by Jo Freeman
This text is based on a lecture given frequently in the 1970s.
Discrimination can occur both individually and institutionally. Acts of individual discrimination are often both conscious and obvious. They can be dealt with by either removing the person who discriminates from any position where such actions are meaningful or by inducing the person to halt the behavior in question. Institutional discrimination is built into the structure itself. Thus it in more covert and more tenacious. It can occur regardless of the desires or intentions of the people perpetuating it.
Consequently, one must not ask what are the motives of the individuals involved but what are the results of their actions. Institutional discrimination is may easily seen statistically. If a particular group is disproportionately absent in comparison to the pool of those possessing the relevant skills, discrimination is occurring even if it is impossible to document specific individual instances. (Such discrimination may also be affecting the pool of available talent, but that requires action on a different level).
As institutional discrimination is built into the normal working relationships of institutions, its perpetuation requires only that people continue "business as usual." Its eradication requires much more than good will; it requires active review of the assumptions and practices by which the institution operates, and revision of those found to have discriminatory results. Such an operation cannot be approached casually; inevitably, extra effort is necessary.
Institutional discrimination begins with the recruitment process. Most jobs, especially the better ones, are not openly advertised. Knowledge of their existence is usually limited to friends and colleagues of those in power In the institutions, and in turn their friends and associates. Since such patterns of association tend to be homogenous, knowledge of job opportunities rarely gets to members of other groups. Even open advertisement may be limited in results if it is put in places of limited readership. Concomitantly, many jobs depend on recommendations; people are often reluctant to take the chance of recommending someone who might be thought "unacceptable" for whatever reason. To break these patterns, it is necessary not only to "open up" the recruitment process, but to actively seek members of previously excluded groups and work with their organizations to find competent applicants.
Once applicants have been found, other elements of institutional discrimination usually come into play. First of all, the qualifications actually necessary to perform a particular job are usually only a part of those necessary to get a job. One's compatibility, affinity, correspondence to an "institutional image," and general ability to "fit in" to the already existing social structure are often the actual criteria upon which selections are made. Test scores and degrees are other selectors which are not always valid measures of ability. As real qualifications are often hard to determine, these and other artificial criteria of selection are usually used in order to provide some logical basis for elimination. Those criteria in turn are rationalized as being reasonable ones and a certain investment is made in their continuation, Serious analysis must be made of what skills are actually necessary to perform a particular job and what are valid ways of determining them.
In jobs or promotions requiring interviews, problems of "style" often interfere with accurate perception of ability. Unless they have special training or sensitivity, it is difficult for most interviewers to escape their own social conditioning that members of many social groups are assumed to be inferior. The fact that members of such groups may have a style of life, speech, dress, action and even thought which differs from that of white middle-class men often creates "noise" which obscures real ability. Too often merit is confused with conformity to the personal standards of those already in positions of power.
Much institutional discrimination results from judgments made on secondary rather than primary characteristics. Race and sex may be consciously eliminated as concerns, but criteria such as educational background, employment history, supervisory experience, age, income, etc, which have been effected by group membership, can be effective substitutes. One must realize that people who have not had the same life-chances will not have the same life results.
It often happens that there are deficiencies between the qualifications of some applicants and those that the institution would like such applicants to possess. Sometimes these deficiencies are spurious; i.e. more stringent qualifications are in fact imposed on some applicants because there is a gut-level distrust of backgrounds different than the interviewer is familiar with. Or, when judgments are subjective, the interviewer will fail to see some abilities because they are not expected to be there. Often the unfortunate fact is that members of many groups have not had the opportunities to gain the experience or training felt to be desirable to perform a particular job. Here, more flexible standards are necessary, coupled with training programs to make up for any real deficiencies. Otherwise, institutional discrimination operates as a multiplier effect: opportunities denied on one level become resources lacking on another which in turn prevent one from gaining new opportunities, etc.
On the job itself, what one actually does may bear minimal resemblance to the official position description, yet it is the latter, not the former, on which pay and promotional opportunities are usually based. Secretaries may be doing the work of administrators, assistants the work of their bosses, helpers the foreman's job, or two workers substantially the same work for substantially different pays Although these "support" jobs may provide excellent training for assuming the occupations they support, they are usually dead end jobs. A secretary rarely replaces a departing boss, yet often is the only one capable of training a now one. It in frequently the case that there are duel employment structures in any institution with members of one always blocked from joining the other. Occupational hierarchies need to be examined both to determine the actual content of jobs and to remove barriers to mobility built into such hierarchies which serve to discriminate.
One must also take into account the effects of past discrimination. If some people historically only had access to one type of job, they may have acquired the skills but have not acquired the credentials to move to another in the future. Too, their skill development may have been retarded due to the limitations of the job they were in. Most institutions already contain a significant body of available personnel for whom opportunities have not been provided for advancement nor whose value has beer adequately assessed.
One major effect of past discrimination is that supervisors may have effectively discouraged some employees from thinking of themselves as having potential. Thus such employees do not apply for promotions or new lines because their self-confidence has been undermined or they are convinced that they have no chance. The patterns of encouragement and reinforcement operate so subtlety that they are difficult to discern. Their effects may be readily seen, however, in any hierarchy that gets more homogenous on the way up, with supervisors honestly claiming that some people are just more interested in advancement than others.
Institutions have great power to reward and penalize. They provide material goods, opportunities, resources, services, and psychological satisfactions. While these benefits are never distributed perfectly equitably, it has been declared contrary to public policy for them to be allocated on the basis of race, sex, religion or national origin. Since most institutions have been structured to discriminate in the past, the change in policy will not lead to a change in results unless there is also a change in the institutions, It is very easy to discriminate without really trying. It is very necessary to put in the required effort to stop.