Last fall, we began a conversation on an episode of HBR’s “Women at Work” podcast about an important, though difficult, topic: how to forge deep and meaningful relationships at work between women of varying races or ethnicities, with the goal of collective advancement in the workplace. This idea of shared sisterhood “allows us to share struggles together, realize that we’re not alone, that the pain we’re going through is something bigger than us,” said one of us (Dr. Tina Opie). It involves designing strategies, dismantling structures that prevent advancement, or even just offering mutual support so everyone can cope together.
But there’s still a lot we don’t know about what might precipitate these relationships in the workplace. And we don’t have a fully clear picture of what shared sisterhood actually looks like. Who, exactly, is involved? How do we know when it’s working? Shared sisterhood could involve a meaningful experience between two women within an organization. It could reflect a broader organizational commitment around inclusiveness and diversity. Or maybe it involves an interplay between the two. We decided to analyze these possibilities.
Understanding High-Quality Connections and Inclusive Workplaces
The first step in our analysis involved reviewing what we know about how people build connections and community at work through each of these lenses.
The first is individual relationships. High-quality connections, as defined by scholars Jane Dutton and Emily Heaphy, are relationships where people are safe to express and display emotions; where people can withstand conflict or strain; and where people can be creative and get work done. These researchers, along with John Paul Stephens, also argue that these connections are usually born out of short-term, positive interactions between two people. They can transform how people experience work because they encourage respectful engagement that can empower employees, affirm their identities, and affirm their competence.
Second is the organizational level. Inclusive climates are defined as those that have fairly implemented employment practices, proactively integrated the identities of employees, and promoted inclusion and participation in decision-making. These climates have been shown to reduce interpersonal conflict that can occur from demographic difference and to make turnover from that conflict less likely to occur.
And yet the research on inclusive and diverse work climates has often overlooked their ability to generate positive, high-quality outcomes, such as innovative solutions or increased feelings of solidarity and support from diversity. The latter is the primary focus of our shared sisterhood research, which we’re undertaking with the help of HBR readers.
Last fall, we asked a series of questions using a broad survey of the HBR readership. We looked at readers’ opinions on both individual and organizational elements of inclusion at their workplaces.
On the individual side, we asked questions about whether people could be vulnerable, emotionally, with their coworkers, a construct called “emotional carrying capacity.” Example questions included: “I can fully express my emotions to my coworkers,” and “When I talk about my emotions with my coworkers, I feel like it is constructive.” We wanted to know whether women trust their coworkers with their emotional vulnerability. This, we hypothesized, could be the individual precursor to being able to build a shared sisterhood community.
We also looked at whether the answers to the following questions could lead to women of different races perceiving their coworkers as emotionally available. This, we hypothesized, could be the organizational precursor to shared sisterhood:
- How much do you believe that your organization promotes an inclusive climate — one that values diverse voices and has fair and open procedures?
- How interdependent is the work that you do? In other words, how much do you depend on other people at work to do your job?
- How much do you trust your organization to do right by you?
- How competitive is your work environment?
- How large is your work group?
- How large is your company?
- Are you at a director or higher level in your organization?
We had 778 women from across the country respond (and many from outside the U.S. as well), ranging in age from 19-71 (average age of 42 years). Within the U.S. sample, respondents self-identified as white (76%; N=620), about 5% black (N=41), 4% Asian (N=32), 5% Hispanic (N=41), and 3% Multiple races (N=24). Most (83%) worked between 31-50 hours per week and had been in their field for more than five years (79%). Power analysis suggested that our sample of black and Hispanic respondents were large enough for the comparisons we conduct below.
Generally speaking, we found that both individual connections and inclusive climates are good for the promotion of emotional vulnerability. However, we saw some interesting results when we broke this finding down based on the race and ethnicity of respondents. When personal success or performance is dependent upon coworkers, who is more or less likely to be vulnerable?
For black women in more interdependent jobs, that is, jobs that require more interactions with others to get their work done, inclusive climates led to lower levels of emotional vulnerability. This indicates that, though having an inclusive climate was overall a good thing for all women, the more that black women’s job execution depended on others, the less emotionally vulnerable black women were willing to be. This suggests that an inclusive climate alone may be insufficient to foster black women’s high-quality connections with coworkers. Importantly, a similar pattern emerged for Hispanic women.
We furthered this analysis by directly comparing the experiences of White and black women. We found that inclusive climates help black women feel supported most often when their work is independent. That is, inclusive climates are good and important, but are more effective when black women do not have to rely on their coworkers too much in the course of their day-to-day job performance.
We asked our respondents to tell us a little bit more about situations where they may have felt excluded or unsupported at their jobs, with the hopes that it would provide context for our findings. We found that many non-white women brought up not being invited to social events (including lunch) or being “accidentally” excluded from information sharing opportunities. This being “left out,” even in strong, team-based environments, led to resentment and mistrust of their coworkers. Perhaps, being left out of more minor events like this signaled that the women might be excluded from more important events or activities that could have larger career implications.
We also heard stories of black women feeling a lack of support on the job. Here’s what one 46-year-old white female respondent shared about conversation she had with a coworker of color:
“[My coworker] confided to her manager that a recent conversation about equity had taken a lot out of her, as it brought up emotions tied to past experiences. Her manager, who is white, responded that these conversations are hard for everyone. My friend felt that the manager was not understanding of her particular experience and felt invalidated by the tone-deaf response.”
This woman’s manager minimized her feelings by equating them with everyone else’s, and not demonstrating individualized consideration for her specific situation in regard to racial equity. This woman’s coworker sought out support for her emotions from her supervisor and was rebuffed; luckily she was able to share her feelings with her coworker afterwards (which points to at least the start of shared sisterhood).
This was echoed in responses from black women who noted that, even when their company overall was non-threatening in terms of diversity and inclusion, they didn’t feel like they belonged. I “have never felt included in my organization. And I have worked there for 10 years,” a 41-year-old black woman noted. I “feel isolated,” a 36-year-old black woman said, because there weren’t ways for her to feel comfortable sharing information in their workgroups. This discomfort may be due to a lack of information-sharing opportunities and/or an organizational culture that inhibits information-sharing. For example, a 42-year-old Hispanic woman in a very interdependent team noted that, “Anyone who provides critical feedback is quickly thought of as not a team player, or worse yet, called a whiner.”
Those who found those supportive workplace environments had to work to find them. As a 45-year-old mixed race woman noted after feeling left out by her interdependent work group at a company she described as, overall, inclusive, “I searched for who would be the ones that I could trust.” Another 53-year-old black woman in leadership spoke of how she channeled her initial mistrust into supporting others as a leader: “[I am] now particularly sensitive when others are being excluded from an activity or conversation.”
So, what does all of this mean? While organizations seem to have devoted more time, attention, and resources to creating inclusive climates at work — and that women report benefitting overall — this is likely not enough to support shared sisterhood. You can’t build meaningful connections between women of different races and ethnicities, let alone ask them to advocate for their collective advancement, if black and Hispanic women report being excluded from the relationships required to make an organization run.
So as organizations increasingly structure interdependent, team-oriented work, it is important for leaders to realize that certain demographic groups may be more or less willing to be emotionally vulnerable when working on highly interdependent tasks. If I rely on you to do my job, I may consider it risky to be emotionally vulnerable with you because my work might be affected by your reaction to my emotional vulnerability. Our data suggest that black and Hispanic women may be unwilling to take that risk with white women in the workplace.
In the future, we plan to delve deeply into two further questions. First: When shared sisterhood does occur, what does it look like for women on a daily basis? Second, what impact does it have on important organizational outcomes like group productivity, innovation, and individual commitment and retention? Our next steps will involve more sophisticated data analysis, as well as follow up interviews with many of the respondents who indicated a willingness to share more about their work contexts and experiences. We will report back, filling in more details about what shared sisterhood means — both to individual women and to the organizations for which they work.
Beth A. Livingston is an Assistant Professor in Management and Organizations at the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business. Her research interests lie primarily in gender, discrimination, and work-family, with additional interests in diversity and stereotypes.
Tina R. Opie is an Associate Professor in the Management Division at Babson College, teaching organizational behavior courses to undergraduates and MBA students. Professor Opie’s research focuses on how organizations and individuals can co-create workplaces that successfully leverage individual difference, convey respect for individuals’ unique identities and contributions, and encourage authenticity in the workplace. She is also the founder of hairasidentity.com and naturalhairatwork.com.