Author Talks: How to eradicate roadblocks to equity

A workplace free of racism and sexism can start with a better understanding of the historical relationship between Black and White women, says Dr. Tina Opie.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with Dr. Tina Opie, chief vision officer of Opie Consulting Group, about her new book, Shared Sisterhood: How to Take Collective Action For Racial and Gender Equity At Work (Harvard Business Review Press, October 2022), cowritten by Beth A. Livingston. Opie shares strategies for overcoming obstacles to the race and gender-based discrimination she says, statistically speaking, is happening at your organization. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Why does your book focus on the historically tenuous relationship between Black and White women?

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I am Dr. Tina Opie, and with my coauthor Dr. Beth Livingston, we’ve written Shared Sisterhood: How to Take Collective Action For Racial and Gender Equity at Work. The book is about our philosophy for how we can, once and for all, eradicate racism and sexism at work.

The historically tenuous relationship between Black and White women is informative for a few reasons. The first is that when we look at Black and White women, they have something in common, which is they’re women. But they also have something that’s differing, which is that they are from different racioethnic categories.

At least in the United States, Black people have been historically marginalized. White people have had historical power dominance. That is something that we’ve seen around the world: there are typically groups that have more power or access to resources, and there are groups that have been excluded or prevented from having those resources.

In that way, if we can understand some of the principles that elucidate the relationship between Black and white women, we may be able to understand relationships between other groups.

As an example, when I first wanted to study the Shared Sisterhood framework, I was really curious because we hear that feminism is a movement, that it’s something that draws women together, but when I looked around at different workplaces—I’ve been a banker and a consultant, now I’m an academic and an entrepreneur—in all of those contexts I noticed that there was a lot of fragmentation and, honestly, segregation between Black and White women in the workplace.

If we can understand some of the principles that elucidate the relationship between Black and white women, we may be able to understand relationships between other groups.

That made me wonder if feminism or sharing a gender is not sufficient to cause women to come together. What is it about race that causes this divide? I did some research on the history of women in the workplace, specifically in the United States, and I found out that a lack of trust has been a critical issue: there was a power imbalance that led to a lack of trust.

This is something that could be very instructive when you’re thinking about relationships between women of other racioethnic groups, and relationships between people of different genders, different socioeconomic statuses, etcetera.

Why does there also need to be a focus on individuals when trying to solve systemic institutional issues?

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Organizations are composed of individuals who direct, lead, and manage systems. If we were to only focus on individuals, we might end up only talking about things like implicit bias or preference. In contrast, if we only focused on systems, then individuals might look at the system and say, “Oh, my gosh, we’re getting disparate outcomes—the system is not working.”

We need to put those two things together. While we reject an “individual-only” solution, we 100 percent recognize it is up to us, as individuals, to be honest and transparent as we interrogate ourselves as well as the systems that we’re managing and running so that we can make sure we dismantle any systems of inequity.

What is wrong with a ‘color-blind’ approach to equity?

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The idea that color-blindness is something that we should do in organizations is common. In our book, we specifically talk about how harmful it can be to embrace a color-blind approach.

I know some people say skin color is inconsequential, but let me tell you this: when you’re saying that you’re color-blind, it means, “I don’t see color.” But guess what? That’s not the way that the brain works. Our brains process color. We categorize people. We use heuristics. So one of the first issue with a color-blind approach is that it’s untrue.

If you look into a field of tulips, unless you are actually color-blind, you’ll notice that there are red tulips or yellow tulips. The issue is not noticing the skin color; the issue is stigmatizing and devaluing people based on their skin color.

I’m a Black woman. I’m a proud Black woman. I’m proud of my heritage. I want you to see that I’m Black. What I don’t want you to do is, because you see that I’m Black, then say, “I don’t want to talk about color.”

I think being ‘color-blind’ is well-intentioned, but it’s a misinformed approach because it prevents us from ever being able to actually unpack what is happening, why racioethnicity matters, and why it has been devalued in the workplace in the past.

I think the reason why color-blindness as an ideology is attractive is because it allows people to sidestep ever talking about potentially controversial or conflict-ridden topics such as racioethnicity. Color-blindness avoids ever digging into why we talk about “racioethnicity” to begin with.

We talk about it because many societies, specifically in the United States, were constructed based on power, and based on racioethnicity. I think being “color-blind” is well-intentioned, but it’s a misinformed approach because it prevents us from ever being able to actually unpack what is happening, why racioethnicity matters, and why it has been devalued in the workplace in the past.

What is ‘not-here’ syndrome?

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In some organizations, leaders say, “Shared Sisterhood is cool, but we don’t have these issues here.” It’s called not-here syndrome. If you are a leader and you think that these issues, such as racism and sexism, do not exist in your organization, I’m going to encourage you to do what we call dig.

If you’re saying that this doesn’t happen in your organization, statistically speaking, that is largely untrue. I would encourage you to dig into what it is that you may be missing—you want to surface your own assumptions.

The second thing I would encourage you to do is to talk to people unlike you. One of the best lessons that I’ve ever learned is when I’m very confident about my opinion, it’s probably a good idea for me to triangulate, so, I’ll talk to people who are different than I am. In Shared Sisterhood, we refer to that as bridge.

If you’re saying that this doesn’t happen in your organization, statistically speaking, that is largely untrue. I would encourage you to dig into what it is that you may be missing—you want to surface your own assumptions.

While you, as a leader, may say, “This is absolutely not an issue at this organization,” you should test that hypothesis. Talk to people who are different than you. Talk to people from historically marginalized groups, read research on some of the ways that these issues manifest in organizations, and you may find that you begin to get data that refutes your initial not-here hypothesis.

Spotting institutional roadblocks 1: Discouraging critical comments

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Here are a few tips on how you can spot institutional roadblocks specifically within your own organization. One roadblock is the discouragement of critical comments about the organization.

If you have leaders who say things like, “Don’t say that we have a problem with racism or sexism,” the focus is on a reputational concern that has surfaced—it is not actually a concern for the underlying lived experiences of people who might say we have an issue with racism or with sexism.

This is an institutional roadblock because people are more concerned with their reputation and public relations than they are with actually improving the experiences of their employees. I know it’s challenging, but from a moral perspective and in terms of how you get employee engagement, you will find that by addressing this particular roadblock, you may have employees who are more engaged, who are more productive, and in that way, your reputation improves.

When you try to tamp down and prevent the free expression of concerns that people have, it can backfire.

Spotting institutional roadblocks 2: Downplaying racial inequities

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Another institutional roadblock is the downplaying of systemic racial inequities. This differs from the discouragement of critical comments. As an organization, you may have conducted surveys, research, or focus groups that provided data which suggests there are systemic racial inequities in your organization.

When you downplay them and say, “Well, it’s not that big of a deal,” or, “We are working as hard as we can,” you’re sending a signal to the people on your team that, despite having these data, you are unwilling to move forward. That challenges your leadership because it suggests that there’s some resistance or reticence to soberly examining the data that’s before you.

If you have the information that suggests there are systemic inequities but you refuse to move forward, it may be because you feel as a leader that you don’t have the necessary skills to successfully navigate through that issue—but that’s different than saying that those systemic inequities do not exist.

This is a really important roadblock to recognize. It can mean that you, as a leader, can bolster your skills and work with your team so that you all can become more effective at being authentic and transparent in how you discuss and navigate these issues.

Spotting institutional roadblocks 3: Focusing on processes, not outcomes

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This may sound controversial to many people, and I hope it encourages a lot of conversation. Many organizations solely focus on process and not on outcomes. For example, a recruiter might say, “We posted the job and we interviewed for the job and it just so happens that in the last few search cycles, the people who we ended up with were White men.”

I don’t have anything against White men. I know White men. White men are people, too. I think it’s important that we say that. But if you, as an organization, espouse the value of having a workforce that is racioethnically diverse—perhaps reflective of the environment where you operate—that is a problem if you underrepresent historically marginalized people.

The process needs to be examined, because the outcomes are not generating what you anticipate. However, if you only focus on the process, you could argue and rationalize that you’ve done all that you could. But have you?

If you, as an organization, espouse the value of having a workforce that is racioethnically diverse—perhaps reflective of the environment where you operate—that is a problem if you underrepresent historically marginalized people.

Some of the organizations that we’ve worked with using the Shared Sisterhood framework went back to their processes and realized that the way they were asking questions and the qualifications that they were looking for had prevented people who were actually qualified from getting the job.

I’ll give you an example. Let’s say one of the top analysts at a particular organization—an analyst who has been training other analysts—does not have an undergraduate degree. Some people will say, “That is insane. Everyone needs to have an undergraduate degree.” But ask yourself, why?

What would happen if, instead of having that as a qualification, you said, “Let’s give people an actual case study based on the work that they would have to do once they’re employed”? When organizations we worked with did this, all of a sudden, the outcomes were different.

So, it’s not as though we only consider the outcomes and we don’t consider the process, but we need to look at the mutually beneficial or iterative nature between processes and outcomes. As leaders, it’s incumbent upon us to revise those processes if we’re not getting the outcomes that we say we desire.

Spotting institutional roadblocks 4: Sharing and acting on data

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Some people may tighten up at the idea of sharing and acting on data. It’s been really surprising to me when I’ve worked with different organizations that have conducted employee satisfaction surveys how, from CEOs down, human resources will often have very detailed pay data by gender, race, and level—yet organizations are very hesitant to share that information, even with everyone in HR.

I can understand that. We need to recognize, though, while you might not want to show the most granular level of the data, what it would look like if you examined salary bands by race, gender, and other levels to determine if there were any inequities. Once you find out the answer to those questions, are you willing to share that information?

Some organizations are broadening their approach and are saying, “This is what we are looking at right now and these are the specific steps that we are taking to act upon and change this.” Many of you may have tightened up at the thought of sharing data because you’re saying, “That is a lawsuit, Tina. Are you expecting us to get sued?” That’s part of the challenge.

Which comes first: The chicken or the egg? Many employees are already experiencing this. They know that they’re being underpaid compared to their counterparts, or at least they have an inkling that they are. So, when you withhold this information, it undermines trust.

Here’s another thing: when you don’t give people any sense of information, they will fill in the blanks. You may find that you don’t have huge disparities. There may be some areas where you have more to work on than in others, but you may actually find, ironically, that the more transparent you are and the more data that you share—being strategic about the data that you share and the way that you present it—the more your employees respect and trust you.

Many employees are already experiencing this. They know that they’re being underpaid compared to their counterparts, or at least they have an inkling that they are. So, when you withhold this information, it undermines trust.

That is a huge issue in many organizations, especially with what they’re calling “’The Great Resignation” or “quiet quitting,” which many organizations are confronting now. In many instances, it’s happening because employees feel as though they’re being disrespected, taken for granted, or underpaid.

I think we are coming to a moment in time when the employee–employer relationship is being renegotiated. I have found through working with organizations that when you are strategic about how you share data and then follow up on the actions that you say you will take, employees are much more likely to trust leadership, which is a benefit for everyone.

Spotting institutional roadblocks 5: The extracurricular penalty

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Many organizations have employee resource groups or affinity groups. In some organizations, they generally fall into two camps.

In the first camp are groups of individuals coming together with other people who are like them or people who are interested in their shared identity. They may come together for social reasons and for an opportunity to connect.

The second camp is where you might have people coming together with the idea of helping the company solve issues related to that shared identity. If you have a women’s employee resource group, it could be, in the first camp, about women getting together and talking about commonality as more of a social venture.

In the second camp, it would be about women coming together to help their company brainstorm how it can better serve women employees, women clients, and other women stakeholders. In the latter camp, when people are coming together to help the organization, sometimes this is viewed as if it’s voluntary service, but it takes a lot of effort and time. From an extracurricular penalty standpoint, these people are expected to do this work while they’re also performing their regular job.

In this way, the reason why it’s an issue of equity is that the very people who have been historically marginalized in organizations are encumbered or burdened with having to, on their shoulders, carry the organization forward.

A quick solution to that is if you are an organization that relies on employee resource groups for things like recruiting, evaluating, or understanding, I would encourage you to think about how you can build this into your evaluation system, how you can reward people for doing this work, and how you can make sure people are trained to do this.

The very people who have been historically marginalized in organizations are encumbered or burdened with having to, on their shoulders, carry the organization forward.

The answer might be that it makes people more eligible for promotion if they’ve done this extracurricular work; it might be that they get paid more. I think we need to jettison the idea of free labor when it comes to helping organizations resolve huge issues related to identity.

Why can’t women network their way to gender equity?

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Much of the advice that’s given to people is that you need to stand up, negotiate, and network with people, but one of the challenges is that people tend to network with people who are like them, something called “homophily”—which is like the saying, “birds of a feather flock together.” And it’s true.

A woman can network with people, but often the people who are in charge are people who identify as men. That’s someone who’s potentially different than her. That man she’s networking with might feel different when he’s networking with her than when he’s networking with a man who identifies in the same way.

We are subjecting people who have been historically marginalized to trying to make their way into a network that potentially was never built for them. I know that may sound harsh, but one of the reasons we proposed the idea of Shared Sisterhood was to fight this idea of the good old boys’ network—and it was called that for a reason.

Our advice is not that you shouldn’t network—you should network. But that squarely puts the responsibility on the individual to effectively network when what we need is also people and organizations examining the systemic issues associated with the network.

It was primarily men, and it was people of a particular socioeconomic status who often went to particular schools, whose parents golfed together, and who went yachting. So, why can’t a person who isn’t from that world just jump into those waters? Because it is different, which works against human nature.

Our advice is not that you shouldn’t network—you should network. But that squarely puts the responsibility on the individual to effectively network when what we need is also people and organizations examining the systemic issues associated with the network.

That is why I think it’s a bad idea to tell women, Black people, Hispanic people, Indigenous people, Asian people, Middle Eastern people, or multiracial people that the solution to any inequity they’re confronting is simply to network. Networking is a powerful tool, but it must be placed in context. We can never forget that there are systems we can also deploy to get more equitable outcomes.

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Dr. Tina Opie on how to eradicate roadblocks to equity

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