“Prejudice is like a hair across your cheek. You can’t see it, you can’t find it with your fingers, but you keep brushing at it because the feel of it is irritating.”
Discrimination is a pervasive problem in American society, and it has long roots throughout our history. It can be based on a number of things, from race, gender, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation, and even employment status. The government created affirmative action laws to battle it, but discrimination still exists to this day. It is hard to prove, which is why it continues. In one way or another, we have all probably faced it at some point in our careers.
When one thinks of discrimination, one usually thinks of racism. Nonprofits, which tend to be socially progressive, do not generally have that problem. They want diversity in their offices and programs. The more diverse workforce an organization has, the greater support they get from the community and funding organizations. While there are culturally and racially based organizations that want to hire employees from their ethnic or racial groups, the majority have done what I consider to be a pretty good job of giving opportunities to a wider segment of the community.
I have seen more sexism in the nonprofit sector. Early in my career, I was an Early Childhood Educator. I have a degree in Education, and I worked in children’s programs for many years. While some of my employers appreciated having a positive male role model for the many children who did not have one in the home, there were others who did not. At one position where I worked with three year old children, I lost my job for drinking coffee (not Irish coffee) while outside, waiting for my class to come out for an Easter egg hunt. As I was about to leave the Director’s office, she told me that she never felt comfortable having a man on staff. I have also suspected that having a Y chromosome has prevented landing other jobs with organizations that serve a female clientele, but knowing that discrimination is hard to prove, and most organizations will not tell why you were not hired, it is only a suspicion.
Another issue is sexual orientation. There are many religiously affiliated organizations that adhere to the Abramic (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) teachings that homosexuality is a sin, and will not hire an openly gay or lesbian employee. These stories are often found in the news, and the organizations are vilified in the press. However, I have heard anecdotal stories from heterosexuals that have applied for positions with gay groups and were denied positions when they were well qualified to do the job. Discrimination can be a two way street.
If you read my blog post a few weeks ago, “Do Nonprofit HR Managers Really Appreciate their Volunteers” (http://cnrg-portland.org/content/do-nonprofit-hr-coordinators-really-appreciate-volunteers) I mentioned that older volunteers are often overlooked when hiring. Ageism is frequently a topic of conversation with job seekers in the nonprofit sector. I read it all the time in nonprofit networking groups on Linked In, and I hear about it often in conversations with job seekers I meet. Some I have met have had long careers and cannot find work, regardless of their extensive experience. Those who make the decisions about passing on the resumes to those hiring for a position look for clues indicating age, and job seeking consultants now tell job seekers to leave anything that might indicate age off resumes to avoid discriminatory actions. Some even suggest dyeing hair to cover up any gray. I met with someone who responded to my blog, and after meeting her, I agreed with her assumption that it was probably her age that denied her chance with the organization.
Oregon is a pretty secular state. According to statistics I have seen in the past, only ten percent of Oregonians go to religious services on a regular basis. Many organizations that were originally started as a mission of a church or synagogue have dropped their affiliations to religion for one reason or another, and those who openly identify and proclaim their beliefs are often overlooked. Although religions are quite diverse in their beliefs, many see them as rigid and spiteful. Watch the evening news sometime and you will see what I mean. Progressive minded people often don’t appreciate those with traditional values, ridiculing them. I hear and see it happen often.
Finally, there are those who discriminate on employment status. A few years ago, CNRG put together a panel discussion with people who did the hiring for their organizations. I was surprised to hear two of the four speakers say that they would not hire someone who was not working. A year or two later, want ads started stating “Jobless need not apply.” I hate to say that I heard that first from the nonprofit sector before I heard that in the business sector. I still don’t understand how ignoring the jobless when hiring is going to do anything to reduce the unemployment rate.
In some ways, the discrimination problem has improved in society, but in other ways, it still remains. We all have our biases, and history shows it takes time to change our way of thinking, I guess, but discrimination will still be with us until we honestly acknowledge its existence and shine the light of day on it. If and only then, will we change our ways.