How To Challenge Discrimination In A Way That Encourages Change

March 17th, 2021 | 15 minute read

Through both the pandemic and the events of the last year including the high profile killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, amongst others, companies are no longer able to not adopt some sort of stance on societal or political challenges. This is not about tick box diversity activities but is fully focussed around how to challenge discrimination in a way that encourages change.

If you have an organisation with more of Generation Z, this will be even more important. The desire of employees in this generation to work for organisations whose values align with their own has been growing in importance over the last few years, but the events of 2020 accelerated this. Research by Gartner shows that over 70% of employees expect their employer to become more actively involved in cultural, societal and political debates.

There is obviously a need for business sensitivity alongside this, and sometimes events that cannot be commented upon, however where possible CEOs will need to respond in some way moving forwards to retain and attract the best talent. There are some things to consider with this however:

  • If you aren’t educated on a subject it is better to go and seek some education before speaking – even issuing a holding statement sharing some vulnerability such as – “I feel like I need to educate myself on this before I share more…”, can go a long way with team members.
  • Look at whether you are the best person to speak on a subject – is there someone else in a senior role in your business who would be better placed? For example, if it is a topic on female issues a female leader may have more perspective and authenticity.
  • Remember that action doesn’t have to be at leadership level – it may be that you just give your team room to have a floor for discussions at a peer level like setting up a lunch and learn or book club on key topics.

What Do We Need To Understand Before We Can Truly Challenge Discrimination

In most organisations discrimination exists as a subconscious level and may not even be outwardly obvious. The key challenge with this is that we need to accept that it exists before we can tackle it.

This is often know as unconscious bias and is simply about us all having the innate ability to view people and situations through the lens of our own experience. This could be as simple as having completed a degree, therefore unconsciously being biased towards others who have the same educational background, however it can run much deeper than that and stem into racial or political beliefs stemming from our upbringing and never challenged at a conscious level, therefore continuing in our own interactions.

To become aware of your own biases, take an Implicit Association Test (IAT). Pay particular attention to bias relating to the 9 protected characteristics (e.g. age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage, pregnancy, race, religion, gender and sexual orientation) as this is discrimination. Before you can truly challenge either your own thinking, or the thinking of your team or culture, you need to understand unconscious bias on a deep level – we have share some interesting resources below:

Unconscious Bias Resources

What Is Stopping Us Challenging Discrimination?

We Don’t Feel The Pain Of The Issue

You only need to look at the #alllivesmatter or #notallmen responses to illustrate this point. Responses like this showcase the lack of pain that certain groups feel in diversity or discriminatory issues. It is really difficult to fully appreciate the extent of someone’s pain if you have never experienced it. If you’re white you will never fully understand what it feels like to walk in a black persons shoes, if you are male, you will never know what it feels like to experience the world in the way that women do. It’s that simple. But this doesn’t mean that you should just immediately check out or put something down to “not being your issue” – you can always learn more, educate yourself on that pain, and seek to understand how you can help do your part in tackling any discrimination.

We have seen been shown similar challenges in our Women In Leadership Programmes where every female leaders brings a different viewpoint influenced by their own experience and things they have seen first hand. We recognised that we needed to invest significant time in to educating ourselves around the subject and seeking out information around the issues that we haven’t experienced first hand, in order to develop a wider perspective and be able to help drive change more effectively.

We’re Scared Of Saying The Wrong Thing

So often people don’t speak up as they don’t know what to say, or worse, they are afraid of saying something that will make it worse. Unfortunately, silence is often the exact problem. When looking at how to challenge discrimination in a way that encourages change you need to speak up, but you do still need to be thoughtful in your words.

The key with this is to not make it about you, especially if it isn’t an issue or pain you yourself experience, as outlined above. Here are some great ways to start when you don’t know what to say:

  • I’m sorry you had to go through that…
  • Please help me understand…
  • Where can I learn more…
  • How can I do better?
  • How can I help? 

This is the most common reason we see for leaders saying nothing, and it is often bigger than just being worried about not phrasing something correctly – there are often wider litigious issues to consider. This is where again asking questions is a useful place to start rather that issuing a statement that could cause more problems.

Tick Box vs Real Change

To drive real change, it is important to make sure any efforts in your business, or individually aren’t just tick boxes, but are proactive actions with a purpose designed to enact change.

An example of this is “not racist” vs being “anti-racism”. The BBC talked to John Amaechi, psychologist, New York Times best selling author and former NBA basketball player about this subject:

“There’s a big difference between being not-racist and being anti-racist. I know it doesn’t seem like it. I know that both of these things seem equally good, but they’re not.

Sometimes, we sit and we look around us and we think, ‘how can I possibly change all this?’ And sometimes you can’t. But what you can do is make sure wherever you go, people know where you stand. They know that you’re an anti-racist. You become a beacon of light that way. You become someone who makes other people want to be anti-racist too. You’ve got tools at your disposal. Learn. Read. And make everybody clear where you stand.”

How To Challenge Discrimination In  A Way That Encourages Change Through Education

Quite simply, you can’t change something you don’t fully understand. Listed below are some great resources that you can use individually, or even within your business to educate you and your team around key areas of discrimination and how you can be part of the change.


  1. The Memo by Minda Harts
  2. So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
  3. Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
  4. Between the World and Me by Ta-nehisi Coates
  5. Programmed Inequality by Mar Hicks
  6. Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald
  7. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
  8. No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement by Joseph P. Shapiro
  9. The Diversity Delusion by Heather McDonald
  10. This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism by Ashton Applewhite

Podcasts & TED Talks

  1. The Fix Podcast
  2. Code Switch Podcast
  3. BBC Women’s Hour Daily
  4. We should all be feminists
  5. Everyday Sexism
  6. Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders
  7. The danger of a Single Story
  8. Inclusion, Exclusion, Illusion and Collusion
  9. Cultural Differences in Business
  10. How to Get Serious About Diversity & Inclusion
  11. The Paradox of Diversity
  12. Why do Ambitious Women Have Flat Heads?

We are working with organisations across the spectrum on DE&I challenges – from looking at how to enhance diversity during recruitment processes, to working on future leader programmes that discuss diversity within leadership, to our Women In Leadership programme. If you are looking at enhancing your company culture and improving your DE&I efforts, drop us a line to hear more about how specifically we’re working with other organisations.


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