I’m in a room with 25 male executives and they’re scowling at me. I know they’ve stepped away from earning their oodles of money to attend a required training on a topic that makes most people really uncomfortable.
Now the room is silent and they’re watching the clock.
I am there that day to talk about why diversity and inclusion matters to their company.
They’ve been in the headlines recently about a harassment lawsuit involving homophobic and sexist comments, and have brought my company in to do focus groups with hundreds of employees to try to understand what in the culture led to this kind of behavior being acceptable.
I’m armed with the feedback, and it’s not pretty.
I’m not in any danger that day, but I’m not feeling safe—far from it.
I’m actually on HIGH alert.
I scan the room and I’ve noticed I’m the only woman in the room. And I’m pretty sure—although we’re never entirely sure—that I’m the only member of the LGBTQ community, too.
As I’m doing this calculus, I’m asking myself—as I often do—how safe, and how brave am I feeling today?
Some of the louder voices in the room dominate the discussion, arguing with the data and minimizing the feedback. I see myself in the feedback and they do not see me.
That moment I decide not to come out.
Instead, I decide to cover up my true identity…
So many of us are familiar with that compulsion to hide or downplay aspects of our identity in order to fit in—particularly if we feel under-represented.
The LGBTQ community is a prime example.
At the recent OutWOMEN event at the Time Warner Center in New York, discussion was centered on engaging conversation and facilitating cross-business opportunity among a curated cohort of senior LGBTQ women executives.
And I realized again how isolated we are, the further up the ladder we go.
So many of us carry around the secret of our true identity for years as we rise up the ranks to become senior executives, ending up trapped in a false narrative about who we really are.
The urge to exceed expectations to keep people focused on our performance and away from personal topics of conversation is unsustainable, and can ultimately lead to stress and burnout…
But the good news is that, once you find the courage to share your truth, the impact of freeing up all that emotional real estate is significant.
Marcy Wilder from Hogan Lovells wrapped our discussion that morning with a poem called “A Song For Many Movements” by Audra Lorde, which included the words:
Our labor has become
than our silence.
She finished by asking, “If your silence will not protect you, what will protect you? Or who will protect you?”
And then she answered:
“We will. That’s our job.”
That’s the power of community. And that’s the strength we all hold in our hands and hearts when we feel safe enough to allow ourselves to be fully seen.
I’d love to hear more about your own experiences with this, and how downplaying your identity has impacted you in the workplace—or how you have navigated bringing your full self to work.
I look forward to hearing from you in the comments!