Should You Care?
If your employer is a champion of diversity, you have likely heard leaders say that true inclusion is not possible unless everyone can bring their whole selves to work. By being more ‘authentic’ when interacting with co-workers, the thinking is, we will be more engaged in our job and happier at work because we no longer waste energy hiding parts of our identities. Instead, we are able to channel this energy into being more productive because we feel welcomed and valued for what we bring to the table... not who we are.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, there was a big push in the workplace to raise awareness about a company’s commitment to creating a diverse and inclusive environment where everyone is to be respected regardless of their background. In theory, LGBTQ people fortunate enough to work for one of these companies could be open and honest about our sexual orientation or gender identity and not have it negatively impact our careers.
At that time, decisions about changes in policy and content of related education were made through a singular lens of sexual orientation. Telling our stories in the workplace helped dispel negative stereotypes informed by religion, prior exposure to LGBTQ people, and societal norms regarding gender.
While I know there is plenty of evidence to say coming out at work is not without risk or consequence, it is clear that my honesty helped shift how my colleagues thought about LGBTQ issues and ultimately increased their support for legal protections.
On the flip side, despite greater visibility to challenges women of color face in the workplace, the pace of change has been much slower. Why is that? In part, it is because the negative impact of unconscious bias is compounded.
Earlier in my career, I thought about this a lot. Depending on the situation, being both Jewish and gay can be an asset or a liability. Unlike lesbians of color, I could manage to hide those identities from my co-workers. Unless there is an understanding of this underlying dynamic, efforts to bridge the diversity gap will continue to fail.
A few years ago, I was attending a diversity conference and the guest speaker was Kathleen Martinez, assistant secretary for disability employment policy at the US Department of Labor. She started her remarks by saying, “I am a woman, a mother, a Latina, blind, and a very out member of the LGBT community. In other words, when it comes to demographic surveys, I check almost all of the boxes.”
Kathleen was seen as a highly qualified candidate because President Obama believed that “our nation derives strength from the diversity of its population and from its commitment to equal opportunity for all.” It is hard to imagine the same scenario today given the Trump administration’s war on diversity.
Take a moment to think about your own intersections. Were you aware of them? Have they been a factor in how you show up at work and what you say upon hearing insensitive comments? Does it give you a new perspective on commonalities between women’s causes, LGBTQ issues, racial equity, disability rights, immigration, and more?
It has for me. As someone who has faced discrimination because of my sexual orientation, I knew why I was passionate about advocating for gay civil rights. Like most gay men of my generation, my circle was mostly comprised of other gay men. Over the years, my client work, volunteer activity, and support of LGBTQ nonprofits gave me the opportunity to expand my network and forge relationships with transgender people as well as lesbians. By taking the time to hear their stories and asking sometimes uncomfortable questions, I came to realize we had far more in common with each other than I might have thought.
While working with American Airlines in 1996, I remember meeting Ann (not her real name), a mechanic who transitioned on the job from male to female while working at their Tulsa maintenance facility. For a number of reasons, Ann faced harassment from co-workers and was concerned about losing her job. This was something I faced with my sexual orientation while working at IBM early in my career.
My awareness of the health issues lesbians face came after I was asked to attend a fundraiser for The Mautner Project, now part of Whitman Walker Health. Not unlike gay men who contracted HIV, women who come out faced the threat of doctors refusing care. Here was another intersection and further evidence that fighting for my rights was as important as advocating for theirs.
For better or worse, the learning never stops. When I was recently asked to provide an independent assessment of a local nonprofit supporting children in foster care, I asked to visit the site because I wanted to meet these young people to know what challenges they faced. I left realizing intersectionality was our common bond.▼
Wesley Combs is a diversity and inclusion expert and a passionate social justice advocate. He is the founding Principal of Combs Advisory Services where he works with clients who share his values of enabling equity, equality and opportunity in the workplace and the community.