Minority Interests

When Your Ethnicity Is Welcome But Your Professional Competencies Are Not

March 3, 2014 No Comments

In the third of a four part series exploring hidden prejudice in the workplace we explore a process where minority ethnic professionals may find that their ethnicity is welcome but their professional competencies are not.

A friend of mine made an interesting observation this week. She attends an annual conference as part of her job and has noticed a very small number of minority ethnic professionals present in any given year. After the conference, she always receives an email with pictures of the key speakers and awards.  The reason this is interesting is because the pictures always show these minority ethnic professionals as if they were key figures at the event and even gives the impression that the conference was more diverse than it actually was.

Dr Koen Van Laer and Dr Maddy Janssens found that a subtle form of discrimination occurred when the ethnic background of minority ethnic professionals was recognised but their professional competencies were not.  These experiences reduce individuals to their ethnic background because only their visible “diverse” presence is valued. This was the case with my friend’s conference.

I’ve heard of examples where an individual is “invited” to participate in special events or initiatives when they may not hold the necessary expertise. These tend to be high profile events and their involvement served to increase the credibility of the initiative by portraying a culture that embraces diversity. The need for such practices suggests the opposite.

In their study Dr Koen Van Laer and Dr Maddy Janssens described the experiences of a minority ethnic professional who was having difficulty getting recognised for his competencies. When his organisation held a reception to sign a diversity charter, he was suddenly acknowledged and invited. It was said that they he was invited to meetings because his presence made these gatherings feel less ‘white’.

If people are judged on their capabilities and not their appearance  it also prevents another form of delegitimising behaviour, which is when minority ethnic professionals are given too much help. In these scenarios, their training and competencies are disregarded and unnecessary support is provided because of prejudice about them being ethnic rather than professional.

This legitimises the ethnicity of the individual but delegitimises their professional competencies.

This is frequently used as an argument against quotas. In 2003, Norway introduced a quota law to tackle gender inequality at board level within large organisations. Firms were required to have at least 40% of each gender on their boards. This stimulated considerable interest and concern across Europe. Some organisations have even undergone costly restructures to avoid introducing the law.  Critics say that it reduces individuals to their gender and ignores their experience and qualifications. The fear in this case is that women who lack the relevant expertise will replace capable men.

By legitimising minority ethnic professionals  or women in this way, it may change behaviour but not attitudes, however without policies that seek to specifically target individuals where identity indicates disadvantage very little will change in the future.

This happens a lot more than you may think. Do you think that you ever been given tasks because of your ethnicity rather than your competencies?


Image courtesy of stockimages / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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