How to Combat Systemic Oppression in the Workplace

May 02, 2023

Breneil Malcolm

M.Ed. in Higher Education

Illustration of a paper plane breaking through a barrier to symbolize breaking systemic oppression

Systemic oppression is an expression we frequently hear in academia, but it has recently expanded to more accessible platforms, such as news and social media. It’s most often discussed at length in the context of race, but it’s also applicable to other sociocultural elements. So, how do we define systemic oppression? What does it really mean?

What is systemic oppression?

Systemic oppression refers to a system-level view of oppression, or the subordination and unjust treatment of an individual or a group by another entity. It uses a wide lens to examine how systems such as education, the workplace, healthcare, law and policy create injustice among groups.

How does systemic oppression operate?

Grand Rapids Community College categorizes systemic oppression into four groups and argues that these act as interrelated components: ideological oppression, institutional oppression, interpersonal oppression and internalized oppression.

At the ideological level, oppression is built on the idea that one group is better than the other and is usually fostered through socialization practices. Institutional oppression captures how the institutions within a society – for example, workplaces – create structures that promote inequality among groups. Interpersonal oppression involves the day-to-day interactions between people within specific institutions that demonstrate injustice and inequality. With consistent ideological, institutionalized and interpersonal oppression, beliefs become internalized by the oppressed group, creating an oppressive loop.

To understand how the loop of oppression represents itself within the organizational context, let’s look at Jane, a woman of a low socioeconomic status. Jane grew up in a poor neighborhood where she constantly faced ideas of inferiority within various social groups, including her family and school. Jane faces struggles as a woman employed in a predominantly male organization and endures discrimination, such as being overlooked for opportunities because she could not afford education that matched her colleagues.

In her workplace, these ideological oppressive values are demonstrated through interpersonal relations with her colleagues. They feel empowered by the oppressive structure in their institution of employment, whether it is overtly or covertly set up in such a way. Systemic oppression shows that these experiences can lead Jane and others like her to internalize what their organizational structures have taught them, which then allows for more ideological, interpersonal and institutional oppression.

How can leaders fight systemic oppression?

If oppression is rooted in the systems that build much of our society, how do leaders create structures to combat oppressive work cultures?

  1. Education: This is the first step to fostering awareness of systemic oppression in the workplace. Often, issues stemming from systemic oppression are representative of ignorance.
  2. Acknowledgement: Acknowledge that oppression is present in an organization. That may be difficult for some leaders to come to terms with, but it’s critical in dealing with such issues.
  3. Policy: Various policies must be put in place to address cases of systemic oppression and to emphasize equity in the workplace.
  4. Diversification: A broad definition of what diversity means is necessary to capture the worldviews and lived experience of everyone in the organization. In doing so, they can truly understand each member’s experience of systemic oppression.
  5. Feedback: Clear and open channels of feedback must be put in place to assess how employees feel regarding issues of systemic oppression and if they are being addressed.

A clear understanding of systemic oppression is critical for leaders in creating healthy, equal-opportunity and equitable spaces. With intentional practice, organizations can begin to create support systems and celebrate diversity in a way that gives everyone the opportunity to succeed, regardless of their background.

Learn how to be a leader that creates inclusive and open workplace environments, which will allow your employees to thrive. Explore our fully online leadership programs.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of American College of Education.
Breneil Malcolm
Breneil Malcolm, M.Ed. in Higher Education

Breneil Malcolm graduated from ACE with an M.Ed. in Higher Education, with a focus of study in Leadership. They are currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Learning, Design and Technology with Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at The Pennsylvania State University. Their research interests focus on diversity, equity and inclusion through the interdisciplinary frameworks of pedagogical, psychological and critical theories. Breneil has served as academic support faculty at St. George’s University for the past five years. While there, they managed an intensive feedbacking professional communication program and served as an instructor teaching learning strategy. Breneil’s goal is to leverage their doctoral research to secure a career in research and academia that enhances social justice for underrepresented groups.

Breneil enjoys training at the gym and has been a personal trainer and group fitness instructor for the past 4 years. With prior educational background in psychology, Breneil uses an integrated approach that combines skillsets from positive psychology, writing and leadership to promote authentic expression, personally and professionally. Breneil welcomes comments, questions and interested collaborators.

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