At work, how often do you hide parts of your identity to fit into workplace culture? Maybe it’s your age, class, education or race?
For me, it is my sexual orientation. As an educator in traditionally religious universities and a diversity & inclusion trainer, I often wonder whether individuals will be accepting of my orientation and, especially, my having a wife. I like wearing dresses, using a bit of makeup, and styling my hair and I’ve found that clients and audiences can view me as stereotypically heteronormative. However, if I say “my wife” rather than spouse, I instantly out myself. To avoid this situation, I’ll use the third person plural instead of singular to answer an innocuous question of “what did you do this weekend?” with “My spouse and I went on a river tour and they got really sea sick. It was a bummer, but we had fun.”
What I am doing is not new and many people have long separated off parts of their identity to “assimilate” into a workplace culture. In a well-researched article by Deloitte University, the authors illuminate this behavior as an act of “covering.” One of the authors, Kenji Yoshino, claims covering is our attempt to minimize our stigmatized attributes and downplay the negative associations with parts of our identity. This pressure to conform drives many of us to leave our authentic selves at home and focus more on our identity rather than work: “covering demands seem so crucial to the smooth functioning of an organization.”
However, rather than claim the person who is “covering” needs to change, the researchers implore companies and organizations to create a more inclusive culture where all feel they can bring their authentic selves to work. In so doing, employees can shift their focus to their work and improve overall business success.
In the case of covering my sexual orientation, there are three key steps companies can take to improve LGB (Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual) inclusion in the workplace. These steps focus on research done by Catalyst and ways leaders can guide employees to “flip the script.”
1- Encourage non-LGB employees to use inclusive terms when referring to their own or others’ wives and husbands—such as spouse or partner—to avoid heteronormative assumptions. Find resources that describe LGB terms and why some terms are more appreciated and accepted than others. Have employees educate themselves rather than assuming the one openly gay person has all the answers.
2- Let LGB individuals share their own identity in their own time, rather than assume they are gay and everyone can know. Coming out is a deeply personal process for some LGB identified individuals. Even if they’ve shared their story with you, they may not want everyone in the office to know. Ask them if you can share and examine your own motivations in doing so.
3- Speak up when you hear derogatory comments and model how to be an effective ally. When you hear someone say “that’s so gay!” ask them to not use someone’s identity in a negative way. As an ally, speaking up against these forms of microaggressions that might appear minor on the surface, sends a strong message of tolerance and acceptance.
Connect with the author:
Kate Webster, Founder, Breaking Through Barriers