Do you treat people differently or the same?

The Lost Trail

Navigating the line between the individual and the group can be challenging

One of the challenges I faced when coming to understand issues of prejudice was: where is the line between the individual and the group? When I was studying engineering, the other women and I didn’t like to be singled out from the men and instead wanted to be treated ‘just like everybody else’ but at the same time would attend women in engineering events. So, is this hypocrisy? Where is the line? This then begs the question, as leaders, how do we treat others when diversity is at play?

The secret to answering a question like this, lies with evaluating the underlying power structures i.e who has influence over whom, directly or indirectly?

At the most basic level, we all want to be seen as individuals, without prejudice. I am a unique person with a unique experience of the world. I have been influenced by many different cultures (work, country, family etc) to varying extents and don’t like leaders to decide what is best for me based on on stereotypes. I want a leader to give me choice and/or ask my opinion if they don’t know me well. At the same time, we are a part of groups that often sit within a privilege priority order and it is important to acknowledge where we and other people sit within that artificially constructed model of importance. These are two distinct issues that are often mixed together.

For example, women are grossly under represented in the engineering profession. This means that on a systemic level it makes perfect sense for leaders to advocate and promote ‘women in engineering’ events because they go a small way to help support women continuing in the profession despite the obstacles. But at the individual level, women and men have the right to be treated as individuals without prejudice.

I remember having one University professor who was not used to teaching women and would get very flustered trying to make sure that he didn’t get himself in trouble by saying the wrong thing in front of us. Of course that only made matters worse because we felt singled out and would prefer that he simply saw us as human beings like everyone else in the room. Why would I be more offended because of my gender? If someone is being prejudice, then that is ultimately a problem for everybody. The irony was that his efforts to be more ‘gentlemanly’ made the situation feel like ‘there are the engineers [i.e. men]’ and ‘there are the women [ie not engineers]. And hence the group privilege order revealed itself.

Therefore it is not hypocrisy to both want to be seen as an individual and also reap the benefits of systems or events that re-balance the power for disadvantaged groups. Good leaders know that people want to be treated as a human beings foremost, i.e. with the same dignity and respect that we all deserve.  At the same time people want to have their diversity and difference recognised as something unique that they can bring to the table so that everybody can work together in coordinated cooperation. The equality movement ensures that systemic disadvantage takes care of groups and the diversity movement tries to ensure that we are respected for our individual diversity and uniqueness. Thus leaders can navigate the tension between individuals and groups when viewing the problem as two distinct issues.

Are You an Uneducated Bigot for Disliking Political Correctness?

Despite its roots on the left of politics and as an ironic term to highlight racist and sexist attitudes, ‘political correctness’ was hijacked in the 1990s by the political right wing in the US and successfully used to discredit movements that objected to stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination. Reframing them as hypersensitive do-gooders tapped into everybody’s fear of being an uptight whiner that frankly, no one likes.

Perhaps in some situations it is possible that we are going too far, but for the most part, I agree with Polly Toynbee that  “the phrase is an empty, right-wing smear, designed only to elevate its user” and “was born as a coded cover for all who still want to say, Paki, spastic or queer…” Thus complainers of political correctness might easily be reframed as uneducated bigots.

So where is the line between hypersensitive whiners and bigotry? The answer lies in getting educated about matters of inequality. Thus here is a short introduction to stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination to help you on your journey.

Stereotyping. Black athletes are superior; women are more nurturing than men; and white people have the highest IQs. We love to categorise people and put them in boxes; we do this, particularly, through subtle use of language and imagery. It helps us make sense of a world with a potentially overwhelming array of social stimuli. But in doing so, we de-emphasise uniqueness and plant seeds for prejudice and discrimination. This is primarily because of our reliance on generalisations, which are often inaccurate or do not apply to the individual group member.

Not all women are nurturing; not all black athletes win races; and not all white people are intelligent. Furthermore, we may be attributing an incorrect causality to being a member of the group, particularly the biological superiority of one group over another. For example, it is not that being born white makes for a higher IQ, rather white people tend to have higher IQs by virtue of test biases that enable people from a “white culture” to perform better.

Prejudice. You are a man; therefore, you are not nurturing. Here we take a stereotype and apply it to someone without knowing who they uniquely are. We PRE-JUDGE them. Often this happens unconsciously.

For example, when I was a junior pilot, I was sent to a joint Army and Air Force exercise to staff the operations desk. One day whilst my boss was gone, the General and his entourage came by, “Flying Officer, what do you do?” he asked me. “I’m a pilot”, I replied. “Oh, a pilot! What do you fly?”, he said with a slight look of astonishment on his face. “C-130s, sir”, I replied. “Wow, how does a little thing like you fly a big thing like that?” revealing his stereotypes and prejudices in one simple question. “Hydraulics, sir.” I replied.

How to avoid bigotry

Discrimination. You won’t get promoted because you are not smart enough (meaning white or manly or other prejudices and not actually related to the promotion criteria). Discrimination is formed from prejudice. It happens on an individual level and a systemic level.

For example, a business owner who refuses to hire non-whites due to prejudice is engaging in individual discrimination. But an organisation or sector that privileges white people, and therefore their employment and promotion opportunities (often revealed by demographic/diversity statistics) is engaging in systemic discrimination. Systemic discrimination can be the hardest to notice because it may not be deliberate and requires the difficult question, ‘what is it about our culture that prevents [women, indigenous, or other disadvantaged groups] from being promoted?’

It is important to note here that a key way to identify if something is reverse discrimination or not, is to ask whether the policy stems from prejudice. For example, a policy that gives indigenous members access to specialised leadership training is not reverse discrimination if it is a response to a lack of indigenous people in leadership positions. Similarly if the predominant culture is white, different learning and cultural framing may need to take place to give these members the same opportunities as those in the predominant culture and therefore is not reverse discrimination.

With these ideas in mind, we can see how stereotypes lie at the root of prejudice and discrimination. Therefore, if we want to be appreciated as unique individuals and not placed in a box called ‘prejudice’ which then unnecessarily restricts our options in life, then do unto others as you wish to be done unto yourself. It is hard not to categorise everything around us but that doesn’t take away our responsibility to be mindful of how we might be contributing to prejudice and advancing the cause of uneducated bigotry through language that reinforces stereotypes.

The problem with being promoted on ‘merit’

“Homo WHAT reproduction?”, asks a friend of mine wondering why I would think that sexual orientation and children lead to inequality regimes and discrimination.
“No, homoSOCIAL reproduction” I reply.

It’s a common mistake because so few people have even heard of homosocial reproduction, or the tendency for people to promote others who are like themselves. But given that issues of inequity are still rife, as evidenced by a lack of diversity (race, gender, class etc) in the top management teams of many organisations, and given that sometimes the biggest opponents of measures to improve equality are people from the oppressed group (e.g. the Women’s Anti-Suffrage Movement claiming that giving women the right to vote was a dangerous experiment), I feel the need to shout this from the roof tops:


According to Rosabeth Moss Kanter, there are three main reasons why this can occur.

  • Uncertainty and the need for trust
  • Ease of communication
  • Difficulties in measuring managerial performance

Managers have to deal with a lot of ambiguity in their roles and that means that we like to promote people who will make good decisions. This means that we need to trust them and perhaps see eye to eye (noting however, that diversity of thought usually leads to better performance outcomes). Thus, the further you rise up the managerial chain, the more ambiguous our roles become and the more subjective ‘merit’ is especially when you consider the effects of teams on individual performance. Instead our mental template of what constitutes a ‘great’ leader takes over and ‘objective’ outcomes are often hindered by the unconscious biases that are lying deep within our psyche. This means that unless we are specifically looking for it, we might end up promoting someone who is like ourselves and/or the dominant culture, rather than someone who might bring diversity of thought to the team and lead using a different, but equally effective, style.

Why 'merit' is subjective

When managerial performance is reduced to ‘climbing trees’, the monkey wins every time.

Noting that I have often worked in male dominated environments, some of the best leaders I knew did not meet the requirements of the ‘boys club’ because they stood by their ethics and authenticity. Despite being excellent leaders with great communication, empathy and team performance results, they found themselves trapped by a glass ceiling because they perhaps did not ‘tick the social box’, be that a beer drinking ‘lad’, a ‘heroic’ leader who is going to swoop in and save the day (as opposed to a facilitative leader who inspires the team to save the day), or some other shallow template of trustworthiness.

So what can we do to help overcome the inequity that results from homosocial reproduction?

  • First of all, be AWARE that it exists
  • Secondly, recognise that ‘merit’ is highly subjective when it comes to managerial team performance, and like a good sports team, you don’t just choose the top players, rather you choose a diverse and talented group that through synergy become a top TEAM
  • Thirdly, support quotas, diversity metrics and HR policies that seek to dismantle the inherent inequality and unconscious bias that exists within organisational systems
  • Finally, come to understand yourself. Test your unconscious bias using the Harvard Implicit Association Test at You might be as surprised by the results as I was!