Unearned Advantage

One of the topics that never failed to arouse interest during the recent Diversity workshops organised at CERN was that of “unearned advantage”, or the relative ease with which doors open for certain people, simply because they belong to dominant (often majority) groups, as compared to others.

A useful example by which to understand what is meant by “unearned advantage” is that of right-handed people who, simply by virtue of belonging to a majority group, can use a computer, a tin opener, a pair of scissors and so on without thinking twice about it, whilst their left-handed colleagues have to adapt to using tools that are not designed for them. Those in the dominant group, like right-handed people, often do not realise that they have this advantage, but others are forced to be very aware of it and of the obstacles they need to overcome in order to achieve the same goals.

Dominant groups are often, though not always, defined by numbers, but regardless of whether or not they represent the majority, they always have the upper hand in the existing balance of power. These groups benefit from a systematic structure embedded in their daily lives that grants an unearned advantage to them on the basis of their identity alone.

In a complex work environment such as CERN, this notion of “unearned advantage” comes in many forms, extending over the various dimensions defined by our Diversity Programme. In order to grasp what this implies in our context, it is worth reflecting on questions such as the following:

  • Do native speakers have an edge over their colleagues from other cultures in both written and verbal communication?
  • Does the male-majority gender distribution across the Organization create a less equitable working culture and mindset for their female colleagues?
  • Does the general assumption of a heterosexual work environment make it difficult for members of the LGBT community to be themselves and give their best?
  • Do the invisible disabilities of visually or hearing-impaired colleagues affect their ability to contribute fully?

Unearned advantage, the advantage of belonging to a dominant group, is taken for granted and therefore difficult to recognise from within it. Even when acknowledged, it is not a privilege that is easily or voluntarily abandoned. Regardless of how sensitive to social injustice we may be, it is our natural tendency to resist change in a system of dominance from which we consciously or unconsciously benefit, even while wishing to redress the widespread disadvantage this may cause others to experience throughout their working lives.

If, however, we choose to put ourselves in the others’ shoes, and view their different experiences with empathy, we may begin to realise that it is in all our longer-term interests to challenge our own assumptions and engage in the conversation about unearned advantage and inclusivity.  Only then will we be able to truly understand what is at stake, both in terms of fairness and basic human dignity.

Sudeshna Datta Cockerill

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