The Need for Identity Communities In The Workplace: Creating Safety and Belonging for Underrepresented Talent

Jennifer Brown | |


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In this minisode, Jennifer discusses how creating and fostering exclusive communities in the workplace can actually generate more diversity and inclusion. She reveals how to balance exclusivity with allyship, and how in the future marginalized communities may become allies to one another. Discover why these communities can help retain and attract millennial talent.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • The need for identity communities in the workplace (2:30)
  • An essential human need that helps all employees to thrive (4:30)
  • How to balance the need for allyship with the creation of safe spaces (7:30)
  • Why creating exclusive communities can help attract and retain millennials (9:30)
  • How developing a sense of safety in the workplace can increase productivity (13:30)
  • How exclusive communities may shift and change in the future (15:00)
  • How marginalized communities can support each other (18:00)
  • Key questions that we need to be asking about diversity and inclusion (19:00)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

DOUG FORESTA: Hello, and welcome to The Will to Change. Of course, this is not Jennifer Brown, this is Doug Foresta, producer of The Will to Change. Today, we’re going to talk about the topic of does it ever make sense to have exclusive conversations for the purpose of inclusion?

So, Jennifer, thank you so much for joining yourself on The Will to Change. (Laughter.)

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, Doug.

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s true.

DOUG FORESTA: So I thought we’d start with this idea of does it ever make sense that we need to have exclusive conversations for the purpose of furthering inclusion and diversity? And if so, what does that look like?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, so this is a conundrum for a lot of leaders that call me and ask about best practices for their strategies. As they’re building them or as they’re inheriting them and trying to update them and make them more current in the way that we’re talking about inclusion, which is morphing so quickly, by the way.

All you need to do is open the paper and read the way that it’s being covered, being talked about, you look at how companies are talking about it. Everything is in flux.

So I think that it’s important, though, when you are faced with that question of why are we naming certain identity communities, for example, whether it’s a women’s network or effort at a company, whether it’s a network for employees of color or particular ethnicities within communities of color, or it’s the community with disabilities or it’s the LGBTQ community in a company.

I think we need to be prepared for this question. And even if it’s not asked, it’s one of those subtle and unasked questions that we, as practitioners, as people who believe in change and advocates and allies for others, we need to be ready to answer what is this “both and” moment that we’re living in?

I always address it by saying, “Look, there are communities in the employee base that are underrepresented from a demographics perspective.” And all you need to do is probably look around. Depending on where you sit in a company, you might see a lot of women, and you might see a lot of ethnic diversity, but then that diversity doesn’t continue to be represented as you look, for example, upwards into the organizational seniority.

There are many people, though, who look around them and realize that they’re one of few. That leads to the covering behavior we’ve talked about a lot on the minisodes and other podcasts. Covering is downplaying a known stigmatized identity about ourselves. It leads to fears around the impact of bias, both conscious and unconscious bias that can happen to you, and you’re not sure if it’s happening or not happening.

And it leads to the difficulty of finding people like you and finding community. And, you know, community and belonging is one of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s a foundational piece right above food, shelter, and water for humans. I love that model. If any of our listeners have never looked at Maslow or not in a while, go back and look at that pyramid of needs. Belonging and community are critical for us to feel that we can bring our full selves to work and to our lives, and really understand our stories and make sense of our stories and experiences.

So when you are underrepresented in the workplace, and when you are not very understood, or the particular challenges that you may face both in yourself and coming at you are not understood, I think people who build strategies for inclusion need to bear that in mind, that the provision of those spaces for a single identity community to gather, to process their experience, to find commonality and to craft their—and I hesitate to use the word “agenda.” What I mean is an agenda with a small “A.” I don’t mean the “gay agenda.” (Laughter.)

DOUG FORESTA: Exactly, not in the way that some people think of “agenda.”

JENNIFER BROWN: I simply mean the voice of that community. I don’t think any of us would deny any other human the ability to gather, to find community, to see your experience in others, to be bolstered by strength in numbers, and also to influence the company you happen to work for to progress along the continuum of greater equality and creating a place where all talent can bring their full selves to work. It’s hard to argue that that would be needed if you explain it in that way.

That was a long description, I hope people can take some nuggets out of that, Doug.

That’s what I say. And then remember statistics. Up to 50 percent of LGBTQ people are covering their identity in the workplace and are literally closeted. That was a statistic that came out last year. We are still dealing with a lot of fear around identity and a lack of community and it’s a factual lack of being able to see yourselves in others. When you’ve got 50 percent of LGBTQ people hiding every day, that needs to be addressed. You can’t just throw tons of allies and support at a community that is fundamentally struggling with some of those basic human needs that Maslow talks about.

You’ve got to do both. And at the same time, you have to, obviously, be very proactive to talk about the community, educate others, and welcome allies, advocates, and accomplices, as one of our recent guests called them. Welcome them very proactively to get involved with communities at the right time and in the right place.

It’s not open all the time to everyone. Here’s a safe space over here for this community that needs to find its voice, and then here are the opportunities to enter that space as an ally or advocate if you’re not part of that community. Two ways to get involved, support, and structure your strategy so that you answer both needs.

DOUG FORESTA: Do you think this is a step along the way? Obviously, as you said, we’re far from where we need to be in terms of inclusion in the workplace, but is this something that would be a good idea anyway? The idea that even when we at some point reach the mountaintop, it would still be good to have these spaces, or do you think this is a step along the way until we get to full inclusion and diversity—whatever that looks like?

JENNIFER BROWN: To believe what we’re learning and hearing about the millennial generation—younger talent, mid 30s and younger. They’re the ones who are coming into the workplace with a baseline expectation that their company, their employer is going to do this well. It’s as if the problem is already solved and addressed, which we all chuckle about or become alarmed when we hear that.

DOUG FORESTA: Right, exactly.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s absolutely not done. I think we’ve been taught that and shown that especially in the last year and a half.

This new generation, which I love, and I celebrate their expectation of the valuing of diversity. I love that. Yes, it should be an expectation and a baseline for organizations. Sadly, it is nowhere near the reality, but boy, it’s optimistic. I hope they back it up with action.

What I was going to say about this generation is that I do think their need for a safe space—if you go back to Maslow’s Hierarchy—it really looks fundamentally different than older generations’ needs for safety, community, and belonging. They have been the most integrated generation. I don’t expect that to shift back, necessarily.

With every subsequent generation, like generation Z that’s coming in after the millennials who are 18 to 20 years old, they’re going to continue to press this, and have even deeper expectations of their organizations to do this well and really walk the talk.

I do think their safety needs are fundamentally different. When you think about my generation, and certainly the generation above me, which is the baby boomers, it was literally physical safety that we all thought a lot about. We put a lot of emotional and mental bandwidth towards what would happen when we leave the office at night and do our commute, or if we were seen out at a gathering, or if some outed us because there was office gossip and how harmful it could be, and still being able to be fired in 35 states for being LGBTQ. That’s a fact. There are no federal protections even today.

These are things that the younger generations are just coming to terms with as they grow into adults and get educated about what’s happened before their generation came of age, and hopefully, choosing to take on that mantle. That is my deepest hope, that awakening for them involves the acknowledge that safety means different things depending on what generation you’re in, and you feeling relatively more safe about bringing your full self to work or being out in an interview, or being out and bringing your partner to work events, or talking very openly about who you are and what you did over the weekend. That’s something that others around you, especially of different ages and generations, may not be living into that reality.

I’m looking for a lot of better tone-setting from this younger generation. I think you still have to acknowledge that even though millennials are going to be, or are already the majority—I don’t know, Doug, if many listeners realize this, but some companies are already majority millennial.

DOUG FORESTA: Sure, with the retirement of the boomers, and then us gen X’ers, there are only 35 million of us? It’s a very small amount.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. We are half the size of the baby-boom generation as gen X, and then we’re also half the size of the millennial generation. We are truly getting squeezed. We’re in the middle of the sandwich. Actually, the baby boomer generation has stuck around a lot longer than was predicted because of their own sort of financial stores that were depleted by the recession and what happened in 2008-2010, which is still driving changes in plans for the baby boomer generation. They probably wanted to kick off into a third career, fifth career, whatever, the third third of life.  They’re definitely needing, from an economic perspective, to stick around longer, but probably wanting to stick around longer, too.

We’re all aging in such a different way now. We’re so much healthier so much later in life. Why not want to stay at a company longer? But it’s creating a ripple effect down the generations to squeeze gen X from getting the promotions that we’re ready for, and the responsibility and roles, and then also we’re also sandwiched from below by a very assertive millennial generation, which wants more leadership roles, which is bringing their full selves to work. And they aren’t struggling so much with identity management. To me, that means they have more bandwidth to free up to be productive. They aren’t having to work double time managing that tax on being different, which is what Dr. Vivienne Ming talked in our very first episode on The Will to Change.

When you have more bandwidth, more energy, and you feel like you can bring more of your full self to work, you are in a place where you can say, “Hey, I want that promotion,” or, “I’m going to put more time towards getting the right mentors and sponsors and executive support. I’m going to go for that job. Why shouldn’t I get that job? Just because I’m a person of color or LGBTQ, they should want me as much as I want them.”

It’s such a completely different conversation that people are having in their heads. Again, I celebrate that. It’s something we should all look at and internalize, especially in the older generations to say, “How do you become your own advocate?” What would be possible if you weren’t managing all of that covering around your identity and what’s accepted and what’s not? Honestly, that’s the dream.

I’m watching. What’s going to happen in workplaces where millennials are a majority? They are bringing more of their full selves to work. They have fewer safety needs, so that may drive a real change in terms of how we create women’s networks or LGBTQ networks. To the point, Doug, where these groups may become not obsolete, but they really may need to fundamentally change into something that the millennials do need. I don’t think we have answers to that yet.

What does a women’s network morph into when you finally get so many men involved that it becomes 50/50 men and women? The name of it certainly changes; the charter of it changes; the strategies that it takes on change.

There is already a majority allies in LGBT networks. So many enthusiastic allies that I think a lot of groups are shifting what they do and what they exist to do. Is it to create safe spaces for allies to find their voice and to learn the statistics and research about covering in the workplace? Is it for LGBT and allies to go and be allies to other under-represented groups? That is something I’ve been talking a lot about—extending beyond our community experience and taking our other identities and intersectionality and going forth and using our voice on behalf of others, even though we are in the LGBT community and are also somewhat burdened with the stigma of our identity.

I’ve been talking a lot about that. I’m trying to stretch my own thinking about what’s next. What’s next when safety isn’t that driving force that it used to be for a lot of us?

DOUG FORESTA: Right. I just want to jump in a second. In the Me Too minisode—which if people haven’t listened to it, they definitely should check it out—you touched on that idea. What comes next? We should start envisioning the next steps and what comes afterwards. I thought that was really insightful.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. We’ve got to put ourselves in this forward place. I always think of it as not resting. We can’t languish in the need for safety because so many other people have safety needs that we, in all of who we are, could probably be ameliorating as well.

For me, I always tell the story about my own intersectionality is this combination of relatively more privileged identities and less privileged identities. Those identities are things like LGBTQ or being a woman on the stigmatized side, and my ethnicity, which obviously is white, and naming that, and having a steep learning curve around what responsibilities that advantage comes with in terms of my being an ally to people of color or the disabilities community, even being ally to veterans in the workplace. We do some really cool veterans work that was such an inspiration for me to think about how I can get the word out about what is still a stigmatized community that’s struggling in the corporate world.

When you start to wrap your head around all these other dynamics that are going on around you, we have an opportunity to not just seek safety, but to also be extending ourselves as a helping factor and the accomplice, if you will, to other communities that are really struggling to find their voice.

Who better to help hold the space for some else to find their voice than another community who has struggled with that for years?

DOUG FORESTA: Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: If you’re on the other side of that, to a great degree—and I’m on the other side of that in many ways because I’ve been out for a long time, I’ve done so much thinking, work, and writing about it. I’m asking, “What’s next for me?” How can I use my voice differently that I have built and come to understand in one community of identity? How can I take that and strengthen others who are still in the infancy of that dialogue?

DOUG FORESTA: Beautiful.  What a great call to action or charge to leave people with—thinking about what’s next. I love the movement from having exclusive conversations to have more inclusion, and eventually that exclusivity moves into more inclusion, and hopefully continues to grow from there.

Jennifer, thank you so much for sharing your words of wisdom. As always, I greatly appreciate it.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks so much, Doug, for your allyship and being a great accomplice, if I can say. (Laughter.)

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you. Thanks so much.