I had another eye-opening early morning facilitating workshops on identifying values, interrupting unconscious bias, and practicing inclusive leadership with a group of young leaders from across the world.
In these and other workshops, it has been upsetting to hear about all of the different types of micro aggressions that wonderful people have experienced - from being followed around a store and feeling forced to buy something to prove that they aren’t stealing, to feeling left out as a Jew at Christmastime with all the hullaballoo around Christmas and zero mention of Hanukkah (I’ve experienced this), to thinking that someone is the assistant or secretary because they are a woman, to someone being addressed or treated as if they are a cleaner or a delivery person because they are not white.
As I watch people tear up as they describe these painful memories, it is so clear to me how hurtful these experiences are to people, and can cause them to question their very identity and value as a person.
However, I also know that most of the people who said or did these things to them likely had no idea how much hurt they were causing. But that doesn't mean that they aren't culpable. It is not the intention of the person that matters, it is the person's perception.
Lesson #1: Understand Your Biases
If you care about treating people equally, and want people to feel good about themselves when they are in your company, you must must must take a hard look at your own biases. Think about when you actually know something about someone or when you are making an assumption based on what they look like, or dress like, or where they are from. If you want to go a step further, ask yourself where that assumption comes from and why that assumption would be put into the world. Who is gaining or maintaining power from perpetuating those false stereotypes and assumptions?
The goal is not to get rid of your biases (everyone will always have them), but to be aware of them so that you can check your own behavior before you unintentionally make someone feel devalued, marginalized, and/or inferior. Every time that you commit a micro aggression you not only inadvertently stomp on someone’s soul, you uphold larger systems of oppression and marginalization. As a start, take Harvard’s implicit bias tests.
Lesson #2: The era of the bystander is over
Something that has also emerged is how critical allies are. It can be difficult and exhausting for someone who is the target of a microaggression to always be the one to respond. Give them a break for once. Move from the bystander realm to the ally realm, by taking a stand and pointing out inappropriate behavior or how "innocent" things (like every business school case study starring white privileged men who went to Wharton or statues and highways named after Confederate soldiers littered everywhere) perpetuate larger systems of oppression. If the aggressor has a relationship with you or is in the same in-group as you, they are more likely to listen and take heed.
Lesson #3: Equal pay for equal work
Another powerful experience happened to me yesterday when a close friend – who is also a woman of color- called me because she was furious by the marginal amount of her yearly raise. Even with the raise she would still be making 10K less than her peers at the same level (for the past two years she has been making 15K less). To add insult to injury, she was more experienced than all of them, and the company was constantly citing her and her projects to bolster their own reputation, whilst simultaneously paying her less. To make matters even worse, her actual job for the company is making sure that the factories they outsource production to are treating their employees fairly and equitably and respecting human rights standards.
(This reminds me of the hypocritical nature of the US having the nerve to tell parliaments in other countries to have gender quotas while we gaff at the idea of instituting quotas right here at home.)
She and I did the math together and realized that her pay gap over 5 1/2 years added up to $100,000. That's not a small amount of money. That's two years of private college, two cars, a down payment for a house, all of my student loan debt. It is not a few thousand dollars. Given that bonuses are usually based on salary percentages, that added onto the inequitableness. I coached her for over an hour as she asked me what I thought the best ways were to tell her boss that she needed to be paid equitably.
Now this is one of my toughest female friends. She is the one who cleaned up a dead mouse in my house because I was too scared, brought over a drill to hang up my coat racks, had the chutzpah to propose to her husband despite his family's desire for traditionalism, and threatened to take on deuchey men who treated me poorly.
I couldn't believe I had to give her a pep talk and encouragement and validation, for a reason that was at its heart, totally absurd. Why should being paid equitably be something that she should have to argue for?????
Pay people equitably. Research shows that even when women negotiate, they still get paid less than men. So skip the negotiations and make salaries transparent for each level. When people find out they are being paid less than their peers at the same level, especially if they have more experience or education, it leads to feelings of anger, hurt, sadness, worthlessness, and ultimately someone wanting to leave the company. My friend was ready to walk out.
It has also happened to me – and the sense of injustice was so shocking I almost couldn’t speak. Furthermore, when I raised the 10K difference to HR and my boss, rather than the gap being rectified, it was justified with a “we have our system for deciding salaries, you just have to trust us.” If you do find out that there is a pay gap, especially between races/genders, rectify it immediately, apologize profusely, and consider giving back pay for the years that the gap was there.
For some reason in the US (cough cough, institutionalized sexism), women with master’s degrees tend to get paid the same as men with bachelor’s degrees. This was the case in my scenario, though in my case, I was being paid less than the guy with a bachelor’s degree. How is that fair, especially considering that the women with a master’s degree also have more student loans to pay off? Now we see why women hold the majority of student loan debt in America.
Also, I always ask a powerful question before a session - what is the change that you want to see in the world?
I typically see similar themes across nationalities and cultures. They are: embracing diversity and creating equity; practicing respect and tolerance for all regardless of race, religion, caste, gender; preventing and combatting gender based violence, and taking care of the environment.
I am always inspired to see people across borders holding such common values.
But ultimately, whether you hold those values is not enough – it is whether you live into them that matters.