There has been significant growth in the implementation of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) initiatives in the workplace, but are businesses getting it right?
In their efforts to break down barriers, firms in fact often end up marginalizing disadvantaged groups, resulting in more harm than good, according to the results of collaborative research by Patricia Hein, professor of sustainability at the Ivey Business School and Shaz Ansari, professor of strategy and innovation at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, U.K., published in the Harvard Business Review.
The pair gained insights on the extent of this phenomenon, termed “benevolent marginalization”, from a decade of research on the experiences of women and individuals with disabilities in the workplace.
This phenomenon manifests as subtle discrimination that impacts various groups and makes them unlikely to intervene or dissent, thereby hindering their advancement and perpetuating organizational inequality.
Hein first witnessed benevolent marginalization while pursuing her PhD in Berlin, Germany, where she attended a protest rally organized by disability activists fighting against inequality in the workplace.
“[The activists] told me they feel invisible and like they don’t have a voice,” said Hein. “I was wondering, how can that be the case when we focus so much on diversity in organizations? When I started interviewing them, I soon realized there are more subtle forms of marginalization that are often not addressed in diversity programs.”
Perpetuating inequality among workers with disabilities
Hein and Ansari examined marginalizing behaviours in two settings. A more extreme example involved interviewing employees in sheltered workshops – segregated organizations where disabled people work in protected environments. They observed that well-intentioned managers often develop inclusion initiatives based on assumptions that all workers with disabilities share identical needs of help and assistance — a paternalistic or even infantilizing approach that perpetuates inequality.
An example of a patronizing initiative Hein and Ansari observed involved assigning jobs that limited public engagement and could be carried out within the confines of the sheltered workshop, such as metal processing, industrial assembly, packaging and shipping. In contrast, a successful inclusive practice involved establishing a farmer’s market in consultation with these workers and their representatives.
“Engaging directly with people from outside the sheltered workshop environment while selling farm produce gave these workers newfound self-belief, autonomy, and a sense of empowerment,” writes Hein in the article, ‘How Managers Can Dismantle “Benevolent Marginalization”’.
Female networking is not always working
The second setting Hein examined was by attending dozens of female networking events, interviewing over 60 women throughout Germany, the U.K. and Canada.
“Women told me they feel like these events don’t work, especially if they’re organized by firms and oftentimes even male managers,” said Hein.
“They felt almost disillusioned or disengaged. Leaders somewhat expect gratitude and there’s this very weird dynamic where they feel they’re doing something great, but the outcome is actually perpetuation of existing inequality systems.”
Hein notes that a remarkable transformation can occur when women take charge of these initiatives and tailor them to meet their individual needs. This can be achieved through collaborating with women across different levels of seniority to foster an inclusive networking environment that promotes diverse voices, offers mentorship and sponsorship opportunities, and creates spaces where women can openly and genuinely engage.
“Our research suggests that women need to adopt a strategic, long-term perspective in their networking endeavors, prioritize follow-ups to build strong relationships, delineate tangible goals for professional advancement, and engage in ongoing evaluation and improvement of these initiatives,” writes Hein. The result: Women gain a sense of empowerment and find their voices to collectively combat gender inequality head-on.
Learn more at: How leaders can break down “benevolent marginalization”.