Quick: Picture a woman in your head. If you’re American, odds are the first image that came to mind was of a White woman. You’re not alone. From clothing to crayons, the default in this country is White and businesses are not immune to the consequences of myopic mental models.
People are less likely to remember the collaborative contributions of Black women compared to White women. Black women are evaluated more negatively than White women after making a professional mistake. East Asian women experience more workplace harassment than their same-gender counterparts when they behave dominantly. Accordingly, Asian women are less likely than White women to be selected for a masculine leadership position, which are most leadership positions. These dynamics of course feed into the significant underrepresentation of women of color in leadership positions. In short, women of color incur more workplace tax than their White peers.
In honor of a racially inclusive Women’s History Month, companies should challenge themselves to expand the narrow prototype of women that is likely embedded in their policies, protocols, and practices.
1) Take a wide-angle view on workplace policy.
Organizational policies are often informed by and designed for thin slices of the current and prospective employee population. The most frequent cluster of policies designed with women in mind are those related to bridging the gap between work and life. In the case of paid parental leave (PPL), for example, companies often revise PPL policies by gleaning insights from previous PPL users or recycling external “best practices.” This approach is problematic because companies are most often pulling quantitative and qualitative data from a racially homogeneous (read: predominantly-White) sample. This results in an institutionalized colorblindness to the prevalent wants and needs of women of color, who are more likely to experience birth-related trauma and postpartum mental health problems. Everything from the prescribed PPL duration to the phase-back plan will fundamentally fall short without proactive consideration of experiences that may affect all women but disproportionately impact women of color.
Companies must draw from external research and expertise to break the self-reinforcing feedback loop between non-diverse inputs (current thinking) and non-inclusive outputs (limited and singular policy supports).
2) Apply an intersectional lens to general business protocols.
Unfortunately, the strategic consideration of employees from all backgrounds typically lives under a diversity banner that isn’t well integrated into general business matters. Take something as seemingly simple as travel policies and guidelines. A company might leverage its COO and travel team to outline how employees should travel for work, including preferred hotels and per diems. Line managers then serve as checks and balances against those policies. I’ve yet to encounter an organization who has been thoughtful about or has educated its people leaders on the different considerations a woman may make before traveling solo to a new town or foreign country. Better yet, what about women of color? Traveling the globe – and even domestically – while woman and black or brown can come with extra considerations that we may be blind to if no one in the room has lived that experience.
Think critically about whose voices are missing when shaping business practices that may not seem diversity-related on their face. At the end of the day, all business decisions are people decisions and all people decisions should be made with a diversity filter.
3) Mechanize cross-talk and collaboration amongst employee populations.
Advocacy groups centered on marginalized communities – like women – tend to devote proportionately less attention and resources to constituents with multiple subordinate identities, like women of color. Odds are your women’s employee resource group or Women’s History Month events were approached with an “all women” point of view. The liability is that “all women” = off the shelf, off the shelf = singular focused, and singular focused = non-inclusive across dimensions of diversity including, but not limited to, race.
Dismantling the silos that often exist within organizational D&I ecosystems will unearth more inclusive, holistic, and accurate insights into all women’s workplace experiences and outcomes.
Writer Walter Lippmann often said “we are all captives of the picture in our head.” The challenge before us this month – and beyond – is to intentionally expand our prototypes so all women are considered in and benefit from well-intentioned inclusion efforts.
Who’s with me?