Using comics to combat workplace bias

Reflections after guiding 200+ participants through DEI-themed drawing exercises

Right before the pandemic, I had the opportunity to hear MacArthur fellow and comic artist Lynda Barry speak. I was inspired as she talked about how drawing isn’t just about perfecting something to frame or put in a museum. Drawing is also a way of thinking, freeing our minds.

Over 200 participants have now joined one of my newest workshops, “Reimagine Workplace Equity through Comics.” The vast majority aren’t professional artists, and many don’t remember the last time they picked up a marker to draw. They’re from a wide range of sectors. What they’ve shared is a desire to find new ways to discuss DEI topics.

Reimagine Workplace Equity through Comics: FAQ 200+ participants later

Why comics?

Before this year, the closest I’d ever come to drawing comics was making thousands of power-point slides as a consultant. But as I launched BEYOND LEANING IN: GENDER EQUITY & WHAT ORGANIZATIONS ARE UP AGAINST, I became excited by how comics can quickly and memorably convey complex ideas, and I started drawing comics based on scenes from the book. Even more energizing was hearing from folks who shared with me how one of the comics helped them make sense of a challenge they’d faced at work or understand someone else’s perspective. A few friends asked if I’d guide them through drawing exercises as a way to reflect and talk about complex DEI topics.

What’s the workshop like?

First, we do a quick warm-up exercise that allows participants to experience how *anyone* can convey meaning through a few simple shapes and lines. Next, we discuss why drawing is so powerful for helping us think differently, and why you don’t have to be an artist to draw. We go through a few DEI frameworks and concepts by using my comic “The Cupcake Trap” as a springboard for discussion. Finally, we end with a series of guided drawing exercises to consider the full impact of this phenomenon on individuals and organizations. You can watch my 3-minute workshop preview video, including a discussion of “The Cupcake Trap” comic below,

What do participants take away?

I love hearing from participants about how the drawing exercises helped them think differently about impact of bias. Many say that while their organizations sometimes discuss the negative effect of bias on individual employees, there often isn’t enough attention to the specific and wide range of consequences for business or organizational goals.

Participants have also reflected on how the use of comics for DEI facilitates more candid discussion, providing a less-threatening way to engage with complex and sensitive topics.

Representative comments:

  • “I love the visual brainstorming that occurred. I will take that tool as a way to approach barriers in new and creative ways.” “[The drawing exercise] clarified and focused my thinking.”
  • “I REALLY enjoyed this workshop because the approach has the potential to engage those who might normally come to DEI training or conversations with their armor on.”
  • “The personal impact of bias came alive through the exercise — I really put myself in [the character’s shoes.”
  • “[As a result of the workshop] I’ll think more about the long-range impacts of unconscious bias — what can look like a static incident from the outside can change over time in how it affects individuals and organizations.”
  • “The session persuaded me that drawing is a valuable tool in discussions about complex or sensitive issues because it focuses […] attention away from the individual — oneself if you will — and onto the problem itself. De-personalizes it? A real problem in discussing DEI issues broadly speaking is finding a way to make them less threatening and preventing individuals from closing up defensively.”

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How would you like to use drawing to think in new ways?

Recently I had a lot of fun working with a team of university cabinet members and deans as we used comics/drawing for professional development around executive presence. Read more here, and contact me if you’ve got strategic, leadership, or organizational objectives where you’re seeking creative ways to spark discussion and change!

And ICYMI, check out episode 8 of the BEYOND LEANING IN podcast (23 minutes), for more about the use of the imaginative arts for organizational change.

Check out my book, or visit my website to learn more!



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Melanie Ho

Melanie Ho

Author, BEYOND LEANING IN: Gender Equity & What Organizations are Up Against (March 2021). Speaker and Organizational Consultant.