Discrimination That Is Less Than Obvious (Except to the Targets)

Those of us who care about diversity and full inclusion in the workplace talk a lot about unconscious bias and the forms it takes. We call it things like microaggression, microinequity, microadvantage, microaffirmation. When we get cranky enough, we talk about people being “clueless” or “tone-deaf” (and occasionally use some stronger language). We talk about privilege and how it shows up at work.

We want to believe that everyone we talk to knows and believes that blatant discrimination and obvious bias - for example, Sir Tim Hunt's recent comments on women in science - is not to be tolerated. That kind of behavior, we think, is quickly and easily recognized and dealt with.

But what about things that are not so micro- and yet don’t quite rise to the level of blatant discrimination? Small actions that are not deliberate attempts to exclude or discourage particular groups of people are still noticed, and provoke a reaction. Often, that reaction is suppressed out of fear of being labeled “overly sensitive” or worse.

Two things have triggered this question for me.

The first is the rise in popularity of “fitness competitions” at meetings, conferences, and in other professional settings. These usually involved the use of pedometers and other worn devices that track an individual’s movement, with prizes awarded on an individual or team basis. This seems like a great idea at first glance: get everyone up and out of their seats and moving, fight obesity, improve health, and so on. Lots of fun, unless you’re the person who can’t get up and out of your seat. To me, that looks a lot like blatant discrimination against people with impaired mobility, who are once again forced into the position of outsider. Apparently, we haven’t moved all that far from a time when wheelchair users were excluded from participation by a lack of ramps and elevators, and no one else seemed to notice.

The second is this piece from “the experts” at Fast Company: “Is it Hurting My Career to Skip Happy Hour With My Co-Workers?"  The responding expert, Art Markman, advises that yes, it might be, if those happy hours are giving those co-workers a chance to bond and build relationships, complete with in-jokes and shared memories, and you’re not there. The suggested solution? Spend your time and energy creating other office social events that fit your schedule better. (The query came from a person with young children who wanted to spend evenings at home.) So here is a situation that, to me, is an example of blatant discrimination against parents, not to mention recovering alcoholics (for whom being in a bar may be a strong trigger), people who are hard-of-hearing (ambient noise in bars is difficult even for those with perfect hearing), and the claustrophobic (ok, that’s me – I get panicky in noisy, crowded places and happy hour bars are my idea of an inner circle of hell).

Both of these take me back to a time when playing golf was crucial to advancement in professional and executive careers. The bonding, wheeling, and dealing that took place during rounds of golf and at the “19th hole” in the clubhouse bar were key to moving up. No matter that many (at one time, most) of the clubs where this went on did not admit women, Jews, or people of color, not to mention the barrier to those who were physically unable to swing a club or walk the course. There was even legal recognition of the discrimination that resulted. The importance of golf games to success in business was one of the primary arguments that forced the admittance of Jews, women, and people of color into exclusive country clubs.

How can you and your business or organization avoid this kind of not-so-subtle, and certainly not micro-, exclusion in the workplace and other professional settings?

For a start, when planning events and activities, ask yourself, “Is this something that everyone can fully participate in? What barriers to participation might arise, and how can we address those fairly?

As a leader or manager, pay attention to how, and where, your teams interact socially. If their default is a happy hour meet-up, don’t assume everyone is all that happy about it and that those who are missing out on the meet-ups aren’t interested in being social with their co-workers. Take the responsibility for creating alternatives that take place during regular working hours. Keep in mind that a large part of the appeal of happy hour is the absence of “the boss(es),” and plan other social activities accordingly.

What has been your experience with this kind of exclusion? What suggestions do you have for addressing or avoiding it?