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Fear of being different stifles talent

Kenji Yoshino and
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Study reveals people prefer to hide their diversities so as to downplay their differences from the mainstream due to internal bias and pressure from managers.

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 behaviour is driven not just by self-censorship or internalised 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 per cent 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.

Of the employees who reported feeling pressure to mute some aspect of their identities, 66 per cent said that it significantly undermined their sense of self. Fifty-one per cent said that perceived demands for covering from leadership affected their view of opportunities within the organisation, and 50 per cent indicated that they diminished their sense of commitment.

And although covering was more prevalent among traditionally underrepresented groups, including gays (83 per cent), blacks (79 per cent), women (66 per cent), Hispanics (63 per cent) and Asians (61 per cent), we found a surprising incidence among straight white men, 45 per cent 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 recognise 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.

Kenji Yoshino is

the Chief Justice

Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at New York University. Christie Smith is the managing principal of the Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion, Deloitte LLP.

© The New York Times 2014

From Harvard Business Review

© 2014 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.

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