What if Bill Gates Had Been Born A Poor Black Girl?

"The lives of outliers--those people whose achievements fall outside normal experience--follow a peculiar and unexpected logic, and in making that logic plain Gladwell presents a fascinating and provocative blueprint for making the most of human potential."

This excerpt is from the inside cover of Malcolm Gladwell's book the Outliers: The Story of Success. When I originally read this passage, I naively assumed that "those people" and "human potential" also referred to women. Unfortunately, as I later discovered, the only woman whose success was discussed in any detail was the author's mother. But not even she was an outlier. From a parenting perspective this book has its merits, but unfortunately, the message is just more exclusion dressed up as inclusion, a "blueprint" that applies to a select few. And sorry, I can't allow someone else to frame what success is!

Let's start by looking at a stat courtesy of Reuters posted on International Women's Day:

Women make up less than 1% of department heads, editors, media owners but a third of working journalists

The message is pretty clear here. If you are a woman, and you want to work in media, there's opportunity for you as a reporter, but if you want to be, say, an editor, things aren't looking too promising! And heaven forbid you should want to be a media owner. But just a second...isn't Oprah Winfrey a media mogul? Wow, she must be that less than one percent! And she's a woman of color too! Now how many women of color are media owners? I have a feeling that it is less than 1%, but sorry I couldn't find a statistic to support that. Now, doesn't her achievement fall outside normal experience? Well, not if we compare her with the other 99% of men who are media owners.

New Category: The Super Outlier

My point is that success should not be a measure of where you are now, but rather how far you've come. For Oprah to become a media mogul, she had to overcome poverty, and racial and gender barriers, which to the vast majority of us are insurmountable. And if we compare Oprah with one of Mr. Gladwell's outliers, Bill Gates, we will see just how far Oprah has come. Bill Gates is white, born into a wealthy family, went to a private school with a computer in the 1960s, had access to a computer outside of school, dropped out of Harvard, started a software company and today is worth $40 billion. Oprah is black, was born into poverty, a child of a single mother and a victim of sexual abuse, went to Tennessee State University, made her way into television, got her own award-winning syndicated talk show that is seen around the world, owns a network, and she is worth $2.7 billion.

I'm not saying that Mr. Gates is not an outlier, but in his case, there is undeniably some white privilege at play. In other words, he has come a long way, but how many opportunities would he have encountered if he had been born a poor black girl? That is why I believe that if Mr. Gates is an outlier, then Oprah Winfrey is a super outlier.

But I still wonder why, Mr. Gladwell, you did not feature Oprah or another woman who has successfully made her way into a male-dominated field? Was it because it didn't support your argument or because it would reveal to men that their success is due to their unwillingness to let anyone else join the club?

Click here for another review of Outliers that appeared in the Telegraph (UK).

Click here to see what another blogger has to say about Outliers. HL


Anonymous | March 14, 2009 at 1:00 PM

Great!! There's something about that book I can't quite like and you have helped to put the finger on it. Thanks.

Anonymous | March 14, 2009 at 1:16 PM

I haven't read this particular Gladwell book, but based on my readings of his other books...

I can comfortably say that what bothers me about Gladwell is that gender/sexuality/race RARELY appears as a variable in his discussions.

It does matter whether a person is white, black, male, female, gay, straight...or any of the other labels not mentioned. It isn't a person's individual merit that solely defines their starting place in this world.

Anonymous | March 14, 2009 at 1:46 PM

Great post. I MUST read this book.

I especially like what you said about department heads, editors, media owner as I work at a newspaper.

In my opinion, the only way women can rise through management ranks in media is if they:

1. Act like men -- espouse men's values; define news as men do. But unlike men they must never get angry, raise their voice, disagree with a man or tell a man "Hey, you just stole my idea and pretended it was yours."

2. Act like a marshmallow -- be the shoulder to cry on for employees because the male departments heads don't want to do it. And this type of woman doesn't threaten men.

So we haven't really come very far.

The real reason, I think, that newspapers don't reach women as they should is they are run by men, and what women find interesting is different than what men find interesting in general. Women's news is ghettoized in the features section and can only make it to the front page if men think it's worthwhile. And they usually don't.

Case in point: I was actually told last week that my story about a nationwide spike in accidental infant suffocation deaths (some related to co-sleeping) might not be worth even the cover of the features section because a 50-year-old white male editor didn't know what co-sleeping is. Please.

Heather | March 14, 2009 at 3:16 PM

Wow! Thanks for all the comments. Gina, I always had the idea that the traditional newsroom was like that. Maybe if we came up with our own formula targeting women we might have a winner and more news that helps women move to the top. The four women in my survey have all been successful targeting women.

Nene | March 15, 2009 at 2:18 PM

As you may have seen, I commented on your recent post about Outliers. However, one of Gladwell's points is exactly that it's not all hard work and a brilliant mind that makes an outlier, it's also plain luck. And with both the Bills in the book, he emphasizes the fact that they were born white and well off. In fact, one of his points is exactly that it's much easier to become an outlier if you're born white and rich and at the right time than if you're born black and poor (and as a woman). You mention Oprah, I mention Carla Fiorina - surely there are many more. Hopefully his next book will tackle the gender gap.
My post is here: http://labeet.dk/wordpress/?p=403

Anonymous | March 15, 2009 at 2:36 PM

I agree with AKAmamma that more needs to be said about successful women.

The following article is a good summary of Gladwell's book.


AKAmamma's Friend

Heather | March 15, 2009 at 3:04 PM
This comment has been removed by the author.
Heather | March 15, 2009 at 10:25 PM

Hello! Thank you for your comments! La beet, luck is the oft-cited reason behind exclusion. Yes, luck depends on odds, but I still think that the odds for a rich white man are very different from those of a poor black woman.

In my previous post, I discussed what bothered me in the book. The inside cover leads us to believe that the author will address both male and female outliers, and he doesn't deliver.

I also think it is important to challenge how Malcolm Gladwell defines success. That's why I defined it myself.

Thanks to Anonymous for your support and posting the link to the article in the Telegraph.

Issa Waters | April 25, 2009 at 2:31 AM

Hey there - I found you via a post in 31DBBB, and I like this post a lot. It's started to bother me a lot lately how male is typically presented as the middle ground or standard, and female gets relegated to side roles. It's pretty sad that a popular author like Gladwell wouldn't include women in his examination. Anyway, I've added you to my reader, because looking at your other post titles, I'm going to enjoy reading a lot of what you have to say! :-)

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