Fear of Being Different Stifles Talent
By Kenji Yoshino & Christie Smith
Harvard Business Review March 2014 Issue
Diversity is a near-universal value in corporate America, but the upper tiers of management remain stubbornly homogeneous. Consider Fortune 500 CEOs: Only 23 are female, just six are black, and none are openly gay. Why so few gains at the top? We believe that one factor is a phenomenon sociologists call “covering,” whereby people downplay their differences from the mainstream. Someone with a disability might forgo her cane at work, say, while a gay man might avoid using “he” or “him” if asked about his partner. Such behavior is driven not just by self-censorship or internalized biases but also by pressure from managers. It decreases employees’ confidence and engagement and, we think, holds women and minorities back.
We reached these conclusions after surveying some 3,000 employees in more than 20 large U.S. firms. Our subjects represented a mix of ages, genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and levels of seniority. Their companies spanned 10 industries, but all had a stated emphasis on inclusiveness. Yet 61% of the workers surveyed said they had faced overt or implicit pressure to cover in some way. For instance, one woman had been coached not to mention day care pickup or other family responsibilities, lest she incur a “motherhood penalty.” Another respondent observed that she made a concerted effort not to be seen around other African-American professionals to avoid the labels she’d seen placed on peers.
Blending into the Crowd
The employees we surveyed had countless strategies for minimizing their differences, but their efforts fell into four broad categories:
Twenty-nine percent of respondents altered their attire, grooming, or mannerisms to make their identity less obvious.
“I grew up in a lower-middle-class status and wear nicer clothing to appear fashionable and wealthier.”
Forty percent of respondents refrained from behavior commonly associated with a given identity, often to forestall stereotypes or negative assumptions.
“I have been careful not to mention my age or anything that might date me.”
Fifty-seven percent of respondents avoided sticking up for their identity group.
“Even though I am of Chinese descent, I would never correct people if they make jokes or comments about Asian stereotypes.”
Eighteen percent of respondents limited contact with other members of a group.
“I don’t associate with cancer groups, because I don’t want to draw attention to my medical status.”
Of the employees who reported feeling pressure to mute some aspect of their identities, 66% said that it significantly undermined their sense of self. Fifty-one percent said that perceived demands for covering from leadership affected their view of opportunities within the organization, and 50% indicated that they diminished their sense of commitment. And although covering was more prevalent among traditionally underrepresented groups, including gays (83%), blacks (79%), women (66%), Hispanics (63%), and Asians (61%), we found a surprising incidence among straight white men, 45% of whom told us that they downplayed characteristics such as age, physical disabilities, and mental health issues.
Managers striving to develop a truly diverse set of leaders should recognize the fallout of even unspoken demands to conform and work to eliminate them. Just as important, they should look for opportunities to model a more authentic, inclusive culture by “uncovering” themselves.