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Structural Inequality:Applications of an Old Theory to New Organizational Challenges

Structural Inequality: Applications of an Old Theory to New Organizational Challenges

by BenjaminAlexander,Jr.[1]

Structural Inequality is an old theory with new applications in organizations throughout the world. In terms of specific linkages to the U.S. however, it is as American as cherry pie.

This is nation was founded in response to structural inequality (SI). If King George III had been able to apply the theory of SI to the issues of unrest and inequality that were growing in the American colonies, perhaps the U.S. would never have existed.

Although news of dissatisfaction among British subjects in America had been traveling to London for a number of years, the King had not responded in a timely and effective manner to the unrest that presaged the American Revolution. The reasons that the King had not anticipated this strong reaction, according to some historical accounts was because he was more concerned with the West Indian colonies which brought more income to the Crown through the production of sugar and rum. And perhaps he did not believe that a rag-tag assortment of poorly armed and untrained rebels could create a major challenge to one of the world’s greatest military powers.

He responded to the protests with draconian measures designed to shut the dissent down. As a result, loyal British subjects became traitors and revolutionaries, as they formed a new group known as Americans.

These new Americans immediately set up structures and systems of inequality that continue to influence societal practices and norms. The nation was created based on a political system and structures that created equality and advantage for some groups and inequality and disadvantage for others. Free, white adult men had rights and privileges that were not given to white adult men under indentured contracts, non-property holders, women, or the small number of freed persons of African ancestry.

The institution of legalized slavery continued for the majority of those of African ancestry. Native American indigenous groups had no rights along with immigrants of Asian countries who were initially welcomed in as a source of cheap labor and were later barred from immigration under the Chinese Exclusion Act. As the nation expanded its boundaries, groups from Mexico, who were annexed into newly acquired western and southwestern areas of the country, found themselves entering structures of inequality around citizenship, owning property, employment, education, justice, and participation in the political process. Over the years, these various groups found it necessary to unite in order to overcome the inequalities, which were imposed upon them.

SI exists in organizations as well as in society. It is generally understood to be bias that is built into organizational structures to the extent that certain groups will not have equal access or status with respect to rights, opportunities, and attributes associated with equality and success within that structure.

In terms of its origins, SI is a systems theory that emerged during the 1940s and 1950s as an alternative to the theories of inequality that prevailed at that time and continue to influence our thinking in the areas of diversity and inclusion.

The deficiency theory holds that certain groups experience continuing inequality because of their deficiencies which keep them from being able to assimilate into the mainstream. Examples of deficiencies could range from biological inferiority to cultural underdevelopment.

The bias theory holds that the inequality groups experience is based upon prejudiced beliefs and mindsets that are applied to members of disadvantaged groups.

Together, both theories represent a circular kind of thinking that fails to examine the impact of social and organizational structures upon the individuals in these groups. A major weakness in the deficiency theory is that the deficiencies identified were often caused by bias against the group thought to be deficient. Similarly with the bias theory, the mindsets and stereotypes, which support the existence of bias are grounded in and reinforced by perceptions of deficiency.

For example, there is the landmark sex discrimination case involving a woman who worked in a high-pressure brokerage environment (Price Waterhouse v Hopkins 490.US 228) who was not promoted to partner because she was not “feminine” enough. She was told that she needed to talk, walk, dress, and groom herself more like a woman. It was even suggested that she “take a charm school course.” Yet she had risen to the highest levels of the organization based on behaviors shared with her male co-workers (e.g. aggressive, outspoken) that were now being viewed negatively based on stereotypes of what women should and should not do.

The SI theory offers an alternative to general assumptions about discrimination, bias, and prejudice. It recognizes that individuals often act out the cultural beliefs that institutionalize feelings of privilege and practices of entitlement. By shifting the focus from individual actions and responses to examining how groups are impacted by structures which advantage some while disadvantaging others, the SI theory offers an objective and pragmatic approach to solving complex and emotionally-charged organizational problems.

The SI theory has direct application to organizational development and change initiatives. In most organizations there are numerous macro and micro inequities that are not covered by law or policy and yet have a significant impact on organizational functioning and success. Diversity and inclusion (or D&I) initiatives (along with Human Resources (HR), equal employment opportunity (EEO), and affirmative action) attempt to eliminate or lessen the impact of these inequities which cause people to feel ignored, disrespected, undermined, or otherwise negatively impacted as a result of an intrinsic characteristic or group identity.

Diversity consists of the similarities and differences that make up the organization’s workforce, customers, executive leadership and various publics (e.g. stakeholders). Diversity refers to the unique combination of groups with their inherent similarities and differences, which comprise an organization or a system. !ese groups can be those frequently referenced by the larger society (e.g. race, gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, geographical region, religion, economic status, etc.) as well as those created by organizational culture and distinctions (e.g. occupations/ titles, credentials, corporate/plant, salaried/hourly, etc.).

Inclusion is a term that is occasionally coupled or even used interchangeably with diversity; however, they are different. Inclusion refers to a sense of belonging, or making people feel valued, acknowledged, and essential to the success of the organization. Diversity and inclusion initiatives recognize and respond to the unique combination of cultural and workforce diversity dynamics unique to each organization in order to ensure that the workforce, customers, and other stakeholders feel valued, respected, and included. This translates into productivity and profitability through attracting and retaining a talented workforce, anticipating and satisfying customer needs, and fostering creativity and innovation.

There are some important links between SI and D&I. While both are concerned with how individuals and groups interact with others within a system, SI focuses upon the way in which the structures within a system have created advantage and equality for some groups and disadvantage and inequality for others. !is distinction helps illuminate the organizational cultural dynamics that impact the relationships that are critical to success. It also eliminates the analysis from emphasizing who is right and who are wrong or identifying victims (deficiency theory) and perpetrators (bias theory). SI examines the structures operating within the organization and determines the extent to which they may be associated with actual or potential disadvantage for any specific group. SI is not limited to groups by the organization for purposes of compliance (e.g., women, members of minority groups, individuals with disabilities, etc.).

For example, a scientific organization was having difficulty in resolving recurring discrimination complaints filed by African-American and Hispanic women, many who were members of the organization’s support staff.

The organization believed that there was no clear and convincing evidence of race and sex discrimination that would support the allegations of race and gender bias and was concerned that employees continued to insist upon #ling these complaints.

The results of the inquiry revealed that the same patterns of dissatisfaction existed among other non-scientist employees who were not African-American or Hispanic women. The only difference was that the women who were minority group members had chosen to express their dissatisfaction through the discrimination complaints process. !e situation was not based on race, as it had initially seemed, rather it revolved around the experiences of non-scientist employees (reflecting all races and genders) who felt that they were not given the levels of respect and inclusion that were appropriate for the contributions that they made to the success of the organization. In many cases, they felt that they were disrespected by not having their work acknowledged, not being included in meetings where their presence and expertise may have been useful, and generally not treated as if they were “members of the team.”

By identifying and addressing the structural inequality that existed in the treatment and experiences of employees who felt disadvantaged and disrespected in a structure that seemed to only value scientists, the organization was able to recognize and take action to lessen the disadvantage through higher levels of inclusion and respect for all employees. !e concept of structural inequality became a tool for helping the organization improve its effectiveness while meeting its legal requirements around dealing with discrimination complaints and taking appropriate corrective action to correct practices and conditions which may lead to the reality or perception of unlawful discrimination.

As a result of this new awareness, organizational managers ensured that support staff members were included in meetings and had an opportunity to influence decisions that impacted their jobs. Open door policies were instituted for the purpose exchanging information and resolving problems. Leaders modeled and held staff accountable for exhibiting the kinds of respect for everyone’s contribution that they agreed should be part of the new culture that was being established.

The contributions of non-scientists were described in the organization’s newsletter and acknowledged in its awards ceremonies for the first time. In taking these actions, the organization shifted the focus from anti- discrimination to diversity and inclusion, by improving relationships through higher levels of inclusion, respectful communication and recognition.

SI theory is highly useful in examining policies, practices, and working conditions from the perspective of what groups may be experiencing advantage, disadvantage, or unequal treatment. Organizational examples include: Recognizing the need to change cultural and historical practice of having early morning breakfast meetings given that more women entered the executive levels and more men had parenting responsibilities, both which conflicted with this practice; Understanding that a global, multi-national organization has to recognize and respect holidays different from those typically celebrated in U.S. culture and shifting expectations accordingly; Providing vegetarian and other religiously-mandated meal options in the organization’s cafeteria or dining room in order to recognize and meet the needs of a significant population; And establishing private, sanitary areas for nursing mothers to pump and store milk.

The following steps are offered as a way of applying this theory in the current environment, which emphasizes making D&I initiatives an integral part of HR and EEO program efforts. It offers a new way of addressing organizational structures and systemic practices, which contribute to inequity and exclusion in the workplace. In the first step, identify the problem. Are there recurring expressions of dissatisfaction or inequity? Can they be attributed to unequal status in relationship to other categories of people? In the next step, determine the cause, practice, or driving force behind the problem. It may be caused through a confluence of unequal relations in roles, functions, decisions, rights, or opportunities. Thirdly, determine what the impact of the practice is or structure on the group(s) and on the organization. How does it affect productivity, teamwork or customer satisfaction? Next, ask what steps can be taken to lessen the inequality. What is the consequence of taking no action? And lastly, how can propose actions be leveraged in terms of overall HR, EEO, and strategic management goals? To what extent will proposed solutions create the appearance or reality of inequality to others?

SI is an old theory that has new applications in the current environment, which emphasizes making D&I initiatives an integral part of HR and EEO program efforts. It offers a new way of looking at organizational structures and systemic practices, which contribute to inequity and exclusion. SI can be a powerful intervention as diversity and inclusion becomes the driving force behind HR and EEO initiatives to create inclusive workplaces that are free from discrimination and other unlawful practices and responsive to all groups within the organization.


[1]Ben Alexander is a senior partner with Alexander Consulting & Training, Inc. (ACT). Since its founding in 1982, ACT has carried out HR, EEO, workforce diversity, and organizational leadership training and consulting projects in private and public sector organizations in the U.S. and in Canada and Mexico.

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