No one really understands how discrimination works until it happens to them. That's the idea behind "The Work Game," a teaching exercise about how employment opportunities and life chances are influenced by race, gender, immigration status, educational attainment and sheer dumb luck. Rebecca Gordon, Sara Clarke Kaplan (now at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), and I cooked this up about seven years ago for use in a course on gender and race for community organizers. Last spring Rebecca revived it for her ethics classes. In honor of the new semester that began today, here's a photo essay from that experiment.
Just like much of U.S. life, the object of The Work Game is to win. Winning means getting the most points. Students are randomly assigned an identity, then sent off to visit various three work stations -- Paid Work outside the home, Paid Domestic Work, and Unpaid Domestic Work -- which award them "work points" based on sets of rules that differ with the identity each person is assigned. Here are some of the identity cards:
How it plays out depends on who you are.
Here's a man of color -- he won't get as many points at Paid Work as a white man, but he did go to college which may help him amass slightly more points.
This woman of color has more complicated work demands to meet than the fellow above. She must do Unpaid Work in the home as well as Paid Work outside the home to earn her points -- but necessity dictates that the work outside has first claim on her.
Several students got the job of staffing the various stations at which points could be earned. Their cheat sheets told them how many points they were allowed to award when visited by people of each identity.
Once students received their ID cards, they rushed off to get in line to start getting points. They could visit the various tables as many times as they could reach the front of the line -- but how many points "getting the job" (reaching the front) got them was determined by their assigned identities.
Pretty quickly, most students figured out that the way to get ahead was to move quickly, find the shortest line they were eligible for and collect, collect, collect.
As in real life, some students went looking for more instructions.
After about 10 minutes of semi-organized chaos, Rebecca explained that the rules had changed.
After another 10 minutes of semi-controlled, competitive chaos, and much card signing, Rebecca called an end and tallied up the points various students had accumulated.
Since the game is rigged to work like life, students who had been the women of color (WOC) had the hardest time getting lots of points and white men (WM) got the most. Some individuals beat the odds, scoring better than average for their identities, but most couldn't rise above a glass ceiling.
The winning "white man" with the highest point total was jazzed.
After everyone tallied up, Rebecca asked if anyone had cheated -- perhaps cut in line or forged points on their tally sheet? Just about everyone who was not assigned the identity of a white man had done something that wasn't quite within the rules. The "white men" had just played the game as they were told to -- they didn't feel as if they had to cheat.