Is it even worth it for me anymore? Has anything changed? These are questions DEI practitioner Kellie Wagner is hearing from many women she works with at her modern DEI lab, Collective. Women, and in particular women of color, daily navigate intersectional bias, microaggressions and a sense that the modern workplace is not always psychologically safe. As women recoup the jobs they lost or left during Covid, many are worried that the push for DEI wasn’t enough to have effected lasting change. In this Q&A with Built In’s Tiffany Meyers, Wagner shares her perspective on the progress that’s yet to be made, as well as the idea she holds to hang on to hope for the future.
Wagner also contributed to our special report, Creating Equity For Women At Work.
TIFFANY MEYERS: In the work you do, are you hearing from women that they want to return to corporate America or in-office work?
KELLIE WAGNER: The women we work with who stayed in the workforce went remote. Yes, there was the stress of managing work as well as their children’s remote learning. But at the same time, it was a reprieve from the daily microaggressions they faced day in and day out in an office. Now, as offices are beginning to reopen, people are saying: I’m still experiencing it — maybe to a lesser degree because of Zoom, but I’m experiencing it. We went through this whole racial justice movement — or burst of energy between 2020 and today. Here we are in 2023, and, for a lot of people, it seems nothing has really changed. People are fearful about going back because they don’t actually feel things will be any different. So a lot of women are saying: That was pretty traumatizing. And harmful. Is it even worth it for me anymore?
TM: Obviously, those microaggressions don’t stop just because people are talking through a laptop screen. But there is a kind of a buffer — a physical buffer — from some of those implicit and explicit forms of aggression.
KW: Yes, there’s a physical buffer from the screen, but there’s another component: If you think about the places where those microaggressions occur, they tend to happen in passing — in socializing situations and between meetings. So with remote work, we remove that. Yes, these things still happen on Zoom, but you’re cutting out parts of the day when you were most likely to have experienced these microaggressions.
TM: Can you talk about the toll it takes on people when microaggressions are transgressed against them as part of everyday life?
KW: There are some pretty core universal desires, right above food and shelter. Once those things are secured for people, we need to live a life with dignity and be seen in our full and inherent value as human beings. When that’s stripped down, little by little, it’s painful.
In some ways, I think the breaking point hits harder with microaggressions. If someone called you the N word, people would say, “That’s unacceptable.” Because microaggressions are so-called ‘little things,’ people can say: “Oh, that person didn’t mean it that way.” Or “I think you’re taking it too personally.” “Are you sure that was about race?” Until you even start questioning yourself: “Am I making too much of this?”
Not only are women experiencing microaggressions, they’re often having them minimized and denied. So they’re in a place between defending their reaction and starting to question themselves. When you start to break it down that way, it makes a lot of sense that people are saying: Is this even worth it for me anymore?
TM: Some companies assume that women of color will pick up the task of leading DEI efforts. It’s work that contributes to the health of a company, and yet, it’s often not paid and it’s often unpromotable.
KW: That’s a key point. That it’s unpromotable and unpaid. We have to think about how women, specifically women of color, are disadvantaged because they’re doing work that’s seen as valuable enough for them to volunteer for but not valuable enough to move them into leadership or be compensated. From a moral standpoint, it’s really discouraging. From a bandwidth and sustainability standpoint, it just amplifies and accelerates the burnout for women of color.
TM: Per the NWLC, a lack of affordable child care has made it difficult for Black women to re-enter the labor force: Nearly 30% of Black women who are unemployed have been out of work for six months or longer.
KW: Those stats are not surprising because of all of the factors Black women have stacked against them. There are layers of bias. Black women are fighting against racial bias. They are up against gender bias. Race and socioeconomic background and class intersect and overlap in this country. And they compound. In terms of the push for diversity, the reality is that we are hard wired — and we have to fight very hard against that hard wiring — to want to work with people who are similar to us.
Even for people who are thinking about adding diversity, you’re going to see preferential treatment for white women over women of color and for Black men over Black women. The majority of decision makers in the workforce are white men. For white men, there’s still the connection to a Black man as a man. There’s still that connection of whiteness between a white woman and a white man. Black women are one of the most disadvantaged groups in the workforce because they’re probably the furthest from the white men who tend to be in the most senior positions.
TM: One tactic we know companies deploy for interrupting bias is the use of blind resumes, which are scrubbed of identifying factors — like names and extracurriculars — so that part of a candidate’s identity can’t be used as a reason to discriminate. There’s a host of research showing this kind of bias is alive and well. What are your thoughts here?
KW: To me, blind resumes are a Band-Aid but not a solution. I use the analogy of someone bleeding out. You need to bandage up that injury. But if all you do is bandage something — without cleaning out the wound, and without really healing the wound — then you’re just kicking the can further down the road. Removing names and extracurriculars certainly can help get folks forward in the interview process. But that person is going to show up to the interview. So if the interviewer still has that bias, it’s going to impact the candidate still. It’ll just be slightly further down the line.
We also have to think about what it says to the person who is being hired. It says their identity is a problem. It says that, if the folks they’re potentially going to work with knew their identity, they may not want to hire them. That’s a problem. That doesn’t set a strong foundation for a culture of inclusion, which ultimately, is what we’re all looking for.
TM: At Built In, we released our annual State of DEI in Tech. One finding is that 30% of companies say DEI is not at all vital to the overall success of the company. Does that reflect what you’re seeing?
KW: There are a couple of things at play. A lot of leaders invested in DEI work on the backs of societal and moral pressure, whether it was from their employees or consumers. There was an urgency in 2020. A lot of folks came to us saying: I want to understand how and why this is important to my people. The challenge with that is this work is long term, and it’s hard. And you need a north star vision that’s clear on what it’s going to do for your business and for your culture. When the work is hard, and you don’t see the results as quickly as you want, it’s very easy to divest. You don’t even know yourself why you’re doing the work beyond: “I felt pressure in a given moment.”
Where I do empathize with companies and leaders is that they’re operating in an environment that isn’t conducive to DEI being successful. Investors and stakeholders want maximum returns. There is immense pressure for these companies to be as profitable as possible. And DEI is not the type of thing you can do overnight. It’s a long-term investment.
TM: When you were a guest on Built In’s podcast a few years back, we posed this question to you as so many companies were starting to focus on DEI: Are we in a moment or are we in a movement? And you said you thought we were in a movement. So, when I hear you speak now, I have to wonder: Would you change your answer to that question now?
KW: I think I actually remember that question. And I think I said: I am cautiously optimistic that we are in a movement. I don’t think that you can do DEI work for any extended period of time and not be an optimist. It would just be too much of a burden. But what I will say — and this is my biggest fear, to be fully transparent: I’m seeing DEI practitioners leave the space because it feels like screaming at a brick wall. We’re telling you all the things you need to do but you’re not willing to invest in a way that will make change.
So for a lot of practitioners, as companies continue to divest from their DEI budgets, I do think this has started to feel like a moment. But I will say, the arc of humanity swings in the right direction.
For me, I find hope in the future generations. We’re seeing younger workers come in with different expectations for better workplaces. And in order for companies to get the workers they need, they’re going to have to make these shifts. The question is: Is it going to be a painful transition or will leaders enthusiastically come along for the ride?
Find Kellie’s consultancy at Hello-Collective.com and via LinkedIn.