To help others reach their career goals, use your privilege for good
People in positions of power need to get comfortable with discomfort and actively work to break down barriers for those who are disenfranchised
After graduating and starting my career years ago, I quickly realized two things as I entered the business world. The first was that it was not a level playing field. Most of my colleagues were white, male and from a financially comfortable background – as am I. The second realization was that I had skills, connections and experience that could help others, both individually and organizationally. I think that we all want to make the world a better place, but many of us don’t realize the many actionable ways we can work toward that.
Recent years have been marked by social movements that challenge injustice and seek to empower systemically disenfranchised people, in Canada and beyond. Anyone working in career development has felt the impact of movements like Idle No More, MeToo and Black Lives Matter. Many of us have changed our policies, updated our hiring practices and evolved our organizational systems in light of what we’ve learned. This has made a positive impact in many ways, but it often overlooks the work we can do as individuals.
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Gatekeeping is a concept often understood as involving an active barrier: individuals in power refusing to respect and welcome people who are different. This is sometimes the case, but more often, the gate is simply closed and overlooked rather than being held shut. That is to say: if you’re not working actively holding the gate open for others, you’re maintaining the status quo of keeping it shut.
While the MeToo movement shone a needed spotlight on the levels of sexual harassment in many workplaces, many men have not learned the right lessons. Instead of actively fostering safe workspaces, they’ve retreated from working closely with women at all. A 2019 survey from Lean In showed that “60% of managers who are men are uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman” and “36% of men say they’ve avoided mentoring or socializing with a woman because they were nervous about how it would look.” In some ways, bringing awareness to social inequities has resulted in people in privileged positions avoiding getting involved in fixing these issues.
It concerns me to see people with the power to make change instead choose to disengage because of their discomfort and uncertainty. Discomfort is natural when recognizing inequity and realizing how you may have benefitted from different dimensions of privilege, but disengaging is a choice.
There are many ways to decide to engage with the issues and leverage privilege to make a difference, and they don’t require special skills or knowledge. For example, you can become a champion for any workplace initiatives in diversity, equity and inclusion. This may be volunteering for mentoring programs, participating in new employee orientations, joining volunteer committees or other ways of getting involved in existing programs. When doing so, be sure to make space for voices that aren’t often heard and respect the lived experiences of people facing systemic barriers. Most medium-to-large workplaces have one or more diversity, equity and inclusion programs, and smaller workplaces that may not yet have such programs can often be more nimble in creating and adopting them. You don’t have to start on your own; you can be a part of something with your team.
“Discomfort is natural when recognizing inequity and realizing how you may have benefitted from different dimensions of privilege, but disengaging is a choice.”
If you feel like your understanding of social issues limits you, take that as a sign to expand your learning. Many free or easily accessible resources exist to help you along this journey. For example, at Electricity Human Resources Canada, we’ve developed Illuminate Opportunity: Equity in the Workplace, a free digital toolkit anyone can use to bring mindfulness and action to diversity, equity and inclusion in their workplace. Many other books and tools are available, often created by people who have experienced barriers, and you can quickly build your confidence to get involved by learning from them.
There are charities and non-profits in any city that could also benefit from your skills and experience. You could be formally involved by joining a board or committee, or casually, by making yourself available when needed. By being available and supportive to one of these organizations, you can provide pathways to success for youth, newcomers to Canada and other groups.
That being said, you don’t have to go through a formal program or organization to make a difference. Mentoring can be a rewarding and impactful experience. Whether it’s junior employees, students or recent grads of your alma mater, or members of networking groups, there is no shortage of people who could benefit from your experience. When you have opportunities to be a mentor, you can look for mentees who haven’t benefitted from the same privileges you have enjoyed. Not only will you provide a helping hand, you also have an opportunity to listen and learn from someone who has lived a different life from your own.
The challenges of inequity in our organizations and society can seem overwhelming, but when we endeavour to make a positive contribution, we can start by taking small but meaningful steps toward change. You don’t have to be an expert in a new field; you only have to be willing to share your expertise in a way that will maximize the impact for others. As career development professionals, we know that success is measured in more ways than titles and salaries; I challenge you to explore ways that you can redefine success as helping others have an equitable chance at accomplishing their career goals.
Alex Hosselet is a marketing and business professional with over 10 years of experience in organizations, including tech start-ups, agency consulting and non-profits. He is the Marketing and Communications Manager at Electricity Human Resources Canada, a non-profit that serves the human resources needs of Canada’s electricity sector.
Electricity Human Resources Canada. (n.d.). Illuminate opportunity: Equity in the workplace. electricityhr.ca/workplace-solutions/diversity-inclusion/illuminate-opportunity/
LeanIn. (2019). Working relationships in the #MeToo era. leanin.org/sexual-harassment-backlash-survey-results