Efforts to increase diversity in our workplaces has been dismally slow over the last few decades, despite business initiatives, research and even expansions of the very definition of diversity. Like many, I find this frustrating. I find it especially frustrating that in light of #metoo, the public shaming of powerful men, and new courage among investigative journalists, I and many other women I know don’t expect to see much change in the dominant workplace culture. I find it frustrating that after decades of civil rights legislation and public awareness, it’s still more common to see a woman in the CEO chair (about 4% of the time), than a black man. I find it mind-boggling that after hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate diversity program funding over decades, diversity-unfriendly work environments still contribute to higher employee turnover among black and hispanic workers.
And I don’t believe it’s for lack of good intent on the part of men or white people that these frustrations persist.
Most men, I know, want equality. They want harassment to stop. They want the women in their lives and offices to feel safe. Most white people, I know too, also want discrimination and unconscious bias to stop. So why is it so hard to make this happen?
I had a conversation with a nice, grey-haired gentleman recently that shed light for me on this topic. As we left an interesting talk about ethics in the workplace our conversation gave me insight into the interpersonal dynamics that keep such deep cultural changes at bay. He brought up #metoo and how much he wanted things to change so that #metoo wasn’t necessary, how proud he was of his executive wife and how he mentored young men in the workplace to “keep locker room talk in the basement while watching the game with a beer.” I said to him that I appreciated his attitude and guidance to young men like my sons, but I thought better mentorship to his protégés would be to ask them to take a hard look at their locker room talk and what it said about their attitudes towards women more generally, whether they were watching the game or sitting in a meeting.
This comment gave him food for thought, and we extended our discussion on a cold, windy street to explore the idea of bystanderism a bit more deeply. It seemed to be a new concept to him and he thanked me for it. He gave me a lot to think about, too, which I’m going to do my best to explain in this post.
It turns out that the interpersonal dynamics of harassment and discrimination that hold women back are the same things that hold back everyone else. @DanaTheus –Click To Tweet
Is hurt still hurt, even if that wasn’t the intent?
Recently I had a personal realization about how I, just like my gentleman friend mentioned above, had been unintentionally perpetuating the very problems I had sworn to help overcome. It turns out that as I’ve explored the interpersonal dynamics of harassment and discrimination more broadly, I’m learning that the things that hold women back are the same things that hold back everyone else, including some white men. While there are places that still tolerate blatant sexism, racism and bigotry, this is not the norm in most work environments the way it was in the 60’s and earlier. But even though such blatant discrimination is uncommon these days, there are other behaviors and attitudes that dampen everyone’s ability to succeed and which keep most of our workplace cultures from evolving to the point where men and women in every category can envision more diverse faces in the C-Suite.
What holds people back in the workplace are microaggressions and bystanderism, and almost everyone’s blindness to what these things actually look like and why they matter. It turns out that being conscious of the problem and having an intention to change it is step one of two critical actions we must take if we want our corporate cultures to truly welcome everyone.
When it comes to discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace, white men are not the problem. @DanaTheus –Click To Tweet
Learning to see microaggressions
Recently I updated an older post about speaking responsibly and posted it at The Mission. In so doing I accidently stumbled into a deep conversation about the subtle, small and usually unintentional phrases, dubbed microaggressions. This post, Microaggression: Everything You Say Matters created a fascinating discussion in comments. The discussion boiled down to explorations of whether the term “microaggression” had been too politicized to be useful anymore, whether good intent was enough and whether people should just buck up and stop allowing themselves to be victimized. I’m not going to go into all these threads here (if you’re interested, I will blog more on these topics on Medium so you can follow me there.) However, the comment debate did make me delve more deeply into the value of talking about microaggressions and helping people see them more clearly to better combat a culture that tolerates harassment, discrimination and other forms of inequality.
I’ve come to the conclusion that while “microaggression” in its original form has been unfortunately politicized, there really isn’t a better vocabulary snippet to describe those small and often unintentionally hurtful comments and actions, which will wear a person down and make them feel threatened at worst, and unwelcome at least. These feelings of threat and unwelcomeness are not just an inconvenience if you’re trying to build a truly welcoming corporate culture and combat employee turnover. Feeling unwelcome forces people to either leave (making employee retention metrics worse) or stay and cover* themselves in order to fit in. Covering makes us feel inauthentic and there’s a limit to how much inauthenticity people will accept before they jump out into the pool of employee turnover statistics.
There’s a lot more to employee turnover than microaggression, but our inability to see and accept these small slights is definitely part of the problem, and we can’t take action to reduce them until we can see them.
So what does microaggression look like? Well, here’s why it’s such a sticky wicket: microaggressions look different to just about everyone, and this gives fuel to those who say it’s not useful to talk about it. How can you stop something that isn’t a single thing? How can you not offend someone who (it seems to you) is going to be offended no matter what you do? I’m actually going to try to address these very legitimate issues in future posts here and on Medium, however right now I’m just going to note that while each instance of microaggression is subject to personal interpretation, there is a pattern and it’s a pattern worth trying to understand. In the interests of trying to illuminate the pattern, here are a few examples.
- A male boss fails to mention a promotion opportunity to a female employee, “Because I know she wants to start a family and that job would have too much travel and be too stressful.” Giving the man the benefit of the doubt, he was trying to be kind, but the woman is hurt because (a) he judges that she can’t negotiate the travel with her partner and/or support network, (b) he tries to protect her instead of giving her the opportunity to learn how to handle stress on her own, (c) she was robbed of the choice!
- A group of white men waiting for a meeting to start responds to their black male host’s question about whether they need anything while they wait by saying “how about a rope?” and then laughing uproariously at their not-funny-at-all joke. Looking at the black man’s face to see how he handles it, they feel absolved when the black man smiles too, chilled inside and hoping not to become the target of a not-joking version of this threat. (Yes, this really happened to a friend of mine, and it wasn’t in a southern state.)
- An HR manager promises to call the company insurance provider and help secure a transgender employee a doctor who will treat her after her PPO-assigned physician refused. Feeling uncomfortable and morally conflicted, the HR manager fails to make the call. The employee, who is struggling with a urinary tract infection, ends up in the ER a week later to be diagnosed with a severe kidney infection, forcing her out of work for two more weeks. (Yes, this also happened to a friend of mine.)
There are other kinds of microaggressions, such as the way many African- and Asian-Americans feel unwelcome in their own country when they are asked “where are you from,” and are then asked again “no, really, where are you from?” after they answer the original question truthfully by responding, “I’m from Ohio.” For more of these “teeny tiny” and not so small agressions, check out other lists here and here, which you should explore on your own because I’m sure that you, like me, will find things on these lists that you’ve said or thought before.
There’s more to #employeeturnover than #microaggression and #bystanderism, but they are bigger contributors than we like to admit. – @DanaTheus Click To Tweet
The problem in discussing any of these things as “aggressive” is that the microaggressor, which is you and me sometimes without us even realizing it, usually has an idea in their head that there is good intent behind their words–to protect others, to invoke laughter, to resist something they feel genuinely conflicted about or to get to know someone more deeply–but which harms others when they express it. I am still working on a solution to how we can act non-microaggressively when such situations arise, but in this post what I ask you to do is start looking around in your life, workplace and world and learn to SEE microaggressions coming out of your mouth (and the mouths of others.)
Learning to see bystanderism
Bystanders are different than microaggressors in that they know that what others are doing is aggressive or unfair, but they choose to say nothing and do nothing when witnessing inappropriate behavior of those around them. My gray-haired friend at the beginning of this post was a bystander of sorts, and in his anecdote, we can see how—like microaggressors who have no intention to harm— this issue is complicated.
My friend was NOT a bystander to the extent he called out his mentees on their inappropriate remarks about women in the workplace. He took one of many actions a man can take to stop harassment. He spoke up and helped younger men see the harm in their offhand comments. However, he admitted that in private, in the locker room or watching the game with a beer in hand, he had been known to let those things go by (if not participate in them). So my friend was not a bystander in the office but he was a bystander in the man cave. Is that okay? Should our private spaces to be safe from the need to worry about the needs of others who aren’t admitted there?
That’s a harder question than it looks on the surface to those who want to stop all harrassment. If your comfort zone is where you go to unwind and “be yourself,” it can feel like an affront to your authenticity to have bystanders who are also in that zone stop bystanding and ask you to quit “being yourself even in your comfort zone” If bystanders decide to speak up in our safe spaces, it could make even more people feel unwelcome in their own safety zones. Is that okay?
To my mind, it is okay–and even necessary–for bystanders to speak up in private comfort zones. The longer authentic, but harmful, behavior goes unchallenged in the man cave (or the ladies lunch or the executive washroom or the KKK rally or the fill-in-the-blank-tribal-congregation-place), the longer our melting pot cultures fail to evolve. And we need change at a faster pace than we’re seeing it today.
Like microaggression, bystanders feel stuck between a rock and a hard place, too. They are afraid of being ostracized, kicked out of the club, shamed and penalized. This fear is real. Clubs, formal and informal, organize around “who is like us an who is not,” and a bystander who stops bystanding is volunteering his or her differences for everyone else to judge. It is in this way that fear of shame, blame and reprisal is the common dynamic, between groups and within groups, that allows bias and discrimination to go unchallenged in public and private.
For example, a well-meaning white woman can watch a black man passed over for a job and feel afraid to challenge the decision because she doesn’t want attention as a “troublemaker” since, after all, she has her own problems getting noticed for a promotion. A senior man can feel equally uncomfortable championing the cause of a younger Asian woman for fear of ribbing in the men’s room about private interests, or as one man experienced, “We have enough women around here as it is…what are you trying to do? Upset the balance of power?”
Why we’re stuck
When those who would challenge the club’s status quo face anxiety for disrupting it, a culture that rewards bystanders thrives. In a bystander culture, microaggressions can thrive. And now we’re down to the true nut of the problem. These dynamics that are difficult to see in the first place, and uncomfortable to navigate even when they’re seen, self-reinforce each other. It’s hard to unpack one without spilling the other all over the discussion and so, instead, we simply leave it unspoken.
Recently I had the opportunity to participate in a large meeting of middle and senior managers of a U.S. company. It was a pretty diverse group on the surface, however, when you looked at the more subtle structures of power, white men held about 80% of the formal and informal positions of power. During one exchange about how the organization upheld the cultural value of “respect,” it had come out during small group breakout discussions that many did not believe respect was universally guiding the company culture. The discussions I overheard on this topic were sincere and they touched on many instances of microaggression.
In the larger group, when the question “How does disrespect show up in our culture?” was put on the table, several white men bravely, and even eloquently, asked for examples. None were forthcoming in this large setting which had not been set up for safety on this topic. Looking around the room I saw many non-white men and women shaking their heads and making other expressions of “he doesn’t get it,” and yet they did not speak up. They chose to be bystanders. They chose not to try to explain anecdotal microaggressions they felt but struggled to explain to a large and judging audience. They chose not to speak up in order to protect whatever level of power and credibility they already had. I am not sure I would have advised any of them differently, had they been my personal coaching clients. And yet because the issue went unaddressed, the powerful men walked away believing it was just some disgruntled employees making noises and that because they personally felt respected, everyone else did too.
This is not an easy knot to untie. I wish I had better answers to give. I will continue to write on these topics and explore them and I welcome your thoughts, anecdotes and insights. Perhaps simply by learning to see the parts of the problem that we do not already see, the answers will become clearer as well.
* “Covering” is a term that I first saw explored by Deloitte in 2013 and their inclusion research on the subject is fascinating. In essence it puts statistics to what everyone (including 45% of straight white men) feels when they believe they can’t be fully themselves in the workplace for fear of cultural ostracization. Instead of being authentically themselves, people “cover” aspects of who they are. Covering makes people feel inauthentic, suppresses some of their natural talent, increases their stress and reducing their commitment to the organization.
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