We started thinking about, and then measuring, Privilege a while back, but it has proved to be THE most difficult conversation to start here in ever-egalitarian Australia. The very place where the notion of ‘a fair go’ is a critical patch of the Aussie cultural quilt. So, while our data on mapping culture using Belonging and understanding genuine Inclusion, by looking at Identity, have taken off, this one on Privilege is the laggard.

For some reason, you raise the topic of Privilege and everyone shifts uncomfortably in their seat. They either leave the room, or defensively explain why they have less privilege than you thought they did, (not that you had any idea what privilege they had, nor had you thought about it until now). And those that have grown up with seriously little privilege simply sit more quietly, no doubt muting the rich perspectives and divergent lived experiences that would add value to the conversation.

And let’s call a spade a spade, that muting of those with a different view to the status quo is not new.

In Australia today, people without privilege have less forums and influence to raise opinions, views and perspectives.  For so long as we are not willing to get under the skin of the conversation on privilege, and its profound impact on opportunity and ultimately on success, we are confining and severely constricting the discussion on diversity, inclusion and belonging.

But what if we tried to understand and talk about Privilege as an opportunity rather than a judgement – whatever your base level of privilege is as an individual.

We want to talk about HOW we might do that, but first we want to talk about WHY.

We all get the theory of privilege.

It’s pretty obvious that sitting around the dinner table discussing career tactics, networking, and financial planning with your Dad, who’s managing partner of the law firm, is going to be infinitely more helpful than discussing the security of Mum’s employment at the sewing factory, or whether the changes in the safety bonus at the coal mine will put Dad’s Christmas bonus at risk, or how to handle feed during a drought on the farm.

The career planning and networking conversations over dinner, over many years, teach how best to manage the corporate ladder. It saves years of painful lessons in your twenties and thirties while the rest of us shmucks think it is all about hard work. We already know the old adage ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’ is critical – who you hang with and who you don’t. And doing the right work, not just lots of work. Asking for the right opportunities not hoping they happen along.

It’s a pretty obvious theory.

How Privilege plays out

We started looking at Privilege in 2014. Actually, it was as we did some work trying to understand why some women, with the odds stacked against them in the corporate world, rose to the top and others didn’t. Using Appreciative Inquiry, we wanted to understand what these superwomen had in common. We found seven factors. And the vast majority of them were from childhood.

So, that was interesting. We then mapped those factors across the men who were their peers and they mapped perfectly. The men also had the same ‘from birth’ privileges. This was the subject of my 2017 TedX Talk – “The 7 Aces of Privilege, and how to play without them”.

We then took the list and starting mapping them across the top teams of ASX companies, and public institutions. They mapped equally well. By now, we’d gone from 7 to 10 factors. Some were well known – ‘socio-economic status of your parents’ or ‘cultural and linguistic diversity’ – and others are less obvious –‘religion’ and ‘some sports’.

So, we started looking at whole organisations, and guess what? In the two and a half years since then, we’ve found that the ten Privilege factors map by organisational layer in every organisation we’ve looked at. The pattern looks like this:

  • Boards, CEOs and their Executive Teams all averaged 8.5 to 9 out of 10 of the factors
  • Direct Reports of the Executive Teams map to 7.5 out of 10 of the factors
  • All People Leaders map at 5 out of 10 of the factors

That means that these ten factors have a pretty extraordinary correlation to whether or not you’ll even have a shot to be a supervisor, let alone a CEO.

WHY does it matter?

Its matters because if you’re building a workplace where all people have opportunities, and you’re chatting about merit and choosing the best possible, you need to understand two things:

  1. that there are factors that are way more powerful than any brilliant talent grid or ‘selection criterion’ that you’re looking at, and
  2. that you’re choosing your ‘best and brightest’ from the tiniest of tiny subsets of society, and that has got to mess with your ability to understand the rest of society, your customers and your public

In short, it means that our ‘merit’ based society is actually built on a ‘from birth class system’, and that’s sort of not who we think we are. Hardly a fair go, is it?

Challenging Individual Merit and National Identity while we’re there

When you say “there’s a possibility that you had a massive lift before you started’, people get super mad. “What!!!?! I worked hard, studied hard, thought hard, had a little luck… maybe, but birthrights had naught to do with my success”.

We get the personal reaction. We all want to think that it’s a level playing field and we’re winning, plus even amongst the most elite in the privileged class, I’m sure there is still some competition for that highest rung on the ladder.

And besides, you didn’t ask for privilege. You just got it. It’s all you and your brothers, sisters, and probably your cousins and childhood friends have known.

But in this country, it’s beyond that issue. We have a national identity that we’re egalitarian. We like to think we don’t have a class system that locks you in from birth. We love the story from underdog to champion (perhaps from our love of sport). But this whole idea of Privilege, and the data that supports it, says that that national identity might just be a little out-of-date if, in fact, it was ever the case.

It’s personal, and we need to get past that.  

Sure. Whatever our background, most of us gravitate to what we know.

If my sisters and I both did well, it’s because we worked hard, and so did our friends. We don’t really tell our career stories that “we were born on rung 7 of the 10 rung ladder – we are grateful for that – and this is how we navigated the last 3 rungs”. We tell our career stories in chronological order starting on whatever rung we started on as if its rung 1.

And for those of us born without privilege, or without much privilege, we love the underdog. The story of the ‘son-of-CEO who made it all the way to CEO’ is ho-hum, but the story of the daughter of the corner store owners who worked seven days a week as a kid, alongside Mum and Dad, and went on to become a leading academic, well, we LOVE that story.

The reality is that it is personal, but we need to get past that.

It’s about much more than just me or just you.

It’s about the society we live in or want to live in, and it’s the very foundation of diversity and inclusion. If the super successful all went to the same three private schools, then where are the kids who went to the other thousands of public schools, and where are their opportunities? What could they teach us?

So, what do we want to do?

In a nutshell, we want to change two conversations, and both start on the same honest foundation.

At the aggregate, we want organisations to know how much Privilege is baked into their system. What is ‘Talent’ and what does potential really measure? Who’s getting through to the top and who’s missing. And why. Stop talking about ‘inclusion’ and start changing the rules so its genuinely available for everyone. Equal opportunity should not be built on ten factors gifted to just a few at birth. A system that is this entrenched requires smart, constructive challenging thinking to move it to a better place. If we just lock in the same ‘ten percent’, we will never have the best leaders, best thinkers, best of anything to build the future.

And individually, we want every one of us to be more self-aware of our starting position, and the Privilege we have in our hands to use. We want to think about who’s ‘not’ next to us, and how they might help them get there. Not just “here’s my story” but “how I might help you”. Not just “here’s my son or daughter doing great things”, but “here’s someone not like me, who has a lot to offer”.

We’d love your help

Take the Privilege Index and know yourself. Where you sit compared to others.

Think about how you can use the Privilege you have to help others.

And then take it into your organisation, compare it with your friends and even your kids. Are you close to making a genuinely inclusive system or are you stuck in a façade of nice speeches.

Over to you.

Note about mwah.

mwah. has been working with the Privilege Index for a few years.

If you’d like more information, please let us know at [email protected] 

Watch Rhonda’s TEDx Talk – “The 7 Aces of Privilege, and how to play without them” below