I have always had a fierce drive for financial independence. When I was a girl child in the 1950s and 1960s, I remember reflecting on my mother’s traditional suburban life as a homemaker and being horrified by her lack of independence. Although she was living a life that met society’s expectations, she often told me stories about dreams she had abandoned to be a wife and mother.
When we can understand ourselves and connect across differences with other women, we release energy for creativity and innovation in the workplace. The practices below will help you gain comfort and skill for developing these relationships.
- Identify the sides on your prism that are most relevant for you at this time in your life and career, keeping gender in the center. For example, I might ask myself how being a Jewish woman, white woman, US-born woman, and woman in my sixties are all currently impacting my experience. What is important for others to know about me as I turn the prism that reflects my wholeness?
One way to move toward understanding our differences as women is to engage in joint projects between affinity groups in the organization.
Sometimes affinity groups formally exist in organizations, such as one for women managers, one for African Americans, one for Asian Americans, one for Latinos, one for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) employees, and others. However, these groups may not see the other groups as having the same interests or goals. It can be helpful if affinity groups can define joint projects, even if their scopes are small, to open the possibility of building trust and taking on larger projects later.
One way to move toward understanding our differences as women is to meet in all-woman retreats for awareness-raising workshops.
After the initial all-woman retreats to gain an awareness of systemic gender dynamics and develop a shared vision and code of conduct (see chapter 6), a next level of all-woman retreats, possibly in smaller, mixed groups, can be held to explore and share differences and identify some common goals for working together to change the organization. These conversations work best, at least initially, when guided by a professional facilitator who is experienced at communicating across differences. The facilitator may structure exchanges between various groups that include
topics such as
Are you clueless about the ways differences shape the perspectives of your coworkers? Author Tom Finn reminds us that while many differences are visible, many are not, and our ability to connect with and support each other may depend on understanding the histories we carry into the workplace, often generationally. For example, I am white and a secular Jew. While I do not practice the religion, being Jewish is an important identity in my prism. I carry with me a history of my own painful experiences of anti-Semitism from my childhood in Kansas. I also carry with me the images of the holocaust in Europe that my parents made sure I saw while I was growing up so that I would never forget what happened to Jews. This combination of events that happened before I was born and during my own childhood means that, even now, I always scan my environment to see who else might be Jewish so that I know whom I can feel safe with. Because I do not “look Jewish” or have a recognizably Jewish name, I can take a long time to reveal this side of my identity to new people until I get a sense of their attitudes and degree of cluelessness. I have gotten feedback from coworkers that I can seem standoffish when people first meet me. They cannot see this invisible difference that is part of what makes me tick.
Differences Make a Difference—Part I
Women are not all the same. I write and give talks about women in organizations, but I know that generalizations about women are inaccurate. Of course, we are all different, but I agree with Joyce K. Fletcher and other researcherswho say we also have experiences in common as women in organizations. I believe we may all benefit from better understanding our commonalities as well as our differences. However, it’s complicated. Our individual experiences in organizations are influenced by how gender interacts with race, class, ethnicity, level of employment, sexual orientation, nationality, and even personal history—just to name a few possible variables. One concept that has helped me visualize the ways all these differences interact is the metaphor of a hologram or prism offered by Evangelina Holvino, a scholar on this topic. Holvino suggests that we imagine a prism with gender at the core and many intersecting sides representing race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and nationality. The prism is transparent, and as we turn it we see not only all the differences simultaneously but also each angle displaying a particular combination. Placing gender at the core helps us focus on how gender influences many of our experiences in organizations. Gender is central, according to Dr. D. Lynn O’Brien Hallstein, because “women have been systematically devalued and excluded in all capitalist patriarchal systems.” Rotating the prism can help us explain ourselves to others and understand one another. For example, to tell you more about who I am, I would rotate the prism to focus on aspects besides gender that are important for you to know about me: