A Sponsored Initiative

Myths of Aging and the Workplace with Sarah Kagan

Sarah H. Kagan is the Lucy Walker Honorary Term Professor of Gerontological Nursing at Penn, Gerontological Clinical Nurse Specialist in the Living Well Program at the Joan Karnell Cancer Center – Pennsylvania Hospital. She’s Editor in Chief of the International Journal of Older People Nursing.   She is the recipient of a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship.  She spoke with Stew Friedman on his Wharton Sirius XM radio show Work and Life about aging, work and retirement.

The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Sarah Kagan: Sarah KaganI almost could not hold myself back when you asked listeners, “Are you aging? One of things I always like to start with is we’ve got to remember that aging isn’t an us/them thing, we’re all aging – biologically, psychologically, and socially – from the time we’re born. We call it development when we’re babies, but that’s an aging process.

Stewart Friedman: Sarah, are you saying there’s a bias about aging?

SK: If you’re talking about development across our lives, where we call it development when we’re young but aging when we reach some mythical point, that mythical point is a big topic for debate. Or, if we’re talking about how our careers will proceed, recognizing retirement is just a horrible idea for our health and wellbeing, and not so great for workforces because if we push older workers out, we tend to deplete the workforce of wisdom and experience.

SF: Why is retirement a horrible idea?

SK: When I talk about retirement, I talk about that mid-20th-century notion that “I’ve had my working life, I’m going to kick back and relax.” The minute you kick back and relax, you generally lose purpose and motivation and a lot of health problems actually start cropping up.  People think, “I’m so glad I retired,” but, in fact, it’s probably related to the stress of not working.  And then you have the issues of not having meaning, not having purpose, and not finding that balance and harmony.

SF: If work provides meaning and a sense of purpose and structure to one’s life, then it’s unwise to give it up as you get older even though you may have less energy and less stamina?

SK: I think there’s a bias in the idea that you lose energy and you lose stamina. Typically, what we’re finding is there are lots of studies pointing not to loss of stamina, loss of energy, loss of endurance, but rather that we’re not maintaining physical and mental health and wellbeing as we get into our seventh, eighth, and ninth decades of life. If we return to fitness, we find energy resurgence.  We find that stamina can be built over time.  I say to people, don’t think about a single career anymore. If your life expectancy at age 65 is another 20 years, do you really want to say ‘well, what lies ahead of me for these next two decades?’ That’s a lot of time, I’d suggest ‘where do I want to go next, what’s my next career, the next phase of my working life?’

SF: Do you think it’s a bad idea for companies to have retirement policies that require people to depart at a certain age?

SK: Being a nurse and not a businessperson, I’ll say yes. I really don’t think that makes a lot of sense if you think about mandatory retirement ages as opposed to different career options.  Someone with a particular set of experience or a specialized expertise can go on and do something that was different from what they’ve been doing for the past 40 years. It gives the company opportunities with a workforce that I think is much more robust.

SF: More robust than generally given credit for, is that what you mean?

SK: Absolutely, because if you think about our ageist assumptions about stamina and energy in later life, what we tend to think is that older workers are not terribly productive, but there’s a whole lot of science that says exactly the opposite.

SF: You’re saying as people age they become more productive?

SK: They become more productive or differentially productive. Depending on which industry you’re talking about and I’m not an expert on retirement, I tend to say to look at this science that suggests folks are contributing differently as they grow in their careers as they age.

SF: Sarah, you write a column called The Myths of Aging. What are the biggest myths?

SK: You’ve hit on one of them, which is it’s basically a process of physical decline. You’re going to lose strength, you’re going to lose energy, you’re going to lose endurance, but we have perhaps an even more pervasive myth that your mind will go, that you’ll become a dotty old person. How often had you had colleagues or acquaintances talk about a senior moment when they forget something? That longer processing time that many of us notice as we’re getting older is more akin to your computer’s memory being really full than it is about the health of your brain. It’s essentially that the older you are, the greater your fund of knowledge and the more time it takes to sort through the possible correct answers for what the question is, than it is a problem of brain function.

SF: And processing capacity, it doesn’t slow down with age like muscles and neurological connections in your brain?

SK: You can’t say that globally, mental function declines with age. There are certain changes that we notice. Slowed processing time is one of them, but it’s probably related to something that’s much more positive. The older you get, the more you know. You know too much, it’s going to take time to think through things. That’s not a deficit.

SF: No, especially when you have more wisdom and reason to consider all the different perspectives on an issue. When I think of a senior moment, I think of forgetfulness.

SK: Forgetfulness is typically more an issue of overload and multitasking. You know better than I the science that says multitasking doesn’t work well. It slows you down, it’s poor for production, and it degrades your sense of feeling good about yourself. There are lots of reasons not to multitask, chief among them it will be easier to remember where you put your car keys fi you’re not multitasking when you put them down at the end of the day.

SF: Of course, one thing at a time. We talk about that on this show, the myth of multitasking and how the brain really does only one thing at once and how costly it is to shift from one thing to another. Aren’t those costs greater for people who are older? I find that my short-term memory is not as sharp at age 63. I have a thought of something I want to do, like here’s a person I want to call. I go ahead and finish washing the dishes. And then when I finish washing the dishes, I know that there was something important I wanted to do before I started washing the dishes, but because I didn’t record it on my list, I don’t remember what it was!

SK: I do hear that from a lot of folks. Without getting into specifics of the neuroscience, that’s probably pretty normal. It is to some extent an age-related change and for any neuroscientists out there who study aging, forgive me because I’m treading into territory that’s not my specific expertise. One of the things that we don’t have definitive science about is comparing your 30-year-old self and what you were doing, the responsibilities you had, all the things that were going on in your life with where the 63-year-old Stew is, and how the competing demands on your brain’s energy are taxing you in that particular moment. While we’re more likely to say what was that I wanted to do next, more often as we age, that doesn’t seem to be pathological. There are specific indicators that you should consider when you do question if you have a brain problem, and those are easily located. My favorite resource for determining if you should check it out is the Alzheimer’s Association. I think their website is really fabulous and they have great resources, both for people who have questions about if one’s aging brain is healthy and for people who are dealing with dementia, and many families are. Many sandwiched daughters and sons are dealing with just that. It helps to answer those questions. If you’re worried about that, they have some great resources. I will also say on the flip side of that, try not to listen to the ad-hoc anecdotes. Those kinds of personal experiences, as well meaning as they are, tend to do something that I think distracts from our health and well-being as we age and that is they add to the list of things that we get stressed about. If you have a worry list about what to get stressed about as you get older, one of the first things I’d say to you is stress is probably not good as you’re aging and that includes digital stress, which is why I really love the idea of digital detox. Don’t sleep with the phone, folks. Turn the TV and the music off. Take the earbuds out and just be quiet. No matter what age you are, it’s really good.

SF: What are some more prevailing myths that are pernicious and destructive?

SK: This is particularly true for people who are health-conscious: if I don’t eat exactly right and exercise exactly this way, I will probably age really badly. Moderation, harmony, and balance are good in work and life. They’re even better in exercise and nutrition. Keeping your body in motion, eating a healthy diet that is not extreme and that you enjoy is a terrific idea. Food should be something that is really good. If you’ve ever had a loved one in the hospital or a nursing home and they’ve been given a nutritional supplement to drink and said blegh, folks will take the supplement and the taste is not there. People are supposed to enjoy food and not see it as work and medicine.

SF: One of the myths is that you need to be upgrading your diet. Reducing stress is a much more important goal.

SK: Taking stressors out of your life is so important. And that connects with a myth that as you get older you become socially isolated and feel lonelier and lonelier. What we know is that as we age, rewarding social connections make a huge difference, and that’s one of the reasons work is so important in later life.

SF: To stay connected to other people through the connections we have at work. What is the correct way to talk about people who are older? Is it senior citizens, elders, wise people? What do you say?

SK: My favorite one is people. PBS Next Avenue had a poll on this, and I had not checked their results about what was the favorite term. Depending on which audience I’m with, I’ll say elder or older person.  I’m talking about people 75 or older, and some prefer seniors. I’ll commonly ask which term the person likes. I don’t know how it’s going to look in 30 years. I think that while we speak about children and adolescents and now young or emerging adults, we do that with a particular eye toward capacity and encouragement. You’re going to grow into this. I’d like to think that we could have the same kind of notion that you’ll grow into the next stage of your later life in a positive way.

SF: Expansively rather than in a declining way. How do we do that? As a child of aging parents, how do I do that? As a boss in an organization where I have older people working for me, what are the kinds of things to make sure I say so I can be speaking expansively rather than decliningly about people growing older?

SK: Let’s start personally, because I think one of the best ways to connect with our own invisible ageism is to recognize when and where we do it. My mom’s 83 and I’m 30 years younger than she is. I’m pleased to say that she survived cancer, a stroke, and two hip replacements. She lives by herself as a widow of several years in rural Michigan with two dogs. She volunteers three days a week, drives herself, everything’s honky dory, and by that I mean my mom’s living a life that she loves. Part of what I’ve had to remember is there are times when people say to me, How can you bear to live hundreds of miles away from your mom?” My mother would be the first to say, “I’d rather be dead than live with you, you’re such a bossy nurse.” My mother, when she had her first hip replacement, fired me as her nurse. She said, “It’s alright dear, you have a lot of work to do in Pennsylvania.”

SF: It sounds as though your mom is doing well. What can others, individuals do?

SK: This idea that people are having to create their own paths through a maze of health and social care isn’t really working well for anyone. For anyone who’s interested in advocacy, business, and health policy in particular, we’ve really got to see shifts in how we’re thinking about things. We’re a society that separates healthcare and social care. For example, if mom needs a homemaker a few hours a week, you’ve got to pay for that privately unless you’re very impoverished. That’s a tough situation to be in because many of us actually need some help at home. We also are seeing increasing concerns about how far should I go and how far should I plan for the kind of care I need if I’m truly very ill toward the end of my life. People have a lot of anxiety and don’t feel comfortable in many cases speaking with their physicians and nurse practitioners about what’s possible and what they want.

SF: These are questions that you need to bring to your representatives so they can produce the kind of social policy that’s going to provide the support that people need. We’ve got Monroe calling from Washington, D.C. Monroe, welcome to the show. How can we help you?

Monroe: I have a suggestion for how to refer to older people. In IT, when you’re dealing with an older system, we call those legacies. We could call them legacy people, legacy employees.

SF: We’re nodding are heads here, that’s interesting. But legacy systems have already outlived their usefulness, correct?

Monroe: One of the things I wanted to tie into what she was saying about looking into all the options, it is hard. I’m 40 years old and I’m at that age where there are people whose parents are starting to pass. Between 40 and 50 years old, many parents are 70 or 80. You’re viewing this and for those who try to be there for their mom or dad, sometimes as they get older they start to revert and become children themselves. We’re talking about maybe looking at a care home as an option or in-home care, which is a big business nowadays, that’s expensive. There are so many ways this conversation could go. With all the ways the conversation could go, I’d love to know the family unit in the USA and how if there was a stronger family unit, how all of these different nuances and complications would come down to nothingness?

SF: It’s different around the world. Monroe, let me jump in here and ask Professor Kagan to see if she could respond to how the family unit has evolved in America and what problems that’s creating and how there is opportunity to change to strengthen the family unit across generations.

SK: The question is one that I hear very often, and I hear it in a lot of different places. I teach for the University of Pennsylvania in Hong Kong every year.  We have a lot of national caregiving data that shows that most families actually do care for their own. When we’re thinking about people in nursing homes, for the most part people are living in nursing homes or in other institutions in later life primarily because they’ve outlived everybody else. Occasionally, it’s because they didn’t have a strong family or social network. Recognize that only about three or four percent of our older American population, that is people over 65, are living in an institution at any given time. That number shifts a lot because folks will go into a skilled nursing facility after surgery for example, but it’s important to recognize that most families are actually doing most of the care for older people.  We’re seeing big trends in older people actually caring for other family members. We have reached a peak in the number of grandparents who are actually providing primary care to children in their families.

SF: More and more grandparents are being called upon because with dual-earner families, where you have both mom and dad working, who’s going to care for the kids? Without sufficient childcare being provided by either the private sector or the public sector, who’s there? Grandma and grandpa. How’s that playing out?

SK: It’s playing out in lots of ways that are related to overall level of family income, because a number of older people, folks in the silent and mature generations, lost a lot of retirement income in the economic downturn. The mature generation are those who fought in World War II or are of that age. The silent generation or the greatest generation were just after them, the folks who were children and remember World War II and the Depression pretty vividly but were not old enough to fight. They probably were in the Korean War. Those are generations of people who got hit hard by the economic downturn in 2007-2008. They’ve often had to return to work, not out of choice but because they’ve had to financially. Now they have these competing demands. That can take a toll on their health as they’re trying to take care of the grandkids and then all of the sudden I’ve got to keep working at least part-time.  Then when am I going to find time to take care of myself? We see that with sandwiched daughters as well, who will make choices to care for others rather than caring for themselves first.

SF: Of course, you can’t care for other people if you’re not healthy yourself. Put that mask on in the airplane before helping the people who need air around you. What advice do you have for families where the grandparents are primary caregivers?

SK: I like to encourage people to think creatively. Most of these families are relying on that economic foundation to ensure that everybody is taken care of, but getting together for a family conclave or a family meeting is often a good strategy to check in. Don’t make it a let’s not talk to each other in a big way until there’s a crisis, but let’s try to do some proactive planning. That means don’t imagine that you can have a one-and-done conversation when things get tough. Keep talking to each other, keep the lines of communication open. Say the stuff that’s difficult like, Thanks, mom. I couldn’t work without you taking care of the kids, but I want to know is there something I can do for you?Those kinds of simple statements can be very helpful.

SF: If you have a question about how to enlist your parents as sources of childcare and sustain them in that role — if you’re a single parent or a parent in a family where both parents are working and you want your parents to be a part of your own children’s lives — what can you do to make sure that the cross-generational source of support from your parents to your kids works? That’s an increasingly important aspect of success in our business world as more and more couples are both working parents.

SK: I’ll tie it back to being heavily-scheduled or over-scheduled and relying on lots of technology. Texting to organize things, particularly if you have a parent who, as a caregiver for your kids, is cool with texting, those are terrific opportunities. But one of the things to think about is that having your parents and your kids spend time together is an unmissable opportunity. Maybe the ballet lessons go, or the second baseball team or the traveling basketball team are things you say no to for a time because your kids are going to have an experience with your parents that they’re going to remember for the rest of their lives.

SF: That’s great advice. What else should people know as they’re trying to work through this, because I have heard, at least very recently, of one family where the grandmother and grandfather aren’t doing a good enough job with the child? What do you do in that situation? You want to sustain that relationship, but you don’t want it to go sour?


SK: So grandma and grandpa are finding that their schedules are too busy.

SF: It’s not as much that they’re unavailable, it’s more that the grandparents are not managing the child’s behavior in the way that the parents would want.

SK: There are a number of varying situational pieces there. What are the finances? What are the options for after-school care and other stuff? How do you sit down with your parents and say look, my daughter just loves spending time with her grandparents. She’s more your granddaughter than she is my daughter sometimes and I’m getting comfortable with that because I know that spending time with you is very important to who she is as a person. But, I also recognize that you have lives that are really important to you, so what do you think we can do here? I think that we forget that intergenerational communication is like any other conversation and negotiation. If you’re asking your parents to do something for you at the age of 45, you can’t go with the ageist assumption come on, you retired five years ago, what could be so important? Your parents and you have always been juggling your own needs as individuals. Aging doesn’t change that.

SF: I want to shift gears a bit here. Back to the workplace, what can companies do to create the kind of culture of respect for not just people who are growing older, but for those who care for them?

SK: I think that’s a critical question for us today because too often business has been, as the product of larger society, okay with implicit or even explicit ageism, stuff that says younger is better. I’ve spoken with people in different industries about what ageism is and how and when it happens in their industry and I’ve heard lots of different permutations of specific ages, particular tasks, and technologic currency. My first step is to unpack, to reflect, and then to say if I take an explicitly purposeful, positive approach like that expansive approach you mentioned earlier, what do I actually see. If I force myself to turn around from the assumption that aging means decline and incapacity and say what is it that the oldest people I know give, do, share, just list them and put it down, I think what you’ll find is you’ll discover things that weren’t readily apparent.

SF: What type of things will typically emerge from a conversation like that?

SK: Typically, I hear things like you’re right, because I have a friend in her nineties who’s taught me to be much more patient and in being more patient I’ve seen options in a work task that I hadn’t seen before. Sometimes I hear the older members of our team really set a tone for civility and inclusiveness. I find that many millennials have friends in the mature and silent generations. I hear, increasingly from my students at Penn Nursing, that they’ve grown up with people who are in their tenth and eleventh decades of life, so they see that as normal.

SF: That’s interesting. So how does that shape the attitudes of young people towards older people, who are going to be more common in the workplace? There was a piece in the Wall Street Journal which was about how older women are reshaping the US job market. In 1992, one in 12 women worked past the age of 65. That number is now one in seven. With millennials being more accustomed to relating to people who are older, how do you see these demographic shifts playing out?

SK: What I hear from many millennials is they’re just people. I grew up with my grandmother, I don’t think that age is a really big issue. I think that millennials are probably downplaying categories and are very interested in relationships. In fact, I’m working with my two Nursing Benjamin Franklin Scholars seniors (elite students at the University of Pennsylvania) and they’re doing a great job looking at intergenerational values in nursing and healthcare, surveying all of our students. What they have been talking with me about is that their generation is commonly misjudged as not being terribly serious, perhaps being flighty or going from job to job, but what they’ve emphasized to me is that they’re looking for sustaining and valued relationships in workplaces. That’s something that fits really well with an aging demographic.

SF: What can companies do to make those connections more active, alive, and mutually enriching?

SK: Think about the idea that in general, we don’t put age in our diversity plan. I think that age and generation should be in our diversity plan.

SF: It is for some companies, diversity and inclusion includes intergenerational.

SK: I look explicitly at partnering youngest generations with oldest generations seeing value. Typically, I stay away from these streams but I would like to see us put millennials together with matures and silents much more often because they’re going to offer innovation that the midrange doesn’t really see.

SF: Well there’s an idea for you if you are in some way influential in your organization and thinking of ways to create connections among people in your organization that aren’t obvious, linking the young and the old in ways that are mutually beneficial is something to consider. Professor Kagan suggests you’ll see benefits such as a more inclusive environment and more innovation. Sarah, what do you want to leave our listeners with in terms of the most important message?

SK: I’d like to encourage people to embrace aging, to stop thinking about aging as an us/them thing. The joke is that old is 10 years older than I am right now. We all hope to live a long, productive, and happy life, but in order to do that what we should consider is we’ll have to confront the internal ageism we have, that self-stereotyping that is probably an unaddressed fear of our future self. Love your future self, if that’s not too corny, and say how am I going to get to know you a little better. That will help you plan, that will help you be. Meditate, be peaceful, and avoid the crisis approach to oh my god, I’m old. What am I going to do now? I don’t know what to do —  whether it’s with my old eyes, my aging brain, or my tired body. Try to think about liking your older self and who you would like your older self to be.

SF: That is a wonderful piece of wisdom that I will certainly take to heart because it’s not the way I usually think. I could see how that bias is one that’s probably pretty common. People fear death as it gets closer.

SK: Yeah, and I think they fear that period that they imagine to be just before death, but if we spend just a little time then we might not be as fearful and we might be able to imagine what it is we do and don’t want.

To hear more from Professor Sarah Kagan and aging follow her on Twitter @SarahHKagan.

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

Out for Business – Rena Fried and Vivian Chung

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with current Wharton MBA students Rena Fried and Vivian Chung, a same-sex couple getting married this year. Rena is the co-President of Wharton Women in Business, following her employment at Business Council for Peace where she provided business consulting and training to entrepreneurs in Afghanistan and Rwanda. Prior to Wharton, Vivian spent 6 years working in principal investing and investment banking at the Macquarie Group and Goldman Sachs in New York. She currently serves on the Board of Directors of the National Queer Asian and Pacific Islander Alliance. Stew spoke with both women about the challenges facing the LGBT community in bringing their authentic selves to the workplace.

The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Stew Friedman: The issue of “being out for business” vs. “covering” at work is something the LGBT community has had to deal with for a long time, as I discussed with Kenji Yoshino and Christie Smith on a previous show. Norms are changing rapidly but there is a huge cost personally and in terms of productivity that comes with having to invest energy into figuring out how to navigate with a heavy mask on. Vivian, what did you see as the costs when you were “covering” or “closeted” at work in your career on Wall Street?

Vivian Chung: Rena Fried Vivian ChungI think the main cost was not letting people understand what I was concerned about, what my interests were, and what I cared about. I spend a ton of my time working for LGBT communities in the non-profit space, but when I have to hide and say, “No, I have something later tonight,” “I have to run now,” and so on, people might think I’m wasting my time, getting my nails done, or going to the movies when really I am spending my time working on a cause I really care about. They don’t really get to see that side of me. Or, for example, if it’s my anniversary or Valentine’s Day, and I have to go to dinner tonight at 8, my boss might be pissed because he or she doesn’t understand why my leaving by 8 is so important. But I can’t really say I need to leave because it’s my second anniversary.

SF: So you had to cover.  Why should it matter to your boss that you had to come up with that excuse or find a way to make what you were doing seem urgent and normal?

VC: It’s hard to say exactly where and who it hurts the most, but I think it does impact my career and in some way prevent my achievement. When I am closeted, people don’t fully understand what I’m about, but they should understand what I’m about because they’re paying me to work for them.

SF: There’s also value that you are creating for them in the things that you do outside the office. A central idea in my work is how to capture value from one part of your life and bring it into another part of your life, so that what you do in your family, what you do in your community, and what you do in your private time can bring a positive impact in your business life. If you have to shut off all of that, then you can’t really bring it into your business in terms of reputation, building networks, and understanding different kinds of markets. There is a very real business cost to the work of having to disguise yourself.

How and why did you decide to come out?

VC: It’s a new time. If anyone googled me or looked on Facebook they’d easily see that I was on the board of several LGBT groups. Since the information was essentially public and since I realized that this really shouldn’t matter or be an issue for any organization that I’d want to work for, I made the decision not to hide who I really am.

SF: How does being out now affect your job search and the interviewing process?

Rena Fried: We look at what policies and regulations they have in place. We want to be in a place that has equal health care. We’re looking at living in San Francisco; California will recognize a marriage. And we look at culture, whether they have an LGBT Employee Resource Group (ERG), or, if it’s a smaller place, then is it a place where people have photos of their partners on their desks or talk opening about being gay. And it’s not just about LGBT issues, when I look at the Executive team, is it racially diverse, are there women in leadership? I wouldn’t want to work in a place where there isn’t diversity. I think that’s core to the success of a business.

SF: And for you, Vivian?

VC: It plays a role in my wanting to leave finance and go into tech. It’s friendlier.

SF: What can companies do? What are they doing?

VC: It’s an attitude of acceptance of difference. At my summer internship at Amazon, for example, there were badges on the internal Facebook pages for “quirkiness” which sends the message that you can come to work as yourself.  It indicates and builds a culture that allows people to be different. Whereas on Wall Street the dress code, for instance, is strict and narrow.

SF: It sounds like this was a culture that not only accepted but encouraged people to be themselves. What about the Wharton culture in terms of its openness to variation and diversity?

RF: One of the reasons we chose to come to Wharton was because of the LGBT community.  Wharton has, by far and away, one of the largest LGBT communities and one of the most vocal communities.  And not just the number of people that are in “Out For Business” – our LGBT group – but also Wharton has many more queer women than the other schools.

VC: The group has about 800 people – which includes “allies” – so it’s about half the school. Most in the group are allies, which means they support the LGBT community.  During Rainbow week we give everyone mini flags and it’s exciting to walk into a classroom and see so many flags, to see so many people are accepting and welcoming and has a visible sign to say that this is a welcoming classroom.  Little signs like that make a real difference.  Companies can initiate small things like this too to create a climate of acceptance.

SF: Rena, what do you see as you look to the next five to ten years of change in the social environment of this nation and of the world in terms of a broader embrace of diversity with respect to sexual orientation?

RF: The repeal of DOMA (The Defense of Marriage Act) and nationwide legislative action on gay marriage have been great steps in the right direction which have been meaningful for us

VC: I agree that policies can change somewhat quickly, but minds don’t change as quickly. There are a lot of prejudices that still exist, and I think it’s going to take a long time for a fair amount of prejudice to undo itself.

SF: What can our listeners do to help speed up the process? What advice would you have?

RF: On a day-to-day basis, the best thing that helps me as an LGBT-identified person is when other people speak out when they hear something that’s not right. Rather than leaving it to the LGBT person who is being targeted to speak up for themselves, folk who hear something discriminatory or rude or simply offensive could stand up and say this isn’t right and why it’s not right. That simple act can go a long way in reducing discrimination and prejudice.

To learn more about the leadership organizations Rena and Vivian are involved in, visit the websites of Wharton Women in Business and the National Queer Asian and Pacific Islander Alliance.

Join Work and Life next Tuesday at 7 pm on Sirius XM Channel 111.  Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.


How Majorities Can Help Minorities — Bill Proudman

Contributor: Andrea Yeh

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Bill Proudman, founder and CEO of White Men as Full Diversity Partners.  As a leadership development consultant, coach, and facilitator to many organizations, Bill works to help men see that diversity in the workplace relates to them, too. He has also co-authored a three-volume field guide on white men in leadership and diversity partnerships.

Stew Friedman: Let’s talk a little about your background.  How did you get into advocating for men to be engaged in discussions about diversity in the workplace?

Bill Proudman:  bill proudmanMy background from forty years ago was in the Outward Bound movement—the outdoor adventure, personal growth realm.  I was engaging with people, observing what happens when we change our assumptions, and how that affects behavior and action.  Around the late ’80s, I had a learning experience that was profoundly transformative for me.  For the first time ever in my life, I realized that I was white, male, and, in my case, heterosexual.

I learned that was my group identity and that my membership in those groups had a bearing on how I viewed the world, how I walked through the world, what I expected not just of myself but of others, colleagues.

SF: Was there a particular incident that led you to this epiphany, or did it happen gradually?

BP: Well, there was the original epiphany at a two-hour workshop that I attended that opened the door to this set of identities and privileges that I, as a straight white man, never had to think about.

I recognized that, as a straight, white man, a lot of my own personal beliefs and values had come from my upbringing.  Where it really became crystalized was in the early ’90s when I was starting to do diversity work.  I was noticing a peculiar dynamic. When I was working with executive teams, anytime the issue of diversity came up, the white men in the team would always outsource the issue to anybody on the team who wasn’t a white male, so it would always be the white women, colored men or women, or out gay or lesbian person on the team.  All of a sudden, they were anointed as the diversity guru.  This was very unconscious and very well-intended on their parts, but basically what it did was to create the dynamic where they never spoke about the topic white male to white male.

SF: So while the intention was to perhaps give voice and power to the minority group representative, it was in fact making it worse for him or her?

BP: It’s a complicated issue.  For example, many companies put together diversity councils.  When I would go work with those councils, I would meet with some of the white men on those councils.  Invariably, they would introduce themselves as the “token white guy” on the council.  Behind this word “token” was the notion that “I know that diversity is about all of us, but really I’m just here.  I don’t know anything, but I’m learning a lot because I’m having great conversations about these issues with colleagues who are, of course, the experts.”  So, a big part of my work is to emphasize that diversity inclusion is, from a leadership standpoint, everybody’s issue.  When we white men outsource the issue to others, we actually abdicate some of our responsibility in creating a more inclusive environment.

SF: So one of the keys to making white men into full diversity partners is to not delegate away the responsibility for leading that effort.  Is that right?

BP: Exactly.  In the United States right now if you think of Chief Diversity Officers of Fortune 500 companies, I know of two who were straight white men, and one of the guys retired.   Those roles are almost always held by white women, men and women of color, or gays or lesbians because of this pervasive societal notion that those are the people who are best able to coach, mentor, and support organizations on the topic of diversity and inclusion.  In some ways, this lets white men off the hook.

SF: But it seems to me that the other side of what you’re proposing is that if you didn’t have a representative from the minority group in the Chief Diversity Officer slot, it would seem like a different kind of problem.  How can you have a privileged white man who doesn’t understand his own unconscious bias leading the effort for diversity in our organization?  It doesn’t seem right.

BP: Exactly, it’s a Catch 22. The role of the Chief Diversity Officer is to act as a partner and help business leaders be accountable on this issue much in the same way that they’re accountable for safety, manufacturing, or other business metrics.  So this should not be outsourced to a particular department.  But if a large part of the population does not think that this issue is about them and their groupit can create really challenging difficulties at the personal and organizational levels for people who happen to be female and the first VP or SVP.   She is not just operating on her own merits.  She cannot fail because she would let down all the other women.  In other words, when you and I [older white men] get promoted, we can wash out of a position.  If I fail, no one looks at you and says, “You know what happens.  It’s another one of those white guys.”  A woman or a person of color who washes out of a very senior position can create enormous ramifications on others of the group.  As a white man, I have the privilege of being seen as an individual.  No one confuses me with all the other white men.

SF: So you are saying that women and minorities who rise through the ceilings that they have to break through carry a special weight because they are representing, right?

BP: Absolutely.  I’m not representing anyone in those situations other than myself, so it lets me more easily be more of who I am.  I’m not even conscious of this 99 percent of the time, and other white men are not either.  And for those women and people of color, it shouldn’t be a deal breaker for them either. But a woman who’s new to a role may believe that she can’t fail because she has to prove that she didn’t get the job simply because she’s female and someone wanted to score some points on their diversity scorecard.  Those of us that are white and male are generally free of that pressure.  It doesn’t mean that our work lives aren’t challenging and stressful at times, but it’s certainly not about who we represent.

SF: So what are the keys to creating the social and cultural context for there to be true partnerships where all parties are engaged collaboratively in the struggle to create an equal playing field that is truly inclusive?

BP: That’s a great question.   Catalyst, the New York-based global corporation that for fifty years has been looking at research of women in the corporate environment, did a study a couple years back and found three large barriers for men who are visible champions around gender equity: apathy, fear, and ignorance.  Apathy was rooted in the notion that if I and other men think about diversity as everyone else’s issue other than mine, I can be a pretty good short-term champion about trying to create good environments for those historically marginalized groups, but ultimately long-term I have to really understand my personal self-interest in creating a more equitable environment.  So apathy is one barrier.

Another one is fear.  For a lot of men in the US, we have a fear of making mistakes, and that’s certainly very prevalent these days.  In any given month, there’s something in the popular media about some notable figure, some politician, or some celebrity who’s made a faux pas, and all of this magnifies this idea for men of having to be perfect and not making any mistakes. We’ve got the privilege of being silent.  Nobody thinks badly if we don’t raise our voices.

And, lastly, ignorance can be real or perceived—it doesn’t matter.  The fact is that I don’t know that I don’t know.   Being part of this group, I’m sort of this fish in water.  I’m in a culture, that is, the water that I swim in, where I almost never have to leave, and because I never have to leave it, I don’t even know that I’m in water.

SF: Some people refer to this as unconscious bias, and note there are things that we can do about it.  What have you been doing in your work?  Are your workshops integrated, or are they for white men only?

BP: We do some of both.  Because historically white men have always learned about diversity from people other than white men, in 1997 we started a white male only learning experience where it was with white men learning with and from white men debunk the myths that we don’t know anything about the topic and, more importantly, that we don’t think that we can learn anything about inclusion from other white men.

SF: What was the reaction to that?  I can imagine there being all kinds of resistance to the idea of an exclusive white male club for dealing with the question of diversity.  It seems somewhat paradoxical.

BP: I read an article called “White Men and Diversity: An Oxymoron” that was exactly about that topic.  It’s that notion that “You’ve got to be kidding me.  It’s a group of white men.  That’s not very inclusive or diverse.”  But that’s what happened in 1997, and it’s still very much alive today.  We just did a workshop last summer in Portland, Oregon, where our company resides, with the mayor, the police chief, and the police commanders for the police bureau, and it was a white male only session.  Even though Portland has a fairly socially progressive label for itself, there were a lot of comments in the public discourse.  Media outlets here said that the mayor had lost his mind because it’s not a normalized notion.  For forty years or more, we’ve learned everything about difference from these marginalized groups.  The purpose of white male-only learning is to reframe and reset how men, and white men in particular, come to learn this.  One of the great benefits of this work is not just how I relate to other white guys but also how I reframe my relationship with white women and people of color.

SF: So how does that work?  Give us a snapshot of what actually happens in the white male-only groups that transforms the conversation and the mindset.

BP: I love to tell a story about one of our longtime clients.  He’s the Senior Vice President running a North American marketing organization for a global company.  His name is Lee.  .  Until this work, Lee, like most people in the US, believed that he didn’t see race and gender.  He aimed to treat everybody the same.  Through this work, he learned that maybe some other people in the organization were having a different experience.  Out of curiosity, he went to an African-American colleague he had known for 25 years who was three or four layers down in the organization from him, and he asked him if he would be willing to talk to him about what it was like as a black man working in the company.  This black gentleman was a little taken aback because that’s not a normal conversation to have, even with somebody he’s known for 25 years.  But they negotiated that boundary, and this gentleman shared something with Lee for the first time ever.  He said, “Lee, something I’ve heard you say for 25 years is that you expect people who report to you to manage down, across, and up, and I’ve really struggled with that.   I think my career is really stalled.  I’ve never thought about this before, but I realized that, when I grew up in Georgia in the ’60s, my father and the other black men and women in my life told me not to look white men in the eye because to do that would be a threat to my physical well-being, if not my life.  I’ve never thought about this until now, but I think that I’ve carried this into the workplace.  I think it’s a residue of something that happened a long time ago.”  Lee was stunned, and he asked, “What, if anything, do you want me to do about that?”  And the black man said, “I’m not sure, but just being able to talk about it out loud with you and not being told to stop whining or to just get over it or that I was just playing a race card was comforting.”  So the two agreed that they would continue talking. It was important just to be heard.

To learn more about Bill Proudman and his work, read his blog posts for White Men as Full Diversity Partners or MARC (Men Advocating Real Change), an initiative of Catalyst.

Join Work and Life next Tuesday at 7 pm on Sirius XM Channel 111.  Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.

About the Author

Andrea Yeh Andrea Yehis an undergraduate junior majoring in Operations and Information Management and in International Relations.

Developing African American Leaders — Ric Ramsey

Contributor: Shreya Zaveri

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

On Work and Life Stew Friedman spoke with Ric Ramsey, Executive Director and Vice President of City Year Philadelphia, a national non-profit dedicated to fighting the national high school dropout crisis. Ric also spent a decade at the Leadership Education Development Program (LEAD), a national organization working to identify and nurture high potential youth of diverse backgrounds by developing them into high achievers and responsible leaders. Stew spoke with Ric on preparing young men and women from minority backgrounds for successful careers.

The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Stew Friedman: Why did you choose to use your skills to help those in the minority community – particularly men – to advance and contribute?

Ric Ramsey: Ric RamseyWhen I was doing an executive MBA program at NYU Stern, I began to think about what my legacy was going to be. I was in a conversation with some of my peers, and one of my colleagues asked me what my legacy was going to be. At the time, I was working in a traditional role within a corporation. I looked at him with a blank stare;   I hadn’t really ever thought about it. I had traveled around the world, worked in technology for a couple of years, and I was studying to get an MBA, when he told me I really ought to do something for the African-American male community. He felt that, at the time, I was pretty self-serving. I wanted to be the next great wealthy entrepreneur. But his comment led me to reflect and wonder, what if I went into the non-profit space for just one year? Well, here I am, twelve years later, because my soul was awakened.

SF: How did you discover that this was your calling?

RR: Self-reflection. I realized that I woke up every morning feeling alive at the idea of going to work, and I came to that feeling while running this small non-profit. Every day was a challenge, but the reward was always significant, and every day made me feel that I had a purpose. Now that I’m in City Year, we’re having an impact on 7,000 ‘off-track’ young people in 18 schools throughout the city, and my army of 255 Americorps members are working with them from 7 AM to 5 PM every day.

SF: Tell us about your mission and accomplishments with LEAD.

RR: The goal was to identify the nation’s most talented students of color and expose them to business, engineering, and the sciences and provide them a full view of what it takes to thrive as, say, a Wharton undergrad. So we would bring the students to Wharton for an entire month, and have them engage with professors on what it meant to be a student here – the academics as well as the socialization.

SF: I’m sure that’s such a crucial aspect of thriving here, and in the upper echelons of business society.

RR: Definitely. You discover how to thrive in a very intimidating environment. This institution has the world’s leading young people coming to it, and LEAD helps minority students navigate that environment. For that summer LEAD session we put students in colleges across the nation to gauge whether it might be the right environment for them and help nurture them as they enter some of the world’s most elite universities.

SF: What have you accomplished?

RR: When I joined LEAD twelve years ago it was very small, less than one-million-dollar organization. Upon my departure two years ago, we were a five-million-dollar organization on 14 different campuses. We started with Wharton in 1980, but we have since expanded, even internationally to South Africa, with plans to go to Canada and others. They’re still thriving without me.

SF: Well, that’s what you want to do, to leave behind a legacy where something is growing in your wake. What would you say was essential to your success in creating experiences that enable these young people to find themselves and seek out informed and intelligent answers to questions such as, ‘Do I fit here?’ or ‘What does it mean for me to fit here?’

RR: I think you start with the man in the mirror. I grew up in Denver, Colorado in a single parent family. We were on welfare, but I didn’t realize we were poor or think I was missing anything. I grew up in a loving household where I was taught that the sky was the limit. But, for example, my mother didn’t have a car so you’d always see me at a bus stop. And I thought it was great, because it was all I knew. I didn’t think there was anything negative about the way we lived. When I was engaged with the LEAD program and telling very bright young men and women of color that the sky was the limit, I knew I would have to educate them on the socialization necessary to achieve their goals without being deterred by words or actions of others.

SF: How did you do that?

RR: We asked them to define where they wanted to be, not ten years from now, but tomorrow. Students often get pressured about their five- and ten-year goals when we as adults know we didn’t have a strong view of that ourselves at the time. We asked young people, ‘Tell me what your interests are today. What gets you moving every day? And if that anchors you, why aren’t you doing more of that?’

SF: That’s the essence of what I’ve been teaching in my Total Leadership class for over 15 years. This is universal! The principles of being real and acting with authenticity by clarifying what means the most to you – that’s how it has to begin.

RR: You have to ask that question to yourself as well.  What is it that I want to be? Where do I want to be at this particular stage in my life?  And you also have to be grateful for the mistakes and the success along the way. I am true believer in the idea that you learn more from your mistakes than your successes. Every time I make a mistake I think, ‘this is going to be so great,’ because next time it’s not going to happen.

SF: Hopefully! So you start by asking people where they want to be right now. Is that an easy question for an eighteen-year-old to answer in an authentic way?

RR: We know our kids. I remember when I was speaking to Oprah Winfrey – if I can name drop here – and she said to me, ‘You know Ric, we all have our gifts.’ That resonated with me because my gift is to engage with people and have a true-to-life dialogue. I tell them that, as a mentor, I’m going to hold them to a standard of excellence that might be just a bit tougher than their family might hold them to. It allows teenagers to open up, and when I hear them lock into a more focused view of where they want to go next, I drill down and ask them to tell me more, and then probe making it cohesive with their plans. It opens up the floodgates, for example, when I ask them why they’re applying to a local college if their passion is travel.

SF: So you challenge them to focus on things that matter to them in a loving way by expressing a natural curiosity about their desires.

RR: Exactly. I never engage with young people as an ‘all-knowing elder.’

SF: What do you do once you discover that passion?

RR: I make comparisons. Not to other people, but to themselves in another lane. So I probe, and ask that student from earlier, what the equivalent is to staying in a local college but loving travel. I put a dichotomy out there for them to arrive at the realization themselves regarding what is keeping them from travel. It’s a game of providing the obvious to them so they can answer the questions themselves. I have a group of four mentees that I’ve been working with for about eight or nine years, and I ask these young men where they’re going to go now that we’ve discovered their passions. What will be the immediate next step? Where are they going to travel to? And then we create an action plan that’s still within view. You allow them to take ownership of then plan, and they say things like, ‘and then, I discovered…’

SF: How do you scale this? You’ve learned the craft of mentorship through a lot of trial-and-error. Tell me more about your army of 200 and the young people they directly touch.

RR: The 255 Americorps members are about 85% undergraduates or college grads, who work with about 7,000 students. Scaling begins with the little things I do at the office, which all goes back to the power of listening. More than an open door policy, I announce to the staff via email the new assortment of candy that I have in my office to encourage them to come in to say hello.

At City Year, these 255 Americorps members serve in 18 schools across Philadelphia for one-year terms. They provide support during the school day, and they engage with the students in math and reading interventions. The goal is to reach them between grades three and eight in order to reduce the dropout rate, based on research by Johns Hopkins Talent Development Group and Dr. Bob Balfanz, who did ten years of research showing that early warning signs indicating that a child is going to drop out can be addressed if they are focused during the right periods of this child’s life. These indicators include attendance, classroom behaviors, and literacy. Continuously intervening each year is what makes a difference. Teams of ten to twelve corps members are inside each school every day working with school staff with a focus on “off-track” students with plans to get them back on track.

SF: How are you doing with that goal?

RR: Very well. 72% of the students that we worked with from the list of “off track” students last year went up one assessment level in math and reading. When City Year intervenes, we consistently move the students back on track. We now aim to scale up to the entire city and then the entire nation.

Caller (Lee): Ric, I was wondering how we could apply your principles to perhaps retool veterans to society, seeing as they’re socialized to the army. As a veteran myself, I deal with similar challenges on how to find myself, where I want to go next, and what I want to do. Listening to the model that you have created, I want to hear your thoughts on how to create something like this to be appropriate for veterans?

RR:  In terms of retooling yourself, the hottest products on the market nowadays are veterans! My wife is a veteran and has shared the interest by corporations and other organizations including universities to bring more veterans in. If your goal is to develop your own non-profit to support veterans, my recommendation would be to start small, identify those entities that would be interested in engaging with veterans to get some form of organizational support, and then work with the business community to help you establish 501 (C) 3 or non-profit status. Know that as a veteran you are a pretty hot product in the market right now, and if you can leverage or communicate that fact to promote the launch of a business or non-profit, I think the market is ripe and ready for that.

SF: Lee, thank you so much for calling. Ric, what can you say to people about what employers could be doing to help your cause?

RR: In Philadelphia, we have a major challenge with the education group and their ability to fund organizations such as City Year. We’ve shared with the Philadelphia school district our plans for growth, and they are very excited about them, but we need the private sector to step in and support that. We can have an impact on up to 50% of the off-track students in this city over the next ten years if we are given appropriate funding.

Visit City Year’s website to learn how your corporation can get involved with City Year, either directly via employees or by engaging in schools. You can also follow @Cityyearphilly on Twitter.

Join Work and Life next Tuesday at 7 pm on Sirius XM Channel 111.  Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.

 About the Author

Shreya Zaveri Shreya Zaveriis a junior in the Wharton School studying Management and Marketing and OPIM with an International Relations minor. She also serves as a vice president for the Work-Life Integration Project Student Advisory Board.

Costs of Covering Who You Really Are — Kenji Yoshino and Christie Smith

Contributor: Andrea Yeh

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Kenji Yoshino and Christie Smith. Christie Smith is the National Managing Principal at Deloitte University’s Leadership Center for Inclusion.  She was named Diversity Journal’s 2013 Woman to Watch and was thrice recognized by San Francisco Business Times as one of the most influential women in the Bay Area.  Kenji Yoshino is the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at NYU, author of Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, formerly on the faculty at Yale where he also served as Deputy DeanTogether, Smith and Yoshino have been studying why people of all backgrounds cover up their identities in the workplace. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Stew Friedman: Christie you are a phenomenally accomplished professional who is out and raising children with your same-sex partner.  Your portfolio of professional activities includes many other issues apart from those that affect the LGBT community.  You’ve really been at the forefront of bringing awareness to these complex issues that are faced by some gay men and women at work. I wonder if we could start with the question of how and when you decided to come out at work and to invest so much of your time and energy in the workplace issues affecting the LGBT community?

Christie Smith: christie smithI’m not sure that it was a conscious decision to advocate strictly for the LGBT community.  I come by this very naturally having a mother who was a tremendous social justice activist working in Newark, NJ in the 60s helping to educate black men and growing up watching my father support her in her career. He took part in raising six daughters, all of whom were very strong young women. I guess I grew up in an atmosphere that valued social justice – fighting for the underdog – with a very untraditional father figure in terms of his support of my mother and of his daughters.  I think with that as the basis, my entire life has been about the values of service, seeking social justice, and fighting for the underdog.  It wasn’t until I made the decision to join Deloitte – and I had been out as a gay woman for twenty years prior to joining Deloitte – that I made the decision through the interview process not to hide my identity and not change pronouns and not do things that I had done to cover previously in my work world because I was simply uncomfortable or felt that it hindered my professional opportunities.

SF: You had been covering in prior professional environments?

CS: Absolutely.  I was being recruited by another firm at the same time.  The stark difference between the two firms was that Deloitte wanted to know who I was, not what I had done.  It was a very different interviewing process.

SF: How was that manifest?  Was it particular questions you were asked, or was it nonverbal cues?  How did you get that sense?

CS: I think it was all of the above.  When you join Deloitte as I did, as a direct entry partner, it is a long process to be admitted into the firm. Mostly that is to honor our culture but it is also to make sure this is the right decision, not only for the firm but also for the individual.

SF: Backing up a bit, what led you to decide at that moment in your life and career that you were no longer going to cover up who you really are?

CS: I knew I was successful enough that I didn’t need to anymore, and I was comfortable enough in my own emotional journey to feel that I didn’t need to play the game anymore. If I was going to make a commitment to a firm like Deloitte – which really was a decision to join a firm that I knew I would retire from – it was going to be long-term, and I couldn’t do that unfaithfully by hiding who I was.

SF:  You had a track record of success that gave you the confidence to be more true to yourself. Do you regret not revealing more of yourself sooner in your life? How do you advise young people on this question of when to reveal oneself?

CS: I’m not sure that regret is the right word.  I am saddened by the missed opportunities by having covered or hidden an aspect of who I was.  I often say in Kenji and my work on covering that it’s almost as if you’re going to work a second job.  Imagine the feeling of only giving half of yourself to your work – half of your brain, half of your passion, half of your emotional connection – because you’re working so hard to work that identity instead of your job.

SF: Can you give us an example of what kind of extra burden or work that covering requires, this second shift as it were?

CS: It requires not engaging in personal conversation.  So when frequently asked about my weekend on Monday morning, I would probably give one response: “Oh, I went for a long run.  I’m training for a marathon.  What did you do?”  I’d immediately deflect by asking a thousand questions to the person who was talking to me, so as not to have to field any other personal questions about my weekend.  It’s not only distracting in the moment because you’re working so hard to protect your identity, but it even lingers afterwards.  For me, when I walked away from a conversation, it impacted me for the next fifteen minutes, sometimes a half hour.  I just would be distracted by the fact that I didn’t feel comfortable revealing my own identity as a gay woman.

SF: Of course, you’re basically having to lie about yourself, and that’s got to create all kinds of angst and doubt about confidence in your professional life.

CS: Exactly.  I wonder about the missed relationships that I didn’t feel I could develop.  I wonder sometimes in some instances, Could I have been more successful? Could I have served my clients better?  While there were no great catastrophes, I am left wondering, If I had felt comfortable in bringing my whole and authentic self to work, would I have had more energy to have deeper human connection and engage in greater productivity?

SF: So that’s a huge cost, isn’t it?  What have you thought about or even assessed in terms of the economics of this cost?

CS: What we saw in our research are three main things.  First, covering is happening: not just in life or the law, but at work as well. 61 percent of our respondents said that they are actively involved in hiding an aspect of themselves while at work.  Second, and as a result of the first, people are showing up feeling sub-optimized in their roles.  Finally, people who cover or feel that they have to cover are contemplating walking out the door.  The real cost is to their productivity and retention.

SF:  Kenji, could give us the short version of what brought you to focus on this issue in your professional life, in addition to all the other work that you do as a constitutional law professor at Yale and now at NYU?

Kenji Yoshino: Kenji YoshinoFor me, it was driven by the experience of being a gay man in the workplace and particularly in academia. Like many other gay people, I overcame the demand to downplay my identity. It evolved from a time when I just wanted to be straight; to passing, which was when I was in the closet; to, by the time I entered the workforce, covering, which is when you admit you have a particular identity but make every effort to downplay it.  Stew, I’ll never forget walking down the corridors of Yale Law School as a junior law professor and having a very well-meaning colleague put his arm around me and say, “Kenji, you’ll do a lot better here if you’re a homosexual professional, than if you’re a professional homosexual.”

SF: What does that mean?

KY: I knew what he meant was that I would go further and faster if I were a constitutional law professor who just happened to be gay, rather than if I were the gay law professor who taught gay rights subjects and litigated gay rights cases and wrote on gay rights issues.  Unfortunately for me, my passion was the latter.  For a couple of years I tried to heed to his advice, but after a while, I realized that I would much rather not get tenure acting as somebody who I was, rather than get tenure as somebody who I wasn’t.

SF: How did you come to that decision, Kenji?

KY: I think it was really cumulative.  I sensed that I wasn’t doing the things that were at the front of my mind nor was I doing them at the top of my game and that those two feelings seemed to be related.  I looked peripherally, and I saw that my colleagues who taught constitutional law were teaching a lot more gay content in their classes. This was the 1990s when cases like Romer v. Evans were breaking and when same-sex marriage was on the horizon.  It was a very exciting time to be in that area of law, and I felt like it was crazy that I was gay and passionate about this but couldn’t bring myself to be involved in it.

Ultimately, the decisive factor was related to the person who actually mentored me when I was at Yale Law School – an openly gay man who came from the ACLU to teach a class on sexual orientation in law.  Once Yale had hired me on the tenure track, they no longer kept him on because he was just a lecturer, and they wanted somebody who was a full-time professor.  There was this kind of irony that they wanted a gay person but didn’t necessarily want – at least according to this individual who gave me advice – a person who was too passionate about working on gay rights issues.

That’s when I started wondering about what was going on and whether there was a word to describe this phenomenon. It wasn’t conversion or passing – nobody wanted me to be straight or to say I was straight or to stay in the closet – but it was this notion of “you can be different, but just downplay it.”  Instead of having diversity and inclusion, it was diversity or inclusion; you could be included so long as you downplayed the things that made you different.  I found the term “covering” from Erving Goffman.  The more I delved into it, I realized that it seems to hit LGBT people first, but once you start pulling on the thread, it really becomes a universal phenomenon.

SF: We all wear masks, right?

KY: Exactly. All the organizations that Christie and I survey believed in inclusion on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability, but when we actually talked to respondents about whether or not they felt like they had to downplay those identities in order to be fully included, we saw a supermajority saying that they had to choose between being included and being diverse.

SF: Wow.  So Christie, what did you make of that startling distinction?

CS: Well, it certainly wasn’t unanticipated. We did expect that we would find that traditional minority groups covered, on one dimension or another.  What we didn’t necessarily anticipate was that 45 percent of straight white men would also state that they covered or hid some aspect of themselves.  Many of the straight white men covered that they were participating in their son’s or daughter’s soccer game, for example.  They would say they were leaving for a meeting instead of leaving for the game.

SF: Was that the most common kind of covering activity by the straight white men in your study, or were there others that were also apparent?

KY: People reported covering age a lot as well; “I colored gray hair to look younger” was a common answer.  People also covered their class background, so if someone was coming from a working class background or their parents had not been professionals, that would be a form of affiliation-based covering.  People would cover their veteran status too.

SF: They would cover their veteran status because that was stigmatized?

KY: Yes, people would say that, particularly in advocacy-based covering, which is where you don’t stick up for your own group, that people would report hearing an anti-military joke and not speak up lest they be perceived as overly strident or militant.  But also, on affiliation-based grounds, veterans would also often report PTSD.  The veterans who reported affiliation-based covering on the basis of the PTSD were very candid.  I think we were actually honored by how candid the responses were.

SF:  Affiliation-based covering – could you define that term for our listeners, Kenji?

KY:  Affiliation-based covering is the form of covering of behaviors that can trigger stereotypes about you. The idea is that I might tell you very proudly that I’m a veteran, but I might not tell you that I have PTSD because I worry that will trigger you to have conscious or unconscious biases toward how I’m going to behave.

SF: So you were proud of those veterans in your study who spoke to you about the fact that they were doing such covering?

KY: Not exactly. I was proud of the fact that they were very candid about it, and that they were also very pragmatic.  Christie and I are very practical people, and we don’t want our research to just sit on a shelf.  We said, “What can we do to help you uncover yourself in ways that would be helpful to you?”  Some of our military respondents said, “When we were in the military itself, and we had PTSD, we had a buddy system so that somebody would know that we had PTSD and would actually support us when we were in situations where that manifested itself.” PTSD itself is not an easy fix, but assisting people who have it can be easier.  For example, say I’m going into a meeting, and I have PTSD.  A car backfires in the street, and I suddenly have an episode.  If Christie is there with me at the client meeting, and she knows my condition, she can actually help run interference for me.

SF: I want to make sure we get to what you have been doing with this research in practice by helping to raise consciousness. You were talking about the importance of really digging into how these stigmas play out in everyday life because that’s the only way we’re going to get to solutions.

CS: I think there are two buckets for the solutions.  One is the personal bucket: What will I do in order to uncover? The second is organizationally: What can an organization do to help?

On a personal level, there are five aspects we generally look to, but I’ll share a couple just to give you a flavor.  First is to develop your personal uncovered narrative – how does your personal diversity or experiences define who you are at work and your leadership? The second thing from a personal standpoint is to share your story – your personal uncovered narrative instead of your professional resume – and we have leaders who are actively doing this now. When they give presentations, they start with who they are, not what they are, and include their experiences growing up such as being the first to go to college in their family.

SF: Whatever has been a source of struggle for them – is that the key to the narrative, that it creates that sort of trust?

CS: It includes anything leaders believe they had to cover because they thought these might impact their sense of opportunity or commitment.

SF: When you’re coaching people, particularly executives, to be able to convey these stories, what do they wrestle with most? Or is it an easy thing for most people to be able to do?

CS: I think they wrestle with the vulnerability, first and foremost, but they also face an internal challenge because “this isn’t how we’ve always done it. 

SF:  How do you help them?  What do you do to coach people through that anxiety of vulnerability?

CS: We generally do that on an individual basis, through one-on-one coaching. We discuss what they stand for, what they’re hoping to accomplish from a business standpoint, and how revealing their own story – including the challenges they went through and overcame in developing a followership – will be useful in creating a culture of bringing diverse experiences in order to ultimately solve business problems on the table.

SF: So we’ve discussed your belief system about diversity and your personal story about where you’ve had to cover and how you’ve dealt with that.  What’s the third piece?

CS: I think it’s to dare to have the conversations across difference.  We’ve spent so much time in the past ten years talking about emotional intelligence as a great attribute to great leaders. That is certainly true, but what we need to do is to move to emotional maturity, which is a competency to take my own self-knowledge and create an environment in which I can have a conversation across difference and invite other people’s stories into the room.

That is a different competency; it takes more time, which we don’t like in our organizations, but it ultimately creates great teams and great innovation and enables us to delight our clients. From a personal standpoint, those are some of the things we look at.

Organizationally, we want to diagnose and analyze whether covering is happening in your organization, and, if it is, what the impact is. We administer our survey to understand where the blind spots are and where covering may be happening.  The second step is to understand where biases show up in your talent life cycle, so we examine the analytics in your hiring, retention, attrition, and performance management system.  The combination of those data sources gives us an opportunity to specifically identify where the breakdown or the stalling of leadership efforts is happening and ultimately provide point solutions to those business units, rather than just a blanket initiative across the entire organization, which is what we’ve done for thirty years.

SF: Kenji, what have you found to be most challenging about the work of engaging the organization or other institutions in doing the fundamental work of diagnostics?

KY: We actually haven’t struggled that much in the area of diagnostics. I think the real struggle has been in beginning the conversation.  Part of this project includes public education regarding self-diagnosis and organizational diagnosis, and it’s been happily a pretty smooth ride for both of us in terms of different sectors of society getting involved –

corporations but also educational institutions. Organizations are really driving to take the survey in order to understand both how they might be diminishing the authenticity and commitment of individuals who are in their organizations and how that might be hurting organizational effectiveness across the board.

SF: Can you tell us about a success story that you’re either in the midst of or that you’ve been a part of in doing this work of both diagnosis and then intervention to create meaningful change in an organization?

KY: Well, the phenomenon that Christie was sharing earlier was the “Share your Story” campaign at Deloitte, which is a form of mature vulnerability.   A number of versions of this have gone out, and I think they were outgrowths of Deloitte’s commitment to authenticity and leadership.  “Sharing your story” is exactly what Christie was alluding to earlier when leaders were videotaped and asked to tell not their resume stories, which are extremely polished and manicured, but rather to show up as human beings.

Harvard Business School Professor Robin Ely is fond of talking about “mature vulnerability,” which I think is a wonderful phrase.  The idea is that when you actually show up as a human being in one of these videos, the videos go viral within the organization because you have individuals who say that they had to cover the fact that they were gay or Latino or black or female and then explain how they overcame it.  That’s not only inspiring for people within their own cohorts, it also sends a broad signal which is particularly important to the millennial generation.

CS: I think one problem we’ve seen in our push to shift organizational mindsets for our clients occurs when you begin to talk about diversity and inclusion and all of the eyes straight, white men tend to glaze over.

SF: Why does that happen?

CS: I think it’s because they don’t feel or see a path through which they actually belong as participants in this conversation.  Rather than showing them as knights in shining armor that are coming in to sponsor a program or vilifying them because they have the roles that everybody wants, our research ironically levels the playing field for the straight, white males in the conversation of inclusion, and ultimately the adoption of the change management process is thus accelerated.

SF: So is that working?  What is the trigger that helps you get past the glaze?

KY: The trigger is the statistic.  When we present the fact that 45 percent of straight white men cover, they immediately want to know how they cover.  So when we start going through anything from veteran status to mental or physical illness to working class background, immediately people are leaning forward and engaged for the first time.  Many people in the room find themselves actually inside the paradigm.  They’re not outside looking in, rather, they’re actually part of this communal issue.

SF: What’s the main message that you want our listeners to take away?

KY: I would say to be yourself because being anybody else is a lot harder work, and you’re going to use up a lot of bandwidth to do it.  When you actually begin to be your authentic self and uncover that in public, you plug yourself into a power source that hugely benefits both you and your organization.

SF: Christie, what is your final word for our listeners in terms of what you want them to take away?

CS: I would agree that being your authentic self is important, but I think you also have to be particularly intentional. You have to develop that personal, uncovered narrative and connect it to how it defines who you are when you’re leading at work. Then you have to be able to share that story.


To learn more about Christie Smith’s and Kenji Yoshino’s work on uncovering you can visit www.deloitte.com/us/uncovering, check out Yoshino’s book, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights (Random House, 2006) and follow on Twitter @Kenji_yoshino.


Join Work and Life next Tuesday at 7 pm on Sirius XM Channel 111.  Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.

About the Author

Andrea YehAndrea Yeh is an undergraduate junior majoring in Operation and Information Management and in International Relations.


A Champion for Change: David Thomas

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School. Every Tuesday at 7:00 PM EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community and the private self (mind, body and spirit).

On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with David Thomas, Dean of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, about the state of diversity and inclusion in corporate America.  The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Stew Friedman: How did you first get into this topic of diversity in corporate America?

David Thomas: David Thomas (by James KegleyI wasinitially interested in three topics: how organizations change, how people manage their careers, and the influence of race on opportunities. In the early 80s I was studying the dynamics of mentoring in large corporations under differing circumstances – mentoring within the same race and across race, mentoring with the same gender and across gender. This was in the context of an organization trying to change its culture.  It was so far ahead of its peers. I remained passionate about this for leaders, society, and for organizations.

SF: How wereyou personally shaped by mentoring relationships?

DT: I grew up in Kansas City MO, born in 1950s; a very segregated time. At younger than five years old when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “President.”  Only later did I say I wanted to be “the first black President.”  It’s interesting to say this now, as I’m sitting blocks from the White House which is occupied by our first black President. What’s interesting is that at five I wanted to be President, but only later, with the realization of my group identity, did I say “the first black President.”   Later, when I was not yet eight, I said “I’m going to be a lawyer.” By then I’d realized a black man couldn’t be President.  A lawyer was the next best. I saw the civil rights movement – preachers and lawyers. One went to jail, one got them out of jail. I wanted to be a lawyer.

SF: You wanted to liberate people.

DT: Yes, I wanted to try to create change, to make the world a better place. And I found my way into organizational behavior.

SF: How did you go from wanting to be a lawyer to the field of organizational behavior?

DT: In college I was a student leader around black identity in black community. At Yale, I studied the African movement in 1970s and stumbled on an organization behavior course relevant to student leadership work. I realized these were concept and tools that could change the world. There’d be lots of lawyers but few that had knowledge to make organizations better. So I went to grad school at Columbia and then back to Yale.

SF: You’ve been an observer of race, diversity, inclusion in organizations for decades — what has changed and was hasn’t?

DT: What has changed is that the gates of opportunity have opened up in a way so that no child can say that anything is impossible in the way that it was for me when I was a little kid; at that time it was not possible for a black kid to aspire to be President. That’s the positive. If you are black you can be President, a CEO, a senator, a CFO, a Corporate Board member. But still, when we look at the Fortune 250 there are only five black CEOs and the number of African Americans on Boards of Directors has been stagnant. The percent of African Americans in these elite ranks have remained about the same for two decades. There’s a sense that opportunity is not expanding and yet lack of representation is still connected to stereotypes. There is a great body of work on unconscious bias. I think this is the explanation, not intentional discrimination.

SF: Unconscious bias – define that for our listeners. It’s more pernicious than explicit racism.

DT:  Unconscious bias is the automatic reactions we have to particular people or demographic groups that are out of our awareness and that don’t necessarily represent what our intentions are. The major research findings are, for example, that people are more likely to associate women to family and men to career. People more quickly and easily make those associations.  What happens is that if boss has to send a subordinate on the road and both subordinates – a man and a woman — had a baby recently, the boss is more likely to walk over to male to assign him to being on the road of for two weeks. Unconsciously the boss has concluded that the man would be more likely to be open to this assignment. Fast forward two years, and these gateway assignments add up, the she’s lost out and he got the experience. She wasn’t even given the choice.

SF: You’re saying the manager didn’t intend to discriminate but his actions had a discriminatory effect. So what are we doing to deal with gender and race stereotypes in corporations and elsewhere?

DT: First, we know that because the expression of these biases is not intentional, if people can slow down they can become aware of the bias. For instance, the manager could walk in, describe the opportunity to both subordinates, and assess their willingness to take the opportunity.  Then it’s more conscious choice. The boss is more likely to make the choice based on task factors versus based on an unconscious set of assumptions.

SF: So, this is a more mindful approach to inclusion and diversity.

DT: Yes, you have to work with leaders and managers to help them become more mindful. It starts with acknowledging and then taking responsibility for the fact that they’re not immune to bias. Companies that are unwilling to accept that they may be susceptible to some kinds of bias are a problem.

SF: So how do you address this?  People believe and say “I’m not racist, I’m not sexist, so why blame me?”  How do you break into this?

DT: There’s a great tool, a self-administered test to assess whether you possess unconscious bias.. The Harvard Implicit bias test examines issues such as race, gender, skin color, age, gay straight, religion.  You can see where your own susceptibilities lie.  We all have biases that have been socialized into us. There’s been real success with students and with companies. The self-administered test opens people up to the fact that they’re not immune.  But also we are not destined to perpetuate biases.  Once they’re aware they have choices about how they act.

SF: We’re all products of our culture and local familial heritage.  To evolve we have to address these unconscious biases. What’s the most import step for schools and companies to be more inclusive and fairer?

DT:  Wittingly or unwittingly we exhibit bias.  Leaders need to take responsibility to create a diverse and inclusive workplace. I’m the chief diversity officer because I’m the CEO, I’m the Dean. You have to be willing to change processes that create unearned privilege or hindrances for groups of people. For example, a finance company used credit scores to help select employees. Because of differences in wealth, people of color have less wealth, so using a credit score perpetuates inequality. The company did away with using that criteria and used others related to the work. And, they did an experiment and found no relationship between credit scores and employ performance. Also credit scores go up with stable employment.

SF: Using the credit score as an entry requirement perpetuated the structural inequality. So, what does the future hold?

DT: I’m hopeful. I see many companies that are reinvigorating and reinvesting in diversity and inclusion. I am most concerned about unconscious bias in small and medium size companies, especially in tech companies. And tech is where the future lies. In silicon valley African Americans and Latinos are woefully lacking. Women, too.

David Thomas, Dean of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, is a recognized leader in the field of diversity in the workplace and author of Breaking Through: the Making of Minority Executives in Corporate America. To learn more about his ideas follow him on Twitter @ProfThomas.

Join Work and Life next Tuesday at 7 pm on Sirius XM Channel 111.  Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.

Helping Employees Whose Dependents Have Special Needs: Debra Schafer on Work and Life

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School. Every Tuesday at 7:00 PM EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community and the private self (mind, body and spirit).

On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Debra Schafer about what corporations can do to help their employees who need care for disabled dependents especially children with special needs or hidden differences.

The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Stew Friedman: What inspired you get into this field?

Debra Schafer: Debra SchaferIt began with my son.  He developed some educational challenges.  I was an HR (Human Resources) executive at the time and I found that I needed more flex options than those that were available in order to attend to my son’s needs.  I had to make a choice.  And no parent should have to make a choice between their professional career and their child.

SF: Indeed, that’s what President Obama said last week at the White House Summit on Working Families – no parent should have to make that choice.  So, what did you do?

DS: I began reading federal and state special education law and then coaching parents in private practice.  It was clear from HR background I saw a gap and a need in terms of what can be provided to employees who have children with hidden difficulties.  And it’s often 12+ years between first diagnosis at age 2 and High School graduation.

SF: So what are the issues facing parents at work?

DS: There are chronic issues and crisis issues.  Chronic issues are, for instance, regularly scheduled, perhaps three times per week, appointments.  And crisis issues come up suddenly and you have to run. The challenge is to help organizations understand that their employees are raising the next generation of employees. And to help them to see, for example, that calls about the child will not stop and that parents should not have to choose bet being a good parent and good employee.

SF: So what do you advise the employer to do?

DS: Organizations and employers can help by normalizing these issues.  For example, lactation rooms were not spoken of previously, but now we hear about them.  Similarly, employers can start with a seminar or workshop with an expert such as a therapist.  The employees who attend look around the room and realize they’re not alone.  What I often see is that they reach out to fellow-workers saying, “I didn’t know you had a child who…”  Support networks are formed.

SF:  What’s in it for the employer?  Why should they being providing these supports?

DS:  Eight to 14% of the workforce is dealing with a child with special needs. Eleven percent of school age children are diagnosed ADHD, 19% of HS boys.  These are chronic issues and employees need to be able to speak to your employer in ways that the employer can understand.  Too many parents of children with hidden differences are leaving the workforce or turning down assignments.  If the employer wants to recruit and retain talent and if they want their employees to be productive, then they’ll need to understand that their employees are dealing with chronic problems and also with crises that take their time and attention.

SF: It is a distraction and a drain on productivity as I wrote a piece called The Hidden Business Cost of Mental Illness. So how can employees learn to talk about these hidden differences with their employers?  How can we address the stigma?

DS: Employee Resource Groups are useful.  But most employees don’t join because don’t want to disclose.  I always say, “If u have the crown, wear it with pride.” Having groups, seminars in the work place leads, as I said, to “I didn’t know you had a child with…” and then to naturally occurring support from co-workers. It normalizes these issues.

SF: So, the workshop on the job creates an environment where it’s safe to talk about it

DS: Yes, with education about the epidemiology – how many people are dealing with these difficulties – and statistics and stories.


Debra Schafer is the Founder and CEO of Education Navigation which she started after more than 20 years of management experience in human resources, work/life integration, and marketing communications and 15 years of special education consulting, coaching, and advocacy experience. Learn more about what companies can do to recruit and retain their employees who are parents of children with hidden difficulties and how to ensure that they are productive at work at her web site www.Education-Navigation.com and follow Debra on Twitter @EdNavigation.

Join Work and Life on Tuesday July 22 at 7 pm on Sirius XM Channel 111 for conversations with Herminia Ibarra and Sam Polk.  Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.