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What’s inside your ‘invisible backpack’? You might be surprised (like me)

Some of the statements drawn from the privilege checklist completed by attendees at the What’s in my invisible backpack? D&I through a privilege lens panel event.

I am privileged. Of course, I know this, but it’s what I’ve been carrying around in my ‘invisible backpack’ – unearned advantages such as cultural background, gender identity, physical appearance, sexual orientation, socio-economic status – that became abundantly visible to me at a recent DCA and Xplore panel event that looked at diversity and inclusion through a ‘privilege’ lens.

As the fourth speaker listening to the stories of the three other panellists – Darren Fittler (Partner, Gilbert + Tobin and DCA Board Member), Kimberly Olsen (Training & Engagement Manager, ACON) and Charles Prouse (Chair of Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre) – my discomfort grew as it became obvious that, even as an older woman, I was significantly more privileged than they were, and that this privilege was not entirely of my own making.

As a society, we accept privilege often without question. In our sportspeople, for example, it’s accepted that a taller person has a natural advantage over a shorter person when it comes to sports such as netball or basketball. Michael Phelps is said to have the ‘perfect swimmer’s body’. This does not negate the incredible amount of training he has undertaken in pursuit of his goals, but he does have a natural physical advantage over others.

Are you interested in where you sit on the personal privilege scale? You might be surprised. DCA’s Research Director Dr Jane O’Leary has drawn our attention to this privilege quiz. I encourage you to complete it, then watch the accompanying video to see the reactions of others as they come to see their own level of privilege – or otherwise.

I believe we are seeing a groundswell of discontent by those who are less privileged, against the seemingly endless advantages experienced by those who are privileged. Those with more privilege continue to have advantages in all facets of their life, and those advantages are taking them into even greater positions of advantage, as shown by the Gina index of inequality.

This has been demonstrated by recent political events in the UK and US. In Australia, those of us who were born here have a foundation of privilege not experienced in many developing countries. Of course this foundation is not a level playing field, and many highly privileged people find it difficult to accept this, as demonstrated by these two videos:

Chris Lamb, Global Head of Talent & Organisational Development at Lend Lease, spoke about his experience of privilege in the workplace at a recent AHRI forum on ‘Why middle-aged men hold the key’. He explained that, on no less than four occasions throughout his career, he had been fast-tracked by others, most often by “people just like him.”

So, where does this leave people not like him? Would someone with a different cultural background, different gender, or different sexual orientation be afforded the same opportunities to accelerate their career?

When we discuss the impact of our birth privileges on career success, we see many leaders retreat into the ‘merit’ argument but, as Chris Lamb said, those who articulate the ‘merit’ argument as leaders are those who are least likely to lead a meritocracy.

So, what factors affect leadership potential? It would appear from a wealth of research that the key advantages fall to middle-aged Caucasian men over 180cm tall. If “Privilege is invisible to those who have it” as Dr Michael Kimmel says, we must also accept the possibility that “those with lots of privilege are just not in a hurry to give it up.” This point is reinforced by some of the controversial comments received in response to an article I recently wrote about this.

If we are not aware of our own privilege, we are inclined to think that treating everyone equally is the same as providing equal opportunity.

Diana Ryall

Diana is a leading voice and advocate for Gender Equality in Australia and Founder of Xplore.
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