Do Subtle Discrimination and Social Justice Belong in Leadership Development Programs?

Mary Rowe, ombudsperson at MIT argues that subtle discrimination is the primary scaffolding for segregation in the U.S., a scaffolding that maintains inequality through micro-inequities–small, ephemeral, covert events that marginalize historically disadvantaged groups. She writes about how micro-inequities come to her attention everyday:

I hear of racist and anti-gay graffiti, of ethnic jokes in a lab, of someone failing to introduce a minority person, or confusing the names of two people of color I hear of someone ascribing the work or idea of a woman to a nearby male, of people who think exclusively of male contacts when a job or coveted assignment is open, of someone’s obvious discomfort at being assigned to travel with a woman or a person of another race. I hear of women who take a different path to class because of a man who seems to hang around on the path. I hear of a minority employee not notified of a vital matter at work. I hear of a woman trainee assigned to a certain office she did not want to be in, ‘because the man in that office was lonely and wanted to be assigned with a woman.’

Are these issues that leaders need to know about? Are the dynamics of subtle discrimination a subject for leadership development programs?

A thought-provoking new report on leadership and race entitled “How to Develop and Support Leadership that Contributes to Racial Justice” has just been issued by the Leadership Learning Community. The report suggests the leadership programs that simply focus upon diversity practices, equal opportunity, and individualism, do not recognize how systems such as culture, institutional practices, and policies, impact career and life opportunities for disadvantaged groups. A revealing chart in the report indicates that almost 90 percent of the 122 institutional leadership programs surveyed address diversity, but only half include training on structural racism and white privilege. An even smaller number (a little over 30 percent) include GLBTQ concerns.

Why does this matter? Should structural considerations relating to racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, classism, and other forms of exclusion be included in our leadership development programs? Should we not simply continue to talk about the value of diversity without addressing the systems that perpetuate social stratification within our institutions and organizations?

These questions remain controversial. It is easier to focus upon general discussions of diversity and multi-culturalism without delving into the difficult problems that this country has faced and is still facing. As American’s foremost theorist on systemic discrimination, Joe Feagin, reminds us in The White Racial Frame , the United States is a country shaped by extensive slavery and comprehensive legal segregation for a time period of 350 years, between 1619 to 1969, when legal segregation officially ended.

In the field of higher education, we know from recent reports that a high degree of racial and gender stratification persists in the administrative leadership ranks. My colleague, Alvin Evans of Kent State University, and I are exploring the implications of this stratification for university leadership in an upcoming book.
And as Adrianna Kezar and Rosana Carducci point out in Rethinking Leadership in a Complex, Multicultural and Global Environment now is the time for a revolutionary reconceptualization of leadership models from hierarchical, individualist leadership models that focus on power over others, to process-centered, nonhierarchical, collective forms of leadership that emphasize mutual power.

We agree. In Bridging the Diversity Divide: Globalization and Reciprocal Empowerment in Higher Education my co-author and I identify the importance of a framework of demography, diversity, and democracy that infuses the climate and culture and fosters reciprocal empowerment. Reciprocal empowerment corrects the imbalance in asymmetrical power relations through distributive justice, collaboration, and self-determination. In this era of globalization, the need for new approaches in our leadership programs that address critical social justice issues has never been stronger.


  1. Seattle in Texas

    This is a very important topic and glad it’s be being written about. I hope that the covert discrimination/behaviors is talked about both within and between groups–it’s a form of bullying also. The way programs in higher education are set up too often, reward competition and promote individualization. I think competition is one of the primary components in fostering unequal environments and serves to create unnecessary barriers both within and between groups, as well as marginalize too many and further marginalize those who come from marginalized groups already. And at times, those who succeed in the rat race internalize and replicate attitudes and behaviors that serve to keep the unequal system firmly in place. Covert behavior and discrimination is very powerful. But also, and sadly, competitive environments serve to further slow, and even prevent, great ideas from coming forth. It prevents the potential of a vast variety of skills, talents, and thoughts from being discovered and recognized among both individuals and groups. Lev Vygotsky had argued that great ideas do not just come from individuals and spring out of nowhere on their own, they are the result of a culmination of past knowledge and collision of dialogues. For Vygotsky, often times new knowledge and ideas are born out of conversations that take place between two or more people. They come when individuals contribute their thoughts in a dialogue of some sort, then what emerges is new thoughts and ideas that could not have emerged without the group dialogue–sometimes, this is even how new paradigms come forth 🙂 . My point being, much is lost and the costs are high not only for individuals who are on the receiving end of the discrimination, but the immediate environment they are in, and society as a whole, when covert discrimination is not taught about or taken seriously, leading to, as well as replicating and reproducing inherently unjust environments….

    • ThirtyNine4Ever

      I think you have a good point about the competitive nature of higher education. It really encourages the student to take advantage of any inequality they can. From my own experience, at least in my masters program, there was very little competition or pressure from above and it had a high concentration of international students. I was able to work with and form friendships with other students from cultures I had no or little previous exposure to. If it had been a highly competitive program from what I observe from people I have known, I would probably have just kept to myself and tried to just get through it.

      • Seattle in Texas

        I would have to agree that there are some very good programs that do strive for equality and environments that are empowering for all students and faculty, probably in most, if not all fields. It sounds like you completed your Master’s degree in a good program.

        In terms of striving for equality and power issues, I think back to a talk Paula England gave a few years back where she had mentioned that in the department she worked at it had eventually become nearly or all women. When they were seeking to hire on a new faculty member, they voluntarily implemented their own affirmative action plan in ensuring qualified men applying for the position had an equal opportunity in being selected for hire. So, I do think departments can be mindful too and implement their own policies and standards that may be above and beyond university standards and guidelines.

        But in terms of covert discrimination, perhaps that’s something that’s always been in place. But I think it’s something that’s become more prevalent with liberal and colorblind racism. People uphold a SES etiquette and image not just in the south, but everywhere when in professional settings. If folks don’t want you there, they let you know in various ways…and the targets of such have to decide how to handle their surroundings, etc. With that, I hope the book also gives advice on survival techniques for those who experience it. I know of a faculty member on the West Coast who literally has left her institution for semesters at a time because of the discrimination she endures and was looking for work elsewhere–almost all she’s been through has been covert racism…. It’s very damaging. And in her situation the university administration backs the folks doing it who are white leaving her with essentially nowhere to turn, but moving out for her own well being. It’s really sad. And I know her situation is not unique in this post-racial 2010 society we live in…. So, I think this has to be addressed also in the training of the higher administrations also….


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