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Systemic Discrimination in the Workplace: Causes and Solutions

Systemic Discrimination in the Workplace: Causes and Solutions

It's no secret that systemic discrimination exists in the workplace. But what are its causes, and what can be done to address them? This article will explore those questions and offer some solutions. By creating a more equitable work environment, we can all benefit from a more productive, engaged workforce.

What Are the Forms of Workplace Discrimination?

Discrimination in the workplace can take may take different shapes and forms, however, the most common ones are direct and indirect discrimination, victimization, harassment, intentional and unintentional, and reverse discrimination. Another prevalent form is systemic discrimination - we will discuss it in this article.

What Is Systemic Discrimination in the Workplace?

Systemic discrimination, also called institutionalized discrimination, refers to an ongoing organization's policies, systems, or practices that seem to be neutral at a first glance but may have a discriminatory outcome on people based on a protected group, such as age, race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on.

How Can Systemic Discrimination Occur in the Workplace?

There are many reasons why a workplace may have policies or practices that treat a particular group of employees unfairly. Here are a few:

In-group bias

People often feel more generous and welcoming towards those who share their interests, values, or experiences. For example, people tend to be friendlier with other in-group members than outsiders. This means we may treat people from outside our social circle less favorably because they don't understand us.


The US has a strained history when it comes to racial disparities, and this is largely due to residential segregation. This separation kept black people separate from white, while also preventing mixing between the groups, leading to racial discrimination.

In 19th century Britain, working-class men were threatened by the growing number of women and children in the workforce. They began to advocate for protective laws that would limit the work that women and children could do to maintain dominance at work. These laws ultimately served to reinforce gender and class divisions in the workforce.

Media and culture

The media often portrays minorities in a negative light, perpetuating the false belief that they are somehow less worthy or capable than the majority group. This can lead to real-world discrimination, as people treat minorities poorly based on their false beliefs about them.

The media also tends to focus on the differences between groups rather than the things that we have in common. This “Us vs. Them” mindset can fuel animosity and hatred between groups, leading to discrimination.


While it may seem counterintuitive, passivism can actually contribute to systemic discrimination. When individuals passively allow discriminatory behaviors to go unchallenged, they are effectively condoning those behaviors.

Moreover, by remaining passive in the face of discrimination, individuals send the message that they are powerless to stop the mistreatment. This can further embolden those who engage in discriminatory behaviors, leading to a vicious cycle of abuse.

Examples of Systemic Discrimination in the Workplace

Systemic workplace discrimination is a type of discrimination that is built into the policies, practices, and procedures of an organization. It can have a disparate impact on certain groups and can prevent employees from having an equal opportunity to thrive.

EEOC lists some of the common examples of systemic discrimination at work.

Fetal protection policies

Many companies have fetal protection policies, that typically restrict or prohibit working conditions that could pose a risk to a developing fetus. For example, a pregnant woman might be barred from working with hazardous materials or working in an environment where she would be exposed to loud noise. While such policies are designed to safeguard the health of both mother and child, they can also have a significant impact on the careers of pregnant women.

Mandatory Religious Practices

For example, an employer may require employees to pray together at the start of each workday or participate in religious education classes. Forcing employees to participate in religious practices can make them feel like they are being discriminated against. Additionally, if an employee does not want to participate in religious practice, it can make them feel uncomfortable and ostracized by their co-workers.

Protected characteristic waivers

It's not unusual for employees to be asked to sign a waiver of liability for their protected characteristics. While these waivers may seem like a simple way to protect the company from lawsuits, they can actually do more harm than good. For one thing, they can create an environment of fear and mistrust, as employees may feel that they can't speak up about discrimination or harassment for fear of losing their job.

Mandatory retirement layoffs

While mandatory retirement layoff policies are not currently illegal, they may be discriminatory. Such rules, age-based limits and layoffs often disproportionately impact older workers, who may have more difficulty finding new employment. Moreover, mandatory retirements can force workers to leave before they are ready, leading to financial insecurity in retirement.

Culture of silence

In recent years, the Me Too movement has shone a light on the problem of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. While this is an issue that affects people of all genders, women are disproportionately affected by unwelcome sexual advances and systemic discrimination. This is often compounded by the fact that women are often expected to stay silent about discrimination of a sexual nature in order to maintain their jobs or protect their careers.

National origin and ethnic background discrimination

Nearly 60% of American workers are in occupations that are segregated by race or ethnicity. For example, African Americans are disproportionately represented in low-wage jobs, while Asians are more likely to work in high-wage professions. Segregated occupations often provide few opportunities for networking or mentorship, which can make it difficult for members of minority groups to advance in their careers.

How Do You Identify Systemic Discrimination in the Workplace?

There are various types of discriminatory policies that can signal systemic discrimination. Here are some of them:

  • Discriminatory patterns of hiring and promotion. For example, if you notice that most of the employees in management positions are white men, while women and people of color are disproportionately represented in lower-paying jobs, this could be a sign of systemic discrimination.
  • Segregated work environments. Employees from different groups are isolated from each other instead of being integrated. For example, segregating people in job assignments based on their gender or race.
  • Consistent passing over for promotions. If qualified and experienced employees feel that they are being consistently passed over for promotions due to their race, gender, or other protected characteristic, they may have grounds for a systemic discrimination claim.
  • Marginalization or exclusion from social activities. When employees of protected groups are left out of important conversations, excluded from after-work events, or otherwise treated as outsiders, it could be a sign of systemic discrimination.

How To Prevent Systemic Discrimination in the Workplace

To prevent systemic discrimination in the workplace, take these steps:

  • Review your practices. This can involve reviewing the employee handbook, HR professionals' practices, and other policies to ensure there are no discriminatory practices that could impact protected classes. This is the first thing organizations can do to prevent systemic discrimination.
  • Use data analysis. Conduct analyses to make sure that your hiring policies and numbers are fair by comparing them with other organizations in your industry. This can include data on applications received from underrepresented groups, as well as the number of hires and promotions.
  • Provide training. Educate other employees about stereotyping and prejudice in the workplace. After a race discrimination incident in Starbucks, they closed all its stores for one day to train their employees about unconscious racial biases and to foster empathy. Doing this regularly could prevent systemic discrimination altogether.
  • Consult an employment lawyer. Speak with a lawyer and get familiar with anti-discrimination laws, such as the Equal Pay Act, Disabilities Act, Employment Act, and the Civil Rights Act. This is necessary for making sure the measures you have introduced are correct and fair.

How Do You Address Systemic Discrimination in the Workplace?

It is only through sustained attention and initiative that organizations can effectively combat discrimination. Here are some necessary steps you need to take in addressing systemic discrimination:

  • Examine your own bias. We all have unconscious biases that can influence our decision-making. Be aware of your own bias and how it might be affecting your interactions with others.
  • Identify patterns of systemic discrimination. Gather evidence and engage in a dialogue with employees affected by the issue. This can be done by providing avenues for employees to anonymously report incidents, and by regularly emphasizing that discrimination of any kind will not be tolerated.
  • Create an open-door policy. Management should make an effort to get to know their employees and create an open-door policy so that anyone who feels they’ve been the victim of discrimination feels comfortable coming forward.
  • Introduce systemic enforcement of remedies. Redesign systems that create a discriminatory workplace culture and implement new policies to promote inclusion and diversity. It is important to create an environment in which employees feel comfortable reporting discriminatory practices. This can be done by introducing systemic enforcement of anti-discrimination policies and procedures and making sure that employees are aware of them.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Systemic Discrimination Intentional?

Systemic discrimination can be intentional, as when laws or policies explicitly favor one group over another, or it can be unintentional - the result of unconscious bias or history, for example.

There could be policies and practices in place that encourage physical ability, national origin, sexual orientation, or age discrimination, without employers being aware of it.

Regardless of its origins, systemic discrimination can have a profound and negative impact on those who are subjected to it and always results in a toxic organizational culture.

Is Systematic Discrimination Illegal?

Systemic discrimination is illegal both in the US and the UK. There are certain laws under which systemic discrimination is unlawful, such as the Equal Pay Act, the Civil Rights Act (in the US), and Equality Act (in the UK).

If an employee is experiencing systemic discrimination at work, they can try reporting it to their seniors, filing complaints in their workplace, or contacting Acas (UK) or EEOC (US) for further advice.

What Is the Difference Between Discrimination and Systemic Discrimination?

Discrimination refers to the unfair or unequal treatment of individuals based on their belonging to a particular group.

Systemic discrimination, on the other hand, is enshrined in the laws, institutions, and practices of a society. It can be harder to identify and eradicate than individual acts of discrimination because it often operates on a subconscious level.

For example, consider the issue of gender inequality. Even in societies where women have achieved formal equality under the law, they may still face disparate treatment in areas such as education, employment, and political participation. This is because gender inequality is not just a matter of individual attitudes; it is also ingrained in many of the systems and structures that make up our society.

Where Can Systemic Discrimination Occur?

Systemic discrimination exists anywhere there is a system in place that gives one group of people an advantage over another. This can happen in education, employment, housing, and even within government institutions.

Systemic discrimination has been a problem for years, both in the workplace and outside of it. Though it is slowly being addressed, more work needs to be done to eliminate it. However, change will not happen overnight. It is important to continue raising awareness about this issue and working together to find solutions for it.

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