Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Vagaries of Economic Opportunity -or-How Things Actually Are

Ladies. Pretty Lady is particularly addressing you today, because she more than suspects that what she is about to say goes counter to your upbringing, your deep intuition, and your sense of Right and Wrong. This is not entirely your fault; however, these erroneous intuitions must be addressed, because they are shooting all of us in the foot.

To wit, as Will Wilkinson explains, equality of opportunity based upon things like Merit, Discipline, Intelligence, and Being A Good Girl is an unobtainable pipe dream. The real determiner of opportunity is social networking:

First, what little I know of economic sociology tells me that access to economic opportunities is deeply network-relative.

Take two college grads of similar intelligence and discipline, Anne and Betty. Anne’s best friend has a brother who just started a small technology company. He figures Anne would be a phenomenal project manager, and it turns out to be true. The company has a huge IPO and Anne ends up a rich executive in what turns out to be a glamorous firm. Betty doesn’t happen to know anyone whose brother runs a promising start-up. Does she have anything approaching an chance equal to Anne’s to get something like Anne’s highly desirable position? Obviously not. But how could she.

Second, desirable positions aren’t just boxes out there waiting to be filled. They are created, sometimes by the people who occupy them. And they may depend on contingencies of technology.

Persons in positions of Economic Dominance--i.e., men--have known these facts for millennia. People like Cleopatra and Hillary Clinton also have an excellent grasp of them. It is those of us talented, intelligent, disciplined, moral persons, who disdain to make Unfair Advantage of our nepotistic connections and personal charms, who end up perennially screwed. Or else, and simultaneously, we end up screwing each other, innocently or not.

For Pretty Lady has been in many situations where her best friend had a brother, an ex-boyfriend, an employer, a dealer, a collector, or a grandmother, who was starting a small company, an art magazine, a gallery, or an art collection, and her best friend, for reasons best known to herself, diffidently chose not to mention Pretty Lady's name, talent, intelligence, or discipline in the presence of this person. This demure behavior may go under the heading of Ethics, Tact, Courtesy, Fairness, or any number of other things, but over the years Pretty Lady has come up with another blanket heading for it. That heading is "Being a Passive-Aggressive A**hole."

Because there are Perfect Utopias, and then there are Facts. In a Perfect Utopia, one would submit one's cover letter, résumé, portfolio, statement of intent, and grade point average to a neutral committee, and one would be issued a congenial, well-paid job and a gallery exhibition in return. In the Real World, however, this never, ever happens. One can expect total indifference to one's economic survival from the vast majority of neutral committees; when one's friends exhibit this same indifference, to the extent of wilfully closing all doors of opportunity in one's face, one's friends are not one's friends any longer. They are Decorative Luxuries.

This is not to say that one should recommend a friend for an opportunity for which they are clearly unqualified. These situations come under the heading of "Sticky, Awkward Problems", and should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. As ladies, our minds are constantly alive to the social horrors inherent in these situations, which is perhaps why we so frequently wish to avoid all possibility of ever getting into one, by drawing a firm boundary between Business and Friendship.

But we must be aware that when we draw that line, we are also in danger of condemning our friends, our daughters and ourselves to generations of economic dependency, subservience and obscurity. We are far better off employing our natural social and networking abilities as though our very survival, and not just our parties, depended upon them.

Postscript: It now occurs to Pretty Lady that Social Class may have a lot to do with this. Working class women have never had the luxury of pretending that they don't have to work for a living; thus they are much more forthright about the relationship between Connections and Solvency. Thus, tacky working class women openly stab other women in the back, while the decent ones over-promote their friends to the point of embarrassment. It is upper-middle-class women, largely, whose tactful diffidence threatens to turn our careers into so much wallpaper.


Donna Dodson said...

interesting post- i guess it comes down to what one is prepared to suffer for crossing social lines or lines of etiquette- but its also a gray area if we are talking about how to finesse a situation and take advantage of an opportunity- what if no opportunity exists or if different behavior from a lady could make an opportunity exist? sometimes i have had to pursue opportunities that were merely enthusiastic fans, followers and admirers to make something happen but i wont take responsibility for making something happen for someone else- that ball is in their court.

Pretty Lady said...

Well, of course you can't make something happen for someone else! Read the entire Will Wilkinson article--it discusses both opportunity-creation, and the impossibility of forcing equality.

What I am primarily talking about is persons who conspicuously fail to do such things as: perform basic introductions, with pertinent information about Things In Common; provide references, recommendations and referrals; follow up on promised introductions and contact information; and generally Put In A Good Word.

All of these things are easy to do without crossing any social boundaries. In fact, both businesspeople and consumers appreciate personal recommendations. When you do it correctly, it is as natural as breathing; you have no attachment to outcome. You simply get in the habit of saying, "Oh, I know someone who is gifted at that; her name is such and such, here is her contact information, I will have her drop you an email." Then you forget you did it.

This sort of thing comes back to benefit you as well, when the employer in question says, "Thank you for recommending so-and-so, she's a treasure," and when your friend says, "Thank you for the testimonial/blog review/referral; I'm taking you to dinner/giving you a discount/giving you an original artwork because of all the business I got from it."

What it boils down to is that you are never personally responsible for anyone else's success, but being generous and pro-active can make the difference between surviving and thriving, for both you and your friends.

CAP said...

Couldn't the two girls be called Ann and Beattie?