How the system is stacked against people

When I run sessions on unconscious bias, I often ask people to think about whether they are a racist or sexist. Almost none of us think we are. Yet people of underrepresented ethnicities and women tell us time and again that they experience barriers others do not.

Are they lying? Or are we kidding ourselves?

Increasingly, we don’t tolerate blatant acts of racism and sexism like we used to. That can give us the impression that they’re no longer a problem.

I think that’s why a lot of younger women I talk to don’t see the need for gender equality efforts: they don’t see blatant sexism in the workplace, so the problems of the past seem to be fixed. I don’t want to be the one to pop these women’s bubbles; I love to see their un-dulled ambition. It’s a balancing act between preparing them for the realities they may face (particularly if they have children) and being inspired by their (perhaps flawed) optimism that they can reach the top as easily as any man.

Wherever your cynicism levels are, I don’t think there’s any arguing with the fact that women and certain ethnicities do face barriers and disadvantages that others don’t. So does unconscious bias fill the gap between this and our belief that we’re not racist or sexist? I think there’s one more thing to consider: structural inequality and discrimination.

So, am I off the hook?

In a way, it sounds like I’m letting us individuals off the hook, right? Because if we’re not being discriminatory deliberately or unconsciously, it can’t be our fault. That’s not quite right, though. Just because the problems are structural doesn’t mean that we can’t take personal responsibility for correcting them.

Just like unconscious bias, it is hard – and a bit icky – to acknowledge when you are part of a system stacked against others. As dominant or in-group members, it implies our current status and achievements are in part due to our group membership (our privilege), rather than fully due to our own personal merit and hard work.

We must acknowledge this is a huge shift in people’s understanding and self-perception. It feels against our own self-interest.

Just like unconscious bias, structural discrimination can occur unintentionally. It includes informal practices that are part and parcel of everyday life in an organisation. In the past that might have been networking over golf, where women were inadvertently excluded. Today it might be after work drinks, which could exclude those with caring responsibilities outside of work, or those who don’t drink (or who don’t enjoy drinking culture).

Put simply, it can be discrimination by habit, rather than intent. Often it’s inadvertently missing certain people out because they weren’t at the decision table to speak up for themselves and others like them.

What does this look like in practice? 

  • Ad campaigns or products that fall flat with (or even offend) their target audience. (Remember when H&M had to backtrack after choosing an African-American boy to model a hoodie with the message “Coolest Monkey in The Jungle” across the front?)
  • Referring to ‘maternity leave’ instead of ‘parental leave’, giving a clear social message to men and women alike that you expect women to take it rather than men – whatever the legal reality.
  • Not providing any paid leave to new dads
  • Lack of flexible working opportunities for caregivers meaning they can’t get good quality, well-paid roles at your company
  • Women and people of colour getting fewer mentoring and sponsorship opportunities – formal or informal – because the people at the top naturally gravitate to people like themselves (we all do this, not just those in leadership).
  • A lack of facilities meaning that breastfeeding mums can’t return to work and feed their babies.
  • A classic example is Sheryl Sandberg, who while pregnant at Google went to see her boss, Sergey Brin, and requested that the company create closer pregnancy parking for expectant mothers. Brin immediately said yes and wondered why such an idea had never occurred to him previously. Sandberg wrote that “Having one pregnant woman at the top made the difference.” 

Because it is located in habits and built into structures and systems in non-obvious ways, structural discrimination can be more difficult for those in power to identify than individual discrimination or personal bias. 

What can we do to overcome it? 

  • Consider diversity as a factor when hiring new talent. Don’t practice “positive discrimination”, which breeds resentment. Instead, ask yourself what ‘extra’ or ‘special sauce’ each candidate could bring to the role or organisation, above and beyond what’s on the job description. The ability to challenge group-think is a powerful attribute – but remember it takes a critical mass from each group to achieve that. One woman or one person of colour around the table isn’t enough to bring cultural change.
  • Don’t pretend you don’t see sex, gender or colour. It doesn’t work. Marginalised groups have greater levels of trust and fewer concerns about negative experiences in companies that promote multiculturalism over colour-blindness. 
  • If you have any influence over your facilities, be mindful of signs, décor and other cues (like room names).
  • Be mindful that your company and office is not a “neutral” setting. In most instances, our organisations have been historically and culturally designed to fit and favour the dominant group. So if, for example, someone isn’t asked for their opinion when others are it might be felt differently depending on whether they are part of a dominant or marginalised group. 
  • Acknowledge it is hard for the dominant group – these conversations can provoke anger, fear, guilt, argumentation, silence, even walking away. Receiving negative feedback will be challenging to those who focus on intent and not impact. 
  • Dominant group members often avoid intergroup contact for fear of being seen as racist. So create opportunities for people to talk to different people. At my work, for example, we run a “coffee roulette” where you get paired up with someone random each fortnight – it’s a great way to get to know different people, and different parts of the business.
  • Make a sustained effort to really talk to different people and experience different cultural experiences.
  • Call out the fact that intent is more important than perfection right now.

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