The lack of workforce diversity affects virtually every business. We need to figure out how to fight the kind of workplace discrimination that creates cultural uniformity in our businesses for two reasons. First, it’s the right thing to do; when more of our workplaces become safe havens for diverse people and cultures, our broader society will benefit. As the Harvey Weinstein debacle has shown us, those who are willing to abuse their power at work perpetuate a broader culture of fear and inequity that ripples through entire industries. Second, as has been shown consistently in research, a truly diverse workforce has riches and returns to offer its shareholders, customers and employees. The bottom line is that solving the workplace diversity problem is good for people and business.
I did not always perceive the challenges of diversity this clearly. In fact, for a long time I didn’t really perceive them at all. It’s become clear to me only recently, that even learning to see them isn’t enough to change them. We have to learn to see discrimination and speak about it in very specific ways to keep from perpetuating it.
Learning to See Workplace Discrimination
I’ve always approached the subject of workplace diversity from a gender perspective, even if a bit reluctantly, and I believe my experience highlights many of the challenges in creating a diverse workforce.
First of all, it’s clear to me in hindsight that I wasn’t able to see through the lens of race because in the decades of my middle management career, I’ve literally never worked with people of color, above, below or beside me. In government affairs, telecom, software and internet businesses where I came of working age, I don’t recall having any black colleagues on the marketing or business side of the house, though we did have a few Asian people in finance. On the tech side of the house, Indian and Asian gentlemen were more common, but not in leadership. Women in tech and leadership were nonexistent, and I can only remember one out-of-the-closet gay man I worked alongside for three months.
Secrets to a diverse workplace: stop looking outside yourself for the answer. – Click To Tweet
Thus my personal experience of distinctions in workplace culture was through the lens of gender. Believing what my bosses told me early in my career, that I worked in an egalitarian meritocracy, I didn’t really look for gender discrimination in the workplace. I wanted to believe the story I was told, that being a woman wouldn’t affect my career. After a decade or so, this perspective was more challenging, as it became clear to me that my gender did impact the professional choices and challenges before me. I got tired of working twice as hard for the opportunity to wield less power and influence. I began to value my family life more deeply as my children grew and I saw my 50+ hour a week job as a counterforce to the balanced life I wanted. I sought a better, more self-directed way, and thanks to the strength of my intentions, I found one.
I didn’t experience my personal journey as “discrimination” when I was traveling its road, but in the last decade, coaching other women, I’ve learned to see some of my own experiences — “trivial” things like being talked over in meetings, and “significant” events such as being excluded from major decisions about my team that were made on the 18th hole — as discriminatory and unfair in ways that eluded me earlier. Listening to others, I also remembered overly personal comments in elevators that had made me feel uncomfortable and unwilling to seek mentoring relationships with powerful men. Once I learned to see these things I used to let slide (or make excuses for), they became clearer acts of bias, preference or outright aggression.
With the benefits of hindsight, I see that I didn’t really have a name for these subtle experiences and thus it’s not surprising that I found them challenging to talk about clearly, even with my female clients. “Discrimination” has a fairly clear legal meaning and many of the things that had happened to me and other women I knew weren’t legally clear. My experiences were ambiguous at best, upsetting at worst, and everyone (including me!) has become practiced at ignoring them or explaining them away as “just the way things are” and “probably just your imagination.” When people tell you that you’re imagining things, you begin to doubt your own experience. I’ve struggled alongside my female clients to try to give voice to the cultural dynamics that keep women out of positions of leadership and influence.
In the recent news about racism, however, I’m finding some useful vocabulary.
With the re-emergence of public discussions about sexism and racism in the news today, words such as “bystander” and “microaggression” give us ways to talk about some of the things that happened to me (and people I know) in the workplace years ago. I’m discovering that, in ways that matter, many of the interpersonal dynamics of misogyny and sexism are identical to those of racism.
This realization is spurring yet another evolution for me regarding workplace discrimination that I’d like to share, in the hopes I can bring you along on my journey to understanding the dynamics of a diverse workforce at a deeper level.
A Personal Confession About Racial Discrimination
While developing a platform to help empower women over the last few years, I’ve struggled with how to support those working alongside me who are standing up against racism, ageism and other forms of discrimination. In particular, I’ve empathized deeply with my black friends as the data about police violence against their brothers and sons has become impossible to ignore. In my public postings, however, on this blog and social media, I always found myself hesitant to click “share” when racial issues are explored. My brain ran with concerns about muddying my personal brand, because I’ve chosen to stand for gender equity rather than a more broad definition of equality.
I hated that I wasn’t comfortable standing with people of color publically, but I rationalized that I was doing more good focusing on the issue I felt passion about, and about which I have personal experience. Since I require myself to have authentic personal connections to every cause on which I engage, I just couldn’t find my way to an authentic connection with the issues that people of color struggled against.
However, something in me shifted in the conversations after the summer 2017 events in Charlottesville. As I began to look more deeply into the dynamics of racism and research how to be a white ally, I began to see that in ways that matter, many interpersonal interactions that underlie racism are actually identical to the dynamics of misogyny and sexism, against which I’ve taken a clear stand. As I was in the midst of discovering this I participated in a few business workshops where I saw these same dynamics playing out between colleagues in person, across all divides — racial, ethnic and gender. In a conversation after one of the workshops, a young Asian gentleman called me out on my own willingness to lump people (i.e., men) into a bucket unfairly, and suddenly the link between all these forms of discrimination became clearer.
The Secret That Eluded Me: I’m Part of the Problem
As my ah-ha sunk in, the first thing that struck me was perhaps the most important, the most obvious and the most personally disturbing: I was a much bigger part of the problem than I had ever realized, or been willing to admit. It opened me up to deeper questions about my own role in creating corporate culture. I don’t feel that racism or sexism that have come down through history is my fault, or that I am to blame for my black friends’ plight or my own bumps against the glass ceiling, but perhaps I have been complicit in supporting the cultural heritage that made both these things possible in ways I don’t understand? I don’t feel responsible for the sexism that cost my mother her political career, or my great great grandfather’s profit from human bondage, but do I play a role in perpetuating sexist and racist business cultures today? I honestly don’t fully understand the answer to these questions, and as of this writing, I’m deep into these questions.
But here’s what I do understand and want to share, because I think it’s true for almost all of us, white, black, Latino/a, man, woman, African, Asian, European, gay, bi, transexual and any other version of human you identify with: I have been misconstruing the problem in such a way that I can’t possibly be as constructive a part of the solution as I was trying to be.
The problem is not that people have biases, conscious and unconscious, or that people act on them, because we all do. That’s the bottom line of unconscious bias research. The problem is that we don’t know how to talk about these biases in ways that help everyone see them, and explore them in ways that give people room to evolve their biases. The problem is that culturally we don’t know how to address these issues without generating fear and shame on all sides.
Without a space where everyone feels safe, we’ll never find a solution.
Already a subscriber? Log In
And this is where my contribution has probably been strongest. By not learning to see gender, racial and other biases and discrimination clearly in the moment when it happens, by not learning to talk about it in that moment without shaming anyone present, I’ve been a bystander. As a bystander, I’ve inadvertently enabled those who perpetuate discrimination, consciously and unconsciously, to believe it was okay.
And it’s not okay.
Being clearer on the problem, now, I’m going to commit to figuring out how to become part of the solution, to create safe spaces and learn the vocabulary of microagression and microempowerment. I want to discover ways to give people permission to see it and choose what they want to do about it. This is much harder than it looks because the line between microaggression and microempowerment is not only thin, but quite frequently out of our control. Even in a safe environment, it’s a very challenging thing to address.
Look for future posts on the dynamics of bystanderism and microaggression as I explore this. Feel free to share your experiences to help me. If I can figure out how to see and understand these issues, I can do a better job of speaking up in constructive ways. And maybe if I get really good at it, I can bring you along with me. Stay tuned.
Get our free career health guidelines for dealing with difficult people and stress at work.