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Being Prodigious Is For White Men: The Productivity Penalty

I have likely been writing this post my entire life.

Recently,  a friend was excited to complete a very complex, important project ahead of time and on budget. She presented said project to her superiors and was crushed when they not only failed to recognize the minor miracle she had pulled off but when they seemed to be perturbed by the idea that she had excelled.

I told her something I learned long ago: there is a penalty for being too productive.

People do not judge output and products based solely on merit but on the perception of the effort you exerted to produce said output or product.

Basically, people want to know producing something cost you something.

When you excel and the perception is that excelling is relatively easy for you then the bar is reset.

I am not making a moral judgement on that one. I suspect it is human nature. At the very least it’s a division of labor/capitalism thing, I think.

But, I do want to take an opportunity to discuss how it is decided what is “too” productive and how that differs for different people.

You see, I suspect that my friend’s problem is not just that she made it look too damn easy but that the perception of who she is and what she should be capable of doing complicated the setting for “too” productive.

In the private sector and now in academe, I have watched white men be lauded for excelling. I have watched them be lauded for simply being perfunctory. Occasionally, you can even see white men lauded for just not being brain dead. The idea of excelling is not only not antithetical to the notion of whiteness and maleness, it is inherent to our ideas of whiteness and maleness.

So, when a white man exceeds expectations it does not challenge our deeply embedded notions of what a white man is allowed to be and do. In contrast, when a woman or a black male or, god forbid, a black woman exceeds an expectation the challenge to our imbedded beliefs about their capability forces us to find fault with the product because, surely, the fault couldn’t be with our expectation.

In education literature we talk about the bigotry of low expectations. In social psychology literature we talk about implicit assumptions. In real world terms we’re talking about a penalty for meeting socially constructed expectations when you embody a cultural narrative of failure or inadequacy.

And that’s tough.

There’s not much you can do to change the ascribed status of your phenotype or gender. And failure is not an option because then you only reinforce the validity of your perceived embodied inadequacies.

I don’t have an answer for this but, like most things, I think a little light shining can’t hurt. That means being honest with people of color and women about the penalty of being productive. This is especially salient for minorities in grad school. You have to be aware that a script has been written for you and that disrupting that script in any way has consequences. And this is not just about white individuals assuming you are deficient. Black scholars will do it, too (and women and Latinos and so on). It’s a structural process of constructing excellence that is just enacted by individuals, often without them knowing. You are a problem to be fixed and if you resist being that problem you will be made a problem to be fixed.

Now, I tend to fall on the side of taking the consequences because failure doesn’t fit me right — the rise is too long, the sleeves too tight and the damn thing itches.

But there is such a thing as being political. I can’t find fault with constructing elaborate performances that obscure your competence. I told my friend she should have sat on the project a week longer and asked questions of her superiors that she really didn’t need answered. I will say the same to graduate students: don’t turn it around too quickly, don’t fail to ask questions even if some of them are for show, and keep some things to yourself. One of my friend’s mistakes was telling a superior that she’d banged out the final draft on a red eye flight back from a speaking engagement. To her superior that signaled low effort, low opportunity cost to finish the product, and someone who was working above her station. He had to find something wrong with the report, at that point.

The productivity penalty is real for most of us but it is not the same for all of us. What’s defined as “too” productive is definitively shaped by the ideal successful type: white and male. Not only are the rules not the same but they aren’t even fixed. The definitions of excelling and success are constantly being shifted to protect against collective dissonance. The cost is individual success for those of us who don’t fit the mold and compromised innovation for groups, organizations and societies who fail to capitalize on the “too productive” among them.

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3 comments on “Being Prodigious Is For White Men: The Productivity Penalty

  1. chris gargan
    October 11, 2012

    I can’t debate your experience or conclusion, but it’s hardly a new problem. When James McNeill Whistler was being publicly upbraided for dashing off his Nocturne series, he was asked in court how long it had taken him to produce the painting in question. “A lifetime” was his response.
    Save for future application.

  2. Pingback: Being Prodigious Is For White Men: The Productivity Penalty « Theory of Change

  3. bionicdiscoveryK
    September 28, 2012

    My mother pretty much told me the same thing. I had a co-worker (white, male) engage me in conversation about what I was getting my degree in. For a little background, I have a degree in Biology, went to grad school, learned to hate science in academia and decided to leave to pursue a degree in English. I currently work at a research-based company as a student. When I told him that I was pursuing a BA in English, he said “oh, well this stuff must be a little over your head.” I replied, “No, I actually have a degree in Biology, so it’s not all so bad.” With that, the conversation was over. In light of recent events at my job (being thrown under the bus by my manager, being told that I’m “unapproachable”) my mother told me after relaying this account to her that I should have asked him more about what goes on here as far as research, etc, is concerned, rather than saying “I have a degree in such-and-such.” I should have asked him questions that I didn’t need answered and made him feel like the smartest man in the room.

    I’ve also traveled quite a bit over the last year, visiting places that I’ve longed to visit (China, Ireland, London), and I’ve had people tell me that my accomplishments in school and in my personal life may be causing people to find me “unapproachable” (read: intimidating) at work. While I understand that refusal to bury who I am and what I’ve done might make it more difficult for me in the future – I worked hard for the degree I have and I am working hard for the degree I’m getting. I paid (and am still paying) for the travel and experiences that I’ve had this year, and I’m not going to hide that to allow (white, fe/male) others to put me in a box. Of course, this makes life more difficult.

    I’m like you – I’d rather face the consequences. I don’t do politics well, but I am learning. I just worry that I won’t learn how to play the game and still not have to hide behind a screen.

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This entry was posted on September 28, 2012 by in Uncategorized.
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