Professor L.Taylor Phillips on Privilege and Meritocracy

Privilege and meritocracy are widely discussed by today’s politicians, social activists, and college students. We recently sat down with Professor Taylor Phillips, an Assistant Professor of Management & Organizations in the NYU Stern School of Business, to learn more about her thoughts on the matter through a researcher’s perspective.

HC NYU: Can you give us a brief overview of your academic background and research interests?

Yes. So, my academic background is that I got my PhD at Stanford University, in Business Administration. More specifically, in Organizational Behavior, which is kind of like social psychology and thinking about people processes inside organizations. And so my specific interests are really focused on questions and ideas about privilege, inequality, meritocracy, and diversity. So how those relate, how they connect, etc.. One example might be, in some of my work, I look at how people who are members of privileged groups – so say, white, or men, or white men, think about the fact that they might be benefitting from inequity in society, and if we can help them think about it and become more aware of this, might they become more willing to kind of make an effort to change, or to make things more equitable as a result.

 

HC NYU: Going off of that question, what led you into your current field of research?

Absolutely. My current area, I think – and this is true for most folks, once you’re in your path it’s easy to look back and see how you got there, it’s hard to know that when you haven’t gotten there yet. So as I was going along, I noticed that I was interested in inequality. Then, in my freshmen and sophomore year of undergrad, I took a lot of classes of psychology and inequality, sociology and inequality, health and inequality. And then as I took more and more of those classes, I got more and more interested in race specifically, and as I took more classes about race and how people think about race and race identity, I started thinking more about whiteness itself and white identity as one people don’t really think about that much and how interesting it is. Because just as much as how a non-white person might be disadvantaged in America, that means that a white person is advantaged in America. And so as I was taking these courses, I began to get more and more curious about what was the role of white people in this question. And I did a short study abroad trip, a quick three week program to Argentina, and I remember thinking as we were doing our debriefing – and Argentina is a developed nation – we were working specifically with a refugee group. And so I remember as we were doing our debriefing, another student said, how fortunate, how lucky, they felt to be living in and from America instead from these refugees. And what I felt that trip really helped me see was not about luck at all, it’s actually about how these systems of inequality are arranged. That trip really helped show that to me.

 

I remember specifically we were working in this camp, going over donated clothes, and we were supposed to sort the clothes that people could use from the clothes that should just go into the trash or recycle pile. And the director came in and saw what we – volunteer students from America – had done, and said no, all these clothes you’ve put away in the throwaway pile could be used as a diaper, as a rag. And we just had no idea. And we went through the piles again and what I really noticed was how many of these clothes had American flags or American logos  or English. And I thought, but these are donations coming from – and there’s actually a lot of connection and interdependence here, it’s not just luck.

 

So. A lot of classes, a lot of different experiences, I just kept doing what I was interested in, and I think that just kept pushing me further and further down this path. It wasn’t necessarily clear at the time

HC NYU: Thank you for sharing a little bit about your academic journey. Your research fields and interests are highly relevant in today’s society, politics, and social justice movements. How do you see your research being applied in the world today?

 

One thing I work hard to do is to think about how can this be useful because fundamentally, that’s what I’m interested in, is how do we fix some of these inequity problems. Well, one way we might fix these inequity problems is by not having them just be about the disadvantaged group. It’s not just about women, it’s not just about minorities, it’s not just about the poor, etc. Actually, it’s about all of us. Because this inequity affects us all, and it’s created by us all. So, instead of thinking about, oh what programs can we have for women and help women– which is great, we also need to think about how men can get involved as well. Where are men over benefiting and having too much advantage. We need to think about fixing those processes as well.

 

So what I try to do in my research is if we think hard about that, can we help fix problems by figuring out where is it more a disadvantage and where is it more an advantage explanation for inequality. And then also, if we brought in our scope when we talk about inequality and inequity and fixing it, who are we talking to and who are we talking about. If we’re thinking about privilege we’re not just talking about women but also men. Not just racial minorities but also whites. We need to get everyone involved in that conversation to make sure that the responsibility of change is on everyone, not on just the disadvantaged groups.

 

HC NYU: There has currently been some controversy over Google and its diversity recruiting process, with some people claiming that is unfair for white men and for Asian men. It seems like whenever institutions include some sort of diversity initiative, there is always some backlash involved. Why do you think this is the case?

Yeah, absolutely. So there’s a lot of research showing that when groups who are in dominant positions–so that means that they have more access to power or resources–when they’re in these positions, they want to hold on to that dominance and to that power power. To them, that feels like a loss. But actually, it’s just correcting an inequity, it’s correcting an an inequality. They’ve actually just had more than their fair share over time.

 

But what it can feel like to the individual is a loss. So one thing that is very important here in thinking about that backlash is remembering what those threats are. So one threat, that I’ve already mentioned, is that loss of power or dominance. But there’s this other side, and some of my research shows, that using this other side can be really useful, is this threat to the individual self. So it’s not sort of a material power threat, it’s a threat to your sense of “Am I a good person?” or “Am I one of the bad guys?”

 

If we can help people overcome that sort of fear, we can remind them that no, you’re still a good person, and and just because you’ve been in front of this inequality, you can actually help us change it, and that’s a way to be a good person. That can make more people more interested in getting involved and supporting diversity movements, rather than being stuck in this backlash instead.

 

HC NYU: How do you think businesses can be more inclusive towards minorities while also keeping this backlash in mind?

Yeah, I think there are a few things. Some of these things there’s research behind, others are more hypothesis. But one thing I think could be really interesting and useful is – the way diversity trainings and diversity in general is still very focused on disadvantaged groups overall. That makes it about disadvantaged groups. And then it makes the solutions about taking something away from the dominant group to give to the disadvantaged group. And people don’t like that, because it feels like an unfair taking. But actually, disadvantage isn’t just about disadvantaged groups. It’s about that the advantaged group has more than their fair share. When we include that sort of discussion, when we talk about race and inequality and about whites having more, and as for gender, men having more advantages, that can actually help motivate people to think that it’s more fair, to help people balance out the spreadsheet, so to speak. Balance out the equation.

 

Now, the tricky part is making sure that we say that, there’s not the backlash in the first place. But if we can get through the backlash by reaffirming people and saying, hey, you can still be a good person, you can still be a part of what we’re doing together by helping us fix this inequity, that can be a motivating force.

 

HC NYU: What is it like being a female academic in a male majority profession?

Absolutely. So, I will say that I have benefited from being in departments that have one, a lot of high gender parity, and two, that it’s not just that there’s an equal number of men and women in my particular department, but that there’s a lot of women leadership in my department as well. And so, both men and women are taking on those roles of leadership, which is just so important from a modeling standpoint. That from our department, men and women are equal in leadership, men and women are equal in representation, and so that makes it a very safe and comfortable place to be, because it feels like gender doesn’t actually matter or affect our outcomes that much.

 

Now, that’s in part due to how academia is structured. Your department is who you spend a lot of your time with, and who you’re connected to and who is influencing you day to day. In terms of the broader business climate and business school, I think that having that home base, where there’s a lot women and men, really helps give me a safe launching point to be out there in the broader world of business or in business schools where it can be male dominated. So having that home base in my department is useful.

 

One other thing I’ll say is, I found it useful–a mentor of mine told this to me once–it’s not just about numbers of women and men, it’s about the beliefs of those women and men. And in my department, both the women and men believe in gender equality, and believe that genders are equal, and that they should be equal, and that we should work to make sure that’s happening, and that there’s not a unique barrier for disadvantages or advantages in either direction. So that kind of basic feminist belief in both the women and men in my department is also very important, perhaps even more important than just their numbers.

 

HC NYU: And, to conclude, what is some advice you would give to young women who are thinking about graduate schools or pursuing a PhD?

For pursuing a PhD and going to graduate school, some key pieces of advice would include: make sure that you’re experiencing research, sign up as a research assistant. If you’re here at Stern you can do the SPUR program, you can reach out to faculty. Check out the summer postings. Get some real research experience. And if you can and have time, see if you can turn that into an honors thesis, or sign up for your honors program–your honors thesis program–in your department in your school. Because that’s really the way–and that’s a really important thing for PhD–that qualifies you to do a PhD. A PhD is all about doing research, and so people want to know that you’ve had that experience before, so it’ll help you get in. But it also helps you know what kinds of research you like, what kind of PhD you want to pursue, and that’s how you can really get set into this research path. Getting involved in research, reaching out to a professor to be a research assistant (RA). That’s what really gets you in that pipeline.

 

1