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  • Writer's picture54TwentyFour

Breaking the Cycle of Inequalities

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

Power (positions of authority), opportunities and resources in a society are not distributed fairly between groups. Some groups occupy more positions of authority than others and have more access to opportunities and resources than others. This is not a coincidence; it is historical (has happened over time), so it can be taken for granted and perceived as a reflection of how the world operates.

To create a fair world where more groups have access to positions of authority and resources requires deliberate effort and an understanding of what drives these inequalities. At 54twentyfour, we focus on inequalities specifically in the world of work. We think about how power is distributed (who sits in positions of authority) and who has access to opportunities and rewards.

Do people end up in positions of power because they work harder? Do people access opportunities and rewards because of their decision-making skills? Are some industries male-dominated because women aren't capable of performing in those industries?

We want to help create a fairer workplace where there's diverse representation in leadership and the workforce, things are set up equitably (there's recognition of historical inequalities and how those are linked to present day realities), and people can experience inclusion so that they can participate.

So, we look at DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) through a systems lens. We see the world of work as a system that participates in reproducing inequalities. Systems of inequalities have five layers:

Ideology: Systems of Inequalities (Racism, Sexism, Ableism, Classism, Ageism, Heterosexism, etc.) have at their core the idea that one group is somehow better than another. More intelligent, more capable, more advanced, harder working, stronger, more deserving, more fit to lead, chosen, normal, and so on. The group on top of the hierarchy is attributed these positive qualities, while the group at the bottom is attributed opposite qualities: stupid, lazy, weak, incompetent, worthless, less deserving, backward, abnormal, deviant, inferior, and so on. We use these ideas to form stereotypes about groups.

Internalized: These ideas are internalized without awareness and choice, from childhood, forming unconscious biases. By the time an adult comes to work, they have these unconscious biases. When someone says, "I don't see color" – they are denying racial bias, maybe due to lacking self-awareness?

Interpersonal: We engage with people based on our unconscious biases. We unconsciously prejudge people and then treat people based on how they look, what they have, and their social standing. When someone says, "I treat everyone the same" – again, they are denying how bias influences their behavior. Maybe they think only 'bad' people treat people stereotypically?

Institutional: Inequalities in representation in positions of authority and staff, pay inequality, and the exclusion of certain groups from organizations are a result of how organizations were set up in the past and that not being redressed. Organizations were deliberately set up to exclude and to create inequalities. Some leaders in organizations will say, "we are a meritocracy, growth and pay depend on how hard one works" – which documented research shows is not the case.

Structural: Structural means how things have been historically set up to work in a society (i.e., housing and schooling segregation, school curriculum, norms, media, toys, etc.). If historically one group set up things to benefit them in a society, that will continue to happen for generations until structural change happens. A person's position inside an organization is due to their choices and hard work, sure, but it is also due to structural inequalities (the type of exposure one has as a child, how toys and comments from adults condition a child, schools that one went to, representation in the curriculum, parents' and communities' social capital, etc., all influence where a person ends up in life…)

If we want to break the cycle of inequalities, organizations need to take responsibility for how they are contributing to social inequalities among groups. Breaking the cycle of inequalities requires a multipronged approach that involves challenging biased ideologies, addressing internalized biases, changing interpersonal behaviors, rectifying institutional disparities, and tackling broader structural inequalities in society. We help organisations by educating people inside organisations, being a thinking partner on their DEI initiatives and helping them set people up for success through their employee experience design.

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