INTERVIEW. Sexism, racism, classism: how do you end discrimination at work?

Comments about his weight, a man who systematically interrupts a woman’s speech in a meeting, personal attacks because of the alleged origin of an employee… The world of work is not spared from discrimination. This is according to a recent study by Ifop, which was published last March. For example, people of color (or non-white) believe that they are more often victims of discrimination (50%) than the average observed among the entire French population (33%). Other minorities are also affected by this scourge: homosexuals, disabled people, obese people and even women claim to be victims of discriminatory comments and behavior more often than heterosexual people, healthy people or even men. Still, the law places a responsibility on employers to “take necessary steps to ensure safety and protect the physical and mental health of workers.” Antoinette Laurent advises and assists companies, structures and associations in the fight against discrimination. Interview.

How did you come to become a discrimination advisor?

I never really knew what to do with my life. But because I had good academic results and an upper-middle-class family that pushed me to study, I enrolled in an undergraduate course at the Institute of Political Studies in Bordeaux, in addition to studying Protestant theology in Montpellier. I obtained my first master’s degree in political analysis of sub-Saharan Africa and the countries of the south at the Center for the Study of Black Africa in Bordeaux.

After graduating, I soon started working for associations as a mission or project manager. In my first job, I had the chance to meet a sociologist, Gilles Herreros, who introduced me to the sociology of organizations. After the birth of my children, I stopped working for a while before resuming a master’s degree in social and solidarity economy in Marseille. I started working for the France Active network, but because I was performing poorly as an employee, I left the profession and started myself as a consultant for organizations and companies.

Initially I showed skills in HR organizations and financial analysis. But thanks to my volunteer work, especially in health and social affairs, family planning and the disabled community, I was trained to listen. Organizations then approached me in the context of my specific relational capacities. Little by little my activity then focused on these themes of collective intelligence, mediation and the fight against discrimination.

What is your role as a consultant?

Using a medical analogy, part of my job is making a diagnosis. Often organizations come to me with symptoms such as high conflict or tension. Another part of my job is guiding and then helping with the delivery. But it’s not because I’m diagnosing that the structure is ready to accept it, much less to work on it. And yet it has to apply its own solution, not that of an external structure, because that wouldn’t work.

How are the problems of discrimination within companies characterized?

There is the “winning trio” that we know most: sexism, racism (discrimination based on skin color, people’s real or supposed origins) and classism (discrimination based on class relations). But there are other forms of discrimination: that against people with disabilities, which is called validism, or psychophobia, if it is a disability of a psychological nature. They are manifested, for example, by a lack of wheelchair access or by comments about behavior (“for example, you are too rigid”), while the person is simply autistic.

There is also discrimination related to body shape (fat phobia) or age, along with economic discrimination. Young people, for example, have the least financial autonomy, which means that they are more at the mercy of companies. At the other extreme, there is also discrimination against older people, also known as age discrimination.

Finally, there are discriminations that are less visible because they are less popular, such as those that affect transgender people, be they binary or non-binary. Not all places where the issue of changing rooms is raised are minor issues for these people.

If we deconstruct even more, we can even go to the level of studies. The company believes that it is normal to recruit people with a certain degree, but access to this level of education is already linked to social capital.

You are specialized in supporting associations and companies in the sector of the social and solidarity economy… This means that discrimination also affects these very involved environments. However, one might think that these structures are spared… Why is this not the case?

I see two main reasons for this: the first is that it concerns companies. From the moment there are jobs, there is a need to make money every month. SSE or not, these are the same issues for all businesses. Wage labor as such remains a dominant relationship, even if it has been agreed to. In the ESS there can be bad managers like everywhere… just as there can be employees who are there because they have to pay their rent. Tensions can arise between all these personalities. These structures are also collectives, even communities, and no community is spared from conflict. But it must also be said that when a structure or an association is spared from conflict, it can be quite disturbing… You can almost suspect something bizarre or sectarian aberration!

Is discrimination therefore inevitable?

It depends on the level of consciousness and deconstruction of the people who will make up the collective. The more aware they are, the easier it will be for them to change. But the less they are informed, the more discrimination will be inevitable and will continue. I often hear people say that we should not find these forms of discrimination in the associative sector, but that it is simply about people. It’s a bit of an illusion to hope not to find them somewhere. But that doesn’t mean they are legit.

What advice could you give to companies, managers or employees who want to act internally and fight discrimination?

I see two different attitudes depending on whether you have decision making power or not: if you have it, or if some of the people who have it want to work on these topics, we can respond to individuals through staff training and education on all these issues. There are also many tools to introduce diversity, promote inclusion and remove barriers to voice expression.

If you do not have decision-making power and you witness discrimination outside the legal frameworks, there is a duty to report and you are regarded as an accomplice. With so-called “ordinary” discrimination, which is not punishable by law, we can feel that we are stuck. Either we express ourselves at the risk of leaving the company, or we are complicit. I would especially recommend taking an interest in these issues. For example, if you are a man and you have the impression that you are witnessing sexism in your company, you can contact an association that specializes in the subject and find out how you should behave in the workplace. It is also possible, if it is not too complicated, to go back to a trade union, if there is one, or even to a works council.

What are the tools you mentioned to promote inclusion and diversity?

The basics of the basics: training in the animation of meetings in collective intelligence to be able to organize the distribution of the floor and ensure that the same people are not always speaking. In general, men talk more than women in meetings. We can then request that all male interventions be alternated with a female intervention. But we will find this problem around pronouncing every line of discrimination. For example, someone with a lower level of education will speak less than someone with a higher level. The same goes for someone who was told all his childhood that he was “too weird”.

Another possible lever of action: meeting times. Usually the meetings where we find most of the decision-making are often scheduled in the evening. However, this scheme largely excludes women who have children in their care. It is quite possible to schedule meetings in the morning.

When it comes to representation issues, there are also quota systems. In France we complain a lot about quotas, but it works quite well!

Non-mixing is a tool that can also promote pronunciation. If we bring all students together to think about a problem before a meeting, they will be able to prepare their topic in collective intelligence and ideas that would not necessarily have been expressed individually can do so because it is easier to speak collectively.

In terms of voting systems, many associations have established fairly traditional electoral procedures, such as majority elections, which are not the most comprehensive. But there are also other ways to proceed, such as elections without a candidate. Each member of the organization nominates the person they believe is most competent for a position and the people who can be nominated can then accept or reject this nomination. This way of working makes it possible to prevent those who can present themselves more easily from doing so and also makes it possible to overcome the impostor syndrome of people who do not dare to present themselves.

When we can identify the discriminations that take place within a structure, it’s a good idea to set up instances to name them. This prevents drama from being made when a problem is raised. The creation of a discrimination commission that meets every two months makes it possible not to have to wait for a declaration from the victims.

Finally, don’t hesitate to think about mediation, by trained people, when you reach a certain level of conflict. Since it can be complicated to put a victim in front of a person who discriminates against them, it is necessary to ensure their consent. The trained people can verify the consent of those involved.

What can this external third party bring?

When we talk about discrimination, we can often feel ashamed of it. Associations sometimes try to wash their dirty laundry as a family, while having an outside third party makes it possible to put a foot in the dish where those involved would never do it. It then makes it possible to identify solutions, dedramatize personal situations and return more to the organizational aspect than individual responsibility. This third person can be a peer in a different structure, you don’t necessarily have to rely on a person you have to pay.

Is it essential to do this work?

In my opinion it is a matter of value system. Personally, as an individual, I cannot look at myself in the mirror when I participate in a system of discrimination against other people. But it’s a value system, I wouldn’t dare say it has to be, not as a creed anyway. There are those who assume they are predators… I imagine it takes everything to make a world.

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