A focus on discrimination can sometimes hide something more pervasive – and that’s disadvantage

I talked to a friend’s husband on an unexpectedly hot February day. “Women have all the advantages,” he said, pulling uncomfortably at his tie. “We’ve had women in the office today in summer dresses.”

Meanwhile, this chap felt he still had to wear shirt and tie.

“Poor lamb,” I said, icily enough for my friend to register and brightly offer to get the next round in.

The guy went on to bemoan his organisation having a Women in Leadership group. “Do you think there’s a Men in Leadership group?” he asked, leaving me no time to answer, “No there isn’t! It’s all about you women these days, isn’t it? Women on boards. Women in charge. Maybe I’d get on better if I cut my own balls off,” he said.

“You should try it,” I agreed.

“Men are the ones discriminated against these days,” he went on, oblivious.

Well, here’s the thing. Discrimination is ugly and nasty – and usually, it’s illegal. Discrimination means being singled out because of something like your biology, your ethnicity, your orientation or your disability, and being treated badly because of it.

I’m almost 50. So I can remember growing up when vicious, destructive words to describe people of colour or gay people were common currency in society generally and on TV. I can also remember bosses who thought it was OK to touch women inappropriately – and for women to risk being seen as unsporting if they complained about it.

And I’m very grateful that these kinds of language and behaviours – if not entirely eradicated – are at least widely acknowledged to be unacceptable and punishable in law.

Now we’ve reached 2019, most organisations quite rightly abhor discrimination in all its forms.

Today is International Women’s Day. I’m sure my friend’s husband is thrilled about it. But if we all know discrimination is wrong, why do we still have gender pay gaps, woefully small numbers of women on boards and very few women in leadership roles generally?

I think it’s because we may have dealt discrimination a blow. But what we’re left with is disadvantage – and this is something that can be harder for organisations to tackle.

Disadvantage is when someone – again, because of things like their age, gender, ethnicity, orientation, social class or disability – is side-lined. Not because the person side-lining them is a horrible human being. But because that person has been conditioned to believe, for example, that white, middle-class men are better suited to leadership, responsibility and higher-paid roles.

This conditioning is the baggage of upbringing and societal experience. And then on top of that, unconscious biases galvanise these unexamined beliefs. The biases act as shortcuts to rational thinking – and they can lead all of us to favour what we know, what we’ve already seen working, and even to favour people who are more like us.

So middle-class white men think other middle-class white men are best. Women might also automatically think that some roles aren’t for them. And business consultants observing this behaviour might (and have) said: “Ah, women just aren’t playing the game well enough. They’re simply reluctant to put themselves forward. This isn’t the organisation’s fault – women just need to man up a bit.”

Organisations and society more generally suffer as a result. (There is tons of evidence to show that more diverse and inclusive organisations are more productive, more innovative and more successful.)

But while addressing discrimination is of course necessary, it’s never going to level the playing field on its own. Tackling disadvantage is the next step for all organisations who want to grow and become more productive.