This week the news has been dominated by the outcome of the George Floyd court case in America and I’ve been reading the debates around this topic (what does it mean? what does it matter? what happens now?). Without doubt, it is a significant moment in US history that the abusive behaviour of a white policeman towards a non-white individual has been examined and found wanting in a legal environment.
However, this phenomenon (of abusive white police officers) won’t disappear overnight due to the outcome of one court case. The issue is more complex than that, and there is still so much more work to do both over in the States and here at home in the UK.
What is more depressing is that it’s taken so long just to get to this point in history. We’ve been talking about micro-aggressions, a less obvious and more sublte form of discrimination since the 1970s. (or maybe earlier – I just haven’t found that reference yet!).
I came across an article from Mary P Rowe, written in 1990: Barriers to Equality: The Power of Subtle Discrimination to Maintain Unequal Opportunity. In Rowe’s article, she has no academic studies to rely on to prove her point: all she has are her observations as a consultant working with organisations. The examples she describes are familiar, although I’d like to think that some of them no longer happen (e.g. showing porn during the evening segment of a conference).
However, Mary’s observations have been validated through research (such as Sue’s – which I have written about before):
- that the unconscious bias of manager can lead to their behaviour being less than appropriate or professional. Or as Rowe says: “predisposes a manager to even worse behavior”.
- That “the senior person has little idea what the “invisible people” actually contribute”.
- The “negative Pygmalion” effect: in that if managers don’t expect a particular employee to perform, it is likely that they will live up to that expectation – and not perform to a standard that they are truly capable of.
- That the employee who is subject to unconscious bias will spend time and energy trying to understand and dealing with the personal impact: it “takes a lot of energy to deal with an environment perceived as hostile, or it takes lots of energy to maintain one’s level of denial of difficulties”.
- That it is a challenge to erradicate “micro-aggressions”, as the “slights are culturally so “normal” that they simply are not noticed” (by the aggressor).
Rowe talks about the “intermittent, unpredictable, “negative reinforcement,” of micro-aggressions“, that leaves the reciever feeling powerless as they cannot change their gender or race. The powerlessness, coupled with the sense of uncertanty can lead to “misplaced” anger – which could re-inforce the stereotypes held by the manager.
There is one observation within Rowe’s paper where it is clear that we have moved on as a society. In 1990, Rowe talks about how individuals often look for, but are unable to determine, the intent of the aggressor. We now know that the intent is not something that is always conscious. The phrase “unconscious bias” is what I would consider to be common parlance in today’s workplace.
We’ve also moved on in terms of our understanding of what consitutes power. Rowe comments that “it is generally the less powerful who have most difficulties in coping with inequities, since less powerful people by definition have less influence“. We now understand through the work of Sue, that the less powerful are the marginalised group, and it is hard for the marginalised to challenge the power of the majority.
And more importantly, in 1990, Rowe discussed how those who feel aggreieved found it hard to seek support from others, even from their own background, because in their responses, they would perpetuate the micro-aggression. That has definitely changed. Today we see how powerful informal support networks are. Would we have seen the same result from the George Floyd trial without the Black Lives Matter movement?
Interestingly, Rowe talks about the disproportionate means by which those who feel aggrieved can take action – by means of raising grievances or making a legal complaint. Nowadays, we try to encourage informal resolution, looking at restorative justice, mediation, facilitated discussions etc. But those mechanisms – in the form of grievances and Employment Tribunals – still exist.
Rowe’s solution, back in 1990, is education through raising awareness about micro-aggressions and how to identify and respond to allegations of discrimination, encouraging employee networks, and developing mentorship schemes for all staff (not just those who are perceived to be talented). It is reassuring at least that many medium to large organisations have taken these suggestions and put them into practice. However, what is less reassuring is that three-fifths of employees work for a small business, who do not have the same level of access to training, networks and mentoring arrangements.
Most importantly Rowe suggests that we should talk to each – to recognise and value our differences, especially with someone who isn’t like ourself. We can all do this regardless of who we work for. We’ve started this journey, but there’s more work to be done…..