I Am Woman! Hear Me Roar!
I heard that comment frequently when I was working with a group of large construction company owners. Just by that description, you can probably guess the demographics of that group. Yes, they were all men.
It was early in my career and I was leading Diversity and Inclusion work for Ramsey County. One of my responsibilities was to initiate a Supplier Diversity program and since the most significant dollars spent by the County were in construction contracts, this group of construction company owners that had received most of the County contracts in the past, were one of my stakeholder groups. We met frequently and on several occasions I was slapped on the back and told, in one form or another, “Sara, you’re just like one of us.” Yet it was clear to me that I wasn’t; that I was an outsider to their exclusive club. I was left out of emails, meetings were scheduled without my knowing, any idea I presented wasn’t an idea until it came from one of them, decisions were made without me. I was clearly not one of them.
This situation plays out across workplaces more than we’d like to admit. It might be the one baby boomer joining the team of millennials and told, “You know, you don’t feel like you’re my grandpa, you actually feel like one of us.” Or the one person of color on the team that’s told, “we love working with you because when we work with you we just don’t see color.” In each of these cases, the intent is good and the desire is to include. Unfortunately, that positive intent is not always matched with an equally positive impact. That’s particularly the case in situations like mine where the actions of the group are exclusive. While the spoken message is “You’re one of us.” The massage sent by the actions of team members is “You’re nothing like us and we’re not fully including you in our team.”
In response to this situation, particularly if it’s persistent, few are able to remain positive, strategize a response and be productive. More typically, the response is fight or flight. I’m not proud to say, when I faced the construction company owners, flight was my response. That’s not to say I actually left the group. I have a strong sense of responsibility and so I kept showing up, but only physically. I was young, inexperienced, and baffled by the situation. I essentially froze. Engagement? Contribution? Nope, I think I just “got by.”
I didn’t chose the fight option, but many do because that’s a natural response. If we are told over and over again that others don’t see a critical part of our identity, then we start to show them that identity, even shove it in their face. In my case, that would have looked like me showing up in my t-shirt emblazoned with “I am Woman Hear Me Roar” and drink from my “Woman Power” coffee cup. I’d come to a meeting with the construction company owners and announce that I’m using funds from the group to go to a National Empowerment of Women conference. Of course, I’d also go into detail about the keynote topic of “How to deal with the male chauvinist pigs of the workplace.”
Of course I’m exaggerating in my example, yet this is a true reflection of the dynamic. Typically with positive intentions, a majority group minimizes the differences of a minority group. When that difference is tied to identity, the response is to be defensive of that identity and group.