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SIOP UN Team TIP Column August 2020: Systemic Inequality and the United Nations: COVID-19 and Racial Inequality

Ishbel McWha-Hermann, Drew Mallory, Maria Whipple, and Mark Poteet

For many, organizations like the United Nations (UN) are distant, their activities ambiguous, and their results unclear. What is, for example, the UN “global development agenda”? Yet the activities and goals of the UN are much closer to the daily lives of I-O psychologists than you may think, especially in these times of global crisis. For 9 years, through its special consultative status with ECOSOC, SIOP has worked with the UN on issues related to work, worker’s rights, and economic and social justice. The SIOP UN Team strives to raise awareness of I-O research and practice in the global arena, and to enhance the impact of this work on the UN and its activities. In this issue’s column from the UN Team, we address two of the most salient issues currently facing society—COVID-19 and racial inequality—with the goal of highlighting some of the ways in which SIOP members can tap into the UN’s initiatives and support its important mission.

The Sustainable Development Goals and Systemic Inequality

The Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, are the UN’s ambitious roadmap for alleviating poverty and inequality around the world by 2030. Covering a wide range of social topics, the 17 goals are underpinned by a desire to improve the lives of all people, recognizing that injustices that perpetuate poverty and inequality over generations are often embedded in the fabric of society.

With our focus on work, I-O psychologists often emphasize the contributions we can make to SDG8 (decent work and economic growth). But we have clear contributions to make to many other SDGs, such as SDG1 (no poverty), SDG5 (gender equality), SDG10 (reduced inequalities), and SDG17 (partnerships for the goals) as well. These SDGs are clearly underpinned by issues of systemic inequality and how to address them.

I-O research and practice can speak directly to two clear examples of systemic inequality that have become particularly salient in present times. The first is the sudden arrival of the global COVID-19 pandemic; the second is the longstanding racial inequality that has been brought into sharp focus by recent events.

COVID-19 Pandemic

At first glance, the virus seemed to indiscriminately touch us all. It afflicted (almost) all nations of the world, rich and poor, and infected people from all backgrounds and strata within society. Of course, we now know that the impact of coronavirus falls disproportionately on those who are older, and those with disabilities and chronic health conditions, as well as those from ethnic minority backgrounds. Apart from potential genetic and biological differences, studies have linked increased COVID-19 rates among ethnic minorities to overcrowding and material deprivation (Raisi-Estabragh, et al., 2020). Across socioeconomic groups, those living in poverty are disproportionately impacted.

Not only is COVID-19 disproportionately overrepresented among those living in poverty, but it is also predicted that COVID-19 will move a substantial number of people at risk of poverty over the brink. Up to 400 million people may be pushed into extreme poverty (defined as less than US$1.90 per day; Sumner et al., 2020). In lower income countries, this shift is likely to have profoundly dire effects. In many of these countries, the joint effects of weaker health systems, poorer air quality, and a large portion of the population engaged in work within the informal economy are likely to even further exacerbate the negative impact of COVID-19.  Solutions that work in higher income countries may not translate into these contexts, either. For instance, in response to office closures around the world, a large portion of many workforces has shifted to homeworking. Yet research shows those in lower income economies are simply less able to do so. Although in the US, 37% of jobs are considered able to be performed entirely at home if necessary; this drops below 25% in many lower income countries, and as low as 5% in countries like Madagascar and Mozambique (Dingel & Neiman, 2020). Overall, those already more likely to be living in poverty, and thus to disproportionately experience the negative health impact of the virus, are also most likely to be overcome by the virus’s devastating effects on the economy.

The initial response from the UN to the COVID-19 pandemic was to rapidly mobilize a global humanitarian assistance effort (UN, 2020). As the pandemic progressed, a more comprehensive response has been assembled, which goes beyond the immediate health emergency to address the economic, humanitarian, security, and human rights crises unfolding as a result of the intersection of the pandemic and pre-existing social fault lines. Although the response has medical components, it also reaches far beyond hospital rooms and doctors’ offices. The UN reaction to COVID-19 recognizes that addressing the systemic inequalities undergirding the pandemic cannot be disarticulated from addressing the disease itself. Along with other experts, I-O psychologists can contribute to articulating and addressing the role that factors such as gender, family and ethnic background, race, and disability play on life outcomes, and how structures within society perpetuate inequality for these groups. From a practice standpoint, I-O psychologists can and are using their expertise to provide organizations and employees with assistance in addressing issues of inequality and injustice. By explicitly introducing these issues in their research and publications, I-O scholars are broadening the perspectives of fellow academics by highlighting the impact of I-O topics on vulnerable populations and sustainability. Through working to repurpose and disseminate findings to a broader audience beyond traditional research journal outlets, multiple committees within SIOP are sponsoring or producing white papers that can be used to provide guidance for how I-O psychology can address issues of systematic injustice and marginalization that undergird the destructive influences of crises like COVID-19. For example, the International Affairs Committee recently sponsored a white paper on the role of organizational training in addressing what may seem to be a far-distant issue: sex trafficking (Mills et al., 2020).

Racial Inequality: Black Lives Matter

2020 will also be remembered for the systemic racism and police brutality that reached a flashpoint in the United States following the police killing of George Floyd and many others before him, including Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor (Holmes, 2020; Sobo et al., 2020). The deaths of these individuals thrust entrenched, intergenerational racial disparities and the disproportionate vulnerability experienced by Americans of African descent into sharp relief, and further catalyzed the Black Lives Matter (BLM) social movement. Quickly, tense debates arose between BLM supporters and those espousing that “All Lives Matter,” a seemingly innocuous call that masks the issue and subverts its calls for remediating racial biases, nonviolent protest against police brutality, and racial injustices across the board (Gallagher et al., 2018) and around the world (Gikandi, 2020; Martirosyan, 2020; Valencia, 2020). 

The United Nations has long campaigned against racial discrimination, including numerous long-standing international agreements, such as the 1969 International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), as well as an International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, observed annually on March 21. In 2012 a United Nations Network on racial discrimination and the protection of minorities was also established. Addressing racial inequality is also embedded within the SDGs, for example, ensuring access to a just and fair system through SDG16, reducing economic inequalities through SDG10, and promoting healthy lives and well-being through SDG3. More recently, BLM has prompted a renewed commitment to combat systemic racism from numerous UN agencies and the launching of renewed efforts to address systemic racism, spearheaded by Michelle Bachelet, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Nongovernmental organizations and corporations have also been spurred to action aimed at directly addressing systemic racism. For instance, since the tragic death of George Floyd in May, World Economic Forum partners have donated billions of dollars to social justice organizations. Moreover, major corporations such as PayPal, LEGO, NIKE, and many others have all pushed through workplace initiatives that directly address inequality and promote social justice (Markovitz & Sault, 2020). Although these actions aim to protect lives and address inequality, they have also been criticized for failing to sufficiently acknowledge underlying systemic impediments to equality (e.g., Creswell & Draper, 2020). It is the job of I-O psychologists and other experts to not only ensure the fair design, application, and monitoring of corporate policies but also to look beyond such policies to interrogate the heart of equality, diversity, and inclusion initiatives.  Even more broadly, I-O psychologists have the analytical, research, and measurement capabilities needed to help companies evaluate and understand how their policies, programs, and practices may be impacting factors that contribute to systemic inequality—for example, the effectiveness of workplace training on preventing racial profiling.

There are additional actions that I-O psychologists have taken, and can continue to take, to address injustice and systemic racism, and thus contribute to the UN’s SDGs. Of course, research and writing on workplace issues that contribute to, and are impacted by, injustice and racism continue to be primary tools for I-O psychologists to use. By recent example, Alexander Alonso provided several practical ways in which employees, human resources professionals, and organizations can have and manage conversations about racial injustice in the workplace (Alonso, 2020). Also, Derek Avery and Enrica Ruggs recently provided readers of MIT Sloan Management Review with several strategies for helping to combat workplace discrimination (Avery & Ruggs, 2020). From a systemic perspective, I-O psychologists can impact justice and racial issues by helping organizations to define their vision, values, expectations, and competency models in ways that reflect and incorporate behaviors and attitudes that support racial justice and diversity, inclusion, and equality. From there, using traditional I-O practices such as training and selection, I-O psychologists can work with organizations to design programs that reinforce and hold employees and the company accountable for demonstrating these behaviors and attitudes.  Reflecting this, recent issues of the Industrial and Organizational Psychology journal delved into the role and impact of training on such issues as sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and workplace civility, with several concrete tips and guidance provided.

How Else Can SIOP Members Get Involved?

Issues of systemic inequality and developing ways to address them are clear foundations of the SDGs, which aim to improve quality of life for all people, regardless of their country of origin, ethnic or tribal status, gender, or any other characteristic. The SDGs recognize that global inequalities reflect the distribution of wealth, and that distribution of wealth is impacted by unequal access to (and relevance of) structures in society. The SDGs provide a framework for using structural issues as a starting point to draw out systemic challenges to equality. As I-O psychologists, we can use this framework as a springboard to connect those systemic challenges to individual and organizational outcomes (and vice versa), helping to develop research, interventions, and other activities to address them. At present, regardless of the environment, level, or goals an I-O psychologist finds themselves in, there are ways to take immediate SDG-inspired action that stand to affect the lives of those affected by issues like those we have discussed.

At the level of policy, given the expertise and perspective that I-O psychologists have, they are in prime position to author and present position papers and policy briefs that tackle racism and injustice within the world of work. The SIOP UN team, for example, provided a policy brief and input into the UN’s Global Sustainable Development Report (Gloss et al., 2016). Additionally, in 2015, Ruth Kanfer, Lisa Finkelstein, and Mo Wang presented at a congressional briefing on how organizations and policymakers can manage issues related to the aging workforce. Contacting and working through SIOP’s Government Relations Advocacy Team (GREAT) is another avenue for SIOP members to contribute to advocacy efforts.

At the level of higher education and organizations, in the last few years, several I-O programs in the United States, including George Mason University and California State University, Fresno, have led their universities to register with the United Nations Global Compact. The Global Compact is a voluntary commitment toward responsible business practices based on principles of human rights, labor, environment, and anticorruption. Program signatories pledge to uphold these values in their pedagogy and research, ensuring that the newest generation of I-O psychologists are well schooled on how I-O psychology can contribute to the greater good (see SIOP’s tips for I-O programs). I-O practitioners can likewise encourage their organization to formally commit to sustainability and the UN goals through joining the Global Compact.

Involvement outside of these institutional contexts is equally important, starting by simply exploring the goals and their specific targets. There is a wealth of easily digestible information available online that can help to explain the SDGs and what you, your organization, and your communities can do to contribute. Over the next year, stay tuned to SIOP’s YouTube channel for our own upcoming video series introducing how the SIOP UN Committee is relying on the SDGs in our research, education, consulting, and practice. Share your thoughts with the team there, or reach out to us at SIOPUN@siop.org.


The UN has been combating inequality for decades—and so has I-O psychology. As the world stands at the nexus of issues like COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter, it also stands on the brink of an incredible opportunity for change. In this moment, governments, corporations, and individuals have been forced to acknowledge the realities of social injustices in ways both intimate and immediate. Through our contributions to the United Nations, as practitioners, scholars, organizations, and a committee, I-O psychologists are poised to contribute evidence for how systemic inequality can be addressed in the organizations we work, design, and research. By using the SDGs as a framework to link our work with systemic inequality, we can position our research to respond and contribute to global issues and assist the UN to develop evidence-informed interventions. To learn more about SIOP’s work with the UN and how you can get involved, visit the SIOP UN Team website.

The SIOP UN Team is Julie Olson-Buchanan (Chair), Morrie Mullins, Mathian Osicki, Mark Poteet, Walter Reichman, Nabila Sheikh, Stuart Carr, Lori Foster, Aimee Lace, Daniel Maday, Drew Mallory, Ishbel McWha-Hermann, Ines Meyer, Maria L. Whipple.



Alonso, A. (June, 2020). Tips for discussing racial injustice in the workplace. Society for Human Resource Management. https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/behavioral-competencies/global-and-cultural-effectiveness/pages/tips-for-discussing-racial-injustice-in-the-workplace.aspx

Avery, D. R., & Ruggs, E. R. (2020, July). Confronting the uncomfortable reality of workplace discrimination. MIT Sloan Management Review. Retrieved from https://0-sloanreview-mit-edu.library.alliant.edu/article/confronting-the-uncomfortable-reality-of-workplace-discrimination/

Creswell, J., & Draper, K. (2020). Adidas pledges to increase diversity. Some employees want more. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/10/business/adidas-black-employees-discrimination.html

Dingel, J. I., & Neiman, B. (2020). How many jobs can be done at home? Journal of Public Economics, 189.

Gallagher, R. J., Reagan, A. J., Danforth, C. M., & Dodds, P. S. (2018). Divergent discourse between protests and counter-protests: #BlackLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter. PloS one, 13(4), e0195644.

Gikandi, H. (2020, June 4). Police killing of George Floyd strikes a chord in Kenya. The World: Protest. Retrieved from: https://www.pri.org/stories/2020-06-04/police-killing-george-floyd-strikes-cord-kenya

Gloss, A., Foster, L., Rupp, D. E., Scott, J. C., Saari, L., Osicki, M., Charles, K., Mallory, D., & Maday, D. (2016). United Nations policy brief—decent work for all: Leveraging big data for human-centered approach to sustainable development. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 53(4).

Holmes, O., IV. (2020). Police brutality and four other ways racism kills Black people. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal. https://doi.org/10.1108/EDI-06-2020-0151

Markovitz, G., & Sault, S. (2020, June 24). What companies are doing to fight systemic racism. World Economic Forum. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/06/companies-fighting-systemic-racism-business-community-black-lives-matter/

Martirosyan, L. (2020, June 16). In France, the killing of George Floyd invokes the memory of Adama Traoré. The World: Protest. Retrieved from https://www.pri.org/stories/2020-06-08/france-killing-george-floyd-invokes-memory-adama-traor

Mills, M. J., Tortez, L. M., & Blanton, R. (2020). Be the eyes: Training employees to recognize industry-relevant indicators of sex trafficking. Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology: International Affairs Committee white paper.

Raisi-Estabragh, Z., McCracken, C., Bethell, M. S., Cooper, J., Cooper, C., Caulfield, M. J., Munroe, P. B., Harvey, N. C., & Petersen, S. E. (2020). Greater risk of severe COVID-19 in Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic populations is not explained by cardiometabolic, socioeconomic or behavioural factors, or by 25 (OH)-vitamin D status: Study of 1326 cases from the UK Biobank. Journal of Public Health, 42(3), 451–460.

Sobo, E. J., Lambert, H., & Heath, C. D. (2020). More than a teachable moment: Black lives matter. Anthropology & Medicine, 1–6. Advance online publicationhttps://doi.org/10.1080/13648470.2020.1783054

Sumner, A., Ortiz-Juarez, E. & Hoy, C. (2020). Precarity and the pandemic: COVID-19 and poverty incidence, intensity, and severity in developing countries. WIDER Working Paper 2020/77. Helsinki: UNU-WIDER.

United Nations (UN). (2020). United Nations comprehensive response to COVID-19: Saving lives, protecting societies, recovering better. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/un_comprehensive_response_to_COVID-19_june_2020.pdf

Valencia, J. (2020, June 15). Black Lives Matter protests renew parallel debates in Brazil, Colombia. The World: Conflict and Justice. Retrieved from https://www.pri.org/stories/2020-06-15/black-lives-matter-protests-renew-parallel-debates-brazil-colombia

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