Fairness, I think it’s fair to say, is a difficult concept to neatly pin down – yet it is a much used word (not least by my two teenage daughters)! The dictionary defines fairness as ‘impartial and just treatment or behaviour without favouritism or discrimination’. But ask a random group of people to say what they mean when they talk about fairness and how this plays out in practice, and they may well interpret it in a myriad of different ways; they may well also vehemently disagree! Fairness, it seems, often comes down to one’s point of view. Yet, as we wrestle with the lack of fairness that has come to light following the gender pay gap reports, and as we digest the overwhelming evidence of the bias (however unconscious) towards ‘stale, pale’ men, how can we all do better to ensure we are being as fair as we can possibly be in all areas of our lives?
The video released on International Women’s Day of Norwegian children getting to grips with gender equality and fairness is a delightful example of how they not only collaborated to help each other complete their task, but they also recognized the unfairness of how each was rewarded (more sweets were given to the boys than the girls, and so the boys chose to share their prize to make it fair). Similarly, a recent article in the Harvard Business Review from researchers at Hult International Business School entitled ‘Do you have advantage blindness?’ spoke about the challenges leaders face in recognizing that their success will have been aided by the advantage of gender, race, class, and so on. To cite the article:
“Our research on speaking truth to power shows there is often a blind spot among the powerful, preventing them from seeing their impact on the less powerful. We call this advantage blindness. When you have advantage blindness, you don’t feel privileged. You don’t notice a life of special treatment; it’s just normal. You don’t think about your physical safety most of the time; you don’t worry about holding hands with your partner in public; when you get angry, no one asks you if it’s because of your hormones; and people in power generally look like you.”
An interesting read. The research highlights how, whilst some leaders felt challenged and even uncomfortable with the privilege afforded them, others denied an un-level playing field, citing their own hard work, or challenges in their background and childhood that meant they got to their senior positions purely on their own unique merits. The research recommended that, to counter this advantage blindness, the leaders make efforts to own personal prejudice and bias, to develop empathy for, and connect with people who are ‘other’, and to put their personal advantage to the collective good.
So, how do we, as a society, strengthen our fairness muscle? How do we create a more just society, in which everybody has the opportunity to flourish and thrive?
I was interested to come across the work of the American moral and political philosopher, John Rawls, whose thinking has had a significant impact on Western, liberal democracies. His seminal book, The Theory of Justice, published in 1971, essentially posits two (although I make it three!) principles concerned with achieving a just and fair society. Two of the three principles would be something most of us would be familiar with: namely equality of opportunity and the liberty principle, whereby each person has equal access to basic rights. However, what I was fascinated by was what Rawls described as the ‘difference principle’. Recognizing that there are inequalities in every society and that most people would, for example, expect a brain surgeon to earn more than a receptionist, Rawls argued that a just society is one in which, whilst inequality exists, the worst off in society are made as well off as they can be. Of course, being objective about how you might achieve this is hard. Rawls’ notion was to think about what a just society would look like if, knowing everything about it that there was to know, you would be willing to enter it at any random place and know that you were being treated fairly. Rawls called this the ‘veil of ignorance’ and it is brilliantly described by the behavioural economist, Dan Ariely, is this brief Ted Talk – I would definitely recommend a watch!
In Ariely’s talk he describes a large-scale survey he undertook to ask people whether they know what level of inequality there is in society and what they thought it should be. The results were illuminating. Not only was there a knowledge gap between what people thought versus what was the reality (the reality being far more iniquitous) but there was also a big gap between reality and what people desired, which was to have a much smaller gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in society.
Fairness in practice isn’t straightforward. The world is full of ambiguity (I wouldn’t have it any other way) and achieving a fairer society is hard. Of course, there are some obvious places to start that would achieve some quick wins (gender pay gap anyone?). But, as we all go about our day to day lives, perhaps we should try on that ‘veil of ignorance’ a little bit more and challenge ourselves to create a society that, wherever we found ourselves, we would see it as fair.