Diversity & Inclusion Myth Busting #5

    Posted on 10-Oct-2019 09:59:52

    Diversity Myth #5: “Prejudice and discrimination are the same thing, aren’t they?”

    After more than 20 years of working in the field of Diversity and Inclusion, I have come across a whole range of preconceived, often implicit, ideas which stand in the way of making progress towards more inclusive workplaces and societies. An important part of my role is to try to debunk them.

    These “myths” may be just that - erroneous ideas and misconceptions - but their effect on individuals, communities and organisations is very real, and detrimental. The more that all of us make a concerted effort to understand our assumptions in relation to Diversity & Inclusion, the greater the likelihood that genuine inclusion for everyone will become a reality.

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    I have selected a few of the most frequent and harmful ‘diversity myths’ for this article. I expect that some of you might recognise a couple, or even understand some of your own preconceived ideas. If so, I hope that analysis of these commonly held but inaccurate beliefs will help to explain where your assumptions might come from, why they are not backed by evidence, and why it is important for all of us to challenge ourselves on the ideas we perpetuate.

    Ultimately, I hope that by surfacing these myths you will be inspired to, with confidence and genuine commitment, promote Diversity & Inclusion.

    Diversity Myth #5: “Prejudice and discrimination are the same thing, aren’t they?”

    One of the major stumbling blocks in relation to Diversity & Inclusion is the failure to distinguish between individual and institutional discrimination, and between intentional and unintentional discrimination.

    Individual discrimination is just that: discriminatory and unfair treatment of certain people based on personal prejudice and negative stereotypes. It is happening at the level of personal attitudes, beliefs, opinions, behaviours and expectations about people who - because of some physical characteristics, lifestyle or cultural practice - are denigrated. This may be conscious or not, intentional or not. Individual discrimination, or personal prejudice, is one thing. There is still quite a lot of it around and it certainly needs to be addressed… but this is not the main issue.

    What needs to be managed promptly, and requires real leadership from the top, is 'structural' or 'institutional' discrimination: discrimination that is embedded in organisational structures and processes, and may be unwittingly carried out by perfectly fair-minded, well-intentioned individuals. 

    Institutional discrimination is the collective failure of an organisation to cater appropriately to people because of their colour, culture, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability or any other relevant characteristic. It can be seen or detected in laws, policies, procedures and processes which - intentionally or not - fail to meet the needs of certain groups of people and lead to a systematic disadvantage.

    It’s useful to distinguish between different types or sources of structural discrimination. The first might be called ‘legacy’ discrimination. While there is still some sexist, racist or homophobic prejudice today, many of the disadvantages facing women, people of colour and LGBT+ people today stem from past discrimination which has enduring consequences. 

    The second might be called ‘snowball’ discrimination. It refers to the repercussions that discrimination in one aspect of life, such as lower expectations of black children and young people in education, for instance, can then have on unemployment, low pay, poverty, housing and poorer health. 

    I believe that the failure to distinguish between personal prejudice and structural discrimination is at the heart of the problem many people have discussing Diversity & Inclusion. They don’t think they are personally prejudiced but they feel under attack. No one can be open and introspective when they feel threatened. That’s why it is important to depersonalise the debate about discrimination - and why it can be counter-productive to focus on unconscious bias and personal attitudes - because the main problems are structural, not merely attitudinal. We should have in place policies and procedures that make it impossible for anyone to discriminate against others and to subvert someone else’s life chances, no matter what their personal views and attitudes might be. 

    Having said that, each and everyone of us can, and should, take personal steps to promote inclusion.

    Keep an eye out for the other blogs in the ‘Diversity Myths’ series. While each piece stands alone, we believe that a powerful and coherent case emerges when all seven myths are considered as a whole. 

    Once we understand these myths, it becomes impossible to think of Diversity & Inclusion as being the sole responsibility of the Human Resources Department, the Corporate Social Responsibility Department, the Marketing and Communications Department or the Innovation Department. It becomes everyone’s responsibility - whether you are leaders, managers, supervisors, employees or serving customers - to play a role, every day, in creating a diverse and inclusive workplace that benefits all. 

    If you recognise these myths at work, please get in touch. We’ll be able to help you address them and transform your organisation.

    Read Diversity Myth #1: ‘‘We have more pressing business priorities than Diversity and Inclusion right now'’

    Diversity Myth #2: ‘We treat everyone as individuals: we don’t discriminate."

    Diversity Myth #3: ‘No matter what we do, some people will always think they are discriminated against.’

    Diversity Myth #4: “If only we could tackle unconscious bias, we wouldn't be discriminating anymore.”

    Topics: Diversity, Inclusion, inclusive transformation

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