Marginalization: What It Means and Why It Matters

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Lorelei Yang718
Wonky consultant with a passion for words
Marginalization occurs when certain people — or, in a workplace setting, employees — are treated as invisible, as if they aren't there or their skills or talents are unwelcome or unnecessary. 

What is marginalization in culture?

Marginalized communities exist everywhere. In general, the major groups that are cited as marginalized are ethic and religious minorities, disabled persons, LGBTQ people and women. Critiques of marginalization are increasingly bringing conversations about these groups' exclusion from popular culture into focus. The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, which activist April Reign created in April 2015 in response to an all-white slate of acting nominees, is a high-profile example of this trend. In more everyday cases, marginalization generally takes the form of specific groups' exclusion from day-to-day conversations, decision-making, and community life. 

What are the causes of marginalization?

Marginalization has myriad causes. Some of these include lack of social mobility, inability to communicate across cultural differences, intergroup misunderstanding, economic segregation and a belief — justified or not — that a situation is zero-sum, requiring one group's marginalization in order to allow another group's success. Sometimes, marginalization also comes down to the "-isms": racism, sexism, ableism, etc. 

Marginalization in the workplace

In the workplace context, marginalization is the result of systemic actions that the "in group" takes — whether consciously or unconsciously — to alienate or disenfranchise a specific person or groups of people by sidelining them from the group's main activities and contributions. In their 2012 research article "Workplace Marginalization: In the Group but Out of the Loop," researchers Wang, Liu, Liao & Liu define workplace marginalization as "an individual’s being left out of meaningful participation in group processes and activities even though she/he is a formal member of the group.” While research shows women and minorities are more likely to experience workplace marginalization, this can happen to anyone. 
Marginalization can manifest itself both subtly and overtly. These manifestations can include:
  • Use of derogatory language
  • Assuming someone's accomplishments aren't based on merit
  • Expecting someone to act a certain way based on stereotypes about their identity
  • Denying someone professional opportunities because of their identity (e.g., racism, sexism and ableism)
  • Not providing equal access to resources based based on membership in a particular group
  • Overlooking, criticizing or interfering with a person's cultural or religious traditions and values
  • Systemic and/or institutionalized barriers to access and support

The impact of marginalization

Marginalization can negatively impact individuals' physical, psychological and emotional health. Some — but not all — of these consequences may include feelings of anger, anxiety, fear, depression, self-blame, sadness, stress and isolation. A marginalized employee may also disengage from their work in order to protect themself. When someone doesn't feel included in their workplace, dissociating from it as much as possible is one way to cope; but that, of course, has consequences of its own.
On a societal level, the marginalization of specific individuals and groups carries a cost for society as a whole. When specific people and groups are shunted to the side and not allowed to make their voices heard, everyone loses out on their perspectives and is poorer for it.

Tips for handling marginalization

As an employee feeling marginalized

If you find yourself always feeling marginalized or excluded at work, finding a good support network for yourself, focusing on your work and communicating your concerns to your manager are all useful tools to cope with the situation. 
With that being said, it's also useful to ask yourself whether you're contributing to the problem. Some useful questions to consider are:
  1. Am I talking too much? 
  2. Am I being too negative?
  3. Do I brag about myself excessively?
  4. Do I avoid social situations?
While being social and talkative is needed to develop good working relationships, talking too much can cause your coworkers to start avoiding you if they associate you with lost productivity. So, try keeping your office conversations task-focused and to the point.
Remind yourself that positivity is contagious, and that it'll help you connect with your colleagues. Your colleagues only have so much empathy, and bringing negative energy and stories to the office regularly is a downer. People want to interact and collaborate with coworkers who are positive influencers and contributors. 
When things are going well, it's only natural to want to share. However, if telling your coworkers about your extravagant spending or luxurious vacations becomes a regular habit, they could start to avoid you because they read you as cocky or arrogant. Rather than telling people about yourself, get into the habit of asking them about their lives.
Gatherings outside work, such as happy hours or other coworker confabs, are an important way to get to know your colleagues. While you don't have to participate in every one of these events, never attending them will make your coworkers think you're uninterested in them. Make an effort to attend events, and make a point to regularly converse with your colleagues (but don't overdo it, as discussed above!) so you get to know them and it becomes easier to be social with them.
In addition to trying to solve the problem of your marginalization, you may also find value in finding a strong support network to help you cope. Even if the above strategies are a successful solution to your marginalization, they make take time to bear fruit — so, in the meantime, having a strong support network to vent your frustrations to can help put things in perspective and serve as an outlet for your frustrations.
However, none of this advice applies if you believe you're being marginalized based on your race, ethnicity, gender, language or ability — in those cases, the marginalization is discrimination, and it should be reported through the proper channels.

As an employer of an employee who's feeling marginalized

If you're a manager or leader of a group, you're in a powerful position to ensure that every team member is valued and included in the team's activities. Increasing your self-awareness by asking employees for feedback, participating in unconscious bias training, and ensuring that you keep open lines of communication with all your direct reports are easy steps you can take to ensure you're aware of marginalization as a workplace issue and equipped to address it if it occurs. If you see someone being marginalized on your team, make an effort to bring them to the center: who you, as the team leader, call your team's attention to will be noticed and replicated by your team.
This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.
Lorelei Yang is a New York-based consultant and freelance writer/researcher. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

What’s your no. 1 piece of advice for dealing with marginalization at work? Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss members.