By Patricia Bouweraerts —
America’s workforce is singing more varied carols than Walt Whitman could ever have imagined when writing his famous poem, and with increasingly diverse voices.
This chorus is mixed from a constantly wider assortment of tones, including more chances for clashing chords in the workplace. On the other hand, experts say that greater involvement in your organization’s activities, assisting others in similar situations and quietly working toward long-term change are the most career-safe and effective ways toward harmony.
“Diversity in the workforce has been increasing,” said YeVonne Allen, Equity and Inclusion office, specialist at Truckee Meadows Community College. “More and more underrepresented populations are now applying and qualifying for positions.”
According to the federal equal opportunity guidelines, the protected classes are race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, genetic information and age. States can also add more protections, such as sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
Due to expanding diversity, workplace dissonances may include unyielding biases and micro-aggressions.
“I don’t think the term diversity will ever be outdated,” Allen said. “There are still strong biases to racial diversity. People are still not wanting to see interracial ads. Civil rights are really human rights, that one person is not better that any other person.”
She thinks more intense discussion can even have a constructive aspect, especially when combined with additional legal protections.
“There is something called micro-aggressions, like when you hear someone say ‘you can’t say anything without offending someone,’” Allen said. “But I think that’s a good thing, because people now have a voice to express themselves and what is really bothering them. They have a voice to speak up — and that should be celebrated.”
Myrton Running Wolf, Bay Area-based actor, producer, writer and director, agrees.
“In my own experience as a 6-foot-5-inch Native American man who was also a college scholarship athlete and who now holds a Ph.D. from Stanford, my very presence has been perceived as a threat and/or aggressive move,” he wrote in an email. “(People say), ‘What are you doing here? We’re not doing anything wrong? We’re tired of having to be forced to be politically correct.’”
Running Wolf was a featured speaker at Stanford University’s “Getting Played: Second Annual Symposium on Equity in the Entertainment Industry” and Awards event on Feb. 27.
Mentorship and possibility models
Tiffany Young, Equity and Diversity coordinator at Washoe County School District (WCSD), Nevada, said during a Campus Community Conversations event at TMCC in February that when she accompanies staff to off-campus meetings, people sometimes assume that another employee is the team’s leader.
“When I walk into a room, I have to wear my resume on my forehead,” she said. “I have to continually prove that I can be here, when no one else has to do that.”
Allen said that it helps people who belong to diverse populations to have a mentor with whom they can identify.
“Diverse workers need peer mentors that look like them, and sometimes these similar-looking peers, the possibility models, don’t exist in their workplace,” Allen said. “When people enter a business where the upper management hasn’t been through what they have, they don’t have that possibility model showing them there are opportunities for someone who looks like them to achieve, or to advance.”
She adds that it’s also about knowing someone else has walked in his or her shoes.
“People of diversity need a mentor who maybe knows their culture and what they’ve been through in order to get there,” she said.
What about turnover?
“Definitely, turnover negatively affects diverse people,” she said. “When they see that possibility model leave a workplace, they might wonder what the real reason was.”
Lack of diversity persists in some prominent fields
Discrimination in the $230 billion dollar entertainment industry has been blatant and relentless for racial minorities, especially American Indians, Running Wolf said.
“The entire landscape of mainstream film, television and theater production is stripped of Native American presence as well as other racial minorities,” he wrote in an email. “The racially segregated Hollywood system is built on generations of normalized institutionalized racism and structural oppression. Yes, there has been discrimination against Native American actors but it is a complicated issue. American Indian actors are indeed encouraged to audition and submit their resume/headshots, but only for American Indian roles which are few and far between.”
He said that for high-profile or starring American Indian roles, the industry is set up to more often choose non-Native actors such as Johnny Depp or Booboo Stewart.
There must also be methodologies and strategies to work across cultural differences, social divides, and professional, academic disciplines. Unfortunately, most folks take these types of collaborations for granted, as a given, as if social harmony will come automatically and inherently. To my experience, it does not.Myrton Running Wolf, Ph.D.
New types of diversity; ageism and chronic illness
AARP, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization for people age 50 and up, has published a fact sheet based on their 2012 survey of 1,502 adults ages 45-74. The report is called “Staying Ahead of the Curve 2013.”
“Approximately two thirds (64%) of older workers (ages 45-74) say they have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace,” according to AARP. “Of those, a whopping 92 percent say it is very or somewhat common (translating to 59% of the entire sample).”
Allen agrees that ageism is an issue, but says it can work against younger workers as well.
“Ageism can exist in any profession or any realm of business,” Allen said. “It can go both ways, too. There is bias to the young because they haven’t had a lot of experience. For older workers, the threshold for thinking about discrimination is age 40. If two people are equally qualified and they are over 40, that should not influence the hiring decision.”
Living with a chronic illness can also function as a type of diversity.
One employee managing multiple sclerosis said that when colleagues find out about the chronic condition, they sometimes “discount” her contribution.
What can co-workers do to be supportive?
“The unknown causes you to pull back,” said Donna, a co-worker in Florida, as quoted in the booklet, Coming Out as a Supporter, published by Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.
In the case of a colleague coming out as gay or lesbian, PFLAG and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation agreed that you can ask for time to process information and then use uncertainty to begin open communication.
“You don’t have to bottle up your emotions for fear of saying the wrong thing,” according the booklet. “Use them as the basis for an honest conversation. Ask the questions you need to ask. Have a real talk.”
“Ask about ‘partners’ rather than ‘boyfriends’ or ‘girlfriends,’” according to ETR. “Let people know you don’t want to hear offensive slang, anti-gay jokes, stereotypical remarks, put-downs of LGBT people. … Ask if there’s anything you can do to show your support.”
What should you do if you feel different from the norm at work?
“My suggestion is to volunteer to do things like a classified council or join a committee,” Allen said. “You meet a lot of people and let other people know that you’re here, the way that you identify if you have a different gender expression than many of the other staff. This way, they’re more comfortable to ask questions, or you can ask them questions. It’s good for people to see you apart from what you do 40 hours a week for your work.”
Young has found her meaning and vision by helping others achieve.
Her department at WCSD helps and supports black, American Indian, and Pacific Islander populations. One of the department’s strategies is to work toward equipping school libraries with materials that reflect the students using them.
“I believe in working for people who don’t necessarily have their own voice,” she said. “I want my legacy to be that I helped shift something … I changed something. I made something different happen than what we’ve been doing. I shook things up.”
Running Wolf wrote in a follow-up email that he thinks many workplace cultures reject variance of any kind, and therefore lack diversity, either racial, cultural, faith or other differences.
“I think that unity and solidarity with like-minded individuals is key,” he wrote. “However, there must also be methodologies and strategies to work across cultural differences, social divides, and professional, academic disciplines. Unfortunately, most folks take these types of collaborations for granted, as a given, as if social harmony will come automatically and inherently. To my experience, it does not. When the issues of diversity and equality/equity are brought up, again, the person who speaks out is seen as the aggressor and the person to be removed. Laying low and smiling can often be the best survival strategy, but it certainly is not a long term solution.”
Running Wolf researches, writes and speaks about the topic of diversity in order to raise awareness and start more profound dialogue. His Facebook page also promotes greater understanding about these issues.
The consensus among these professional voices is perceptible — there are ways for working people to create even better harmony at companies. These methods include getting involved, seeking friendly support, learning what will help others, and staying quietly persistent toward more long-standing awareness.
Diverse workers need peer mentors that look like them, and sometimes these similar-looking peers, the possibility models, don’t exist in their workplace. … People of diversity need a mentor who maybe knows their culture and what they’ve been through in order to get there.YeVonne Allen
There will always be bias, but communication can further equity
Allen said that bias is innately human, but people don’t have to act on partiality.
“The hardest thing is to remind people about their unconscious bias — that it doesn’t affect their decisions about hiring or whether someone gets a raise,” she said. “Everyone has a prejudice, but when you use this prejudice to exert power, that’s when there’s a problem.”
Young said that the entire chorus needs to be heard.
“Give the non-traditional an opportunity — an opportunity to participate,” she said. “Allow other voices to be heard.”