Models of inequity

Sharpening the fuzzy process of bias, discrimination and inequity so we an address it

Assumed audience:

People with an interest in evidence-backed interventions to improve equity, in the west generally, especially technical workplaces

Scrapbook to collect various models of how inequity on various axes arises and is maintained. Having models for this is a good idea; otherwise we need to try to guess what we can change, what we cannot, and what the tradeoffs are, using only feelings. Yet our feelings need help.

Game-theoretical models

Cailin O’Connor’s The Origins of Unfairness: Social Categories and Cultural Evolution (O’Connor 2019).

Hilbe’s inequality model (Hauser et al. 2019) is another (?) game theoretic model of the difficulties of coordinating in an unequal society.

Possibly related: collective action.

Cumulative advantage

Du, Nordell, and Joseph (2021) is a model of how gendered the promotion pathway is for non-obvious reasons:

The term glass ceiling is applied to the well-established phenomenon in which women and people of color are consistently blocked from reaching the upper-most levels of the corporate hierarchy. Focusing on gender, we present an agent-based model that explores how empirically established mechanisms of interpersonal discrimination co-evolve with social norms at both the organizational (meso) and societal (macro) levels to produce this glass ceiling effect for women. Our model extends our understanding of how the glass ceiling arises, and why it can be resistant to change. We do so by synthesizing existing psychological and structural theories of discrimination into a mathematical model that quantifies explicitly how complex organizational systems can produce and maintain inequality. We discuss implications of our findings for both intervention and future empirical analyses, and provide open-source code for those wishing to adapt or extend our work.

Their model auditions various, apparently-individually-minor, points of adverse gender discrimination and finds that the overall result is large divergence between outcomes. This is a stylised model, it matches my understanding of the world well.

Conflict theory

Inequality between groups arises because groups can coordinate to capture more resources for themselves at the expense of another group. See conflict theory.


Clauset, Aaron, Samuel Arbesman, and Daniel B. Larremore. 2015. Systematic Inequality and Hierarchy in Faculty Hiring Networks.” Science Advances 1 (1): e1400005.
Crystal, Stephen, Dennis G Shea, and Adriana M Reyes. 2017. Cumulative Advantage, Cumulative Disadvantage, and Evolving Patterns of Late-Life Inequality.” The Gerontologist 57 (5): 910–20.
Du, Yuhao, Jessica Nordell, and Kenneth Joseph. 2021. Insidious Nonetheless: How Small Effects and Hierarchical Norms Create and Maintain Gender Disparities in Organizations.” arXiv:2110.04196 [Cs], October.
Fehr, Ernst, and Klaus M. Schmidt. 1999. A Theory of Fairness, Competition, and Cooperation.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 114 (3): 817–68.
Gould, Roger V. 2002. The Origins of Status Hierarchies: A Formal Theory and Empirical Test.” American Journal of Sociology 107 (5): 1143–78.
Hauser, Oliver P., Christian Hilbe, Krishnendu Chatterjee, and Martin A. Nowak. 2019. Social Dilemmas Among Unequals.” Nature 572 (7770): 524–27.
Hauser, Oliver P., Gordon T. Kraft-Todd, David G. Rand, Martin A. Nowak, and Michael I. Norton. n.d. Invisible Inequality Leads to Punishing the Poor and Rewarding the Rich.” Behavioural Public Policy, 1–21.
Hetzer, Moritz, and Didier Sornette. 2009. Other-Regarding Preferences and Altruistic Punishment: A Darwinian Perspective.” SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 1468517. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network.
Hisano, Ryohei, Didier Sornette, and Takayuki Mizuno. 2011. Predicted and Verified Deviations from Zipf’s Law in Ecology of Competing Products.” Physical Review E 84 (2): 026117.
Kaldasch, Joachim. 2012. Evolutionary Model of the Personal Income Distribution.” Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and Its Applications 391 (22): 5628–42.
Merton, Robert K. 1968. The Matthew Effect in Science.” Science 159 (3810): 56–63.
———. 1988. The Matthew Effect in Science, II: Cumulative Advantage and the Symbolism of Intellectual Property.” Isis 79 (4): 606–23.
O’Connor, Cailin. 2019. The Origins of Unfairness: Social Categories and Cultural Evolution. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.
O’Connor, Cailin, Liam Kofi Bright, and Justin P. Bruner. 2019. The Emergence of Intersectional Disadvantage.” Social Epistemology 33 (1): 23–41.
Pratto, Felicia, Jim Sidanius, and Shana Levin. 2006. Social Dominance Theory and the Dynamics of Intergroup Relations: Taking Stock and Looking Forward.” European Review of Social Psychology 17 (1): 271–320.
Ross, Matthew B., Britta M. Glennon, Raviv Murciano-Goroff, Enrico G. Berkes, Bruce A. Weinberg, and Julia I. Lane. 2022. Women Are Credited Less in Science Than Men.” Nature, June, 1–11.
Rowe, Mary. 1977. “The Saturn’s Rings Phenomenon.” In Conference on Women’s Leadership and Authority in the Health Professions, Santa Cruz, CA.
Salganik, Matthew J., Peter Sheridan Dodds, and Duncan J. Watts. 2006. Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market.” Science 311 (5762): 854–56.
Shippee, Tetyana P., Lindsay Rinaldo, and Kenneth F. Ferraro. 2012. Mortality Risk Among Black and White Working Women: The Role of Perceived Work Trajectories.” Journal of Aging and Health 24 (1): 141–67.
Smith, Jennifer E, B Natterson-Horowitz, and Michael E Alfaro. 2021. The Nature of Privilege: Intergenerational Wealth in Animal Societies.” Behavioral Ecology, December, arab137.
Venkatasubramanian, Suresh, Carlos Scheidegger, Sorelle Friedler, and Aaron Clauset. 2021. Fairness in Networks: Social Capital, Information Access, and Interventions.” In Proceedings of the 27th ACM SIGKDD Conference on Knowledge Discovery & Data Mining, 4078–79. KDD ’21. New York, NY, USA: Association for Computing Machinery.
Willson, Andrea E., Kim M. Shuey, and Jr. Elder Glen H. 2007. Cumulative Advantage Processes as Mechanisms of Inequality in Life Course Health.” American Journal of Sociology 112 (6): 1886–1924.
Wolpert, David H. 2010. Why Income Comparison Is Rational.” Ecological Economics 69 (2): 458–74.
Wooldredge, John, James Frank, Natalie Goulette, and Lawrence Travis III. 2015. Is the Impact of Cumulative Disadvantage on Sentencing Greater for Black Defendants? Criminology & Public Policy 14 (2): 187–223.

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