There are many characteristics of people which, in any given social context, tend to confer advantages or disadvantages (which we will refer to as ‘privileges’ or ‘penalties’). These privileges and penalties are not simply subjective: they can be objectively measured in unequal access to things most people value – such as employment, health, influential positions, earnings, goods and services. This is one reason why equality monitoring is so important.
Guided by the legislation, which in turn came into being through movements for social justice, in the UK today we are used to focusing on just 9 aspects of diversity – the aptly named ‘protected characteristics’. Codifying diversity in this way has many advantages, but it also has disadvantages. Among these is the pull to prioritise some aspects of diversity above all others. We also get lazy, falling back on “Well, the law says so…” when all else fails. Headlining certain characteristics tends to veil the fact that in real life there a wide range of characteristics, including finer aspects of the ‘big 9’ characteristics, which people actually experience as conferring privilege or penalty. In addition, as noted earlier, what characteristics confer penalty or privilege is context-dependent. For example, having dyslexia may result in considerable penalties for a child in a school with strict competitive spelling tests, but may not even figure as a marker of status among competitors in a ‘gardens in flower’ competition.
The Equality Academy’s work has always taken the protected characteristics (previously ‘diversity strands’) seriously as indicators of relative privilege or penalty. However, we increasingly realise that over-reliance on the law and a legalistic paradigm tends to create a hierarchy of diversity which makes some people – and their experiences – effectively invisible. Take, for example, ‘status indicators’ such as financial wealth, urban or rural location, functional literacy, or the increasingly stigmatised characteristic of body size. The Equality Act has nothing direct to say about what are arguably very important contemporary markers of social status. Yet these, and many other, characteristics are very important to people’s lived experience – and to their perceived and actual opportunities. In organisational cultures, for example, status indicators can be things like type of humour, management style, or willingness to work excessive hours. In specific contexts these can ‘trump’ more obvious characteristics, such as colour and sex – hence, a woman, or visible minority person able to display ‘higher status’ styles may in some contexts have an advantage over a man, or visible majority, individual.
A deeper understanding of equality must embrace the context-specific lived experience of inclusion and exclusion, penalty and privilege, so as to reflect people’s realities more directly. We must also seek to understand the historical, psychological and institutional factors, habits and culture in each context we work in, which tend to include or exclude certain types of people, what those types are, and how a more empowering relationship among people can be achieved.
Unless we diversify our idea of diversity, and learn to name the characteristics in each specific context that tend to confer privilege and penalty, we cannot bring experience and theory closer together. And the vision of a world in which diverse people are able to realise their full potential, access the the things they need and make ther full contribution, could remain forever a dream.