The so-called “real world” with all of its rules, structures and regulations is indeed out there; it is our job to deconstruct it.
In the climax of my four years of undergraduate education, I came to heads with the realization of what exactly this “real world,” that people have spoken of, warned me about and whispered of in corners for the entirety of my life, was. It is a world that demands its rules be followed by all of its inhabitants – rules that have been written and rewritten by people who abhor those who call into question issues of inequity, oppression and power dynamics that are inherently written into the rules by those who enjoy the privilege of making up the name of the game.
It was a Tuesday and it wasn’t as hot as it had been lately. I sat in my business class, excited at the prospect of watching a short film instead of listening to a lecture and inevitably dreaming of warmer days and graduation and summer. I grew even more excited when I saw that we were watching a talk about power dynamics in the workplace by Deborah Gruenfeld, a business professor and the co-director of the Executive Program for Women Leaders at Stanford University. Surely, she will talk about this real world the way I see it – a world full of unjust structures and norms that discriminate against anybody who did not have the privilege to write the rules.
But alas, no. While recognising a problem with the hierarchical structure of the real world, she instead instructs anyone on the low end of the corporate ladder to earn respect from their higher-ups through sticking to the status quo and doing as much as possible to keep them and their privileged ideas assuaged and happy. This, she and my some of my fellow classmates reiterated, is the real world. It is simply the way things are and if you are unhappy about it, just seethe in low-power silence, sneakily climb your way to the top and make some changes then. Putting off change for a couple decades never hurt anyone, right?
Now, I am not calling for an all-out war where employees run amok around their respective offices, refuse to cooperate with their leaders’ instructions and show a complete lack of respect toward those in leadership roles (it’s hard not to imagine an all-employee Office Space moment just now). Instead, I am calling those of us who are young (or not) and educated (we are supposed to be learning something here, after all) and passionate (who doesn’t get riled up for equality?) to recognise that the fact that “that is just the way the world is” does not mean that the real world inherently reflects any sort of moral correctness or ethical rectitude just because it is.
When somebody says, “This is not how it should be,” the reply should not be, “Well, sorry, but that is just how the real world is.” It should sound more like, “Why do you think so? What can we do to change that?” The system is the way that it is because it was written up by the privileged, with little thought to how everyone might be affected by their instated rules. It is the most we can do to question that system and society everyday and behave (respectfully) the way we think we ought to behave, were this a just and equal society. If that loses me my job – my performing respectfully, but ethically normatively – then so be it. Hopefully the event can cause others to think critically about what has happened, why it happened and how it should have happened.
Change is usually not easy, speedy or perfectly carried out, but we as students and professors of higher education have a sort of duty to exact it where it should be exacted. In business and finance and economics, we love talking about how strategies and practices and equations would be carried out all else held equal. Why, then, are we so unwilling to talk about actual workplace equality?
In a little over two weeks, I will cross a stage, receive a paper and inevitably be a functioning part of the real world. I, as well as all of you, can choose to spin around with all the other cogs – twisting and turning and fueling the machine – having a secure job, moving up the corporate ladder and enjoying the benefits that society presses upon those at the top. Or we can work together to try and take apart, rebuild and reinstate the machine – not easily, not speedily, not perfectly.
But more as it should be.