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Opinions expressed by contributors are their own. Following Meghan Markle’s recent, buzzed-about interview with Oprah Winfrey, opinions on social media could not have been more divided. Some had empathy for Markle, while others referred to the conversation as a “publicity stunt.” Either way, it highlighted several blind spots in our society around race and gender that mirror what many women in business feel today.
Ditto for the Lean In organization’s recently released 50 Ways To Fight Bias report, which highlights dozens of specific examples of workplace bias, along with situational solutions to help modern companies engage in today’s tough conversations about discrimination.
As Markle’s interview and Lean In’s data both underscore, bias can be a sensitive topic, as no one wants to openly admit to their prejudices. But there are four key ways to tackle inclusivity in the workplace once and for all.
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Before I left corporate America, I was working for a boutique law firm in New York City in an office with my manager, who played the same Norah Jones album at her desk daily. One day, I asked her if I can play some music at my desk, and she responded, “Sure, just make sure it’s not gangster rap!” She said it openly for others to hear, and the sound of silence filled the air, as everyone disbursed in haste. I thought her response was insensitive and incendiary, but who can you express your concerns to when you’re the only Black woman in the entire firm?
Although I don’t believe that my manager meant any harm, my experience made me feel alienated, rather than included. It also reinforces that for all the cultural talk of inclusion, most companies are missing the mark.
As outlined in 50 Ways to Fight Bias, “Left unaddressed, these perceptions — accurate or not — can contribute to a workplace where Black employees feel like they don’t belong.” That continues to typify the lived experiences of women of color daily. And too often, colleagues, business partners and associates go silent when bearing witness to dismissive undertones or behaviors.
You may not have intended to offend someone, but if they speak up, take it as a moment to educate yourself and others about empathy and tone.
As Markle shared her experiences, it occurred to me how mportant it is to differentiate between a bias and a blind spot. Biases are very formal and reflect socialized or stereotypical beliefs about gender, culture or race, such as, “Women are emotional” or, “All Black women are angry.”
On the other hand, a blind spot may not reflect your personal beliefs, but can reinforce hurtful biases — especially if you avoid speaking up for others feeling marginalized in the workplace. If a hint of my Caribbean accent appears in conversation, it immediately elicits comments like, “I have a friend from your country. Do you know him?” or, “You must listen to Bob Marley a lot!” While maybe not malicious, Lean In’s research shows that these kinds of blind spots “can contribute to depression and anxiety for American-born people of color.”
Women are often marginalized at work, but if you add race, ethnicity or culture to the conversation, you will find that the workplace has very few allies who are brave enough to stand up for others outside of their group. As a result, there are missed opportunities to explore conversations beyond the same generic talking points about inclusion. That’s why I often ask companies I work with if, when they talk about inclusion, it’s sincere or merely for optics.
As a Black woman, I could share countless experiences when I have been told I was “overexaggerating” or “too sensitive,” as opposed to my other colleagues who were considered “depressed,” “overwhelmed,” “struggling with anxiety” or “mentally ill.”
The most emotional part of Markle’s interview was listening to her share her struggles with mental illness and how her concerns were ignored. I have worked in firms where women have harmed themselves because they couldn’t get the medical attention they needed to address some of the emotional trauma they were experiencing. And during this period of such public division and traumatic loss, what feels “sensitive” to one person may be overwhelming to someone else.
Today’s workplace must address this discrepancy. Creating a dismissive attitude or policy toward discussions surrounding the generational impacts of slavery, postpartum depression or the events surrounding George Floyd’s death can be hugely detrimental. And even more so if workers are feeling submerged in grief, yet expected to remain productive. For today’s workplaces to be fully inclusive of women or minorities, they cannot arbitrarily judge the merit of mental suffering.
I recently shared an experience on TikTok about a time I felt uncomfortable in a business meeting with a man. I expressed my concerns directly to him, and although he apologized, his behavior continued. I spent more time redirecting his attention toward the goal of our meeting, agenda and my limited time, which directly affected my performance. I shared my experience with another well-respected investor, who said, “Ah, he was probably just joking.” It was an immediate invalidation of my feelings, but sadly, this behavior continues to be normalized.
Women are often labeled as victims, which was evident following Markle’s interview. Some of the disparaging commentary from highly respected journalists, and even well-known celebrities, described her as a “victim” and “privileged.” This kind of perspective makes it difficult for women to speak up at work about other issues, such as sexual harassment, bullying, racism and other unfair gender biases.
It takes a mound of strength for women to find the courage to speak up. Once again, it may be funny to you, but not a laughing matter for her. Issues such as sexual harassment, beauty standards and body dysmorphia are real challenges for women. If one of us expresses some level of displeasure with a colleague’s action, listen with empathy and create a plan of action.
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When a woman finally finds the strength and bravery to share her experience, approach it with empathy, rather than judgment. There are many women, as well as people of color and from other traditionally oppressed groups, who are trying to find the courage to speak up about their own experiences at work, yet are traumatized by the fear of retaliation. When inclusion and inclusive policies become buzzwords rather than enforceable policies, there are real consequences.