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University of Silesia in Katowice

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things to know about discrimination

Definition

Discrimination, or unequal treatment, is the unfair, prejudicial, lesser treatment of a person or a group of people in comparison to others, due to a certain characteristic. The most common bases of discrimination are gender, age, race, disability, sexual orientation, physical features, religion, being part of an ethnic, national, or socio-cultural group, political opinions or other beliefs, as well as financial situation, social origin, and other circumstances. Discrimination may relate to any characteristic considered undesirable or less valuable by the dominant group in a given environment. In a university, the basis of discrimination might include a lack of an academic degree, staff group membership, form of employment, academic performance, mode of study, or the place of study.

Examples:

  • the examiner assesses students less favourably on the basis of the religious symbols they wear, although they demonstrate the same level of knowledge;
  • students ridicule, i.e. humiliate non-heteronormative people;
  • a lecturer announces that only people who are not religious may take part in their seminar;
  • people of a different skin colour are skipped in the queue at the canteen;
  • toilets for people with disabilities are locked, and the key is available at the porter’s lodge.

An objective distinction made on the basis of behaviour, function, responsibilities, or performance does not constitute discrimination. Treating all people the same way is not the opposite of unequal treatment.  

Discrimination constitutes specific behaviour, which can be extremely varied in its form and manifest itself both in a particular behaviour towards a person and in phrases, jokes, and gestures used. At the same time, the person engaging in discrimination may not be aware of the discriminatory character of their behaviour and its consequences.

Discrimination is considered to be a one-off act, although it usually occurs repeatedly over a long period of time.

Types of discrimination

Discrimination can be direct (overt), when, for example, a lecturer does not allow a female student to participate in his experiments, assuming that as a woman she is less capable. The basis for treating a person in an inferior way is the perception of that person through the lens of a legally protected characteristic, in this example, gender.

Discrimination may have multiple bases simultaneously, e.g. gender and ethnic origin, in which case we speak of multiple discrimination.

Discrimination may also have an institutional character, usually resulting from a lack of appropriate regulations. For example, lack of access to information or documents in foreign languages. Another example may be inaccessibility due to architectural barriers in the premises of a given organisation.

Discrimination can also be indirect, when seemingly neutral decisions, regulations or practices disadvantage individuals (or a whole group) with certain characteristics. For example, the way in which a written examination is conducted at a university may discriminate people with certain disabilities who cannot meet the examiner’s expectations within a strict time limit. Another example might be setting up recruitment/promotion criteria in such a way that, for example, people of a certain nationality have no chance of fulfilling them.

Impact of discrimination

Experiencing discrimination is always destructive to one’s sense of identity and violates the dignity of those who experience it. Discrimination can result in a noticeable psychological destabilisation of the person experiencing it, a sense of injustice and absurdity, strong psychological stress, depression, the development of a sense of inferiority. Discriminatory actions result in marginalisation, limit people’s personal development, create a sense of isolation and exclusion.

Instances of discrimination at the University are not only illegal, but also undermine the very essence of the University as a community and as an organisation. Their existence challenges the University’s accepted values and causes a working atmosphere that destroys mutual respect, reduces creativity, inhibits or even prevents cooperation and exchange of ideas, discredits diversity, and fosters retaliatory responses. It is therefore essential to take actions designed to eliminate discrimination and to prevent it effectively. Ensuring equality and diversity means upholding core academic and democratic values and fulfilling the idea of the University as a community of comprehensive development.

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