Opinion
In Mixed Company

Investing in Inclusion

Nurturing the whole employee builds a stronger business.

Investing in Inclusion

I’m Alex, an ex-advertising executive with a quiet voice and loud opinions. Like most professionals of color, I spent most of my career with hair straight, overdressed, and a hidden point of view. But when I returned to work after my daughter was born, something snapped in me: If I can’t be myself at work, who will my daughter be? How will she show up to work, and will it be the same person when she comes home?

As I started to ask these questions and find my voice, I realized I had been changing to fit into a system that wasn’t built for me. I started bringing these conversations to management, who assured me that diversity was a priority. At the same time, I was also told not to frame a conversation around “the D word,” because leadership would tune it out.

Soon after I left the industry, I felt more myself. I now dedicate myself to creating environments where everyone is welcome, all opinions are valued, and your worth is not wrapped up in your appearance.

I co-founded The Coven, a business built on the premise that we all contain multitudes that deserve to be seen and understood. A community and workspace for women and non-binary people, we give folks the permission to show up as any version of themselves, without a mask or need to code-switch. People leave our space with a profound energy shift—not drained by the workday or the struggle to be someone they’re not, but revitalized by recognition and appreciation of their whole self.

Many organizations are so focused on building diverse pipelines, they forget about what happens when the people actually get there. Employee resource groups are a great start, but when those initiatives don’t lead to more diverse folks in leadership, they’re not doing their job. Often such groups lead to a “one-seat-at-the-table” mentality, pitting individuals against each other instead of helping lift each other. I’ve seen these groups vie for the same slice of the budget, leaving management to choose whether to fund the women’s group, the POC group, the LGBTQA group, or the office soccer team.

People can spend more of their workday worried about fitting in than doing the work that will advance their career. Allowing people not just to come in the door, but to be seen and included regardless of what they show up as is the “inclusion” in “diversity and inclusion” work—it’s what happens after you’ve got diverse people in your organization. Can they show up as themselves or must they subscribe to a specific culture fit, often rooted in hetero/white/patriarchal leadership?

Inclusion is about investment in the whole person, not just the parts that sit well with you because you understand them. Yoga at lunch and a beer fridge will only get you so far. How do you nurture souls from backgrounds different from yours?

  1. Mind the gap. Be aware that folks from traditionally marginalized backgrounds sometimes lack the training you’ve seen in other candidates. If “above and beyond” is your standard, be sure to let everyone know what those expectations are, so you can properly evaluate folks on an even playing field.
  2. Put your money where your mouth is. “Fostering diverse environments” really just means you have an intersectional group of people in a room, reflecting the interconnectedness of multiple social categories like race, gender, and class. If none of them have a shot at advancing in their careers, it’s time to put money into development and growth of those communities. It also means paying them what they’re worth. As someone who came into an industry paid less than white counterparts, I know that the stats are real and affect long-term wealth. Over the course of a career, the disparities can amount to nearly $870,000 for black women, according to a study conducted by the Lean In organization.
  3. Listen. People will tell you what they want if you create an environment open to feedback and questions from employees. This doesn’t mean it will be easy; honestly, no one is doing it well. A Rockefeller Foundation survey reported that 90 percent of women don’t feel confident about asking for sponsors, mentors, senior leadership, a career path plan, a new role or position, job opportunities beyond their experience, or a promotion or raise. Confidence comes from the knowledge that there won’t be negative consequences for your actions.

All anyone wants—at home, in the office, and in life—is to show up as who they are and be understood. Real inclusion involves efforts to better understand what people are going through: a new parent struggling to keep up with work and family demands, a caregiver concerned for a loved one, a survivor of trauma, a complex human being with a range of emotions and reactions who may just need to take a moment before responding to that “very urgent” email. By seeing people as their whole selves, you’ll build stronger communities and organizations. It’s good for business.

Alex West Steinman is co-founder of The Coven, a community and workspace for women and non-binary people. She is also a public relations consultant, freelance content writer, and mother of two toddlers.

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