Being complicit

Thinking about who benefits from unequal structures


It has taken me longer than expected to write this post.

The subject material is somewhat taboo and I wanted to ensure that my writing accurately expresses my views on the issue.

It is also personal and brings into the open an exploration of power and privilege, the limitations of ‘being reflexive’ and, most alarmingly, the benefits we all enjoy – at different times and in different contexts – because of the disadvantage of others.

The word complicit, meaning involvement with others in an unlawful or morally wrong activity, derives from the Latin ‘to fold together’. Being complicit is when your identity characteristics – such as gender, race, sexual orientation, language or social class – enable you to capitalise on a structure.

I want to write about being complicit rather than privilege to foreground the participative nature, direct or indirect, of reaping the benefits of your identity characteristics. And although the folding together of good people and bad structures cuts across many threads in equality, diversity and inclusion work, being complicit generally remains a topic undiscussed.

The benefits we all enjoy – at different times and in different contexts – because of the disadvantage of others.

Yet, the theme has been explored by some scholars. For example, sociologist Raewyn Connell wrote about the concept of the patriarchal dividend, which argues that all men, to varying degrees, benefit from their masculinity. Operating in a patriarchal system enables men, particularly adherents of hegemonic masculinity, to accrue unearned social and political capital.

The same argument can apply across other identity characteristics:

Being white in a white supremacist society.

Being non-disabled in an ableist society.

Being heterosexual in a heteronormative society.

The situation is often more complex in everyday life. Attempts to draw causal links between A, B and C are messy. Likewise, people do not exist as monolithic identities nor do they operate in spaces where they are always advantaged or disadvantaged. Life is messy and multi-layered and overlapping, where people exist as individuals with unique characters and histories.

But this all takes place within structures – whether they are social, cultural, economic or political – that were historically designed to benefit some at the expense of others.

It is always possible for some people to work harder than others in these structures and attribute their success to meritocracy. But getting there by merit will always be harder when the system is designed to limit your success.

‘Am I happy to reap the benefits of a crime yet not serve the time?’

Taking a step back from the abstract – how should EDI practitioners respond to these challenges, particularly if they find themselves implicated in the problem?

An EDI practitioner might experience a sour taste in their mouth as they come to realise how they have personally benefitted from an unfair system. ‘Am I happy to reap the benefits of a crime yet not serve the time?’

One possible approach is to reframe discussion in terms of an inequality dividend. This flips on its head the more common (and more palatable) concept of an equality dividend. Very simply this means that initiatives to improve EDI for some people within an institution in fact benefit everyone. For example, flexible working policies can specifically improve the life/work balance of employees with caring responsibilities. However, it might also improve the life/work balance of employees without caring responsibilities.

Everyone wins!

Which is ideal when institutions are looking for ways to justify their EDI work (beyond simply doing the right thing).

Yet, belief in an equality dividend relies on an assumption that EDI is not a zero-sum game.

The metaphorical pie increases in size allowing everyone the opportunity to enjoy more rather than putting in place redistributive measures so that some people receive more and some people receive less.

Discussions around being complicit and the inequality dividend are difficult. What I present here raises more questions than answers and is intended as an outline of issues and responses, rather than anything conclusive. Informal writing on EDI might help us think beyond what is currently being discussed and creatively explore ways to combat inequalities.

Dr Kevin Guyan is an equality and diversity researcher based in Edinburgh. He is writing in a personal capacity.

Misusing statistics as an ‘end’ rather than a ‘means’

When it comes to equality and diversity statistics, do numbers ever lie?

How we speak about equality, diversity and inclusion matters. The terminology we use to describe our identities. The use of words that include and exclude. History, power and privilege are tied-up in how we communicate with each other. The possibilities and limitations of language shape what we can change in our everyday realities.

Less discussed is how we speak about EDI data, particularly numerical data. We falsely assume that numbers, unlike words, are value-neutral.

Numbers never lie.

This is false. Most obviously, their calculation often depend on subjective decisions made along the way. Take the example of the gender pay gap (the percentage difference between average male and female earnings). When calculating the pay gap between male and female employees, which staff are counted: full-time, atypical, agency or all-staff? Is the data weighted? Does it include or exclude bonus pay? Are these mean or median figures? All of these decisions determine the number you reach at the end. Never take EDI data face value. Scratch the surface, check the workings and run your own calculations.

However, a darker (and more opaque) problem lies in the misuses of EDI data. When numbers no longer represent a reality but become the target and end in themselves. Rather than serving as an indicator of progress or measure of change over time, numerical data becomes the primary fixation and focus of the work – more so than the problem the data was intended to measure.

Take data on the disproportionately small number of women in senior leadership positions in certain sectors (such as Chief Executives of FTSE 100 companies). An increase in the proportion of female senior leaders is an indicator of change but it is not, assumedly, the end result. This depends on the reasons for diversifying senior leadership: to challenge patriarchal structures, make senior leadership more representative of the life experiences of staff or bring in fresh minds with different outlooks? None of these desired outcomes are apparent from a study of percentage point increases or decreases in isolation.

Rather than serving as an indicator of progress or measure of change over time, numerical data becomes the primary fixation and focus of the work – more so than the problem the data was intended to measure.

Consider UK Prime Ministers in the past 50 years: seven were men and two were women. A disproportionate reflection of UK society, which is generally split equally. However, the premierships of Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May were not/have not been indicative of advances for gender equality. A fixation with the numerical data in isolation, or without context, risks overlooking bigger questions of intersectionality (which types of women?) and institutional power (has their presence challenged or solidified existing structures?)

An unhealthy obsession with numerical EDI data leads to its misuses as an end rather than a means to an end. It also presents a dangerous trap for those working to advance EDI. Internal resources to bring about institutional change might be less forthcoming when numerical data alone makes it look as if things are getting better. Year-on-year percentage point increases, even if it is just one or two points, suck the oomph out of an activist and politically-charged agenda. EDI number crunchers: remain ready to disaggregate, ask people to explain their workings and question, question, question what an upward picture of ‘change over time’ really means for people’s lives experiences of EDI. Otherwise we risk EDI data being misused to mask bigger problems.

Dr Kevin Guyan is an equality and diversity researcher based in Edinburgh. He is writing in a personal capacity.

Researching inequalities when participants don’t perceive a problem

Navigating contradictions between statistics and participants’ perceptions of equality, diversity and inclusion.

‘I genuinely believe our institution is gender blind.’

‘It doesn’t make any difference here whether you’re a man or a woman.’

‘Take a look at the international diversity of our staff – there can’t possibly be a problem here.’

Three statements. All imagined but representative of comments that researchers engaged in studies of equality, diversity and inclusion might encounter in interviews, focus groups or open text survey responses.

Problems emerge when these testimonies crash into statistics, which highlight a less positive picture, or statements from others who have experienced the flip-side of an institution’s culture. Participants are forced to consider if they exist in a context (or world) that, consciously or unconsciously, does not treat people equally or fairly. What must align for participants to trust numerical data or place faith in the perceptions and experiences of others even when this belies their own perceptions? Particularly when acknowledgement of institutional problems risks admitting your own complicity in any wrongdoing.

Research participants who have not directly encountered bias, prejudice or discrimination might start with an assumption that society is meritocratic – ‘you work hard, you get ahead’. Default to an assumption that their institution is fair and equitable. In this framing of the world, systems and structures are blind to identity. Those who explore this question as someone outside a majority (or dominant) group, such as a gay man in a heteronormative school or a disabled woman in an ableist and patriarchal workplace, might not begin with the same default assumption. The glass is neither half empty nor are your necessarily looking for the worst in others. But life experiences teach you – discipline you – the need to be guarded. The need to be prepared for things to go wrong.

These feelings are not only the preserve of those with lived experiences. Many have indirect experiences with family and friends. Many take an academic interest in histories of identities and the manifestation of power. Others possess a strong sense of empathy which translates into awareness that, for many overlapping reasons, everyone does not experience identical situations in the same way.

What is more important – the ‘reality’ of how an institution’s structures operate or how participants subjectively perceive their operation?

What then is the role of EDI researchers in raising participants’ awareness of issues in their institution that they may not personally perceive? To use an old phrase, is there a place for ‘consciousness raising’ in EDI research? Qualitative methods, such as one-to-one interviews and focus groups, are fantastic ways to unearth people’s feelings and perceptions about particular topics. But what is more important – the ‘reality’ of how an institution’s structures operate or how participants subjectively perceive their operation? The two are very much intertwined but subjective perceptions (as well as institutional realities) will impact how participants feel about colleagues, career development and shape their wellbeing.

How do researchers join the dots in situations where participants present positive perceptions (‘I wholeheartedly believe my institution operates gender blind promotion policies’) that contradicts quantitative data (a disproportionate gap between the number of female applicants and the number of women offered positions)? A tension persists: more often, numerical data are given greater weight than subjective perceptions. If the numbers provide evidence to show that a problem exists, a problem exists. Is it ever the role of researchers to inform participants of structures that might affect their account of an institution? There is a difference between EDI research and EDI activism: one seeks to survey the situation in order to act; one takes action. There is no easy answer.

Dr Kevin Guyan is an equality and diversity researcher based in Edinburgh. He is writing in a personal capacity.

Could behavioural insights change public attitudes to LGBT people in Scotland?

Using behavioural science to reshape public perceptions towards LGBT people might present a new approach to a persistent problem.

Earlier this summer the UK government published results from a survey of 108,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people, the biggest national survey of its kind.

The research found over half of the respondents (56%) felt comfortable being LGBT in the UK. However, the work also uncovered a number of specific concerns. More than two in three respondents said they avoid holding hands with a same-sex partner for fear of a negative reaction from others. Likewise, 26% of respondents had experienced verbal harassment, insults or other hurtful comments in the past 12 months because they were LGBT.

Alongside the launch of the survey results, the UK government also published an accompanying list of over 75 commitments. Some of these were unexciting (‘We intend to secure additional funding after March 2020’) while others were unexpected (‘We will bring forward proposals to end the practice of conversion therapy in the UK’).

One commitment was particularly intriguing: the Government Equalities Office intends to ‘trial innovative ways of tackling deep-seated prejudices in our communities’ and consider ‘how behavioural insights can be used to help improve people’s attitudes towards LGBT people more quickly’.

This slightly cryptic commitment assumedly refers to the work of the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), a company jointly owned by the UK Government, Nesta (the innovation charity) and its employees. It was established in 2010 by Prime Minister David Cameron to apply behavioural science within government policymaking, with a primary focus on effectiveness of public services and improvement of outcomes, while enabling people to make ‘better choices for themselves’. The team have offices across the globe and have worked on a number of projects related to gender and equalities, such as work in Sydney to tackle the problem of sexist behaviours and sexual harassment.

The Government Equalities Office intends to ‘trial innovative ways of tackling deep-seated prejudices in our communities’.

Behavioural insights are best known for ‘nudge theory’, in which small interventions are introduced into a person’s life to encourage good behaviours such as going to the gym more regularly, revising for exams or drinking less alcohol. The application of these methods to positively change public perceptions towards LGBT people in the UK would be a new approach to a persistent problem.

The Equalities Office research highlights the negative experiences of young LGBT people within education establishments, with one in three of those in education in the 2016/17 academic year reporting a negative or mixed reaction from others due to being LGBT or being thought to be LGBT. Schools, colleges and universities might therefore present an ideal environment to test behavioural insight interventions, gather empirical data on ‘what works?’ and scale-up the most successful projects.

Scotland has already witnessed a rapid reshaping of attitudes towards LGBT people in recent decades. For example, between 2000 and 2015, the percentage of people who believed that sexual relationships between two adults of the same sex was always or mostly wrong fell from 48% to 17%.

The same social attitude survey presented data on respondents who had a family member who identified as gay or lesbian, rising from 13% in 2010 to 21% in 2015. It is unlikely that this percentage increased because the number of LGBT people in Scotland rapidly changed over a five-year period. What is more likely is that LGBT people felt better able to share who they are with their families.

As much as the UK government’s commitment to ‘trial innovative ways’ to target prejudice is exciting, it remains unclear whether something as fundamental as negative attitudes towards sexual orientation can be changed through targeted psychological interventions. Furthermore, who should the government target? Society-at-large or restrict the interventions to self-identified homophobes?

The government’s use of behavioural insights to challenge prejudice might seem a bit futuristic. However, following revelations that Facebook data was used to develop targeted ads and potentially swing election and referendum results, it is becoming increasingly clear that these technologies are already used to shape our everyday lives. However, one terrifying risk remains: if behavioural insights can be used to tackle prejudice could the same methods, in the wrong hands, be used to reverse the progress made in recent decades?

Dr Kevin Guyan is an equality and diversity researcher based in Edinburgh. He is writing in a personal capacity.