Privilege and power in the workplace

Categories : Blog


Author: Pierre Brouard

Why is it important to think about privilege in the workplace? According to one of the foremost thinkers on the topic, Allan G. Johnson, privilege refers to any advantage that is “unearned, exclusive, and socially conferred”. This means workplaces are systems of advantage and disadvantage, which mean they are unequal, often in ways which are beyond the control of an individual.

While much of the privilege literature speaks to “white” privilege as a key theme, privilege also comes from other identity dimensions, such as gender, class, ability, educational status, age, and sexual orientation. In other words, being a man, middle or upper class, able-bodied, highly educated, older and heterosexual will bring ease and advantage in many situations.

This advantage is unearned in the sense that one does not have to “do” anything to achieve it, it is simply present. For example, a man is often seen as the default of “leadership”, simply because he is a man. The advantage is exclusive because it only comes to a male-bodied person, it is conferred only upon men. And the advantage is socially produced, meaning that, for example, men are not biologically determined to be leaders, society has decided that men are more suitable as leaders. And this is based on ideas of tradition and culture, and sometimes faith, all phenomena which promote ideas about how humans should relate to each other.

It is important to note that privilege does not guarantee good outcomes for the privileged group or bad outcomes for everyone else. A man can be poor, uneducated, denied a job, or treated badly by the police. Similarly, a woman can be successful, wealthy, and independent. But what privilege does, says Johnson, is “load the odds one way or the other” for a specific category of person. In general, men have more advantages and power in social, cultural, economic, faith and political matters, and in general, women have less of those kinds of power. Exceptions exist, but privilege works to make male success more likely and women’s success more exceptional.


Three principles of privilege

Johnson goes on to say that a system of privilege – a family, a workplace, a society – “is organised around three basic principles: dominance, identification, and centeredness.”

In relation to gender this means the following:

  • A system of male privilege, for example, is male dominated, which means the default is for men to occupy positions of power. This does not mean all men are powerful, only that the powerful tend always to be men. And when a woman has a position of power, this is noted as an exception. When you take a flight and discover your pilot is a woman, you will always note this, and may even joke with a fellow passenger about her ability to fly. By contrast, you would never comment on a pilot being a man, and in fact, this seems so “natural” and “ordinary” that you may not even note it. This is male dominance in action.
  • Male-identification could mean that a society, a workplace, defines “male” as the default standard for forms of excellence, as the highest attainment of the category “human.” And as Johnson notes “when a category of people is named the standard for human beings in general, the path of least resistance is to see them as superior, there being no other reason to make them the standard.” As a result of this, we give them more credibility. Think of how a woman leader will have to prove herself repeatedly, subjected to scrutiny about abilities and performance, in ways that a man simply would not. The principle of male-identification also encourages men to be unaware of themselves as men, as if they did not have a gender at all. Is it surprising that when we talk of “gender equality” we are seen to be referring to women?
  • Male-centeredness is the tendency to make men the centre of certain kinds of attention – in business magazines, in news stories as “expert” commentators, as the main character in a movie. Of course, women are sometimes targeted for other attention, but usually, this will be built around their looks, what they wear and how “attractive” they are. Male-centredness operates to keep men central in our perceptions of success and power, and makes it seem normal, and even reassuring when a man is in charge.


There are other fascinating aspects of privilege.

We cannot be “neutral” about privilege because it is socially wired into us, and exists even if we see it, experience it, or collude with it, or not. It is much better, we suggest, to acknowledge privilege and do something about it. As Johnson says, “at every moment, social life involves all of us.”

People with less privilege often find themselves fighting each other for power; this takes attention away from the system of privilege that harms them. How might this play out in a workplace? Rather than calling out the default of men as leaders, women with leadership aspirations might find themselves jostling for power with other women. This can work for the woman who comes out on top, but it does not challenge the system of male domination in leadership positions.

Privilege can be “intersectional.” So various identity dimensions (gender, race, class etc.) “intersect” to produce a specific set of advantages or disadvantages. So, someone can simultaneously experience advantages and disadvantages in a workplace. For example, a man with a disability might have an advantage as a man, but a disadvantage based on his disability. And in some contexts, a woman of a certain ethnicity might have disadvantage as a woman, but advantage based on her ethnic background.

Occupying the “less privileged” position can be very disempowering and disheartening. Such a person can internalise negative attitudes and experiences, affecting their sense of self-worth. They can experience their workplace attitudes as a form of “gaslighting”: when they complain about a lack of advantage this is denied and they are told they are being “sensitive” and must “work harder”.


The privilege walk exercise

One way to develop insight into privilege is the “privilege walk” exercise, of which there are different forms. If you watch this video you will see the exercise in action. The privilege walk is a symbolic activity that explores the ways that we may enjoy privileges as members of social identity groups. Everyone starts in one line and the facilitator reads out statements and each person steps forward or back accordingly. Your final position at the end of the exercise determines how “privileged” you are. For your own interest, you can imagine you were doing this exercise. Do you think you would be near the front or near the back? You can do this exercise on your own, physically, or on paper, or ask a few friends to join in. Make sure you debrief afterwards!

Finally, remember that privilege is a characteristic of all social systems, such as the workplace. They are the hidden “rules of a game” in which we all participate. From awareness of this, can come change.


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