The old proverb about teaching people to fish so they can eat for a lifetime, rather than gifting a fish that lasts just a day, also applies to how organizations can empower, rather than merely help, disadvantaged groups.
There has been a remarkable surge in diversity initiatives at companies, fueled by belief in the benefits of a diverse workforce and the collective fight against discrimination. As organizations strive to build inclusive workplaces, they often try to tackle overt discrimination and negative stereotypes against disadvantaged groups.
Yet these well-intentioned efforts often include a key oversight: Many DEI initiatives are founded on the flawed assumption that disadvantaged groups are helpless without assistance from those in power. Such protectionist beliefs give rise to the frequently overlooked yet deeply concerning phenomenon of benevolent marginalization, whereby good intentions can lead to harm.
Benevolent marginalization occurs when a dominant group paternalistically controls a weaker or marginalized group while portraying their actions as supportive and in solidarity with that group. Behind the façade of well-intentioned actions aimed at uplifting marginalized groups, a subtle power imbalance persists. Managers may even expect gratitude for their affectionate and helpful efforts, while those who are marginalized find themselves pressured into accepting or internalizing the subordinating order as the norm and even expressing gratitude in return.
Our analysis draws upon over a decade of extensive research conducted in diverse contexts. We utilized interviews, archival documents, and observations of individuals navigating subtle forms of marginalization. We also examined the pivotal role of internal activists and managers who actively support and become allies to overcome benevolent marginalization.
Subtle Discrimination Perpetuates Gender Inequality
Benevolent marginalization manifests as subtle discrimination that impacts various groups and makes them unlikely to intervene or dissent, thereby hindering their advancement and perpetuating organizational inequality.
Imagine the scenario of benevolent sexism. Despite the decline of overtly sexist attitudes, women still face subtle forms of discrimination that may contribute to their underrepresentation in executive positions. Women are often stereotyped as the “weaker sex” needing chivalrous protection, but this seemingly favorable treatment conceals male dominance and can have negative consequences. When women are shielded from challenging assignments at work, for example, it inadvertently encourages stereotypes and fosters self-doubt, ultimately hampering their professional performance.
In a three-year study examining benevolent sexism, we took a closer look at women-only networking initiatives. These initiatives, touted as essential components of diversity guidelines within organizations, are often devised by male managers to assist women. However, women frequently perceive them as a superficial attempt or mere tokenism aimed at fulfilling diversity quotas and creating a facade of inclusivity. Many such initiatives place the burden of overcoming gender disparities on women, often treating them as a homogenous group while failing to address the underlying systemic bias that fuels gender inequality. Paradoxically, in our study, these women frequently found themselves obligated to participate in such initiatives, only to experience feelings of patronization and occasional polite dismissal. They also encountered instances of “mansplaining,” where men condescendingly or patronizingly explain the intricacies of networking, assuming women to have lesser or inferior knowledge of the subject. These experiences can result in women feeling disillusioned and disengaged from such initiatives.
Yet, 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. As a result, women can gain a sense of empowerment and find their voices to collectively combat gender inequality head-on.
“Ableist Assumptions” Hinder Efforts to Help Workers with Disabilities
Let us explore another compelling example: benevolent ableism, which refers to well-intentioned but problematic behaviors such as pity, protectiveness, and patronization toward employees with disabilities. Managers, guided by ableist assumptions, often impose their own definitions of disability, attempting to create “inclusive” environments that reinforce ableist norms in organizations.
In our longitudinal study of sheltered workshops, published in the Academy of Management Journal, disabled workers report that many inclusion initiatives at work are based on power imbalances rooted in pity. Sheltered workshops provide employment to disabled workers in segregated facilities with limited exposure to the broader public under the guise of care and protection. We show that well-intentioned managers often devise inclusion initiatives based on simplified assumptions that all workers with disabilities share identical needs of help and assistance — a paternalistic or even infantilizing approach that perpetuates inequality.
However, a transformational moment may occur when these managers confront their own fallibility, let go of their defensive positions, abandon their patronizing behaviors, and provide opportunities to people with disabilities to bring out their untapped potential. This requires a change in communication from telling to listening and a change in behavior to promote inclusive practices.
One example of a patronizing initiative in this context involved assigning jobs that could be carried out within the confines of the sheltered workshop, limiting public engagement. These jobs encompassed 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. This experience was a moment of epiphany that boosted workers’ confidence in their abilities to perform tasks they had never envisioned or been given the responsibility to perform. Managers also realized that they had unwittingly stifled the potential of some of these workers while trying to be protective and creating a secluded environment. This shift marked a profound turning point as managers transitioned from guardians to true allies of workers with disabilities.
Three Key Strategies to Tackle Benevolent Marginalization at Work
In creating inclusive workplaces, managers need to invest time and resources in understanding and dismantling benevolent marginalization to ensure that equality in organizations becomes more than just a buzzword.
After studying this phenomenon across diverse settings, we present three key insights that serve as tools for managers aiming to go beyond good intentions:
1. Shift your perspective from help to empowerment.
In the pursuit of creating inclusive workplaces, the traditional approach of providing help can unintentionally reinforce unequal power dynamics. Managers must view disadvantaged individuals as equal colleagues. However, this is often easier said than done. Our findings reveal that practitioners may resist change, seeking to preserve deeply entrenched structures and the benefits they bring.
Instead, managers need to call out and confront such resistance to pave the way to a profound shift from protectionism toward self-determination and empowerment. This requires introspection that can prompt managers to scrutinize and challenge their own paternalistic assumptions and biases. Managers must recognize and address the often-hidden power dynamics at play when interacting with people with whom they have a significant power differential. Building trust, actively listening, and gaining awareness of the emotions behind their behaviors are crucial steps. Seeking candid feedback from colleagues, mentors, or coaches about one’s paternalistic behaviors is vital for self-reflection, sensitization, and remediation. Lastly, it is important to display empathy toward marginalized perspectives, even when they differ from one’s own, and refrain from making decisions on their behalf, regardless of good intentions.
2. Harness allies in non-managerial roles.
Effectively addressing benevolent marginalization across an organization means tailoring initiatives that align with the unique interests of disadvantaged individuals. However, doing so requires the help of others beyond managers or designated diversity officers.
It is critical to leverage the power of intermediaries, such as support staff, close colleagues, and friends, who are closer to the experiences and challenges faced by their marginalized peers. Identifying and designating these allies involves seeking out individuals who are known to have actively supported marginalized communities. One way to select these allies is by letting marginalized groups participate in anonymous voting. This allows them to choose and elect individuals they trust and believe in as champions of inclusion based on their proven dedication and commitment. For example, at the sheltered workshop, workers with disabilities were given the opportunity to vote for their allies, who subsequently collaborated with management to improve inclusion initiatives. This approach is also seen in academia, where committees are frequently selected through voting to represent the interests of junior or disadvantaged faculty members.
Organizations also need to recognize and reward allies who actively contribute to creating an inclusive environment. Managers can implement allyship programs or resource groups that offer tailored training and toolkits for allies, equipping them with the necessary skills to support marginalized peers. This comprehensive guidance should address issues such as identifying invisible bias, uncovering instances of benevolent marginalization, and actively advocating for and amplifying the voices of marginalized peers in their day-to-day interactions and decision-making processes. More generally, organizations can establish confidential feedback channels or suggestion boxes where support staff and colleagues can provide input on potential improvements to policies and practices to avoid paternalistic behaviors. By regularly reviewing and taking action based on this feedback, organizations demonstrate their commitment to “walk the talk” on inclusivity.
3. Create supportive spaces by handing over responsibilities to disadvantaged individuals.
Overcoming benevolent marginalization requires the creation of both formal and informal supportive or “safe” spaces in the workplace where marginalized groups can freely express themselves and expose behaviors they perceive as paternalistic or patronizing. However, it is not enough to unite marginalized employees in, say, an employee resource group (ERG) and expect them to form an empowering collective without further support. True inclusion demands a recognition of the diverse experiences and unique needs of everyone within these spaces, and these individuals must have the choice to shape these spaces themselves.
Organizations must relinquish control and hand over the reins to disadvantaged individuals to shape their own professional lives. By doing so, organizations can become confidence-building, encouraging, and inspiring environments to challenge the status quo and overcome existing paternalistic norms.
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Building effective diversity programs can be a challenging endeavor, especially when hidden barriers hinder progress despite the best intentions. While by no means exhaustive, these three evidence-based strategies offer a solid starting point for advancing true inclusion. Shifting perspectives from help to empowerment, identifying hidden allies, and handing over responsibilities to create supportive spaces are crucial steps toward giving a platform to those who have long felt silenced or not listened to and creating a workplace where everyone feels heard and valued.