People Operations | Management

Power and Privilege

Diversity focuses on the “otherness” or differences between individuals and has a goal of making sure, through policies, that everyone is treated the same. While this is the legal and the right thing to do, multiculturalism looks at a system of advantages based on race, gender, and sexual orientation called . In this system, the advantages are based on a system in which one race, gender, and sexual orientation is predominant in setting societal rules and norms.

The interesting thing about power and privilege is that if you have it, you may not initially recognize it, which is why we can call it invisible privilege. Here are some examples:

  1. Race privilege. Let’s say you (a Caucasian) and your friend (an African American) are having dinner together, and when the bill comes, the server gives the check to you. While this may not seem like a big issue, it assumes you (being Caucasian) are the person paying for the meal. This type of invisible privilege may not seem to matter if you have that privilege, but if you don’t, it can be infuriating.
  2. Social class privilege. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, many people from outside the storm area wondered why so many people stayed in the city, not even thinking about the fact that some people couldn’t afford the gas to put in their car to leave the city.
  3. Gender privilege. This refers to privileges one gender has over another—for example, the assumption that a female will change her name to her husband’s when they get married.
  4. Sexual orientation privilege. If I am heterosexual, I can put a picture of my partner on my desk without worrying about what others think. I can talk about our vacations together or experiences we’ve had without worrying what someone might think about my relationship. This is not the case for many gay, lesbian, and transgendered people and their partners.

Oftentimes the privilege we have is considered invisible, because it can be hard to recognize one’s own privilege based on race, gender, or social class. Many people utilize the color-blind approach, which says, “I treat everyone the same” or “I don’t see people’s skin color.” In this case, the person is showing invisible privilege and thus ignoring the privileges he or she receives because of race, gender, or social class. While it appears this approach would value all people equally, it doesn’t, because people’s different needs, assets, and perspectives are disregarded by not acknowledging differences (Plaut, et. al., 2009).


Another important aspect of power and privilege is the fact that we may have privilege in one area and not another. For example, I am a Caucasian female, which certainly gives me race privilege but not gender privilege. Important to note here is that the idea of power and privilege is not about “white male bashing” but understanding our own stereotypes and systems of advantage so we can be more inclusive with our coworkers, employees, and managers.


So what does this all mean in relation to HRM? It means we can combine the understanding of certain systems that allow for power and privilege, and by understanding we may be able to eliminate or at least minimize these issues. Besides this, one of the best things we can do for our organizations is to have a diverse workforce, with people from a variety of perspectives. This diversity leads to profitability and the ability to better serve customers.