Working with Social Privilege

If you had to go online today to find a photo that represents your company or business team, how easy would it be? Could you simply search for “business” on a stock photo site? How many words would you have to add to find a picture of someone in your profession who resembles you? In what circumstance would it be easier, or harder? Whether it is finding a photo, talking comfortably with co-workers about your personal life, or simply feeling safe or welcome in the neighborhood of your office, the degree of ease or difficulty you experience in any of these scenarios could be the result of social privilege.

The term “social privilege” is used to explain a phenomenon where unearned advantages are awarded to people in a dominant social group. Presumptions of innocence, credibility, or competence are all advantages of social privilege. Though it may seem to be an uncomfortable topic, it is important to realize that privilege has broad-reaching benefitsCauseit had to search for quite some time to find this photo on a popular stock photo site. Why is it so hard to find women of power in images? Look at the photographer's mindset and the buyer's assumptions. and disadvantages for everyone. People in the United States who are identified as being a part of the dominant group of white, male, heterosexuals are still subject to the effects of oppression, even if only because of how narrow thinking can be in places without diverse contributors.

Privilege is not always visible. In addition to race, gender, and sexual orientation there are a number of other assumptions that we may hold in everyday interactions with others.  Our ideas about family structure, class, and mental health may disadvantage or privilege others in our eyes based on what we think we know about them. When privilege is further examined as an intricate web of experiences and interactions, almost everyone can see places in their lives where they feel either accepted or othered as a result of cultural presumptions.

At Causeit we do not see social privilege as good or bad, but we acknowledge that it exists and has real effects on our businesses and our lives. One example of the power of social privilege in business is the archetype of the white, hetero-masculine businessman that still serves as the dominant image of success. Another is the difference in the perception of an assertive woman compared to an assertive man in the workplace. When we examine the expectations we hold for different roles in business, we can start to see how social privilege norms may be affecting our workplace.

At Causeit we believe that social privilege can be shared and exercised for good!  While we can’t choose whether we receive social privilege, we do have a choice of how to use it. We can challenge privilege by recognizing the value of experience and knowledge that is different from our own. We can subvert our own privilege by advocating for a diversity of voices, prioritizing those that are often not heard. We can share privilege by using our influence to empower others in a system where they are disadvantaged. With that said, it is not necessary to try to map out every complexity of social privilege that exists in your life. Instead, try to live and work in a way that acknowledges social privilege by asking yourself what assumptions you hold and where they might be coming from. Questioning ideas we have about the people we interact with is a positive way to make our workplace a more comfortable and more diverse community that is better equipped to take on all obstacles to success.


By Maggie Mahoney, with contributions by Jessica Long and MJ Petroni