The Harvard Business Review (HBR) conducted a study that found even seemingly “inclusive” workplaces still leave women of color in interdependent work environments feeling isolated.
The idea from the study, HBR said, came out of an episode of HBR’s “Women at Work” podcast, which discussed forging “sisterhood” relationships at work among women of different ethnicities. High-quality connections — relationships where people feel safe to display emotions — have an important role in the workplace. They benefit workers because they encourage respect and engagement, which, in turn, empowers employees, affirms their identities and affirms their competence, according to the Stanford Social Innovation Review.
The HBR study, however, found that a commitment to diversity and inclusion does not necessarily allow women of color to be emotionally vulnerable. Black and Hispanic women whose jobs required more interaction with their colleagues reported being less emotionally vulnerable at work, which suggests they may not be fostering supportive relationships with their coworkers.
In other accounts of interpersonal workplace relationships, women of color reported not being invited to social events or being “accidentally” left out of information-sharing. This exclusion, whether intentional or not, made many women of color mistrust their colleagues, respondents said.
Additionally, it could impact their careers beyond relationships and support. Social exclusion opens up the possibility of women of color being left out of more important workplace activities that could impact their careers, HBR suggested.
For their study, HBR asked 778 women from across the country, and many internationally, questions about inclusivity and interdependence in their workplace. The average age of respondents was 42, but ages ranged from 19–71. Within the U.S. sample, respondents were 76% white, about 5% Black, 5% Hispanic, 4% Asian and 3% multiple races. Eighty-three percent worked between 31 and 50 hours per week and 79% had been in their field for more than five years.
Breaking down the results based on race and ethnicity, HBR found that for Black and Hispanic women in interdependent jobs, inclusive climates actually led to lower levels of emotional vulnerability. This data suggests that though inclusivity benefits women overall, the more interdependent a Black woman’s job is, the less emotionally vulnerable she is willing to be. Black women with independent jobs that did not require as much interaction with others reported feeling more supported in these inclusive environments.
Therefore, an inclusive work climate alone may not be enough to support women of color.
In addition to these questions, the study asked respondents to share anecdotes about times they felt unsupported. Many Black women recounted feeling that even though their company practiced diversity and inclusion, they still struggled to feel a sense of belonging.
“I have never felt included in my organization. And I have worked there for 10 years,” a 41-year-old Black woman said.
“I searched for who would be the ones that I could trust,” a 45-year-old mixed-race woman said, recounting a time when she felt left out by a group she was working with at a seemingly “inclusive” company.
Other respondents of color noted a fear of speaking up and sharing information.
The study draws attention to opportunities for future research on the benefits of shared sisterhood and what impacts it has on productivity, innovation, commitment and job retention.