Only 1% of the nation’s Fortune 500 CEOs are black. Only 4% are women. And not a single one is openly gay. After decades of diversity initiatives and inclusion programs, what’s the problem? That was the question Christie Smith of Deloitte Consulting and NYU Law professor Kenji Yoshino asked in their new white paper, Uncovering Talent: A New Model of Inclusion.
The report, created for the Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion (which Smith heads), seeks to “redefine the conversation around inclusion,” she says. “Clearly the needle has not moved with regard to the representation of women and minorities in the senior ranks. The initiatives that companies have spent millions on are, at some level, not allowing women or minorities to break the glass ceiling into the executive suite, so we wanted to step back and answer the question ‘what’s going on here’?”
One answer, they suggest, may be the phenomenon of “covering” – a term originally coined by famed sociologist Erving Goffman, which describes the process of downplaying aspects of one’s identity (a black person who hesitates to associate with African-American colleagues, a women who shies away from discussing her role as a mother, or an openly gay person who still doesn’t bring his partner to office parties).
Yoshino’s 2006 book Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights expanded the concept. “That book came out of my own personal experience,” he says. “After I came out as gay, I thought I was in the clear. But when I got onto the tenure track, a friendly and well-meaning colleague told me I would have a much smoother ride to tenure if I was a “homosexual professional,” rather than a “professional homosexual” – meaning it’s fine to be gay, but don’t write about gay subjects, stay away from it in terms of your brand, and make sure you ‘de-gay’ yourself. This was a surprising thing for someone to say at an institution that was, and remains, very pro-gay.” Soon, he began exploring the ‘covering’ phenomenon.
In some ways, ‘covering’ is a good problem to have: as Yoshino describes it, it’s a “second-generation issue” that has arisen now that more overt forms of discrimination have been banned and (in theory) stamped out of corporate life. But it’s also left an insidious legacy: “Many people point to the fact that formal forms of discrimination have been retired,” says Yoshino, “and they wipe their hands and say, ‘we’re done with diversity.’” Of course, what remains is still an overwhelmingly white male corporate power structure.
It’s not just self-censorship or internalized bias that keeps women and minorities covering, say Smith and Yoshino. Sixty-one percent of respondents said their leaders expected them to cover, and 49% said that expectation “somewhat” to “extremely” affected their sense of the professional opportunities available to them. “Fundamentally, it’s about winning the war for talent,” says Smith. “If an organization doesn’t have capability around authenticity and allowing for a broader definition of leadership or the advancement of a diverse talent base, it simply won’t win long-term in the market.”
Indeed, Yoshino notes that even straight white males are negatively affected by the phenomenon of covering. “More than 50% of straight white men cover,” he says, “because they belong to some other unidentified minority group – they may suffer from depression, or they’re a veteran and feel they can’t talk about the military.” “Straight white men can also cover as straight white men,” he continued. “Some respondents said they needed to make an extra effort to negate stereotypes about themselves, such as the view that they are ‘rigid’ or ‘unapproachable.’” Unlike some past diversity frameworks in which white men were left out or ignored, “this is an inclusion paradigm in which, finally, everyone can see themselves.”
So what’s the ultimate workplace vision? It’s not complete transparency on all fronts; some forms of covering (such as playing down divisive political opinions while you’re on the clock) might have a solid rationale behind them. But if a company’s stated value is to be an inclusive workplace, making sure employees feel free to be themselves is an important place to start – and leaders need to set the tenor. “Many organizations have a stated policy of including racial minorities, but remain passive in the face a culture in which black women, for example, feel they must straighten their hair or can’t associate with each other,” says Smith. “We hope the ‘uncovering talent’ model gives leaders the tools to take a closer look at whether they’re living their values.”
Yoshino agrees: “One of the most powerful things for people who uncover, is that they allow us to see them as human beings. Studies—and common sense—show that authenticity is a major driver of personal and professional success.”
How do you cover – or uncover – at work? How has it affected your career?
This post first appeared at Forbes.com on September 3rd, 2013.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press) and follow her on Twitter.