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Why Are There Such Large Differences in Social Power?

by GBAF mag
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If you have read a book by Edward Said, you would have known that there is one common feature, which runs through almost all the chapters of his book: “Income disparity is correlated with levels of social distress”. Thus, according to Edward Said, inequality at work is correlated with levels of social distress. What do these two things mean? In what ways can we understand these two things and find effective remedies for them?

You could just look at a single example of potential disparity at work to see how serious this problem can be. You can’t just look at one cause of such potential disparity, to understand gender disparity in the workplace. It exists from childhood to the end of social life, built over the years from an early age, and then socialised to gender roles. So, you cannot reduce this problem just by looking at the two examples listed above (that is, men and women).

But there is something more important here than these two examples. The underlying meaning of the equation is something very much like these two. If, for example, there is a social hierarchy at work, where some are at the top and others are at the bottom, this is socially established and it is a given that those at the bottom have lower status than those at the top. Those at the top, having been ‘rewarded’ for their position at the top by colleagues, see no difference in pay and are happy to keep working at a higher level, feeling that they deserve the rewards. Those at the bottom, feeling that they are being treated unfairly, feel that they have little or no respect at work, have low self esteem and are motivated to rise through the ranks to reach the top.

Such a workplace situation has a long term effect on all those who are affected by it. For example, it can create the subconscious pressure within a person to be successful so that they will not face the prospect of being at the bottom, which means a lower status and less money. It also increases the competition among people at a similar level, creating a sense of social rivalry and increasing differences in salaries. Those at the top who benefit from the social norm at work, see no difference between themselves and those at the bottom, but those at the bottom who feel they have no respect and are not receiving the same top level of pay, react by comparing themselves to those at the top.

This, then, has a long term impact on the brain. People’s opinions about themselves and how they feel about the world in general are also affected by what they see and feel at work. A small disparity at work can be turned into a big one when they start comparing themselves with those at the top. This, ironically, is one of the causes of what economists call the inequality of opportunity. Those at the top, feeling their position is unjust because they are not getting a top level of pay, start to look down upon those at the bottom and this creates a further disparity in the brain – those at the top believe that those at the bottom have it better, so they begin to feel entitled, while those at the bottom begin to feel resentful, thinking they deserve to be there because they have been given an equal opportunity.

So, how do we counter this unfairness? We could say that the difference in pay or the difference in status or even the difference in abilities is due to a social norm which is unfair, but is also the only social norm likely to exist. If, for example, you feel you are fairly good in your job but are paid substantially less than your colleagues, then you would argue that the difference in pay is due to the difference in social norms at work. The fact that others perceive your job to be unfair does not make it so – you are still being treated as unequal, no matter how you may feel you are being treated.

In order to alter this social norm, you need to demonstrate that the difference in pay is, in fact, unjustifiable. You do this by pointing out the many different ways in which you are seen as being better than your colleagues. One example is that you are paid higher commissions for sales of the same product on Monday than on Friday. Another is that you are paid more money per hour working from home than at the office. Yet another way in which you are treated unequally is when you are required to work longer hours than others for the same pay. All these situations show that your perceived injustice is not based on any genuine difference in skills, but is due to the difference in social norm at work.

By making the social differences that are important to you stand out, you can start to shift the balance of power back in your favor. This will happen naturally as you begin to see that your perceived social positions give you an advantage over others, rather than making you a lesser person. Just by challenging the way in which the differences in power structures are formed can have a big impact on your own life and the lives of others. It may not seem fair at first – but when you stop and look at what those differences really mean, you will realize that the world benefits from them too!

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