Of Privilege, Presumption And Promise: Inequality In The Workplace And Ways To Combat It


Man and woman hold 50/50 sign: gender equality concept

Recently, 140 professionals, mostly strangers, set aside an entire day to get uncomfortable with each other. We had frank and revealing conversations. I found myself sharing a few personal stories that I had never shared in a work setting before with a man I’d just met. It wasn’t always comfortable, but it was honest, open and helpful.

We were participants at The Better Man Conference, hosted at Unilever in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. A series of speakers, including psychologists, researchers, authors and business professionals, led us through exercises to help us understand how men can be more helpful allies for their women colleagues. The audience was 80% male, 20% female. The women in the audience provided as much helpful perspective as the speakers did.

While the focus of the discussion was on how men, specifically straight, white men, can help facilitate equality in the workplace for women, the conversation addressed broader issues of how we can all avoid behaviors that demean, antagonize and marginalize others. In short, we spent eight hours learning how to be better people to those around us.

The day was divided into four broad topics, each with a clear learning point.

First, we covered how to identify, acknowledge and appreciate our own privilege in society without apology and without blinders on the advantage that might have bestowed on us. Self-reflection does not need to be self-critical. I can admit I have received an advantage because of my race, gender, national origin, income level or other attributes without feeling guilty about it. I not only didn’t earn any of those categories, I didn’t cause any of the societal and institutional advantages they bestowed upon me. However, pretending certain attributes don’t give me an advantage is dishonest and increases inequality rather than lessens it.

One of the speakers, Karen Brown, turned the notion of privilege on its head. Brown recounted how growing up poor in Jamaica was a life of struggle that required frequent moves and a sense of dislocation, but she identified that need to be resilient as a privilege that others don’t have a chance to develop. Being able to identify those privileges that make our lives easier and those that are borne from adversity provided a helpful framework for the small-group discussions we then had with other attendees.

Second, we discussed the difference between intent and impact. While my heart may be in the right place as I offer assistance, guide a conversation or provide feedback, if I am not aware of the other person’s needs in the moment, I’m not only not helpful, I am undermining my good intent. It reminded me of a coffee mug I once saw that read, “I’m not bossy. I’m helpful.”

One way to help bring intent and impact closer together is to ask the person you’re speaking with for feedback on your comments. Preface your comment with, “Would it be helpful if I shared a few thoughts on that?” That slows the conversation and gives the other person a “heads up” that you’re about to offer your perspective. It also highlights for both you and the other person your intent with the information – to be helpful. Reminding yourself of your intent will help you be more aware of your language choice and content. Highlighting that intent for your audience will buy you some good will and benefit of the doubt regarding how the message lands.

Sometimes, regardless of any preface, your comment will be taken in an unintended way. That’s when it’s time to simply listen well to the other person so you can understand their perspective. In short, it’s best to consider why you are sharing a particular comment, what tone you are using, whether you have asked permission from the person to share your comment and how easy it will be for the person to implement your advice.

Speech bubbles shown in different colors: diversity and inclusion concept

Third, we learned how to listen so intently that we not only heard the speaker’s content but understood and appreciated the underlying emotions. Responding to someone with platitudes is just going through the motions of listening. Responding with patience, additional questions, quiet acknowledgement and empathy builds a relationship and helps the other person feel heard. It’s the difference between surface and substance.

Finally, we learned to commit to action. The day provided enough concrete tips and techniques that everyone in the room, male and female alike, was able to identify what steps they could take to be better allies for those who need them. For me, I committed to finding an ally at work who will flag for me instances where I’ve said or done something that was harmful, or could have been more helpful. It’s a small step in the right direction.

Here are three key takeaways you can put into action right away.

1. Reflect on your own situation – what attributes do you possess that you benefit from but didn’t have to earn? Acknowledge them as privileges – no shame, no guilt, just your starting point for self-awareness.

2. Avoid assumptions by asking how you can be helpful, instead of assuming your first instinct on what to share will be a big value-add to those around you.

3. Listen to learn and relate to the other person rather than as a necessary, perfunctory step before you can speak.

Originally published on Forbes.com.


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