQ entrepreneurship, which Ming coauthored. In it, Ming and her colleagues found that 37 percent of LGBTQ entrepreneurs chose not to come out to investors, with 12 percent saying they specifically worried being open about their identity might hurt their chances of locking down capital. They also found that while 47 percent of male LGBTQ entrepreneurs raised more than $2 million in funding, 70 percent of LGBTQ female entrepreneurs raised less than $750,000.
“Quite frankly — though it may break the heart of Silicon Valley and its idea of meritocracy to hear this — the vast majority of the people in the world that have no chance to live the life that, in some theoretical sense, is out there for them,” Ming said.
Dr. Ming chats with a group of students at UCSD’s convocation in September 2016, where she was a speaker.
The Peacock’s Tail Analogy
Ming said one barrier for people who are viewed as somehow “different” in society is the concept of “signaling cost.” She explained this through the peacock’s tail analogy. “Male peacocks have this huge, beautiful, elaborate tail that is a complete and total waste,” she said. “It does nothing for the peacock. It doesn’t help them get food. The only thing you might think of is that it signals to the female, ‘Hey baby, look at me! I’m so awesome I can waste all of this energy on my ridiculous tail.'”
So how does this play out in humanity rather than in peacock land? Ming said one good example — though highly debated — is how we view top-tier education. “The example: going to Harvard doesn’t actually do you any good directly. But it signals to everyone else that you’re exceptional,” she said. “Essentially, because Harvard already vetted me, my Harvard degree then signals that I am an exceptional person, even if Harvard itself actually added very little to my life.”
But a disturbing finding borne out by research shows that attending an Ivy League school is less of a make-or-break big deal in the long run for white people than people of color. “In the United States, if you are a white person going to UCLA vs. Stanford, it has actually no measurable difference.” Not so if you’re also a woman or you’re transgender or you’re a person of color.
The Compound Interest of Discrimination
Ming explained that viewing discrimination in terms of compound interest is key. “Every little moment that a young girl doesn’t get called on for a math question in class may be small and may be trivial and may go beyond anyone else’s notice,” she said, “but that little indignity compounds over time.”
These injustices accumulate in an exponential way. “The way the tax plays out is, you have to work longer, harder, in higher-profile jobs, [attend] fancier schools, even though you’re equally qualified,” Ming said. “The truth is, if you measure different points in the same person’s life, [the tax] gets bigger and bigger. And, by the way, so does the wage gap for women.”
Ming said it’s important to look at the course of someone’s education and career to see these effects really pile up. “If you look at a woman aged 55, the wage gap is about twice as high. So as you go further into your career, the taxes go higher,” she explained. “The requirements imposed upon a woman or a person of color — or, God forbid, someone intersectional like a black quadriplegic person — these things don’t just add up; they multiply. They interact with another and become even bigger.”
Why the LGBTQ Pay Gap Gets Less Attention Than Race or Gender Pay Gaps
Dr. Ming pointed to the first StartOut meeting she attended as illustrative of why the LGBTQ tax may not get as much attention as the equal pay gap when it comes to gender or race. “It was essentially a bunch of white, gay, wealthy men drinking martinis. And that’s great, I don’t think there was anything wrong with an organization being that thing. But if that’s the face of what it means to be gay . . . then it’s probably looked at as, well what do these guys need? There’s not much to be done here.”
But Ming said even among those relatively privileged members of the community, there are demonstrable barriers and real, meaningful taxes to be measured. “No, they’re not as large as more marginalized groups, but they are most certainly there,” she said. “And to some degree, I think the LGBT community has done this to itself. A lot of the leadership really has come from that population and shied away from their own diversity issues.”
But, Ming said, things are changing. “Now we’re talking about gender transition, and we’re talking about women, and we’re talking LGBT intersectionality with other issues like race and disability and economics. This is a conflict that needed to be dealt with internally [in the LGBTQ community] before I think we could deal with it externally in our relationship with the rest of society.”
How to Confront Your Own Prejudices — and Yes, You Have Them
Ming said many of our own biases are invisible to us. So, if you’re in a position to hire or manage people, how can you honestly confront your own prejudice? “I’m going to be a little blunt: the starting point is not just acknowledging that they’re there,” Ming said. “That’s not enough. Because they’re too deep for that. The starting point is to really step back and concretely assess why you’re making your decisions.”
For example, if a manager evaluating two candidates and thinks the “straight, white guy” seems like the right hire, it’s important to ask whether it’s bias or real information influencing the decision. “Now, you have the very hard job of disentangling those and really, truly getting at what is driving your decisions.”
Ming suggested a simple thought experiment next time you find yourself in this position: Imagine the same pitch coming from many different people of different races, genders, abilities, and sexual orientations. “How would you respond? Essentially, what is your brain filling in that’s about you and not about the person that’s there?”
Image Source: Photos courtesy Erik Jepsen / UC San Diego