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Resource Center / Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion

What Privilege Is... and Isn't

Once you better understand what privilege is, and is not, you’ll have an easier time identifying how and where to use your privilege for good. Read on to learn more.

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Justworks
Jan 25, 20216 minutes

The concept of “privilege” is one that has been discussed quite a bit in recent history. It’s a word that people can react to very emotionally, in a way that can easily create a barrier to important dialogue that needs to happen. It’s important to recognize what privilege is — and is not — within the context the term is being used.

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What Privilege Is Not

For those who’ve experienced inclusion and acceptance in society or the workplace simply because of who they are, their perspective might be that privilege equates to being born into a wealthy family or otherwise having financial security and stability. While it’s true that wealth is a type of privilege, it’s not the primary focus when discussing societal privilege. Instead, the focus is more on the realities that lead to people being excluded from basic acceptance and equal opportunity within society.

It’s essential to keep in mind that privilege isn’t bad — how you use the privilege you have is what’s important.

In order to shift the focus from things like wealth and status to acceptance and opportunity, it’s essential to keep in mind that privilege isn’t bad — how you use the privilege you have is what’s important. Once you better understand what privilege is and where you may experience it, you’ll have an easier time identifying how and where to use your privilege for good.

What Privilege Is

The word privilege refers to unearned advantages people may experience simply because they are — or are perceived as being — part of a particular group. When workplace decisions are influenced by privilege, this can result in a lack of equity. When a certain group benefits from unearned advantages, what happens to people who aren’t part of that group? They experience unearned disadvantage.

Recognizing Privilege

Recognizing privilege is an important aspect of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). One way of looking at privilege is to identify characteristics about yourself that, based on societal norms, would predispose others to view you as likely to succeed.

Examples of Societal Privilege

The factors associated with privilege aren’t the same in every culture. In the United States, when viewed from an overall societal perspective, privilege tends to be associated with characteristics like:

  • race - being white

  • sex - being male

  • gender - being cisgender/heteronormative

  • sexual orientation - being heterosexual

  • language - speaking English as a first language

  • accent - speaking without a foreign or regional accent

  • dialect - using standard English versus a dialect

  • physical appearance - being tall, appearing physically fit

  • health - being free from disabilities

  • national origin - being born as a United States citizen

  • level of education - having a college degree

When workplace decisions are influenced by privilege, this can result in a lack of equity.

Examples of Workplace Privilege

Societal factors can definitely result in workplace privilege. However, privilege can be specific to a particular organization's culture or even biases of individuals within the organization. A few examples include:

  • educational background - When those involved in the screening process make assumptions about the candidate based on the name or location of the school they attended, it can lead to privilege based on socioeconomic background or student loan debt.

  • parental status - When a manager assumes that employees who have young children won’t be able to meet the demands of a promotion, that creates privilege for team members who do not have children.

  • marital status - If a hiring manager perceives that people who are single or divorced are more likely than others to behave in a way that could lead to harassment claims, that could lead to privilege for people who are married.

Have You Been Impacted by Privilege?

The sources of privilege listed above are not things a person “earns.” If you have any of the listed characteristics (or other characteristics that afford you advantages) and have experienced an advantage over someone who does not share that characteristic, that means that you have experienced privilege.

  • If people assume you are smarter than others because English is your first language, that is privilege acting in your favor.

  • If an employer hires you because your race is the same as that of the customers with whom you’ll be working, that is privilege acting in your favor.

  • If a manager selects you over other candidates because you attended the same college they did, that is privilege acting in your favor.

  • If people assume that you’re successful “because of” who you are (rather than “in spite of” who you are), that is privilege acting in your favor.

  • If you’ve never been the first or only person of your race hired to work in an organization, that is privilege acting in your favor.

  • If no one has ever wondered if you were only hired because the company needed a “diversity hire,” that is privilege acting in your favor.

  • If you’ve never had people appear shocked that you’re intelligent because they assumed that your accent meant you were stupid, that’s privilege acting in your favor.

Remember, privilege in itself isn’t bad. To recognize that you may have experienced privilege doesn’t mean that you did something wrong — it simply means that another person’s bias led to you being advantaged in some way. Failing to recognize that that privilege exists, however, is a problem. An organization (or a society) can’t overcome the bias that leads to privilege — and the inequity that results from it — until it is recognized for what it is.

Each person’s experience with privilege will differ from their peers and coworkers.

Make a Difference

Once you have a clear idea of what privilege really is, and are aware of how it may have impacted your life, you’ll be in a unique position to use your privilege for good. There are a number of ways you can help those who do not have the same type of privilege. Here are a few workplace-specific examples to get you started:

  • Acknowledge and be open to discussing the role privilege may have had in your career and life.

  • Speak up and seek to change workplace or industry policies or practices that unfairly disadvantage certain groups of people.

  • Take a respectful, coaching-focused approach to helping others recognize how privilege may have provided them with an advantage.

  • Offer to mentor coworkers or young professionals seeking entry into your occupation to help them gain the skills and contacts needed to open doors.

  • Make a point of reaching out to include those who are or feel marginalized or excluded in social gatherings or cross-functional projects or activities.

  • Participate in and offer to lead company efforts around diversity, equity, and inclusion.

  • Support nonprofit organizations that focus on leveling the playing field in the workplace, whether financially or through volunteerism (or both!).

Be Part of the Solution

Each person’s experience with privilege will differ from their peers and coworkers. It can be a good idea to grow as an ally by reflecting honestly on how privilege may have opened doors for you, then considering the resulting impact on others. When each person commits to becoming part of the solution, that’s a critical step toward helping ensure that your workplace is one where everyone has the opportunity to feel safe, supported, seen, and heard. To learn more, explore Justworks’ Field Guide to Allyship in the Workplace.

This material has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, legal or tax advice. If you have any legal or tax questions regarding this content or related issues, then you should consult with your professional legal or tax advisor.