Institutional does not mean everyone

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Written by Ambulance Voices founder, Bron Biddle.

Institutional: a word we keep hearing in the context of discrimination, and specifically misogyny and racism in workplaces. 

This is a blog, so to keep it simple, I would describe institutional discrimination as being mostly invisible, especially to those unaffected, but it’s in the air all around us, or ‘in the walls’, as a friend recently described it. Listening to lived experience of discrimination and giving those people a voice is a good place to start. 

There seems to be a perception that the admittance (and ultimately ownership) of institutional discrimination means that everyone dedicated to, and working within that institution are labelled racist or misogynist, which is NOT TRUE. The handful of Senior Leaders accepting the term ‘institutional’ in relation to the culture of their organisation are sometimes faced with anger from some of their employees and it’s important to understand this voice. Hardworking, loyal, feeling unheard, unseen, maybe experiencing other challenges at work (and home) themselves… hearing their employer say the words “institutional discrimination”, can hurt.

Some really do shoulder this personally and feel shame which is not the desired outcome for any senior leader. But things will only change, culture will only shift, if the problem, in its entirety, is accepted and the truth is owned with transparency. The mindset of victimhood, is a common barrier to cultural change but instead of ignoring it, shutting it down or hoping it goes away (it won’t)… we must take as many people as possible on a long journey, knowing that it’s not going to be easy for everyone and that there will be times where you will have to call it out, set the tone, and lead by example. The most powerful learning usually comes from a place of discomfort.

Senior leaders must communicate effectively with all stakeholders of their organisation to take as many people as possible with them. Addressing unconscious bias (which we all have) plays a huge part in how we can better notice discriminatory systems and behaviours in our workplaces.

What does institutional discrimination look like? Examples include, everyday banter (at work or online) that’s discriminatory in it’s nature, a lack of diversity but not positively disrupting this, recruiting in our own image, making people who raise the problem become the problem, rigid stereotyping, not dismantling ‘how we have always done things’ to improve inclusion and maybe the worse… staying silent which is complicity.

I applaud senior leaders who are listening, learning, unlearning, growing and bringing about positive change. They are navigating complex and deep rooted issues in the backdrop of turbulent politics, an increasingly inter-generational workforce and all the usual challenges facing public services.

So accepting institutional discrimination should not just be associated with shame, it should be seen as the starting point for improvement. This is about, a journey not a destination, clarity not ambiguity and most importantly, allies not passengers.