Archita Banerjee was a rare presence in the male-dominated management consulting world—a woman, a leader, and gay. Even being straight, it was often hard for me as the only woman in a room filled with older, Caucasian men that I had very little in common with. But in this arena, Archita was able to be her authentic self: an out, lesbian woman who could play the guitar like the best of them, and at the same time manage her team in an incredibly feminine yet highly assertive manner. Also a Wharton MBA, Archita was a role model and mentor for others like me. I listened in rapt attention as she spoke eloquently about how mentorship could help tackle the “pipeline” problem that prevents women and other minority groups from reaching leadership positions.
Until recently, the odds were heavily stacked against the community. I remember Archita saying, “In a time not so long ago, only one state [in the US] had marriage equality, states nationwide were passing constitutional amendments to codify LGBT discrimination, it was still ‘ok’ to make a gay joke on national TV, and it was a barely fathomable dream of one day having a wedding, staying in this country together, being openly out with everyone at work, and having a kid with both our names [hers and her partner, Yana’s] on the birth certificate.” Archita and Yana have come a long way since then, and have a beautiful family with two wonderful children who they are raising in a truly inspiring way.
With gay leaders like Archita taking control of their own stories, the narrative has steadily improved for those championing gay rights. Research by Harvard psychologists Tessa Charlesworth and Mahzarin Banaji suggests that as Americans grow more aware of bias, they appear to be becoming less biased in many areas—especially when it comes to same-sex relationships and gender nonconformists. Even in India, the only-recent repeal of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes homosexuality, represents a slow and historic march to progress away from our colonial past.
Popular perceptions are shifting, and in this massive shift, we can find lessons on how to drive true inclusion for other minorities in the workplace as well.
1. As a minority, being open and authentic about who you truly are can help you succeed
Dan is a friend and former colleague of mine from my days at BCG. Dan is a cisgendered white male from Connecticut. When he walks into a room, he “looks” the part of a management consultant. He even parts his hair the right way. He can very easily avoid conflict by “faking it”. But Dan believes we should all strive for a world in which no one has to. Living life openly and honestly has served him well not only professionally, but also personally.
Studies also corroborate Dan’s point of view and show that work environments which encourage and reward employees who are fully present reap the rewards, in both productivity and employee engagement. While the line between “bring your full self to work” and “personal overshare” is blurry, my successful professional relationships are also underpinned by really getting to know the people I’m working with. In all of these interactions, I am open about my identity as a young, single, person-of-colour female immigrant. Otherwise, I find it hard to truly relate to people (even more so in a virtual work environment) and instil in stakeholders a sense of confidence.
I recently joined a business Teams call, for example, where everyone was making some initial small talk about the weather (as is often the case on a work call with a majority of colleagues based in cloudy Seattle). “Oh, it’s sunny in LA? It’s so gloomy here!” Unlike my typical cursory remarks on the weather during other such calls, I related the weather back to something more personal. I said, “I am actually quite fond of rainy days because long walks in the rain are greatly romanticized back home in Mumbai where I come from.” I shared something specific and vulnerable with a group of people who I otherwise have purely professional interactions with. I also spoke like a human, as I would in a room of friends, instead of a voice on a call to get through a checklist of things with. I have consciously trained my introvert self to become more comfortable with showing a wee bit more vulnerability. Especially in the context of work-from-home in the pandemic, this has served me well in terms of having my colleagues see me as a human, rather than a work contact on an audio conference.
2. As an ally, don’t treat a minority differently, but say no to microaggressions
For many LGBTQ+ employees, work life means navigating a series of microaggressions. Dan spent a decade of his pre-corporate life as a professional opera singer, traveling across the US and Europe to perform with opera houses and symphonies. Once, while in the South to sing Figaro in The Barber of Seville, he attended a fancy patron dinner with a number of the company’s biggest donors. The company seated him next to a glamorous woman who was probably in her sixties. Dan recollects how they made small talk while tucking into their appetizers. She pointed at the new and shiny wedding ring on his finger. Dan had been married for three months. She smiled and asked him, “What does your wife do?” Dan recalls how a thick lump formed in his throat. He was early in his career, and knew the potential ramifications of his answer.
“He’s a baritone,” Dan answered.
She stared at him, and then past him, over his shoulder, tightening her lips.
Dan stammered, “We met in school”, as if it were an excuse, trying desperately to make the silence less painful.
After what seemed an eternity, she let out a quiet “Oh”, which sounded less like a word and more like an involuntary exhalation. She turned away from him, towards her other dinner partner, and didn’t turn back. He left, escaping before dessert.
Unfortunately, Dan is not alone in hearing overt (or covert) disparaging remarks about himself or people like him. Several LGBTQ+ people echo the need to correct their colleagues’ assumptions about their personal lives. Some LGBTQ+ people face the painful experience of being misgendered, or referred to by a pronoun that does not accord with their gender identity.
As an ally, one can avoid (oftentimes unthinking) microaggressions by being careful not to make assumptions about people’s personal lives or risk misgendering them. I went to a very liberal women’s college for undergrad, where being “out” was very “in”. Over those four years, I learnt that at the most basic level, this means not automatically asking women about husbands or boyfriends, and men about wives or girlfriends but instead, using terms such as “friend,” “spouse,” or “partner.” Asking for and then using the pronouns that each individual uses to self-identify is another simple mechanism to self-correct.
But even beyond reducing microaggressions towards the LGBTQ+ community, pausing and reflecting on microaggressions towards others can go a long way in driving inclusion. Even other minorities face these microaggressions in different shapes and forms.
I have a Black female friend who could speak to this personally. As a Black woman with a unisex first name, she recalls being called in for an interview evidently under the assumption that she was a man. During the interview, she told me how she was grilled for 45 minutes, told she needed more experience for the position she was interviewing for, and ultimately offered a lower-level role. What stung even more was that the company offered someone else (in this case, a man she went to school with) with almost identical qualifications the job without this massive pressure to validate his experience.
Being more able to recognize that these are indeed microaggressions is the first step in the right direction. But even beyond that, taking a step back before speaking or judging, being conscious about unconscious bias and avoiding defensive confrontations can help mitigate these occurrences.
At the same time, minorities don’t want to be treated differently than everyone else. While it is important to respect and celebrate differences by not indulging in unthinking microaggressions, it is also important to celebrate individuality down to the level of each unique person and not box groups of people into stereotypical caricatures.
Personally, I see the sense of community and support that minority groups (such as women’s groups that I am part of) at workplaces provide. But at the same time, I think making these groups exclusive ends up perpetuating situations where we label ourselves. Most high-achieving minorities do not want to be known for being a “successful minority”, but rather just be acknowledged for doing good work. No two people are the same, and the strongest communities that drive a sense of belonging for all look beyond these superficial labels.
3. As a leader, be open to reverse mentorship to drive greater awareness, respect and inclusion
The first step toward improving the experiences of all your employees is to understand their unique challenges. To this end, reverse mentoring (or training the trainer) can be effective. It allows leaders to ask questions and engage in open dialogue.
My personal inclination is to always assume positive intent. What this means is that most people do not intentionally try to not be open, homophobic or anything else that is less than ideal. But they come from a world and a belief system that is so diametrically different that they never realize what actually needs to be done to drive true inclusion. Reverse mentorship gives people a safe space to make a mistake as they learn more about the lived experiences of others who might be very different from them. As a manager told me in a recent conversation, “It was only by engaging more, by having a direct example of what it means to be Black in the workplace (this conversation was in the context of the recent Black Lives Matter movement) that I realized that I need to get more involved, and visibly involved.”
Reverse mentorship of senior leadership also has a cascading effect through all levels of the organization. It sets an important example that the commitment to inclusion is lived and should be shared throughout the organization. I have several friends and colleagues who are straight white men and responsible for hiring, promoting, and firing. Very often, they don’t understand that inclusion also means them. No one talks to them about these things because they are not considered “diverse”. We expect them to be inclusive but we do not share the business case with them or include them in these conversations. They, in turn, often disengage, because they are so afraid of putting their foot in the mouth and saying the wrong things. With a top-down focus on learning and reverse mentorship, organizations can also drive more education of the middle management, who play a key role in day-to-day decision making and organizational culture.
Building and supporting a diverse workforce is easier said than done. Learning is continuous, and as long as all leaders stay connected to what it means to be “different” than the “norm” at work, this is likely to boost empathy, effectiveness, and productivity in their organizations.
4. As an organization, strengthen the pipeline to recruit and develop the organic support networks to retain minorities
Building an inclusive organization starts with the foundational issue of recruiting and hiring a diverse set of individuals. As someone heavily involved with recruiting efforts at every organization I’ve worked at in the US, blind resume screening—removing names, gender signifiers, and affinity-group affiliations—has often helped me reduce unconscious bias in hiring decisions. At the end of the day, we’re all human and would unconsciously prefer to hire people who are more like us than not.
But even beyond widening the hiring funnel, tracking representation at every level and understanding where drop-offs occur is of utmost importance. Research shows that LGBTQ+ senior leaders are more than twice as likely as their non-LGBTQ+ peers to credit sponsors with having aided their advancement.
Even beyond the LGBTQ+ community, fostering an inclusive culture and improving access and opportunity for growth and advancement requires active and organic mentorship. I have the good fortune to call Dr Ashok Ganguly (former chairman and CEO of Hindustan Unilever and member of the Indian Parliament) my first boss (and mentor). A piece of advice he gave me when I was 22 has stuck with me ever since; when he said that “the most defining thing in allowing one to find one’s career is mentorship.”
This mentorship, however, does not necessarily come in the form of a formal or organization-led programme (such as groups or networks for minorities, or company benefits/policies). At an individual level, we should all seek true mentorship from women and men who share similar interests and help us identify opportunities, set expectations, and overcome barriers in our careers. Finding and building an authentic mentor-mentee relationship is also not a passive activity—it requires active effort to search for and reach out to individuals with whom one can relate, and a great amount of reciprocity and generosity from the identified mentor. The rewards for these efforts can be significant. As Dr. Ganguly eloquently put it to me, “When looking at my career, a lot of my successes could be traced back to a mentor. The benefits of mentor-mentee relationships cannot be over-indexed.”
I realize that inclusion is personal for me. I believe in the business case and the moral case that more inclusivity and diversity is better. By reflecting on the lived experiences and victories of our gay colleagues and friends this Pride Month (and beyond), we can take another step forward in striving towards a world where there are no glass closets to come out of and no glass ceilings to shatter for any individual.
(Hustle Fuel represents my own personal views. I am speaking for myself and not on behalf of my employer, Microsoft Corporation.)
About the Hustle Fuel series: Building a company or a meaningful career is brutal. Especially for women—but not just for women. It demands ‘hustle fuel’—which is precisely the attitude any entrepreneurial leader needs to survive. Whether a man, woman, or from an ethnic minority community.
This series looks at the world of work and entrepreneurship from a women's lens. It will include
- A column that takes a wide-angle view of the changes at the intersection of technology, entrepreneurship, strategy, innovation—and what they mean for women leaders.
- And candid conversations with a new generation of women who have ‘made it happen’ in business and industry.
The columns and conversations will be archived here as they get published.