How to take collective action for racial and gender equity at work

Bold strategies are needed to address persistent racial and gender inequalities in the workplace. With Common Sisterhood, we propose that solutions that focus only on changing individual hearts and minds are incomplete. Individuals need to be part of a solution, but cultural change in organizations is more likely when these individuals build authentic connections across their differences and work together to achieve justice. To engage in a shared sorority, dig into your own prejudices about race/ethnicity and power, bridge differences to create authentic connections at work, and then act together to change your workplace for the better .

Dig is an exercise designed to help you uncover your assumptions about racial ethnicity and understand how those assumptions shape your perception of racial ethnicity in the world. It focuses on your individual assumptions, emotions, thoughts, and perceptions about racial ethnicity, which are likely shaped by the contexts in which you were born, raised, and lived. As you do your own Dig work, examining your emotions can lead you to uncover that there are systemic issues that have contributed to how you think and feel. Dig is an ongoing practice as our assumptions and perceptions can change as we grow and experience different people, workplaces and contexts.

While everyone should contribute to Dig, that doesn’t mean we all start from the same place. Each of our journeys toward growth and knowledge of our identity and the power that comes with it has been different: Tina learned about being black and the power dynamics of anti-blackness as a young child, and Beth learned about being white and the power dynamics related to being white as a student. This significant difference in timing can impact interactions in the workplace: blacks and other minorities may be more advanced than their white counterparts in their understanding of racial ethnicity and power dynamics, a difference that impacts their dig journeys. Dig means always growing and learning and thinking critically to help us understand our own identity and the power structure that surrounds it.

Critical Steps to Dig Practice

We have put together a series of steps and questions to help you navigate the process of learning about your social identities and how they fit into societal power structures.

First, identify your social identities and how much you identify with each of them. When we do this exercise in workshops, we often have a worksheet with different fields where the participants can write their identities. You could include “female” or “male” or “nonbinary”. Or “Hispanic” or “Black” or “Chinese”. You can also include identities like “Christian” or “Southerner” or even “Fan of your favorite sports team”. Please be honest and write down what you are actually thinking in this moment. Then think about which of these identities are most important to who you think you are. This will vary from person to person and even from context to context.

Next, research power and historical marginalization of each identity. Each social identity has a different relationship to status and power, and many of us are members of different groups with different statuses or stigmas in our society. This step is crucial as it is often absent from the introspection that individuals can sometimes engage in as they learn about their own identity. But understanding power is a non-negotiable component of Dig. Ask yourself about your identity – have other groups of members been marginalized who share an identity with you? As? When? Have other groups been privileged by marginalizing your group? Be honest with yourself about what you think about it and what you think.

Often, people from privileged groups benefit from proactively seeking information to educate themselves about power dynamics related to their group. Knowledge gaps are almost inevitable and part of the learning process. The need to learn is nothing to be ashamed of. A learning-oriented alignment with your discoveries can help you focus on the future rather than the past—but it’s critical that when you unearth a knowledge gap, you work to fill it.

Research has shown that Whites often have three main responses to learning about the power and privilege associated with their social (racial) identity: they deny and refute the existence of their relative power; they work to psychologically disassociate themselves from their dissolving or distancing white identity to show that they are “not like these white people” or working to eliminate systems of injustice that privilege their group over people of other racial/ethnic groups. While we hope people choose the latter response, we know that’s not always the case.

It can be tempting to deny that you have a gap in knowledge or experience, or to deny the existence of white privilege or racial/ethnic differences. This denial often occurs when a revelation is unexpected or newly discovered. Recognizing this reaction is important as it can be a signal that you should listen more to others or return to the first step above and dig deeper.

Defensiveness is also a common response to discovering a knowledge gap. We may see someone blaming others for their own ignorance; “It’s not my fault I didn’t know” is a common defensive response. Another defensive response is to denigrate those from historically marginalized groups as unworthy, so that any differences uncovered during Dig can be blamed on the “other group.” Part of the Dig practice is being honest about any defensiveness you’re feeling.

Every emotional reaction is a signal and a clue. It doesn’t feel good when we or anyone suggests that your view of life or worldview might be biased in any way, or that you might have identities that are tied to status and power in ways you don’t know or understand. When we dig, however, we need to acknowledge our defensiveness, and rather than allow it to change the course of the discussion, we examine it. We question ourselves by asking: Why am I defending myself? What did I just read that made me feel this way? What feelings am I feeling right now? What am I thinking about right now?

We also see people downplaying discussions of racism by assuming color blindness. In its most positive sense, saying “I don’t see color” is an attempt to say that we are all human, that people are valued for who they are and not for something as superficial and inconsequential as skin color. Unfortunately, in the society we currently live in, skin color is not indifferent, much as we would like it to be. While the term color blindness may have essentially harmless intentions, in application it means force blind. This blindness prevents us from acknowledging and filling gaps in knowledge, thus preventing the authentic connections we seek in Shared Sisterhood.

to build bridges

While the dig focuses on itself, bridge focuses on others. Bridging differences means women become sisters by focusing on creating authentic connections facilitated by the perspective gained during Dig. A bridge is a connection between two points – or two people – and although that one bridge can take you a long way down the path to equality and justice, Shared Sisterhood is based on the idea that one bridge facilitates another and another until there is a latticework of bridges connecting women and others who share the goal of justice.

A bridge is formed when people develop authentic connections across differences, and those connections form the basis for broader collective action for justice. An authentic connection is when two people are able to express their inner experiences—their thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, ideas, and emotions—with one another in a relationship of trust, empathy, vulnerability, and risk-taking. While these four components need not always be on the same level for both parties, the goal is that both parties are willing to engage in such behaviors if needed or desired. Every time two people authentically connect at work, they build a layer of a bridge—and the more authentically the two people connect, the stronger the bridge between them becomes. Once a bridge is established between two initial individuals, each of them can turn to others to build additional bridging relationships and connections.

A bridge is not the same as a friendship. A friendship is a relationship between two people who like each other, like spending time and talking and like each other, but a friendship doesn’t necessarily mean addressing what you learned during Dig: You can have an interracial friendship and never about racial ethnicity or speak racism. In contrast, the discussion and consideration of racial ethnicity and racism, or any basis of systemic injustice, is an integral part of Bridge practice. Friendship can facilitate bridge practice and can be a result of bridge practice, but friendship is not a prerequisite for bridge.

While friendship is not necessary for Bridge, value alignment is absolutely necessary. Bridge means that both people are willing to advance the dismantling of systemic inequalities and to address how these systemic inequalities have permeated their thinking about one another. Bridge is about trust, empathy, risk-taking and vulnerability between two people so they can arm themselves and act together based on their shared values. This makes bridge partners collaborators in the pursuit of justice for all people, regardless of whether they would consider themselves true friends.

Reprinted with permission from Harvard Business Review Press. Adapted from Sisterhood in Common: How to Take Collective Action for Racial and Gender Justice at Work, out today, by Tina Opie and Beth Livingston. Copyright 2022 Tina Opie and Beth Livingston. All rights reserved.

Tina OpiPhD, is an Associate Professor of Management at Babson College and Founder of Opie Advisory Groupwhere she advises major corporations in the financial services, entertainment, media, beauty, education and healthcare industries.

Beth A LivingstonPhD, is an Associate Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business and has provided executive education, speaking and consulting for corporations and non-profit organizations such as John Deere, Yves Saint Laurent Beauty, Allsteel and Hollaback.

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