On International Women's Day, we can celebrate the achievements of women and the progress they and their allies are making toward equality. Because only through true diversity and gender parity will we make the energy transition a reality.
It’s been more than 75 years since the United Nations adopted the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” which was drafted by a commission chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. One of its greatest successes is that the principles of the document such as the right to speak freely, the right to education, healthcare etc., is widely recognized around the world and has helped countless people gain greater freedom and security. However, there is also a bitter truth: While hardly any human right is invoked as often as the declaration’s ban on discrimination – and nearly all conventions include an anti-discrimination clause – people are still discriminated against every day.
And you don’t have to look too far to find such injustice; discrimination takes place right where we are. It’s everywhere in our daily lives and in our immediate environment. It even takes place where openness and tolerance should be the defining elements of belief and philosophy: in public institutions and in businesses, places where diversity is said to be welcome, and differences are embraced as enrichment. And it is often the case that we are directly involved in discriminatory behavior without realizing it.
Meet Vurtricia and her ally Peter
Societies continue to have distinct ideas about what “normal” is, along with deeply held beliefs regarding the existence of a “center” within which a majority exists. On this basis, notions of “normality” become the benchmark for all things, and people or groups who deviate from this standard are marginalized. Such marginalization can take place geographically, economically, socially, or culturally, or in several different ways at the same time.
Marginalization is generally embedded in a power structure and accompanied by discrimination: The closer a group is to society’s margins, the less power it has and the more it is at a disadvantage compared to the “societal center.” Marginalization involves a loss of resources as well as opportunities to gain influence and status. It can affect a person’s health, both physically and mentally. Marginalized groups often represent a minority within the population, but marginalization doesn’t only affect minorities. For example, femininity is marginalized in a patriarchal society even though women are not a minority.
Meet Udoka and her ally Lars
Racism and discrimination come in a wide variety of shapes and forms, ranging from interpersonal discrimination, which takes place between people, to internalized discrimination, which manifests itself in our own beliefs, to structural discrimination, which often shapes businesses and institutions, to intersectional discrimination, in which people face discrimination in multiple ways and in a variety of different contexts.
Discrimination can usually be traced back to certain characteristics, but the following applies in general: It doesn’t matter whether the attribute is actually possessed by the party being discriminated against, such as in cases in which a certain ethnic origin is assumed. It is sufficient when others believe that the attribute applies.
Meet Sarah and her ally Johannes
For people who never or only rarely have been exposed to discrimination, it is hard to comprehend how frustrating, painful, and destructive these experiences can be, both physically and mentally, and what lasting effects they can have. This is especially the case when discrimination is part of everyday life and never stops. In addition to open discrimination, there are also forms of hidden discrimination, sometimes referred to as microaggressions, and they have long since found their way into many people’s lives as everyday racism.
As described by author, activist, and John Jay College psychology professor Kevin Nadal, microaggressions are common, subtle, intentional – and often unintentional – interactions or behaviors that convey a sort of bias against marginalized groups. The difference between microaggressions and overt discrimination (macroaggressions) is that people who commit microaggressions may not even be aware of what they are doing.
An example might be when people reach out to touch black people’s hair without permission or statements such as “You’re very different from the other black people I’ve met so far.” The same applies to formulations that are a form of “othering,” such as “Where are you from?” or “You speak our language well!” People making such statements may have good intentions, but communication like this always sends the same message: We’re the norm and you’re different! Microaggressions are like tiny pinpricks in the same place over and over again. A few might be tolerable, but if they occur regularly and again and again, painful bruises can appear, which can eventually become real wounds.
Unfortunately, discriminatory attitudes and structures are not fringe phenomena but instead widespread. They have a long tradition and are reflected in belief systems, prejudices, notions of normality, and our language. We are all human beings who are prone to making mistakes, and who are capable of committing microaggressions. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a bad person if you commit a microaggression. Instead, you need to concentrate on becoming more aware of your biases and how you are affecting others.
When it comes to discriminatory conduct in the workplace, intercultural trainer, author, and coach Ellen Wagner advises people to “speak up” and call attention to the fact that discrimination has just occurred. To do so, it’s not necessary to enter into a debate on the topic. For example, it is quite sufficient to say: “Come again? I don’t get the joke!” If you aren’t sure whether a person needs help, you can also approach them and ask – and also offer support, if necessary, by volunteering to be a witness to what happened. An alternative would be to later seek out the person who engaged in discriminatory conduct and say: “I noticed something in a recent conversation. Can I give you some feedback on what I heard? From my perspective, such and such happened.” In addition, for future situations in which discrimination occurs, you can also rehearse one or two sentences that you can learn to say reflexively. For example: “What you just said is not okay!”
Join the movement. Become an ally.
The world needs people who do not look the other way when they see or hear racism and discrimination. We can all do a great deal in our everyday lives and at work to make our society more supportive, open, and tolerant. However, marginalized groups receive the strongest and most sustained support through people who are allies.
An ally is a helper, colleague, partner, family member, or a friend. In this context, an ally is someone who has certain structural privileges and joins forces with people who do not have these privileges. For example, men can become allies of women in the feminist movement, cisgender people can take action in alliance with trans* people, people without disabilities can aid the disability movement by fighting ableism, and white people can make common cause with the BIPoC community in the fight against racism. It’s always a matter of taking self-reflective action against discrimination from your respective position of privilege, that is, with awareness of one’s own privileges. An ally takes responsibility for overcoming this discrimination.
In principle, anyone who wants to and who has sufficient readiness to do so can be an ally. The important thing to remember is that it is about providing true, active and continuous support for groups suffering from discrimination; it is not sufficient to just talk about how oppression is wrong.
A central part of being an ally is unconditional willingness to act with and for others. This includes regularly educating yourself about various identities and experiences of marginalized groups. As an ally, you should always be aware of your own biases and reflect on what you realize, even if it is unpleasant. On this basis you can take action against subconscious and discriminatory views.
It’s also important to listen, to try to understand, and to not cast doubt on the statements and narratives of affected individuals. As an ally, active engagement against discrimination and inequality are essential. This means not only objecting when someone makes racist or homophobic remarks but also taking things into your own hands without outside impetus – in other words, demonstrating real willingness to create personal as well as social, institutional, and societal change.
We’re not all the same. Acknowledging that skin color, gender, and sexual orientation play a role in life – especially for those who deviate from the norm, that is, what is presumed to be normal – is fundamentally required in order to actively fight racism and discrimination. The struggle against injustice, exclusion, and oppression cannot and should not be waged by anyone alone, no matter where they are.
At Siemens Energy, we believe that creating a society worth living in involves demonstrating solidarity and creating an environment in the here and now that not only leaves room for diverse identities and lifestyles but also sees them as an enrichment to our lives. We want an environment that offers all people a life that is without fear, that is characterized by equality of opportunity, that asks the same of all of us, and that consolidates its energy on this basis. If we all work together toward this goal, nothing less than great things can come of it – for us, for the future, for all of us. Are you with us?
Act! Become an ally! See what our employees, their families and friends have to say about the important role allyship played in their lives.
Sarah Hashish is an Egyptian living in Germany since 2008. She works for Siemens Energy and has always had a passion for working on people related topics. She often shares stories, feelings, thoughts and ideas on her blog with the hope of helping the world become a better place one human at a time.
Combined picture and video credits: Siemens Energy