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In Practice

Can We Achieve True Equity at Work?

An interview with
A young Black businesswoman in a black suit stands with her arms crossed. She is leaning against a glass door and looking out a window.

Three years on from Black Lives Matter and MeToo, the idea of true equity is still far off in most workplace settings. Tina Opie, associate professor of Management at Babson College, has written a book called Shared Sisterhood: How to Take Collective Action for Racial and Gender Equity at Work to help senior executives to break down the bias in their teams.

OPIE: I am sort of the person on the team who tends to give voice to the things that make other people uncomfortable. And I try to do it in a way that is gracious, but where we can surface the unstated opinions and issues. A lot of current approaches focus on the individual, so you might hear things like implicit bias, but what I and my co-author Beth Livingston wanted to do in this book was to examine the institutional or systemic challenges where we see these inequities. So we’re really trying to overlay levels of analysis onto some of the training that is happening now. 

Shared Sisterhood is a philosophy based on three practices, dig, bridge and collective action:

Dig is self-reflective and introspective. It’s about examining your own assumptions about things like racial, ethnicity, gender, country of origin, immigration status, et cetera, et cetera. 

Bridge is about developing authentic connections with people who are different from you. And that’s when the components of authentic connection are risk-taking, vulnerability, empathy, and trust. So it’s developing relationships where those four elements characterize the connection. 

And the final piece, collective action, is about us linking arms. After we’ve done the dig and bridge parts, we can say, “How can we together create more equitable systems?” 

‘I’m Colorblind’

BRINK: So how does a senior manager take advantage of those three things and implement them in their workplace?

OPIE: One of the best ways to illustrate is with the stories of actual work that I’ve done with leaders. In one organization, the executive found that women and people from historically marginalized racial ethnic groups were leaving the organization. And the reason became clear when one executive told me, “Well, I don’t see color. I’m colorblind.” 

I’ve heard many leaders say that, and I think what they mean to say is that they don’t treat anyone differently based on race, which can seem a positive goal. Yet we would never say, I’m gender blind. We acknowledge that there are people who are of different genders, and we would never try to meld them into one sort of bucket. As a Black person, I can tell you I’m proud of my heritage. I don’t want people to ignore that. 

It turned out that this executive had not been exposed to people who are different from him until college. And right after that, he went into the workforce. And so he hadn’t really had a lot of opportunity to examine and interrogate where his belief systems came from. And a lot of his exposure came from watching TV and movies. So his interactions were very much stereotypical. They were not based in reality. 

When you’re connecting with someone who is different from you, undergirding all of the conversation is the idea of power.

BRINK: So what tips would you give an executive for how to change?

OPIE: Well, the first is to be honest with yourself. What do you actually think? Do you have biases? What are the private thoughts that you have in the back of your head that you might be embarrassed to bring out in public? How can you bring those out to yourself and hold them up and interrogate them? 

When you’re connecting with someone who is different from you, undergirding all of the conversation is the idea of power. And by power, I define that as access to and control over resources. There have been some groups that have had more power, and those we refer to as historically power-dominant groups. And there are some groups that have had less power, the historically marginalized groups. So when you’re trying to bridge with someone, it’s important that you recognize that you’re bridging based on being a power-dominant or a historically marginalized individual. 

Listen As Much As You Talk

One of the critical things of bridge is first to acknowledge: What is the basis of the bridge? What topic or identity are you all connecting on? If you’re from a power-dominant group, you need to listen much more than you talk. You need to learn from the members of the historically marginalized group, but you also need to practice empathy a lot. And then people from historically marginalized groups have to be willing to trust people from the power-dominant group. We talked about this a lot in the book on the bridge chapter.

I think it’s incumbent upon people from historically power-dominant groups to educate themselves, not simply by talking to other people, but who do you follow on social media? Who do you read? What books do you read? When was the last time that you were intentionally in a numerical minority so that you could just learn and understand from different cultures and groups? 

And when it comes to collective action, a leader needs to really look at the data and have an honest reflection on what those disparate outcomes might mean. Select a person in your team and tell them they are responsible for putting together the action plan. These are the metrics, this is the timeline, and this is how we’re going to communicate the results within our firm. We may decide to keep it at a high level. 

BRINK: Do you feel that it is possible to truly eradicate racism and sexism, in the workplace, let alone other places?

OPIE: Well, I’m optimistic, but I’m also pragmatic. It is absolutely possible to get better and I think sometimes striving for the ideal prevents us from moving forward at all. 

We’re saying, “Well, we’re never going to be able to 100% get rid of it, but we can get rid of more of it than we have in the past, even if we only get rid of 5% more.” Bit by bit, it’s working. It is leading to culture change. It’s leading to employees who are experiencing liberation within the workplace. They’re more engaged, they have better well-being. And in the time that we call the great resignation, it’s really happy to see people sort of having a great liberation at work.

Tina Opie

Associate Professor of Management at Babson College

Dr. Tina Opie is associate professor of Management at Babson College. She is the founder of Opie Consulting Group LLC, where she advises large firms in the financial services, entertainment, media, beauty, educational, and healthcare industries.

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