Identity economics – why James Chartrand wears knickers

I’ve started accepting public speaking invitations. These are sufficiently few and tame that I can do this pretty much indiscriminately. I dislike and fear public speaking but I accept offers dutifully and solely because I myself love to hear from and read people, and I want those people to reflect the reality of the world I live in. And currently I am pissed off at the dominance of white men. The rest of us (and women make up the biggest group) are frequently omitted from panels, conference programmes, group blogs, and election night comedy specials alike. In my world, anyway. There are attempts to shift this intractable situation – The Bubble has unprecedented numbers of women comedians. The Guardian group. The Green Party.

Role models are important. (Having said that, I know a charismatic academic who is practically deaf and practically blind. He told me once how he turned down a request from a charity to be a sort of ambassador for young people with similar impairments. He said he didn’t want to perform as a role model. That is also fine.) Fortunately I have enough money; fortunately my milieu is benign to women even if it often forgets about us. I don’t have to fake masculinity to get a modicum of attention I can work with. James Chartrand of Men With Pens, on the other hand felt unable to out herself. Here’s her story (via Jennifer Brown Banks, via somebody else I can’t seem to find now…) and from it:

“I had high-quality skills and a good education. I was fast on turnaround and very professional. I hustled and I delivered on my promises, every single time. I worked hard and built the business, putting in long hours and reinvesting a lot of the money I made.

I really, really wanted to make this work.

But I was still having a hard time landing jobs. I was being turned down for gigs I should’ve gotten, for reasons I couldn’t put a finger on.

My pay rate had hit a plateau, too. I knew I should be earning more. Others were, and I soaked up everything they could teach me, but still, there was something strange about it . . .

It wasn’t my skills, it wasn’t my work. So what were those others doing that I wasn’t?

One day, I tossed out a pen name, because I didn’t want to be associated with my current business, the one that was still struggling to grow. I picked a name that sounded to me like it might convey a good business image. Like it might command respect.

My life changed that day

Instantly, jobs became easier to get.

There was no haggling. There were compliments, there was respect. Clients hired me quickly, and when they received their work, they liked it just as quickly. There were fewer requests for revisions — often none at all.

Customer satisfaction shot through the roof. So did my pay rate.

And I was thankful. I finally stopped worrying about how I would feed my girls. We were warm. Well-fed. Safe. No one at school would ever tease my kids about being poor.

I was still bringing in work with the other business, the one I ran under my real name. I was still marketing it. I was still applying for jobs — sometimes for the same jobs that I applied for using my pen name.

I landed clients and got work under both names. But it was much easier to do when I used my pen name.”

Read on. Anybody familiar with the work of the economist Tim Harford knows that this is a common-place state of affairs. We do it to each other and, as Adyita Chakrabortty describes in a Guardian piece ‘Is it impossible to end racism and sexism?‘, having internalised stereotypes to a frightening extent, we do it to ourselves.

But (and I note in myself these days an increasing Thought for the Day tone to my posts which must be tedious, reader, I’m sorry) it doesn’t have to be like this. At the very least we could get into the habit of thinking of ourselves as well-meaning individuals who subconsciously tend towards discrimination, and check ourselves when it comes to decision-making. That would include trying to avoid inviting (or voting for, reading, listening to)  women, darker skinned people etc because they are women or darker skinned. That a different kind of discrimination.

Separate to the discrimination faced by James Chartrand, a note on praise. Some people are dependent approval but it doesn’t help them improve or become independent. Other people will be so far gone that they suspect praise and attribute their successes to positive discrimination or political instrumentalisation, rather than to anything they can take credit for. Personally though, I am in favour of looking for reasons and opportunities to give a voice to people in social groups without much of a voice, so I consider this something to manage as an issue of self-esteem. Self-esteem isn’t quite what it seems though. What I know of the research literature on feedback suggests that compliments and praise can divert attention away from the task and onto the self. For somebody to improve at what they do, it’s usually the case that they need to focus on growth – on the task at hand – rather than their own personal attributes. So it’s good to give very specific analysis of the work, or performance, and not to make it personal. It may help to benchmark progress by comparing one’s current work with one’s work last month, or last year – an excellent piece of wisdom from Susan Greenfield which involves drawing on one’s own critical faculties rather than depending wholly on external validation.

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