The nature of discrimination HR Management

One of the assumptions sometimes made is that discrimination is experienced in the same way by different groups of people. In other words, discrimination based on sex, race/ethnicity, disability and age is often assumed to be the same. While it is certainly the case that the effects of discrimination (the disadvantage suffered) are the same or very similar for the victims, the nature of the discrimination often differs and the response and attitudes of the social groups can also differ.

It is important to elaborate these statements to show how there might be differences between social groups and within social groups. One starting point for this is to consider the characteristics that identify a person as different: sex, age, ethnicity, etc. In particular, these characteristics differ in terms of whether they can be considered stable and visible:

  • Stable characteristics are features such as race and sex – with the exception of the tiny minority of people that undergo gender reassignment. In contrast, a person’s age differs throughout their life, thus everyone is susceptible to being a victim of ageism, and the type of ageism will change at different life stages.
  • Visible characteristics are features that a person cannot hide – such as sex, race/ethnicity and some forms of disability. Others, such as sexual orientation, can be hidden and so although discrimination occurs, some potential victims can dodge it through behaviour that disguises their true identities.

A further consideration concerns the differences between the perpetrators and the victims. Whereas discrimination is perpetrated typically by one group against a different group (men over women, able-bodied over less able, ethnic majority over minority), this is not true of age discrimination.

For instance, research by Oswick and Rosenthal (2001) reveals that older workers are frequently discriminated against by managers of similar ages; it is not simply the case that the ‘old’ are discriminated against by the ‘young’ (or vice versa). As the authors vividly express it, ‘the purveyors of ageism are also in other circumstances its recipients’. Thus there is ‘same-group’ discrimination, rather than ‘different-group’ discrimination.

Turning to the victims of discrimination, it is important to recognise differences within social groups, rather than consider each group to be homogeneous. For instance, Reynolds et al. (2001) point out how disability can be a diverse and wide-ranging categorisation. People may move into a state of disability from ill-health, work accidents or ageing, and so while some people are ‘born disabled’, there is an increasing proportion of employees who ‘become disabled’.

Moreover, the needs of those with different ‘disabilities’ are so wide-ranging that it might be suggested there is very little meaning in such a broad category as ‘disability’. The same conclusion might be reached for race/ethnicity. Increasingly, commentators (for example, Modood et al., 1997; Pilkington, 2001) are arguing that research evidence suggests there is so much ethnic diversity that to describe discrimination as being the same across different ethnic groups fails to take into account its differential impact.

This means it is essential to recognise the differences between ethnic groups not only in terms of their experiences of discrimination, but also in their varied requirements for redressing the discrimination. Furthermore, it is possible to challenge the assumptions that a person’s ethnic group can be clearly defined and remains stable (note the discussion above). First, there are increasingly people with multiple cultural identities who simply do not ‘fit’ the ethnic categories, and second, exposure to varied cultural influences means that ethnic identity might change across one’s lifetime.

It is equally important to recognise differences between social groups. Indeed, if people within the same social group experience discrimination in different ways and in different circumstances, there is little reason to suppose that people from different social groups will have similar experiences. They may be victims of discrimination but there is little reason to suppose that the experience of being discriminated against because you are a woman is the same as that of being discriminated against on the grounds of sexual orientation; or that the discrimination experienced by disabled employees is the same as that endured by ethnic minority employees.

‘The Royal Mail’, illustrates these sometimes competing interests, see also Liff, 2002. A final issue that further underlines the diversity of the nature of discrimination is that some people experience multi-discrimination. For example, an employee may be discriminated against because she is both a woman and Asian, and might therefore not identify with or share the same concerns as her white women colleagues or black male colleagues. Similarly, consider the following comment:

I’m a 54-year-old fitter who’d been made redundant, and I’ve been trying for months to get back into work. I’ve even done all these special courses at the Job Centre to make myself more employable and to practise interviews and things. The problem is that when an employer sees 54 on the application form the majority of them don’t want to know – but of course I can’t prove that. Then, after weeks of trying I got an interview, and I was really excited because it was a chance to get back to doing something useful and earning again. I can remember I was full of enthusiasm and hope when I walked into the interview room, but then I saw the look on the faces of the panel as I walked through the door and they realised I’m black.

The picture is of diversity in the nature of discrimination and difference in the needs of the various groups and individuals that experience discrimination. These are important issues because it means:

  • Managers should not assume that discrimination means the same thing irrespective of group concerned.
  • Managers should not assume that a policy solution for one social group (for example, women) will be appropriate or welcomed by a different social group (for example, disabled people).
  • Managers should expect that attitudes will differ within social groups (for example, Asian employees and black employees).

The recognition of this diversity has led some commentators to argue that rather than defining people by their similarities to others, managers should see all employees as individuals with unique skills and needs. This is an issue that we will return to later in the chapter.


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