Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Obamas and why they are the exception that must become the rule


As I contemplated the final weeks of the Obama White House and am now more than a little Trumped out, I can’t help but think about the recently departed power couple as quintessential outliers. Malcolm Gladwell certainly doesn’t need any further publicity from me for one of his books of the same title. And are the Obamas really that exceptional? Yep. It would appear so. They just secured a $78M book deal with Penguin Random House and no-one seems to know or care yet what it's going to be about.

The former First Lady was a graduate cum laude of Princeton, then Harvard Law school where according to David Remnick’s biography it dawned on her she could be “brilliant and black”; having probably suffered from imposter syndrome before that as someone who felt like a “visitor on campus”. Barack Obama, as is well documented, was a graduate of Columbia and Harvard Universities, a civil rights lawyer, quote an elegant writer and an academic before entering politics.

Then there’s more. He was tall, dark-haired and handsome with a baritone voice that would keep a voiceover man employed forever. So he’s got all that unconscious bias jazz going on. And she too, with those brains, that beautiful smile, those arms that she let us see (shock, horror!), that commitment in her own right to causes and campaigns like poverty awareness, healthy lifestyle and childhood obesity... Neither is your average individual and what an X factor when you put them together. What’s not to admire?

And then, being who they were and what they were, they found themselves sitting at the crossroads of history. A black president. Taking up residence in a “house built by slaves”. I was similarly moved when I watched Australia’s first female Prime Minister sworn in (and definitely no voice-over career likely for that voice). In this context, it’s not critical to me that Julia Gillard was voted in by Cabinet and not democratically elected by voters. Don’t even assume I necessarily support her party. It was still history and a step forward from anything I had seen in my 20 years consulting in workplace justice, equal opportunity and anti-discrimination even if some media commented incessantly on her wardrobe. Sigh, still a way to go on that old double standard.

But see here’s the rub. We can say that everyone can try out for the team and mean it. I could call a press conference today and declare my intention to represent Australia at the next Olympics. I can’t tell you in what event yet. I haven’t decided. And as far as I’m aware, there is no legal barrier to entry. (Trying to join the Army Reserve might be a different story).

Equity of access does not mean equity of outcomes. And the former is lip service to the latter.

It was inevitable I would bring this up: unconscious bias. Not because it’s the organisational psychologist’s version of click bait but because conscious and unconscious bias fuel behaviour. Examples? Direct and indirect discrimination respectively.

Direct discrimination is intentional. I take an attribute like race, or age or gender that the law says should be irrelevant and I apply it to deny you an opportunity and hold you back. I know I’m doing it even if I don’t share that fact with you. It’s not called “direct” because I tell you that’s what I’m doing. That’s just risky and idiotic. It’s direct because your attribute/my prejudice are the stimulus and my discrimination against you is my immoral unlawful and direct response. But in the case of indirect discrimination, I might, with all good intent, put a policy in place that appears to be kosher on the surface of it, but it has an exaggerated impact on a minority group.

I have often illustrated this legal precept with the example of the minimum height that used to apply in the police force. Yes, the old fashioned stereotype of the police member was that of a tall burly individual (ok, man) who might intimidate someone out of doing wrong. Clearly no one anticipated the irrelevance of a minimum height when it comes to dealing with the drug ice but that’s for another time. The possibly unintended consequence of a minimum height was that it largely kept women and people of typically smaller stature (e.g. people of Asian origin) out of the police force. Now, without breaching police confidentiality…. You can’t maintain cover as a member of the undercover Asian squad… if you’re not Asian! In other words, when it comes to the access vs. outcomes conversation, our intent is not relevant. In human rights, equal opportunity, even drink driving, we cannot afford to judge people on their intent. Does anyone who drinks then drives intend to maim or kill anyone? We are and should be, judged, on outcomes.

Last year, I facilitated some sessions in equal opportunity for the racing industry ahead of our spring racing carnival that attracts so much overseas attention. Yes, the Melbourne Cup is the “race that stops a nation”. But when will racial origin stop doing that you might ask?

We were ten minutes in when a participant stuck his hand up and without waiting to be acknowledged, hit me with: “If discrimination is illegal (I prefer “unlawful”) how come when we fill out forms, we’re asked if we are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders so we can be eligible for extra money? Why do they get more of a fair go than me, just coz I’m white?”

I would like a dollar for charity for every time I’ve been asked that (type of) question. Let’s unpack that prima facie and iconically Aussie phrase, “fair go”. To me a fair go might start with a life expectancy that equals that of white people in Australia and an infant mortality rate as low as that enjoyed by white Australians. Let’s get that job done, shall we?

The equivalent gender question might be:

“Why can some (unnamed) Women’s Health Clubs cater only to women? Isn’t that discrimination?” And yes it is, but it’s lawful and should be. And so should the right of a health club to cater to men only. It’s not my fault that a few years ago one opened in regional Victoria but went broke.

Another chestnut. “Why can’t I swim at my local pool on a Wednesday afternoon because only Moslem women can swim there?”

No sir, not Moslem women. Any women who won’t swim in a public pool for reasons of modesty if men are present. That may well include Moslem women, orthodox Jewish women, any women who are self-conscious about their jiggly bits and any other women who want to swim on a Wednesday afternoon. The man asking the question can swim at any (other) time or at another pool mid-week. For the woman who can’t do that by virtue of her religious beliefs, a reasonable “accommodation” is made. Like a ramp or accessible toilet for the disabled. And before you scream at me and say religion is not a disability… As reasonable an accommodation as a fold down change table in a McDonald’s bathroom for parents with infants. Big accommodations include spending millions redesigning tram stops so that mobility-impaired travellers can board and alight trams easily and with dignity. Small and relatively insignificant accommodations are baristas providing cardboard carry trays for bulk coffee orders. In civilised decent democracies, we respect. We accommodate. And we ask others to do the same.

So let’s dive back into the pool story (weak pun, I know). Just because those women can now go to the local public pool on a Wednesday doesn’t mean they will qualify for the Olympics. But it does mean that they can swim. Plenty of white, black and Latino Harvard graduates may not get to the White House, but if they’re good enough and it’s what they want, why shouldn’t anyone get to Harvard? Or the White House?

We see examples at law and in corporate life of such respect and accommodation for minorities. In some states in the U.S., suburban lawyers are assigned legal aid cases where there is a shortage of legal aid workers. In the U.S. and in Australia, we see graduate programs with quotas for minority groups. The Australian government pays employers incentives to hire people over 55 years of age. Some companies establish Women in Leadership forums and specifically mentor women in how to network because some will be a bit too busy on weekends with family responsibilities to hit the golf course with the other power brokers. Tangible, behavioural respect. Accommodation in action, not just belief. A path to inclusion.

Dare I say it, I’m talking about the opposite of racially segregated schools where in some cases in the U.S., educational outcomes are so low that the schools are unaccredited. If students don’t become literate, how can they break out of the cycle of disadvantage? Or earn a living as a knowledge worker, much less get into law, edit the Harvard Law Review or write a book in the way Obama could about his father? Oh, and be able to afford to take a year off law to write it?

Gladwell’s premise in “Outliers” is that those kids who are serendipitously born just on the cusp of cutoff to be eligible to play in a (younger) year level and end up being up to a year older than most of the others, have “the edge”. Then they get selected for higher level teams justifiably and ironically on merit, get better coaches, play on better pitches, train twice or more a week, enrol in off-season intensives and the gap between them and the others widens and widens until the others can’t compete anymore no matter how much on paper and in spirit we insist everyone can try out for the team.

In Australia, many of us rejoiced when our first indigenous woman was voted into parliament a few months ago. Our federal Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Alastair McEwin is deaf. I admit he may not even see that as a disability and he would not be the first one. But beyond those rarified examples of black presidents, indigenous members of parliament, deaf federal anti-discrimination commissioners and very pregnant female newsreaders, are the millions of people who metaphorically were just that few months younger, didn’t get good coaches, didn’t get to play on good pitches and never got a chance to play on the “A” team, much less represent Australia in the Olympics.

There are other power couples but I’d take the Obamas over Posh and Becks any day. We cannot discount the power of the subliminal message when anyone of minority group status (defined by power not numbers) succeeds in domains where they may not have before.

For me, the Obamas’ unspoken even subliminal contribution is to show a loving, solid, intact family to families in America in which children are being raised in homes without father figures. We know some of the figures relating to black fathers and their invisibility in parenting are patently false, some studies are poorly conceived and reported and they do nothing to acknowledge the fine job being done by many African American fathers in parenting their children, whether living with them or not. We know that with divorce spiraling in both our respective countries, the number of single parent households is increasing in every demographic. This is not a black issue. 

But when the unusual happens, when people break the mould as the Obamas have done by accomplishing what they have, we cannot discount the power of the symbol. Indeed, it can become a motivating force, individually and collectively. His presidential campaign slogan was “Yes we can” which morphs implicitly into another message now which is: “If I can, you can”. But that’s not yet how the world works.

If there was ever a job in the world that required the outlier, the exceptional, then surely President of the Free World is one of them. These are the merit-based attributes I want them to possess. Higher than average intelligence. I want moral courage because it’s true they have to be willing to risk lives to save others. I want leadership credentials and a personal ethos whether we agree with all their views or not. Speed reading ability I’m sure would be very handy. Good in front of a microphone, pretty important. Passion for social media? That can and should be delegated. Ability to make a good decision quickly and also to know when to slow down and think on them a while. I know for the sake of national security sometimes they have to lie. But I don’t want it to be their mental default.

But wait. There's more. I want them to be brave and I need them to cope. But brave doesn’t mean stupid. I am reassured if they have a pronounced startle reflex in the immediate wake of a sudden loud noise because if they don’t they’re most likely to be a psychopath. And I’ve read enough Tom Clancy novels and watched enough Jack Bauer 24 episodes to know about "the Football” and its nuclear codes so I want emotional intelligence; including high tolerance to frustration. And call me pedantic, I demand really really really good impulse control. Apparently we were so close to nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis that staff of Strategic Air Command in Nebraska were allowed a (final) phone call home (without being able to disclose why they were calling). It’s good when cool heads prevail, I’m thinking. Not everyone’s like that.

Pushing for outcomes over access is more than trying to cross the divide between the haves and the have nots. This is about trying to eliminate the gap between those who can and those who can’t; helping us reach our potential. Not to be defined by a lack of opportunity.

We can throw up any number of outliers, of “firsts”, of ground breakers, pioneers, mavericks and inspirational examples to demonstrate to ourselves we are making progress. We don’t have to settle for less. We must strive for more. 

If goodwill were enough, I’d let my mother do my open heart surgery. No offence Mum, but if it is ever required, I’d rather a surgeon selected on merit. But how would that surgeon ever be good enough when you love me so much? What were all those hundreds, no thousands of moments of truth? Those sliding door instances of opportunity, those unconsciously biased opportunities given and denied that enabled that surgeon to acquire their 10,000 hours? There’s Gladwell again! You’d think I was getting commission! 

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