A scientist calculated the cost of not being a straight man, and she wants a tax cut

Using Big Data to tally the cost of exclusion.
Using Big Data to tally the cost of exclusion.
Image: The Economist
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Vivienne Ming, a serial entrepreneur, theoretical neuroscientist, and Big Data specialist, likes crunching numbers. For three years, she has calculated the cost of being different—that is, how much harder do you have to work as a woman, or as a gay man, to get the same jobs and the promotions as a straight, white man? To put this in terms that policymakers can understand, she calls it a “tax.”

When she was chief scientific officer at Gild, a workforce-science company, Ming and her team tried to deconstruct what made a successful programmer, looking for whether his or her code got reused, how other programmers rated it, and other variables. They scraped data from 100 different websites like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Bitbucket, taking in 55,000 variables such as what seemed to motivate people (gleaned from social media), what sort of jobs they got, and how much money they made.

She used this data to see whether the best companies hired the best people, or just the ones with the best degrees. She also looked at advancement opportunities after somebody got a job—what it took for a woman, for example, to have the same chance of promotion for the same quality of work as a man. As she describes it, “I got curious about this issue of, ‘can I use this to look at the tax on being different’?”

Equal opportunities

To calculate the tax, she built models to measure how good people were at jobs they never had. This gave her the cost, or tax, in terms of the lifetime opportunity cost of lost work, the bill for extra degrees, or the extra experience needed to have the same opportunities as men from the dominant demographic group.

These are the results a few of her calculations: it costs about £38,000 ($54,000) to be a gay man in England; women in the US tech industry pay a tax of between $100,000 and $300,000; and women in tech in Hong Kong or Singapore face an even steeper $800,000 to $1.5 million.

If you are different, Ming says, “you have to go to better schools for longer and you have to work for better companies to get the same promotions, to get the same quality of work.”

It’s a tax, she says, that doesn’t pay for anything, like roads or schools. In scientific terms, “it’s heat loss in our economy,” Ming says.

Ming knows what it’s like to be treated differently. She is transgender, and did not transition until her 30s. As a woman, she has witnessed first hand how differently people treated her. Prior to her transition, students asked her tons of questions; but after, less so.

“We are bad at valuing other people and we are worse the more different they are than us,” Ming said.

Think different

Speaking at “Pride and Prejudice,” The Economist’s LGBT conference in London last week, Ming told the audience she didn’t just calculate the costs of being different—she also calculated the benefits.

She compiled a database of entrepreneurs, tracing where they were based, how much money they raised, and how many jobs they created. Over the past 10 years, LGBT entrepreneurs created 3 million jobs after they moved from less inclusive places—think Dallas—to more inclusive places, like New York. Ming points out that Republican politicians in the US love to extol the virtues of less regulation and lower taxes; yet these entrepreneurs chose to move to more heavily-taxed places with stricter regulations but better attitudes towards diversity and inclusion.

Another of Ming’s projects is to create tools that help companies reveal bias—unconscious or not—during the hiring process. This will help managers understand what they tend to overvalue, like university degrees, and undervalue, like the benefits of being different.

She cites the case of one government manager who for a particular position hired men with bachelors, masters, and PhD degrees in equal proportions. But all of the women in the same job had PhDs. “Discrimination is not done by villains,” she said. “It’s done by us.”

She wants to change that. “I don’t build AI,” she told Quartz. “I make glasses.” To this end, her job is “to correct people’s vision so you can see everyone clearly.”