My Identity is Not Negotiable

Much has been written about John Greathouse’s poorly thought out opinion piece advising women wanting to work in tech to disguise their gender.

More insightful and patient commentators than I have offered wonderful analysis about the flaws of this approach, criticizing Greathouse for:

- Accepting the status quo

- Placing the burden of fixing bias on those victimized by it

- His own failure to invest in women

You should read them.

Because, I’m not here to discuss Greathouse. To be frank, I’m tired of talking about white men who don’t know what they’re talking about. I’m tired of them getting attention that they don’t deserve. I’m tired of centering their narrative — especially in cases where it is built on the suffering of marginalized groups.

Instead, of taking about Greathouse, I want to talk about us.

I, and a lot of men and women like me have been disguising ourselves for a very long time. We might not be creating anonymous online personas, but we are minimizing who we are — erasing parts of ourselves to fit in with hyper-masculine, white-dominated working cultures.

For me, this erasure didn’t start at work. It’s been happening for as long as I can remember. I’m an African- American woman. From a very young age, I was taught the necessity of erasing my ethnic as well as my gender identity. The ability to do so was passed down to me from members of my family who adopted them in in order to escape poverty and rise to the middle class.

My mother started straightening my hair when I was about 4 or 5, first with heat than with chemicals, telling me that its natural state was messy and improper. I was also taught from a very early age to speak a certain way in public, one that hid my southern black roots. At school, I rarely discussed my favorite black artists, black (associated) past-times, or celebration of black holidays. That was all too “ghetto”.

When I entered the workforce, I changed the spelling of my name to something more “traditional”. I removed participation and leadership positions that I’ve held with organizations that might be associated with my ethnic or gender identity from my resume and online profile. At the office, I avoided hanging out with women and other African Americans. I still don’t wear skirts.

And, I am not alone. A 2013 research study conducted by Deloitte found that 83% of lesbians, gays, and bisexuals, 79% of African Americans, 66% of women, and 63% of LatinX employees hid aspects of their identity to conform to their company’s culture. This included altering their appearance, hiding disabilities, not acknowledging spouses or children, switching conversation topics, and changing their behavior.

Call it code switching. Call it covering. In the long run, masking our identity comes at a cost. For me hiding who I was, trying and failing to conform to the biased expectations of others, made me miserable. I often felt isolated and ineffectual. I doubted myself and struggled to form close relationships.

For most of it’s a no-win situation. We may win the battle of getting hired but we lose the war of developing our careers. When women successfully erase ourselves, we’re often criticized, labeled as inauthentic, aggressive, and cold. In tech, that’s part of the reason so many women decide to leave the field all together. It’s also why so many women of color, particularly black women, go into business for themselves.

When employees feel like they have to hide parts of their identity at the office, employers suffer more than just elevated attrition rates. Employees who don’t fully feel accepted by their companies are more likely to be less loyal and less engaged. They may lack confidence or doubt their instincts more. The cognitive energy spent on managing their identity could result in diminished job performance. Ultimately, employers who intentionally or unintentionally encourage erasure risk making the “lowering the bar” fallacy into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This issue goes beyond traditional notions of inclusion. 93 percent of those surveyed in the Deloitte study reported that they worked for companies that articulated inclusion as a value. Instead, companies need to also think about the ways in which they value difference. In tech, where the emphasis on culture fit often encourages cultural homogeneity, this is especially important. At Project Include, we encourage companies to take a holistic approach to inclusion — one which embraces individual identities, while emphasizing shared company values.

It’s taken me a long time to not only accept who I am, but to stop apologizing for it. I’m still on a journey of rediscovering and reclaiming my authentic self. I’m still trying to figure out how I interact with the rest of the world and where the fuller me belongs.

I still have so much to learn. But there are a few things I do know. The shame I felt related to my identity was built on lies created to comfort others and justify their privilege. Hiding who I am is no longer an option. And, my identity is not negotiable.