Oppression, Not Feelings, Should Be the Focus of DEI

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Feb 1, 2022

The client was eager to see their preliminary results. They’d hired us to conduct an assessment of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in their organization, and we’d just completed the first phase. We’d run our algorithm on their HR data to see how talent moved through the organization, and we’d completed an employee satisfaction survey. We had some colorful, cool-looking graphs we were eager to present. 

We were especially excited to share some good news: Contrary to a widely held belief, people of color were not leaving the organization at a higher rate than white people. Also, it seemed people of color were being promoted into middle management slightly faster than white people. We still needed to get more granular with our data analysis, but at first glance there were some real strengths to celebrate.

However, the executive team was far more interested in the survey comments. While the satisfaction numbers showed that Black, Latinx, and Native American employees were only slightly less satisfied at work than their white and Asian coworkers, many comments from African American and Latinx employees were highly critical of the organization and its leadership. 

Our team explained that the upcoming focus groups would unpack the disparity between lower BIPOC employee satisfaction and their equitable promotion and exit rates. We reminded the client that these results were preliminary.

However, many leaders were so hyper-focused on the comments that progress was nearly derailed. Instead of receiving the good news about their emerging strengths, they fixated on problem-solving around the comments, pushing for immediate town hall meetings and training for all people leaders. These well-intended but overly reactive urges were eventually pulled back by revisiting their goals and helping them slow down and see the big picture.

A Misunderstanding of DEI

This scenario is all-too-common in DEI work. A heightened sense of urgency when none is merited is a fear-based response that rarely leads to meaningful change. Racism and inequities have existed in the U.S. for hundreds of years. No time is wasted in taking a few more weeks or months to gather and properly analyze data, carefully consider options, and create strategic action plans. In fact, taking that time is critical to making the right decisions to ensure sustainable change, which includes identifying and leveraging strengths.

More importantly, behind leaders’ disproportionate concern with employees’ opinions is often a fundamental misunderstanding of what DEI is about. As a veteran of the field, I believe DEI is about ending oppression and co-creating equity. Oppression exists when people exercise power over others in unfair, unjust and/or inappropriately harmful ways. Oppression occurs when we harm or inhibit others’ lives and livelihoods for unfair, unjust, and/or ineffective reasons. 

Equity exists when all people have equitable access to all the resources and opportunities necessary to live their happiest, healthiest lives. This access enables people to fully contribute their unique gifts for individual and collective benefit. 

In the workplace, equity is present when all people have equitable access to all the resources and opportunities necessary to be “successful” — however individually and collectively defined. When equity exists, people can learn about opportunities, apply, be evaluated, hired, compensated, onboarded, developed, promoted, and exited based on their abilities, skills, character, and behaviors – not based on their group identity or any trait over which they have no control.

Therefore, the existence of equity in the workplace can be measured as equitable access and equitable movement up and through an organization. Access and movement can be assessed through quantitative measures like hiring rates, promotion rates, exit rates, performance evaluation scores, and who receives which opportunities for development. When disparities show up in these quantitative measures by demographic groups, qualitative approaches like interviews, focus groups, survey comments, and observation can uncover the reasons. 

These reasons may indicate the disparity isn’t due to oppression but other factors like personal preferences, cultural norms, or high market demand for certain skills or qualities. More often, the disparity reflects historical oppression in which members of oppressed groups were categorically excluded from high-value roles, levels, or jobs. This exclusion results in both an unequal playing field, and disproportionate psychological and financial burdens that marginalized employees carry into the workplace. 

Most commonly, the root cause of a disparity is oppression in the form of workplace systems, structures, processes, policies, and norms that disproportionately harm, burden, or exclude members of groups (who were not meant to be included or benefitted by those systems, structures, processes, and policies). Workplace oppression mirrors and amplifies historical, and current, societal oppression.

Feelings vs Oppression

However, feelings do not necessarily indicate oppression. A person can be oppressed (unfairly denied equitable access to resources and opportunities), yet feel that they are not, and even vehemently deny that they are.

I’ve known women who denied they faced sexism while they were being paid less than men in the same role, passed over for development opportunities, and subject to frequent microaggressions. People deny their own oppression for multiple, complex reasons that are usually a necessary form of self-protection. But according to the data, these women were being oppressed based on gender, despite their feelings to the contrary.

Hyper-focusing on people’s feelings and relying on them as the main indicator of oppression — or the sole gauge of DEI success — presents two problems. One, it allows us to ignore oppression that victims don’t perceive, or even know about. This is still unjust, unfair, and inequitable, and therefore gets in the way of our individual and collective thriving. 

Second, relying on feelings to indicate oppression permits those who feel oppressed, but are not, to receive consideration for their grievances equal to those who are actually oppressed. 

For instance, many white people and men claim to be oppressed, when the data are (usually) clear this is not the case, either organizationally or societally. This is unfair and inequitable, and also ineffective because it drains energy and attention from addressing the real problem of oppression.

This does not mean that people’s feelings aren’t real, or don’t matter. Anyone can be a victim of bigotry — individual acts of meanness or mistreatment due to one’s identity or a trait over which one has no control. Any incidence of bigotry, bullying, or mistreatment should be met with a swift response, and adequate repair. 

But individual incidences of bigotry don’t necessarily indicate oppression. Hurt feelings are not equal to hurt lives and livelihoods. Feeling miserable or not feeling privileged or powerful doesn’t automatically mean one isn’t also receiving disproportionately more access to resources and opportunities than others.

The idea that feelings don’t necessarily indicate oppression also does not mean that broader DEI efforts should not take people’s feelings into account during assessment and planning. Leaders at all organizational levels should regularly ask about, listen to, and respond appropriately to employees’ feelings and opinions — not just during the annual satisfaction survey or monthly staff meeting. 

Also, people’s feelings can indicate the existence of oppression — witness the many civil rights protests, speeches, writing, art, and organizing over the past six decades. The feelings expressed there were (are) absolutely shining a spotlight on inequitable access to resources and opportunities, and unjust barriers to healthy lives and livelihoods.

However, feelings should not be the sole focus of DEI, nor be allowed to derail the ultimate goal of ending oppression and co-creating equity. Leaders must develop their own resilience and emotional intelligence to avoid being swayed so quickly and violently by people’s opinions. Leadership sometimes requires providing clarity with effective communication, pushing back gently on unfounded perceptions with data, and saying “no” while also demonstrating curiosity and care.

Going Beyond Feelings

To be fair, leadership today is immensely challenging in historically unprecedented ways. We’ve created a society where, as our institutions and families have weakened, workplaces are now expected to fulfill emotional and psychological needs they were never designed to meet. 

We’ve created a culture where Yelp reviews, Glassdoor ratings, and Uber stars can make or break a person or business. Cancel culture, omnipresent smartphone cameras, 24-hour online news, and universal access to social media have heightened our anxiety and dramatically skewed us all toward an unhealthy obsession with impression management and people’s opinions.

But if we truly believe, and commit to, the real purpose of DEI, we must go beyond feelings, looks, and knee-jerk reactions. While training-heavy DEI initiatives are popular and sexy, they almost never make any meaningful difference, and just put glitter on sh*t

DEI is not a movie, a restaurant, or a “lifestyle product.” It’s about people’s lives and livelihoods, and creating a world that works better for more of us. People’s feelings and opinions matter, but unsexy data and necessary changes to systems, structures, processes, policies are what actually get the work done. Focus there.