Inclusion Goes Beyond....

Inclusive Goes Beyond Equal Employment Opportunity: Do Not Ignore Hidden Identities

“Great opportunity lies behind a diverse workforce.” 

To some, that is a triumphant declaration, given the historical evolution of inclusive laws in America. However, to most, it’s another ambiguous statement of the misaligned opportunity to recognize, effectively utilize, and establish equitable work environments for marginalized groups. 

There is a perception that discrimination was “outlawed” and that people are now protected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). But just because something is publicly denounced as unlawful does not mean the systemic barriers already in place have been addressed. If your company declares its workplace inclusive, it implies you understand the intersecting identities of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and their correlation to economic, political, and institutional barriers.

But that is oftentimes not the case. 

Currently, the state of affairs is that dominant cultural norms perpetuate disadvantages for BIPOC. In the workplace, it creates repetitive and defeating experiences that affect people’s physical, emotional, and psychological being. To champion stakeholders in the fight to improve social justice efforts, it is crucial to identify the companies with genuine curiosity. 

It all starts with a foundational focus on ancestral, cultural, and historical differences in opportunity–a journey that can only be learned through the stories of those most oppressed. Without the lived experiences of people with devalued identities, workplace inclusion can't be properly represented.

The Impact of Intersecting Social Discrimination and Disadvantages 

The EEOC ‘protects’ identities including race, gender, religion, sex, color, national origins, disability, and/or genetic information. However, it does not address the social disadvantages that amplify discrimination and perpetuate privilege. BIPOC employees experience an added layer of bias relating to their norm, language, socioeconomic class, job category, geographic location, etc. These hidden, unprotected identities within the EEOC contribute to decentralization, marginalization, and further suppressing a BIPOC’s lived experiences. 

People who are unseen and unheard tend to identify with socially imposed labels such as “minority,” “at-risk,” and “low socioeconomic status.” They often intersect with identities such as race, gender, and ability and act as a barrier to an equitable work environment. 

For example, discrimination is amplified when considering promotional opportunities. Research shows that people from a low socioeconomic status are 32% less likely to become managers. At the same time, individuals within this category are most likely “Latino/Latina” or “African-American”, which demonstrates how the intersectionality of race and class creates leadership limitations.

Another prime example is in remote work opportunities. While the pandemic definitely opened the door to expand talent search, it also highlighted additional barriers to opportunities. More exploration is needed but preliminary research shows hidden biases when it comes to hiring talent equitably. Findings show a correlation between the opportunity to obtain remote work and owning a high home value, having a college degree, and living in a populated geographic location. Again, this shows how hidden identities are interdependent and often overlap to create disadvantages. 

Lived Experiences Lead Towards Equity 

Expanding beyond EEOC classifications is an opportunity to bring inclusion efforts up-to-date with the experiences of those most affected. In doing so, you are able to establish equity initiatives that actually improve opportunities for those who are constantly devalued. 

To start, listen to the voices of those most affected and most marginalized. The collection of lived experiences gives insight into how people have lived under social pressures to perform despite institutional barriers that support the status quo. 

Then, lean into the work when it becomes most difficult. Organizational efforts to improve equity often end when exploring workplace racism, trauma, and classism. Many companies are quick to blame a “lack” of resources or a fear of introducing additional workplace bias. In reality, this clearly shows the balance of power in place for whose experience an organization feels most comfortable improving. 

Doing nothing or continuing to operate through an individualistic lens of “equal opportunity” (while ignoring intersecting. hidden identities) is a harmful approach to equality, similar to Colorblind Racism. This is what happens when race is ignored as a barrier in decision making and easily becomes a covert way to deny racism in the workplace. In reality, the practice of Colorblind Racism fails to address–or even acknowledge–how one’s past and present economic, professional, and financial efforts limit equal opportunity. 

Three Ways to Act on Hidden Identities

The reality is that gathering stories and experiences from BIPOC employees will be hard, especially for them. They have lived in a world that has failed to address foundational barriers to their hidden identities. It’s important for organizational leaders to spend their time learning to listen with empathy in order to provide actionable support. In doing so, you will transform your organization’s approach to workplace inclusion and gain a deeper understanding as to why there are segregative behaviors at work

Here are three ways to get started. 

Address Comparison Standards

This is when people compare everyone on the belief that we all have an equal opportunity. It simply isn’t the cast. After 56 years, data collected by the EEOC still shows inequalities in promotional opportunities and discriminatory hiring stemming from unfair comparisons of experience, education, and geographic location.    

Understanding that not everyone has an equal chance due to our identities is a mindset shift—a necessary realization to disrupt institutional oppression and transform structures and culture. 

Explore Institutional Barriers

Specifically, you want to examine the barriers adjacently affecting your workforce. Doing this allows you to design interventions that “disrupt & dismantle racism, cultivate inclusion & belonging, and unleash the power of diversity.” Often this looks like committing to ongoing research that acknowledges and explores intersecting identities for the purpose of creating true inclusion through affinity groups, 1:1 interviews, surveys, etc.    

Analyze with a Historical Lens 

When you analyze equity through the lens of exploitation and segregation as originally designed to oppress BIPOC, you are able to explore the foundational aspects of ancestral, cultural, and historical differences in opportunity. A historical understanding helps resolve biases that impede progress and keep marginalized groups habitually undervalued. 


Eyes to the Future: A Transformational Outlook 

Ahead lies exciting avenues for shattering limitations for the BIPOC community. By hearing the voices of those most oppressed, you are opening the door for fair, inclusive, and welcoming workplace success and community advocacy.

To do this, we must reflect on and question protective laws that don’t align with modern practices of inclusion. The most important aspect of transformation inclusive change is to gather unheard stories of lived experiences and design a bottom-up approach that reflects that. 

It is time to move beyond efforts to check off diversity boxes and increase numbers of “inclusive hires.” Organizations committed to inclusivity must take the opportunity to align with modern day equity standards to create a better tomorrow. 

-Gloria De Leon

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