Shining a light on Privilege

Jess and Razia, Directors of the Equality Academy have been in the business of equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) professionally for a combined total of 45 years, and personally for two mature lifetimes – long enough to begin to notice the habitual behaviour of our ‘industry’ and long enough to scrutinise this in order to challenge ourselves to learn and grow.

One habit we have decided to challenge in ourselves is very prevalent not just among ED&I consultants, but in society at large: the habit of depicting ED&I as mainly a problem of disadvantage. No doubt, barriers to equality of access, glass ceilings, unconscious bias and discriminatory practices are a big part of the problem to be solved. However, a focus on the deficit experienced by people who are wittingly or unwittingly excluded or marginalised is only half the story. The other half is the story of advantage or, put another way, the story of the privilege enjoyed by those who are neither marginalised nor excluded, and in whose hands the majority of resources, power and influence sits.

Reality is complex: each of us has many facets to our embodied identity and our lived experience in the world. And for the vast majority, these involve some aspects which confer privileges and others which confer disadvantages, or what we might call penalties. There are very few people indeed who experience no significant social penalties for the majority of their lives. Our privileges and penalties can change significantly over a lifetime – not only because we age, or move from one place to another, where the diversity landscape is different – but also because society itself changes: being a Muslim in the UK in 1975 was a significantly different experience to that same identity today. Being a disabled person in the 1970s was a significantly different matter to being disabled in in 2019 – and yet in both cases there are also significant continuities as well.

Just to be clear, the privileges and penalties we are referring to are those which are the result simply of who we are, not anything we have done to deserve or earn them. They are, therefore, impersonal, and not a reflection upon our character.

In the ED&I world, we often stress disadvantage and exclusion, but rarely shine a light on privilege and how it comes about. Even our stats talk about deficit – how much less women get paid (not how much more men get paid); how under-represented Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people are at leadership level of our institutions in the UK (not how over-represented white British people are); how few disabled people are visible public figures in influential decision making positions or occupations (not how disproportionately non-disabled people dominate our public life as a society).

We know that diversity is an asset to all living systems, including organisations. To realise the prodigious potential of diversity, inclusion is indispensable. At the EA we focus on the problem of how to increase inclusion and diversity at all levels of a system or organisation. But even we rarely talk about the fundamental problem as being one of too much homogeneity, nor focus upon how that generates poor problem solving and prediction capabilities and reduces innovation and creativity.

As a result of these reflections, we intends to redress the balance by turning the habitual approach on its head – not to jettison the problem of penalties, but to shine a light also on the problem of homogeneity – and of the systemic privilege that helps bring it about.

As an inter-‘racial’ partnership heading a company devoted to diversity and inclusion, we are both aware that this is a socially and emotionally charged terrain, and we want to share the following principles with our readers:

The Equality Academy is devoted to conscious leadership in a diverse world, and is strongly committed to helping all kinds of people in many walks of life to grow more conscious of the complex personal and professional challenges of multi-faceted diversity, to become equipped to meet those challenges, and to become skilled and compassionate inclusive leaders forging a better way for their organisations and communities.


Razia Aziz

(May 2019)