In 2011, Joy attended a workshop by the OpEd Project on writing for influence. The first exercise was to fill in the following blanks: I am an expert in _____ because _____. The critiques that followed provided a brutal but useful study in how efficiently we make claims to authority.

Day to day, we are asked to construct our expertise and determine which expertise to trust. She knows your business can work because she’s got an MBA; he lived in Mali with a tribe and therefore can evaluate programs in the developing world. These reference points are short cuts that help us sort out whom to trust. They do not necessarily ensure that the judgment or skill is useful or relevant. They are simply signals and cues.

To be sure, someone with more experience and education is likely more prepared to do a particular piece of work. I acknowledge my particular tendencies to dismiss confident assertions of expertise with a sarcastic “really? (and then as an aside to myself…nice positioning of your authority.)  Yet, my sarcasm is bolstered by the everyday experience of the doctor who misdiagnoses, of the lawyer who misjudges, the consultant who tells the time to the guy with the watch. Our knowledge is deeply fallible. Expertise is a cultural construction.

In my dissertation for my PhD in American History at New York University I studied expertise in an early democracy. (Like my assertion of expert status?) I documented the role of the Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons in developing Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia in the context of the broader prison reform movement. The central question was: Who gets to say how public institutions should be run? In the 1830’s, we did not yet have university systems to validate our knowledge, the professions of law and medicine were just emerging, and the moral authority of a state religion was thoroughly disrupted. What I found was that the language of the market dominated. Reformers threw around statistics about return and investment to bolster the claims of effectiveness and the sound design of the penitentiary. I marvel in the parallels today around quantitative metrics of impact and who claims the right to measure social benefit.

We live in a knowledge economy where expert status equals power.  Wielding the cues of schooling, title, or experience with confidence conveys authority. Credentials give access to expert power. But study after study shows that the access to this expert power is fully implicated in the realities of race, class and gender. It is not a level playing field.

In our work on investing with a gender lens we’re taking on the gender part of this triumvirate. The initiative has two intertwined strategies, to create a community of investors committed to deploying capital with a gender lens and to develop a robust landscape of investment vehicles (across asset classes) for them to invest in. Considerable research demonstrates that a gender lens is smart investing and leads to increased social and financial returns (the higher return on equity of companies with more women board members and the gender dividend of increased earning power of women as two primary examples). But, this expert knowledge is not valued in financial realms. Shifting what is valued in financial calculations is, in part, a realignment of how expertise is perceived.

We work in areas where expertise is contested. In making a socially responsible investment, is it the knowledge of how to achieve social impact or financial return that is more important? In this context, how do we measure long term value and risk?  In setting priorities for a church, who has the most valuable input, a bishop or a lay person? Who knows best the value of a neighborhood, the banker or the local community leader? Personally, I revel in these moments where power and knowledge are disrupted. Perhaps it’s my personal story of a high school teacher who went on to start a venture fund. But more profoundly, it’s that these moments of disruption allow for new knowledge, new ideas.

But, to get to and stay at the tables of power, requires access to the expert language. In a conversation with Patricia Farrar-Rivas of Veris Investments a few months back, she suggested a brilliant strategy. When financial language is thrown about, ask the person to define it. It’s amazing how we use jargon, like derivatives, that have very distant reference back to the real thing. Language has the power to exclude. Asking reveals that one is not “in the know.”

A year or so back, one of the leaders of the Committee of 200 negotiating a complex merger was at the same Structure Lab was an African-American woman high school teacher spinning out a new program. In the beginning of the session, the teacher downplayed her knowledge, and named her alienation from the language of business. She said, “I won’t understand what you people are talking about.” She metaphorically stepped back from the table in a moment of paradoxical resistance and disempowerment. At the end, she came up to me and said she would never again say that she didn’t know… rather she would fake it with her Structure Lab cards and notes hidden in her lap. The woman from the Committee of 200 was standing near and added quietly “me too.”

So next time you enter a conversation and wonder if you have the expertise, the authority to comment, know that they are making it up as well. They are wielding whatever tools they have at their disposal to construct their expertise. The power of these tools is real. But the power is always in flux as our culture, our history, our economic realities shifts what expertise we ascribe privilege and power. Find some delight in these moments of confusion, where we don’t know who has the right answers and question your own search for the expert with the right answers.

– Joy Anderson, President, Criterion Institute

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