Institutional discrimination refers to policies and practices that favor a dominant group and are discriminatory and unfavorable towards a subordinate group.
These policies and practices are embedded in the structure of society in the form of laws, norms, policies or procedures.
Institutional discrimination happens on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality, age, gender, religion, socio-economic background or disability, amongst others.
So we can, for example, talk about institutionalized racism or institutionalized sexism to refer to specific types of discrimination.
Institutionalized discrimination differs from individual discrimination in that the latter is about treating an individual unjustly based on group membership.
As institutional discrimination is embedded in structures, it is often harder to observe. However, it is important to detect it as it plays an important role in creating social inequality.
What is Institutional Discrimination?
“Institutional discrimination refers to prejudicial practices and policies within institutions that result in the systematic denial of resources and opportunities to members of subordinate groups. Institutional discrimination differs from individual-level discrimination in that inequity is maintained by the laws, organizational guidelines, or traditions of an institution.” (Cunningham and Light, 2007, p. 1)
The power of institutional discrimination is that it permeates the practices of whole institutions, such as education, employment, housing, law, and even the banking system, so it goes beyond isolated individual discrimination.
This characteristic makes institutional discrimination not only hard to detect but also harder to fight as it is subtle and pervasive. Many people who participate in it believe, in full good faith, that they are not complicit in discrimination.
Another issue with the embedment of discrimination in institutional practices is that it helps maintain privilege and power: as dominant groups control social institutions, they keep subordinate groups away from things such as jobs, resources or networks.
Institutional discrimination can be direct or indirect:
- Direct institutional discrimination refers to policies and laws that discriminate against subordinate groups and promote generational patterns of inequality. An extreme example of this would be apartheid rules.
- Indirect institutional discrimination can be policies and laws, but also practices that discriminate against some groups but are not necessarily put in place to cause harm. An example of this would be equality plans that do not contemplate men as having family responsibilities and do not include conciliatory policies.
- Redlining: People from ethnic minority backgrounds are sometimes denied financial services, like mortgages or loans based on a discriminatory practice called redlining. Redlining involves denying financial services to people who reside in neighborhoods with great numbers of people from ethnic minority backgrounds as they are thought of as risky to invest in. An associated phenomenon is racial steering in real estate.
- Ageism in the workplace: Institutional discrimination at the workplace can happen to elder workers. For example, older workers are often excluded from training as they are not seen worth investing in.
- Underpayment in Feminized Industries: Women suffer institutional discrimination in the professional and academic spheres: lower wages and stagnant careers (caused by stereotypes and policies) are two examples of this.
- Transgender Healthcare Policies: Transgender people are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed. They are also less likely to enjoy equal access to benefits derived from work or having health insurance coverage.
- Marriage Discrimination: Banning homosexual marriage is a type of institutional discrimination that lesbian, gay men and bisexual population suffer. This means they cannot access the same benefits, rights and privileges acquired through marriage that heterosexual people have.
- Discrimination on Hairstyles: Some workplaces restrict certain hairstyles, such as dreadlocks or natural hair, as they are (wrongly) deemed unprofessional. This work culture discriminates against black people who have to cohere to the dominant culture’s beliefs about appropriate hairstyles.
- Women of Childbirth Age: There is one type of institutionalized discrimination that women of childbearing age face: being denied a job. Employees often think that they may soon have children and go on maternity leave.
- Paternity Leave: Fathers, may face another type of institutional discrimination of a sexist nature as well. Because mothers are often seen as the main carers, those fathers wanting to take extended paternity leave or reduce their work hours may be frowned upon.
- Religious Discrimination in the Workplace: A specific type of institutional discrimination is religious discrimination. This can happen in work settings, for example, by not allowing a Muslim woman to wear a headscarf or Sikh man to wear a turban. For example, Qebec’s ban on religious headdresses is seen by most other Canadian provinces as an offence to Canadian values of cultural plurality.
Also known as institutional racism, this type of discrimination differs from that perpetrated by individuals in a direct and overt manner (Lajoe, 2011).
Institutionalized racism is a type of discrimination based on race or ethnicity that is perpetrated by institutions, either social, political or even economic ones.
When this type of discrimination is at play it affects whole groups of people who belong to the same racial or ethnic group (Lajoe, 2011).
Institutionalized discrimination based on race can be seen in different areas, such as the labor market.
For example, research has shown that black graduates with the same qualifications had lower wages and more job instability, amongst others, than their white counterparts.
One of the social groups that may suffer the consequences of institutional discrimination is people with disabilities.
People with reduced mobility face particular difficulties that come from not being taken into account when planning transport, homes, offices, shops, and many other buildings (Barnes, 1994).
What can be considered a hostile physical environment means that people with reduced mobility are often more isolated and depend more on people to get around.
This, in turn, has an impact on their educational opportunities, on their employment chances and thus, in general, on getting ahead in life. Physical barriers then turn into barriers preventing people from developing their lives with the same conditions as those who do not have reduced mobility.
Age discrimination, also known as ageism, is based on stereotypes about older people’s attitudes, capabilities or attractiveness, amongst other things.
Research has shown that ageism at the workplace persists and that it can manifest itself in many ways, contributing to institutional discrimination of older people.
An example of this is discrimination of older female workers in face-to-face customer oriented jobs, such as restaurants or bars, which are gendered and sometimes sexualised workplaces.
Older female workers, who are subjected to stereotypes of youth and beauty, are often replaced or have their hours cut out in favor of younger women (Rosigno et al, 2007).
There are many places in which those people who identify as women suffer institutional discrimination. This discrimination poses barriers to career progression, both in the academic sphere, particularly in the field of science, and in the workplace.
Historically, when women have been in the same field as men have had fewer opportunities for promotion to senior roles due to ‘boys clubs’, business deals taking place on the golf course, and so on.
This can also be related to stereotypes of femininity which hold that women are not natural-born leaders and inherently less competent than men.
This opens up debates about affirmative action, which has its own pros and cons.
Institutional discrimination against transgender people is a contemporary problem that is growing in scope.
Transgender people has been found to be highly educated, with a great percentage having a college or a graduate degree (Hatzenbuehler et al., 2010).
Yet when it comes to their employment opportunities, the impact of social stigma and bias becomes clear.
One of the discriminations they face is with regard to legal documents. When their current outer appearance does not match the gender shown in their identity card seeking work and being hired becomes highly complicated.
High unemployment and underemployment, despite being qualified, amongst transgender people show the discrimination they suffer. This also places them at a greater risk of poverty and social exclusion.
Institutional discrimination can be thought of as one of the main mechanisms by which many of today’s unfair social injustices are channeled. What is more, the many types of institutional bias practices mean that issues such as racism or sexism continue to grow.
The fabric of social institutions is imbued with discriminatory practices, procedures, attitudes and sometimes even policies. Because of this, institutional discrimination is hard to detect and hard to fight. However, it is an essential job to do so if we want to work towards a fairer society.
Barnes, C. (1994). Institutional discrimination, disabled people and interprofessional care. Journal of Interprofessional Care, 8(2), 203–212. doi 10.3109/13561829409010420
Cunningham, J. and Light, R. (2007) Institutional discrimination. In Ritzer, G. (ed.) The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. London: Blackwell.
Hatzenbuehler, M. L., McLaughlin, K. A., Keyes, K. M., & Hasin, D. S. (2010). The impact of institutional discrimination on psychiatric disorders in lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations: A prospective study. American journal of public health, 100(3), 452-459. doi: https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2009.168815
Lajoe, T. (2011). African Americans: From segregation to modern institutional Discrimination and Modern Racism. Diversity and Society: Race, Ethnicity, and Gender, 2012, 175-227.
Riley, S., Frith, H., Archer, L., & Veseley, L. (2006). Institutional sexism in academia. Psychologist-Leicester, 19(2), 94.
Roscigno, V. J., Mong, S., Byron, R. & Tester G (2007) Age Discrimination, Social Closure and Employment Social Forces. 86, 1. pp. 313-334. doi: https://doi.org/10.1353/sof.2007.0109