How Women (and Everyone) Can Form Deeper Bonds to Fight Bias at Work

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CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.

It’s an issue that’s received time, attention, and money, but there haven’t always been results to show for it. We’re talking about the share of women and women of color in leadership ranks in business. Even today, women make up just around 6% of chief executives of the top 3000 companies in the United States. This year there are six Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, a record high, two of whom are women.

Today’s guest offers one way to improve that by forming true alliances at work that transcend differences. Tina Opie is a management professor at Babson College and a co-author along with Beth Livingston of Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa of Shared Sisterhood: How to Take Collective Action for Racial and Gender Equity at Work. And she’s here to talk about real ways to approach difficult conversations and to be true change makers at work. Welcome, Tina.

TINA OPIE:   Thank you so much for having me, Curt.

CURT NICKISCH: Can I maybe have you briefly start by telling us about that title? What do you mean by Shared Sisterhood?

TINA OPIE: So, I have sisters, I have some really close friends. We’re very similar. We’ve known each other for decades, and I say that we have a sisterhood with them. Then I met some people, for example, my co-author, Beth Livingston, and the, the term shared in front of sisterhood connotes that this is something that we have worked at. We might not be similar, but we have managed to connect each other so that we now share sisterhood.

We like to say that it’s a radically optimistic philosophy on how to achieve equity at work. And so that feels good – it feels very hopeful, very inspirational.

And when you manage to traverse the many landmines and schisms that exist between people who are different and you can form an authentic connection with someone, it is life changing. It has changed my life for the better as a, as a human being. And then it’s also changed my professional career.

It’s unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced at work. When you can say we have worked through these differences and challenges, we’ve actually had the difficult conversations that many people avoid, and we’re still standing, and in fact, we’ve linked arms with each other and together we’re working to dismantle inequities at work.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. And in this case, with Beth, you co-wrote a book with her. What, what was that like?

TINA OPIE: Well, let me rewind if maybe 10, 12 years ago, because Beth and I wrote the book over the pandemic. So we wrote this book virtually, which is wild. But when we first met, it was not love at first sight. And what I like to share is that I was at the Academy of Management, which is the major convening organization for professors of management as well as doctoral students, et cetera. I’d finished giving a talk. I stepped off the stage, there’s a queue of people waiting to speak to me, and I jokingly say that I saw this white woman skipping up to me, and she got into my face, sort of, she was very eager to meet me, and I was sort of, “Whoa, wait a minute, security. I didn’t quite know what was happening, but that was Beth. And Beth had heard about me, and we had heard about each other through the academy, and she was interested in getting to know me at a deeper level.

I was very resistant because in the academy as well as in my prior career, so I’ve been a banker and a consultant as well. Uh, I have been betrayed and largely at the hands of white women. And so when I saw a white woman bounding towards me, my defenses went up, and I was friendly, but I was not welcoming or embracing. It was only when I realized that Beth and I shared a common friend, a Black woman who I knew and trusted that I began to let my defenses down long enough to actually challenge and question myself.

And the question that I asked myself, Curt, was, “Has Beth done anything to demonstrate that she is not trustworthy?” And the answer was no. So I wanted to interrogate myself, “Why are you having this reaction?” And so I talked to myself about the betrayals that I’ve experienced in the workplace and how this defensiveness that I was experiencing, it might be protective, meaning, it, it, it makes sense when someone is harmed by a particular group that they might not, uh, be as open to that interaction, but then you can’t stay there. And if I had allowed those defense mechanisms to stay there, I would’ve missed out on one of the closest relationships that I now have.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s really interesting context for something you wrote about in the book. You two wrote that white women and Black women in particular haven’t always been able to work together fully. Um, what are the reasons for that?

TINA OPIE: The key reason is power. Many people want to avoid having a conversation about the fact that, you know, race, racioethnicity, which is sort of the visual and invisible indicators of cultural differences and typical traits. But that is a, it’s, it’s a manmade construct. So some people say we shouldn’t even use those terms, but it has very real implications because of the way that our society, not just in the United States, but around the globe, those societies have been constructed in such a way where there are certain people with more power and certain people with less power.

And in the workplace, you, you mentioned some of the statistics about women not holding large percentages of leadership role, CEO roles and, and organizations. Well, those figures are even lower for Black women, Latinx women, Asian women, Middle Eastern women. But we often don’t talk about that. And I think anything from stereotypes about what it takes to be successful as well as proximity to white men, white women are the daughters, mothers, sisters, nieces of white men, and that can cause a sense of mistrust from other women in the workplace.

CURT NICKISCH: I wanted to ask you about something else that you wrote in the book that I thought was striking. You said for a long time you did not call yourself a feminist. Why is that?

TINA OPIE: So for me, the term feminist was steeped in a history where people like me, a Black woman, were, were ignored or excluded. And I had done some research on the suffrage movement, and in fact, we start the book off talking about Ida B. Wells and the 1913 suffrage parade where the white women organizers instructed Ms. Wells that she would have to march at the back of the parade with the Black women, not towards the front with the Illinois’s delegation.

That is something that I have seen repeated over and over and over again in the feminist movement where it feels as though the issues that are most pertinent to white women become the priority of the day. And the issues that pertain to people who are not white are ignored. And in fact, if you even raise the issues that are more pertinent, say to me as a, a Black woman, I am labeled as an agitator, as someone who is causing a problem, who’s not a good team player. So in a way, I’m being gaslit and ignored all at the same time.

And that’s why I didn’t call myself a feminist because I just didn’t feel as though I was included. But at a certain point, I think I wanted to reclaim the term feminist because I think if feminism is to be as strong and as impactful as it can be, it has got to have an intersectional lens, and I am here to contribute to that.

CURT NICKISCH: So let’s return to this concept of shared sisterhood. You have kind of deep personal experience with that. You also have practical experience spreading that message and, and teaching it. How can it be implemented and how, how does that play out? Like how do you get started?

TINA OPIE: Shared sisterhood is based on three practices. The three practices are dig, bridge, and collective action. And dig is introspective. It’s about surfacing your own assumptions and beliefs about identity. So when did you come to recognize that there was such a thing as race? What is your race? How do you identify with that? How does it affect how you see other people? So surfacing your own assumptions and biases about a particular identity is important. And that’s, that’s dig.

Bridge is interpersonal. Bridge is about connecting with people who differ from you. And that connection is it’s authentic. And when we say authentic, what we mean is it’s based on four components. Empathy, trust, risk taking, and vulnerability. And so you center the value of equity and then you work to establish a deep connection with someone who differs from you. The third piece is collective action, and that’s where once you’ve done dig and bridge, you link arms with your coworkers, and together you begin to dismantle systemic inequities.

So those are the three, the three practices. And to answer your question about how do you begin the process – we start uniquely at the individual level with the person. And, and one of the things that Beth and I have seen in our research as well as when we’ve done consulting and just talking to people, is that many leadership initiatives or culture change initiatives, DEI initiatives, many of those initiatives may fail. And our hypothesis and our, what we’ve seen from some of the research is that one of the reasons why those initiatives may be less successful than initially hoped is because the leaders who are sponsoring those initiatives oftentimes have no clue where they stand related to those initiatives.

It is very difficult to champion for something when you don’t even know where you stand. But it’s so much more powerful if you’re saying, “Okay, we wanna increase the proportion of women, of Black women, of Latinx women, of gay people,” of et cetera, et cetera.

Where do you stand related to that? And then when you begin to develop the initiative, if you’ve have authentic connections with people from those different categories, you’re able to get insight and cultural sort of data that can help you structure initiatives that meet the needs of, of the members of those groups, and that align with your personal values. And when we know when leaders are pursuing initiatives that also align with their personal values, they’re more likely to be successful. So that is in a nutshell what we mean when we talk about shared sisterhood and how to get started.

CURT NICKISCH: On the show we’ve done several, many, I don’t know, definitely a number of conversations about, you know, what’s part of this first step dig, right? Where we talk about unconscious biases, um, where we look at where a lot of, um, this thinking comes from and, and, and how to be reflective about it. If this is where you start, it really does sound like, I don’t wanna say it’s self-selecting for people to participate, but you really you’re, you’re definitely selecting for people who are willing to take that first very hard step, right?

TINA OPIE: Yeah I mean, you’re right, Curt. And it’s, it’s funny, I borrow from Dr. Dolly Chugh because you’re right, everyone may not be ready to embark upon a shared sisterhood journey right now because you’re correct, you have to value equity. There are some people who are threatened by the idea of equity, who think that that means that they are losing something. And so they may be unwilling to dismantle an inequitable system that happens to be benefiting them.

But Dr. Dolly Chugh talks about how you can divide most populations into three categories, 20, 60, 20. The top 20% are your friends, no matter what you say they are in your corner. I think about my mother, I mean, pretty much I can (laughs) she’s going to support me. She’s going to advocate for.

Then there’s the bottom 20%, and those are your foes. No matter what you say, they’re not going to support you. They’re not even necessarily listening to what you’re saying, they are opposed to you and or the values that you represent or what you stand for.

I focus on the movable middle, that 60% who may have heard about equity, may be curious about equity, may want to learn how to do things differently. They haven’t necessarily committed to any particular path but they are open. So I would rephrase just a little bit, it’s, it’s, it’s not necessarily self-selecting for people who believe in the same way that I do. It is much more about self-selecting for people who are open to hearing what we talk about with shared sisterhood, and they’re open to interrogating themselves. They’re curious. So curiosity is a big indicator of whether someone might be willing to embark and say the dig practice.

CURT NICKISCH: I think you’re right. I mean, I think the 60% that you’re talking about there, that includes lots of different stories, right? Lots of different ways that people kind of come into the problem that, that you’re trying to address here. And it could be people who are afraid of losing power and changing things. It could be a lot of people in there who are interested in changing, but are also afraid of just going down that path and making mistakes and, you know, coming out worse. it feels like a minefield for a lot of people.

TINA OPIE: Well, and it, and it can be, I think it’s important to acknowledge that. I think it’s a little naive to tell people, “Just go, forge ahead and we’re all in this together.” Listen, there are dangers there. Risk taking is a critical component of shared sisterhood because you are taking a risk when you’re a leader in an organization and you ask questions that demonstrate you may not have fully thought out this particular issue. And I think surfacing that, honestly, speaking to the fact that, “Yes, you will make mistakes, all of us will make mistakes.”

What that means is that people in the power dominant group may be afraid that they’re going to lose something when they demonstrate that they’re actually ignorant of some of the issues confronting members of the historically marginalized group. But the way that power works, most of us are in historically dominant and historically marginalized groups, and so there will be times where we’re the ones who are probably gonna mess up. And then there are gonna be times where the ones who may feel like someone from a power dominant group has do- said or done something offensive. And as a member of a historically marginalized group, what I try to do is extend grace to that person.

So here again, when developing that bridge, the member of the historically dominant group is really working to educate themselves, is working to develop connection with someone else. And the person from the historically marginalized group is recognizing that, is extending grace, which is unmerited favor. And together, when we can forgive each other and extend grace, we have seen some beautiful relationships develop where instead of avoiding conflict, we talk about it and we use it as instruction to grow and develop.

CURT NICKISCH: Let’s talk a more about bridge this, uh, middle step right of dig, bridge, act. What are the barriers to having more open dialogue and conversations at work? What are the barriers to, to bridging?

TINA OPIE: Yes. I think one of the biggest barriers is fear. And so when I talk about how the relationship with Beth and I developed, our bridge was almost negated because when she initially approached me, I was afraid of being harmed. She could sense that reticence to connect with her, and she may have been afraid of being rejected. And so before the bridge even has a chance to form, the relational, the two relational partners may decide not to pursue it. So fear, I think, think is a huge, is the fear of rejection, the fear of being harmed. Those two things are trends that we see over and over again.

But let’s say that the relational partners then decide to connect. I think another barrier specifically for people from historically marginalized groups is trust, is a lack of trust. It, you know, I really did not trust Beth, not because of her as an individual, but because of the, the group membership that she had. And some people will say, “That is so wrong. She was judging Beth not on her individual behavior. This is a meritocracy, this is what she should have done.” But let’s switch the context from racial ethnicity to gender.

Before the MeToo movement. Let, let’s go back. Before there were ride sharing apps and there were cabs, as a woman and many women I know we used to take a picture of the cab driver, of the, of the license plate, and we would call our friend and say, “Look,” or I guess we didn’t take a picture ’cause we didn’t have cell phones, but we would figure out a way to describe the cab driver and the license plate to our friends. And we say, “Listen, I’m driving. I’m going on a 15 minute cab ride. If I’m not there, this is who killed me.” I shouldn’t – you know, we, we literally were serious in that way.

Did that mean that I hated all cab drivers or that I hated all men? Absolutely not. But what it does mean is that the harm that has been done in terms of domestic violence, sexual assault, et cetera, statistically men have been the, the bigger purveyors or perpetrators of that and, and directed that towards anyone who doesn’t identify as a man. And so in that way, that behavior was protective.

But I say that protective armor also prevents water and light and nutrients from getting to your skin and to you and, and it can prevent you from developing relationships. And so that, that reaction is, is in part because of trauma, because of racialized anti-black trauma. And I had to question myself if I wanted to bridge with someone, and the answer was absolutely. So trust was imperative for me as a member of a historically marginalized group. For Beth, as a member of a historically power dominant group, as a white woman, she had to really practice empathy and compassion.

She could have easily gotten defensive and said, “What’s wrong with this woman? Why isn’t Tina reciprocating, I’m a nice person?” But instead what she did was try to understand what might be motivating that resistance. And once she began to think through it, and when she thought about times when she might have been resistant to connecting with someone from a power dominant group, she could understand.

And over time we persisted in different ways. She would reach out, I would respond, and we, we began to connect on things that we had in common. So while bridge is about connecting with someone who is different than you, a critical piece of this is to think about what do you have in common?

CURT NICKISCH: So let’s turn to collective action because that’s where what some people might just call an alliance between a couple of people can turn into something that has greater impact and makes a bigger difference. What is key for, for taking that step?

TINA OPIE: Well, first I think you have to value equity. And the approach that I take to this is we’re from top down and bottom up. The organization is primed to focus on how we can make this a better place for everyone. Collective action – I like to say pick one thing. And say, “We are going to create an action plan around this, around recruiting or around let’s say pay and promotion. We are going to thoroughly analyze this organization from top to bottom, left to right, race, by gender, by division, and we’re going to do a pay audit or an equity pay.

And then once we figure out the numbers, we’re going to determine how we’re gonna communicate that, how we’re going to interpret that, and we’re gonna hold ourselves accountable.”

So there are specific people in the organization. We don’t, we wouldn’t say the budgeting division or the finance team, we would say Curt, Tina, Mary are responsible for these specific things. This is the budget and this is the timeline and metrics that are associated with us determining how effective we have been when it comes to pay and promotion. So this is culture change we’re talking about, it’s through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion and, and leadership. But what we’re doing is changing the culture.

CURT NICKISCH: And it could be from the bottom up.

TINA OPIE: Well, it could be from the bottom up in the sense that the input… So one of the things that I like to talk about is how sometimes these initiatives, you say, “We’re gonna really help, um, women employees,” but the leadership may have never checked in with the women throughout the organization. They may have spoken to the women leaders, but the women leaders may not, their needs may not reflect the needs of the new analysts, for example, who have joined the organization.

So when I say bottom up, I’m talking about gathering information, listening to those voices and prioritizing those voices, giving them direct input into the initiatives that are ostensibly designed to help them in the first place. So that’s what I mean by bottom up because there is sort of a, a cautionary tale. Some organizations will heavily lean on employees, things like ERG groups and, and new employees to design initiatives that are supposed to help to recruit more women or Black people or Latinx people.

That is a problem. Often those ERGs are unpaid. And people in those ERGs are oftentimes some of the most junior people. And even if they have an executive sponsor, that executive sponsor may not have authentic connections with the members of that ERG. And so what I’m saying is that the bottom up approach is you need to be really clear about the, the initiatives that matter most to the groups that you’re helping, but you absolutely have to have a bought in leadership because you, I would hate it if people who were lower in the organization were doing dig and bridge and ready for collective action and then when they go to work, they’re confronted with a wall of resistance from the people who can actually change the policies that would exact change.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. What, what is the role for leaders and managers then in shared sisterhood?

TINA OPIE: Leaders and managers have a critical role. They can role model shared sisterhood. We’ve had some organizations where I’ve done shared sisterhood workshops with them, help them with dig and bridge and then creating an action plan for collective action based on feedback from the, the employees who were below. And then each of these leaders go to their teams and they train their leadership team on how to do dig and bridge. And it begins to change the culture. So the role modeling from, from leaders and managers is absolutely critical. And I think the leaders have to hold the managers accountable for doing things differently. Because sometimes what can happen is leaders can bring managers in, they have a day of training, and then the, the managers are just left on their own to have to figure things out.

With shared sisterhood, it is critical that there are consistent check-ins, that there is firm-wide communication so that people are aware of what’s happening go- and going on throughout the organization. And then you have to have metrics, you have to have measurable results that are connected to people’s pay and promotion and evaluation, and, and opportunities within the, within the organization.

When the leaders who are equipped to know how to dig and bridge and collectively act on their own and how to teach their team members how to do that, they are invaluable because what you’re able to do, these are cultural change agents and leader- leadership developers who you’ve deployed throughout your organization. So those roles for leadership and managers are absolutely, those are critical.

CURT NICKISCH: Tina, thanks so much for coming on the show and talking about it.

TINA OPIE: Thank you so much for having me, Curt.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s Tina Opie. She’s a professor at Babson College and the co-author of the new book Shared Sisterhood: How to Take Collective Action for Racial and Gender Equity at Work.

And we have more episodes and more podcasts to help you manage your team, manage organizations, and manage your career. Find them at hbr.org/podcasts or search HBR in Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox. And Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Curt Nickisch.

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