Illustration by Impure Pics

Hierarchy is a Tool of Oppression

Arela Simerson
4 min readDec 7, 2023

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The corporate hierarchy is problematic, it directly conflicts with the values or mission of a nonprofit organization, and should be abolished. I get pushback on this from leadership and boards, which isn’t surprising; I’m essentially telling them to give up their stronghold on power and money and distribute it throughout the organization.

Yet this is exactly the right thing to do. Especially those who are in the business of working to help those historically oppressed and exploited. If your organization is there to do impactful work, truly, then it needs to have the internal structure that enables it to do so.

Making a workplace equitable means removing barriers to access. It means providing equal opportunity; it means fair wages, distributed profits and decision-making, and providing humane and healthy workplaces. By design, very little of that can exist in a hierarchy.

It’s easy to understand why capitalist organizations use a hierarchy. The triangle of the hierarchy design maintains the power and control of the elite and creates built-in barriers to access, which safeguards their wealth.

In a traditional hierarchy, people at the bottom are paid less, and as you progress up the triangle, you get paid more. The average pay ratio of CEO to Worker in 2021 was 571-to-1. That’s mild when you look at the top ten earning CEO (Amazon), which is 6,474 to 1. To be clear, we’re not talking about good wages vs outstanding wages. As outlined in this excellent paper, the vast majority of companies still don’t pay most of their workers even a living wage.

There are excessive volumes of books, articles, and tips on how to advance in your career, be successful, and achieve a higher status and salary. In other words; to climb the ladder, but in reality, for most folks, the ladder leads to nowhere, if you can even find a rung available.

There are endless ways to ensure barriers to access. For example, many roles require a university degree. To get a degree in north america, you have to either have enough privilege and resources or have to overcome massive systematic hurdles and most likely go into debt. If you’re in the latter group, you are then locked into repaying this debt and are essentially handcuffed in your work until your debt is paid. This also makes it very hard to speak up or walk away from exploitative workplaces.

The barriers to access that are built in are nearly identical to other forms of systematic oppression.

Hierarchy is defined as: “a system or organization in which people or groups are ranked one above the other according to status or authority.” In other words, a system or structure that gives control to the elites and minimizes the autonomy of the masses.

A hierarchy is competitive by nature, fueling the behaviors associated with that. These behaviors and the act of competition inside an organization are detracting, unhealthy, and limit progress. Being isolated in accountability creates difficulties and danger, which is exactly what happens when we have a small elite space at the top for leadership.

Reflecting on this, I find it heartbreaking that most nonprofits use a traditional hierarchy design. How can you truly support oppressed and exploited folks and environment when your internal organization mirrors the systems that create the harm?

A 2014 study by D5 Coalition found that white people comprise 91% of foundation executive directors, 83% of foundation executive staff, and 68% of program officers. The same study found that only 7% of foundation grant giving went toward nonprofits that explicitly serve people of color.

It’s well observed that leaders of nonprofits, boards, and funders come from the exact systems of oppression that have caused harm to the marginalized group that the nonprofit is looking to serve. This in itself is a serious conflict of interest that requires dismantling.

As outlined in this excellent article by Lazenya Weekes-Richemond; “What the sector so desperately needs is active reflection and action from white women to interrupt the harmful habits and dismantle the structures that perpetuate white supremacy in day-to-day work.”

I understand that hierarchy is still the prevalent organizational design because it’s what we’ve been conditioned to do, by education, work experience, and the people who’ve built organizations before us. I also believe that we can change and build something new.

This requires first acknowledging the participation of the organization in the capitalist and colonialist forms of oppression, then creating accountability and commitment to change, and finally, the creativity to build new ways of being. This is a lot for most people. The first part alone is entirely too uncomfortable at best and, more often than not, is seen as an assault, which then evokes a violent response.

When we are able to work through the first parts, so much is possible; this is the beauty of the design and being in relationship in a truly equitable way. While I don’t expect most existing organizations to drop their hierarchy, I do believe that there are people every day who want to and can find alternatives to the status quo and who will be instrumental in developing new and truly equitable ways of developing and being in community.

Most importantly, it creates the space for us idealist folks in nonprofits to do truly beautiful work, which is healing and helping rather than supporting systems of oppression.

Nonprofits have the opportunity to be a leader in representing the change it wants to see in the world. As so well said in this quote:

“We can’t let one group of privileged people make the decisions for how social change occurs. Instead, we need to move forward with a more collective and community-based decision-making framework.”

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