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  1. Blog
  2. Diversity
  3. March 15, 2022

Ways Women Work: How Assimilation Affects a Workday & What Allies Can Do About It

‘How do I jump into the conversation when I often have no idea what they are talking about? I don’t watch the same TV shows or the sports they are discussing’

Woman assimilating at work
Photo courtesy of Rachel McDermott

Work fixed everything for Diedra Copeland, founder of a diverse talent solutions consulting group. “If I couldn’t do anything else right, I got work right,” she said. 

Then her brother died, and something shifted. “It’s like the covers came off. Everything was different and magnified. I realized I was living out someone else’s career plan. Not mine,” she said. 

She stopped wearing suits. She cut her hair. She embraced her personal style. “I began to discover how to take care of me and figure out who I am. The (new) Deirdra who showed up and had to work hard NOT to assimilate and take risks and be vulnerable in meetings, knowing that I might show up as the black woman who is strong in voice and might come off [as] intimidating…” she said. And after she stopped assimilating, she began to outperform in her career. 

Assimilation in the workplace occurs when members of a minority or marginalized group—women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, disabled people, etc—adapt to the dominant culture. An assimilated workplace causes members of the non-dominant group to feel pressured to fit in with the rest of the group in regards to their appearance, behavior, thoughts, and so on. 

Let’s take a deeper dive into what it looks like for women to assimilate into the workplace, how it affects marginalized groups especially, the repercussions of not assimilating, and what company leadership and allies can do to alleviate some of the pressure to assimilate. 

Read more: 7 Powerful Lessons Learned About Allyship in the Workplace

What does it mean for women to assimilate in the workplace?

Women often feel forced to change their appearance, behavior, or speech in order to assimilate into the dominant culture of their office, workforce, or industry. When women and other marginalized groups separate themselves from certain aspects of their gender, cultural, or racial identity in order to assimilate to the dominant culture (usually that of white men) in hopes avoiding discrimination, it’s called code-switching. Over time, it becomes an everyday survival tool in order to both fit in and advance at work.

Workplace cultures tend to cater to men, so more often than not, women navigate masculine workplace norms—even in offices dominated by women—that either outright exclude them or are not built for their success. ‘Bro culture,’ one of the most visible manifestations of the patriarchy, is very much alive in our workplaces, and causes women to “yield and conform to organizational hierarchies that have been in place for hundreds of years, and formed without women's voices,” according to leadership development consultant and coach Kate Peters. “If you don't align with the conformity bias of bro culture, you're an ‘other,’ and you're excluded.”

It’s uncomfortable when you feel like you don’t belong or can’t fit in. Hannah, an individual contributor featured in Catalysts’s Day-to-Day Emotional Tax report, says, “There was a situation when everyone (men) was talking about sports and a recent sports event. I felt very out of place because I’m not into sports. I felt a little ashamed as well to fit the stereotype of a woman who doesn’t like sports.”

But the unfortunate reality is that men benefit in a multitude of ways from boys’ club cultures—they’re able to get to know and network with their higher-ups in a more casual environment, helping them earn respect and set themselves up for more mentorship and promotional opportunities. So, if women want to reap the benefits and join the boys’ club at work, they’re expected to act like men. 

This can look like anything from talking about sports to speaking in a louder, more aggressive manner that’s typically displayed in boys’ club atmospheres. It also means, though, that women feel pressured to tolerate sexist jokes, inappropriate behavior and banter, harassment, and discriminatory comments out of fear of being perceived as difficult or being excluded completely. Yet, even when they assimilate in scenarios like these, they're never really seen as one of the guys. 

Assimilation trickles down and manifests in even the smallest ways, too. For example, many women feel pressure to self-edit every message before they hit send to ensure the tone and punctuation are authoritative enough to be taken seriously. Women remove exclamation points and smiley faces from their emails in hopes of coming across as less enthusiastic and acquiescent and more assertive. Basically, aligning with our expectations of men. 

Read more: Why ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ Is an Excuse for Bad Behavior

How assimilation affects underrepresented employees beyond gender

People who are multiply marginalized have been assimilating to the white male heteronormative American-accented dominant culture for most of their lives. Nearly one in three Black employees (32 percent), one in four Asian employees (23 percent), and more than one in seven Latinx employees (15 percent) say they’ve felt out of place at work because of their race or ethnicity. Women of color especially are often held to a much higher standard than their white and male peers and are repeatedly presumed to be less qualified despite their credentials.

Because of this, employees who belong to non-dominant demographics or identity groups often engage in “passing” or “covering” as a part of assimilation, especially if they’re an “only” in their workplace, meaning they’re the only Black person, for instance, on their team or in their company. Passing involves hiding part of your identity in order to blend in and avoid stigma—like concealing the fact that you belong to the LGBTQ+ community by completely avoiding any socialization with coworkers or never bringing your partner to company events. Covering, on the other hand, involves downplaying part of your identity in order to fit in, like shying away from using your native language in order to bypass any discrimination or prejudice. Both types of behaviors are used to hide or downplay differences with the other people in the office who belong to the dominant culture.

Representing one demographic is hard enough, but when you have to represent multiple as a woman (i.e. you’re a Native American woman or a transgender Asian woman), your intersectional identity doesn't align with white men whatsoever, leading to a “double-outsider” feeling. For example, Black men and white women share at least one demographic with white men, leading to more privilege, while women of color share none. 

So, when women of color don’t share gender or racial similarities with white men and inherent sexism and racism limits opportunities to access informal networks and mentors, gaining social support from peers and higher-ups in the workplace is a significant barrier. Many women of color feel the need to constantly be “on guard” at work. They brace themselves for negative comments and exclusionary behavior and feel like they have to demonstrate their credibility and worth through assimilating. Over time, this has severe negative impacts on a person’s emotional, mental, and physical health and sense of belonging

What else might assimilating look like? Women will sometimes avoid wearing certain clothing or accessories because of stereotyping and microaggressive comments. For example, Genesis Defilippi, who is Latina, says, “I’ve also worn hoop earrings to work before, and people have assumed that I’m either ‘feisty’ or can ‘clearly defend myself,’ and I’ve even received comments that I look ‘exotic.’” 

Black women have also historically felt pressured to assimilate in regards to their hairstyles in the workplace. Pooja Kothari, a diversity, equity, and inclusion trainer and CEO of Boundless Awareness, says, “We constantly hear of Black hairstyles being policed as unprofessional. Black employees are told to change their hairstyle so that it fits squarely within what white supremacy deems ‘professional.’” 

Read more: Introduction to Intersectionality: 8 Ways Identity Affects Employment

What are the repercussions of not assimilating?

Employees who assimilate face a dilemma: do they suppress their identity to achieve career success or do they sacrifice potential career advancement for the sake of bringing their whole selves to work? 

Sponsorship and mentorship are incredibly important for women’s careers. When women choose not to assimilate into the dominant culture, they might miss out on opportunities to set themselves up for a mentor relationship, raise, or promotion. Because unfortunately, sometimes career mobility is affected by how close your colleagues’ feel to you and whether you conform to their expectations. 

And some managers don’t understand that even the smallest effort on their part can have a huge difference on the professional life of someone else. Markforged channel operations manager Maria Vierbickas understands this, and helped a new direct report—who hadn’t connected with previous managers because of the way they dressed—move into their desired management position by listening to their goals in 1:1s and advocating for their career growth in other departments. This person was able to fulfill their dreams while maintaining their sense of self, all because of Vierbickas’ compassionate management style. 

Research shows that women of color often opt out of happy hours and other company-wide social events and rarely openly share personal details about their lives. In a Harvard Business Review survey, one Black female executive expressed difficulty connecting with coworkers and making small talk: “How do I jump into the conversation when I often have no idea what they are talking about? I don’t watch the same TV shows or the sports they are discussing.” 

But research shows the importance of creating company cultures in which employees feel like they can be their true, authentic selves. Research from BetterUp shows that employees with higher feelings of workplace belonging have a 167 percent increase in their employer promoter score and high belonging is linked to a 56 percent increase in job performance. A 2019 BusinessSolver report notes that 82 percent of employees would consider leaving their job for a more empathetic organization. 

It may not always be easy, but it’s worth it not to assimilate, says Copeland: “On the individual side, there’s the responsibility to build enough muscle to resist assimilation. If you haven’t done the internal work to figure out your true purpose, who you are authentically, and have daily practices to remain yourself in a growing state, then you haven’t built the muscle to resist assimilation. Just like going to the gym, you’re going to get that 150 pound bar on you and you’ll fold. If you’ve done the work, you’ll get that bar—it’ll be heavy, but you’ll be able to push. It won’t always be easy. You’re going to have to work hard to not assimilate.”

It’s worth noting, though, that resisting assimilation isn’t always an option for everyone because of the real negative repercussions they might face, and in the end, the weight of “fixing” the culture shouldn't have to be on the marginalized person. Women should always strive to maintain their sense of self, but it’s up to the people in the dominant culture to enact real change so it feels psychologically safe for them to do so.

Read more: 4 Reasons Netflix’s Approach to Inclusion Is More Trailblazing Than You’d Think

6 ways allies and companies can create workplaces that are more inclusive

It’s up to company leadership and allies to do the work in order to eradicate exclusionary behaviors and practices so every employee can be their authentic self without feeling forced to assimilate into a dominant culture. 

Take this example. At one company, male leaders installed a PlayStation in the lunchroom for employees to use during their breaks as a way for everyone to relax and socialize. However, it quickly became a way for just the men employees to bond with other senior men in the organization through sports-related video games. 

Frustrated that they were subtly being excluded, a few women employees raised the issue to the most senior male leader, arguing that the PlayStation had become an informal network that excluded women from building relationships with leaders. He listened to their concerns, discussed the issue with the men in the office and urged them to take ownership of the problem, and finally, he encouraged male leaders to spend more one-on-one time with each of the women in their teams. 

Because of his actions, the women began to feel more included and were able to build authentic relationships with their peers. This is something all leaders and allies can, and should, do. Here are just a few steps leaders and allies can take, starting today.

1. Avoid groupthink when making company decisions

Groupthink occurs when people agree with a decision simply because it’s the majority opinion. If you’re a leader, ask yourself: Are all employees encouraged to speak up when they have an opinion? Are their perspectives given fair consideration? During meetings, does everyone get a chance to speak? When a big decision is made, do people have the opportunity to ask questions and give feedback? 

If the answer was no to any of those questions, it’s your job to create a safe space where women are encouraged to speak up and share different perspectives and ideas. One idea? Enact a "step up/step back" rule in meetings going forward. Add a time to the agenda where those who tend to talk try to "step back," and those who rarely give input can practice "stepping up."

2. Celebrate women’s contributions and successes

Women don’t get credit at work like men do, and especially when they’re working on projects alongside men. Plus, women are more likely to undervalue what they contribute when working as part of a team and  studies have found that Black women’s statements are remembered less quickly and less accurately than those of their white peers. Managers and allies should speak up when good work is being overlooked or underappreciated, and advocate for and highlight women’s contributions, since acknowledgment can quickly lead to more public recognition, a promotion, or other forms of advancement. 

Read more: Better Sponsorship: 6 Times to Speak Her Name

3. Hold your peers accountable

If you witness a coworker being exclusive or saying something inappropriate, say something. It’s your job as an ally to educate those who belong to the dominant group on inclusive language and behavior. There should be a zero tolerance policy for microaggressions. A good statement to have in your back pocket? Respond, “What do you mean by that?” and let the conversation unfold. 

Read more: How to Create a Culture of Accountability in the Workplace

4. Educate yourself on different cultures

Leaders and allies need to educate themselves on the different cultures in their workplace. Take the time to understand where your peers are from, what their traditions are, what holidays they celebrate, etc. If you want to enact positive change as a leader and create a more inclusive workplace, offer time off for employees who celebrate their own religious or cultural holidays. 

5. Evaluate your company’s social events

What do your workplace social events look like? Are there any reasons someone might not feel welcome? For example, if events involve alcohol, do non-drinkers feel comfortable? Keep an eye out for any exclusionary practices at bonding events, since the whole point is to have everyone on the team get to know each other in a fun way.  

6. Promote women to the top

Reevaluate your internal promotion process to see if it’s equitable and fair. Our data shows that 84 percent of women say it’s important or very important to see women filling leadership roles where they work. When younger women or women in entry-level positions see women who look like and sound like them at the top, they’re more likely to feel comfortable being themselves and contributing to the group. How many women do you see at the top of your company?

Read more: 7 Hidden Ways Companies Can Buy Into Gender Equality Fast

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