Let’s Break it Down | Belonging Cues Need to be “Everything, Everywhere, All At Once”

Evelyn Carter, PhD
Dr. Evelyn Carter
Let's Break It Down With Evelyn

Over the past few weeks, there has been a sleeper hit at the box office: Everything, Everywhere, All At Once. In all of the chatter about the film, one of the stories about actor Ke Huy Quan caught my attention. Moviegoers in the 1980s may recall Quan playing the roles of Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Richard “Data” Wang in The Goonies. However, as the options for Asian actors became “increasingly disappointing,” he began working behind the camera instead. A few years ago, Crazy Rich Asians came out, and signaled to Quan that change in how Asians are represented in Hollywood was on the horizon; he decided to get in front of the camera again.

Quan’s story may be specific to the entertainment industry, but it is not a unique experience at all. Finding after finding highlights the challenges that people from underrepresented or marginalized groups face as they ascend in their careers. Whether the industry is entertainment, tech, or general “corporate America,” the impact is clear: when people feel like they don’t belong, they leave. For example, one study found that 32% of women in science, engineering, and technology roles were likely to quit within a year. Some of the main reasons? Workplace cultures ripe with bias where they didn’t “fit in,” feeling excluded, and lack of women role models. While there are many reasons that people from underrepresented groups leave their workplaces, a common saying is “you can’t be what you can’t see.” The aphorism suggests that it’s hard, nearly impossible, to be successful yourself if you don’t have a model to follow.

Of course, the reality is more nuanced than that. There are plenty of people who have blazed trails without the benefit of a model to follow. But what if we take the phrase a little less literally? Maybe what people need to “see” is not necessarily another person who’s achieved what they want to, but — like Quan — they need to “see” proof that the tide has changed: evidence that the space they want to occupy is physically, emotionally, and psychologically safe.

Lots of research supports the notion that people from underrepresented groups search their environment for these kinds of signs. Sometimes the signs come from others: people report greater trust and belonging in spaces where their group is well-represented, and mentors from the person’s same identity group can help bolster belonging as well. Other times, those cues come from the way a space is designed: for example, female computer science students were less interested in computer science after viewing a classroom full of objects that broadcast a “male computer nerd” stereotype, like Star Trek posters and video games. However, when the objects were more neutral, female students’ interest in computer science rebounded. In each case, the people occupying the space — whether they were leaders, peers, or folks in other roles — were responsible for creating places of belonging. When they did, they were able to retain people from groups that might otherwise be underrepresented. And, those people were able to flourish, bringing their full selves to their work and their roles, creating a richer experience for all.

While I haven’t seen Everything Everywhere All At Once, reviews suggest that it’s going to be quite the contender for the next awards cycle, and Quan’s performance has been lauded. It’s a shame that it took 30 years for moviegoers to experience his brilliance again. Similarly, I wonder: who are the people that might be leaving other workplaces, or industries, because they are not seeing clear signs that they belong? In industries where we can’t rely on surprise blockbusters to signal opportunity, everyone needs to take an active role in fostering belonging early and often to ensure that folks who don’t look the majority don’t retreat behind the proverbial camera.

April 21, 2022

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