Historically, the ideas of desegregation, non-segregation, and anti-segregation – essentially the ideals of inclusion – are relatively new in American society. Growing out of the foundations of genocide and slavery, the practice of inclusion is still finding itself in a modern, diverse America. Recent initiatives in the corporate space have made some progress towards diversifying workforces by recruiting and retaining more numbers of underrepresented groups in our society. However, increasing diversity numbers is only a small part of what is necessary and sufficient to make inclusion a normative practice across life.
While there are distant ideals of inclusion, we are not making much progress towards it because organizational actions haven’t addressed the very real issues of segregation that create roadblocks in inclusion for many people. The detrimental effects of segregation on the Self will be discussed in a future post. For now, I want to focus on what I mean by segregation the context of the American workforce, and how it manifests in potentially harmful ways.
Segregation is automatic, and often, unconscious.
Segregation is the intentional separation and classification of objects based on visible markers or perceived traits. On its own, it lacks any value. We classify and sort because our brains are wired to do so. It is the easiest and least energy consuming way to make sense of the endless stream of information we receive through our senses. Most of the time, this processing happens automatically in the span of a few nanoseconds, outside of our realm of conscious thought. Evolutionarily, this has allowed us to rapidly distinguish daytime from night, friend from foe, apples from oranges, and, squares from circles.
We see profound evidence of the automatic nature of segregation when we observe toddlers at play. Young children love to sort objects whether by type, size, color, shape, or some other factors. Toddlers enjoy creating order from the seeming chaos in life, by separating things according to similarities and differences. This is how we learn basic concepts of object classification and permanence. It is also how we learn to describe, compare and contrast – to think analytically.
As we get older, this process becomes laden with prejudices – subjective feedback we get from our life experiences. This feedback over time influences our value system. Using this value system, we try to clean, sort, organize, and purge segments of our lives to increase order and efficiency. It is exactly when we impose subjective judgments and values on the way we perceive other people that we run into problems. When we let our assumptions and judgments negatively affect our behaviors towards others, we start developing habits that oppose growth and inclusion.
Segregation creates obstacles against growth.
The automatic classification mechanism that has been built into us for survival also leads to behaviors that are not inclusive. People use segregation to not only classify people into groups, but also to define our boundaries with those who are not like us. Our comfort levels impact who we interact with, whether we include others and self or not, and, whether we oppress or harm others or ourselves from being successful.
We practice segregation in the neighborhoods we live in, our local communities, the friends we make, the people we decide to network with, the causes we donate to, those we choose to work with, and, the individuals we choose to recognize, promote, and applaud. It makes sense that we gravitate towards like-minded individuals – “our people” – with similar looks, values and outlooks as ourselves. We naturally and automatically seek out those who we think are like us, precisely because they might be like us and might understand our journey. We crave connections whether through surface characteristics such as looks, or in deeper personality traits that address the core of the Self. Finding similar people makes us feel safer, better, and lulls us into comfortable states of mind.
It is one of the easiest ways to find a sense of security especially in high-stress work environments. But, clinging to this comfort too much also creates limiting beliefs that increase segregation and the exclusion of all others who aren’t like us. In only seeking the familiarity of the similar, we exclude valid and potentially valuable and diverse learning experiences just because they are different. We pigeonhole others and ourselves, most often without even realizing that we are creating potent obstacles against inclusion.
Segregation in Workspaces
When we think about the people we interact with in our adult, professional lives and how we behave, we start to see segregation’s impact against inclusion in workspaces, even after all the diversity and inclusion seminars and bias trainings that are out in the market right now (more on why some of these initiatives aren’t sustainable in a future post). This is because the social structures that modern American workspaces are built upon perpetuate segregation by not implementing initiatives that directly counter it. There are several ways – some obvious, others, not – in which we separate and exclude, whether we realize it or not.
- Segregation of “work” and “life” is a common practice.
Most of us are aware that we spend anywhere between one-third to one-half of our lives involved in our work and careers. Yet, we are so adamant about keeping this area of our lives separate from what we consider to be personal and “real life”, to a large extent because many of us don’t feel completely safe or included enough in workspaces to show vulnerability. To this end, many of us have “work friends” and “friends”. Work friends may not be privy to our lives in several ways that regular friends are.
We make this distinction very clear to ourselves and others, and we strive to keep these areas of our lives as separate as possible. Often, we tell ourselves that we have to restrain our words, hide our authentic thoughts and aim for political correctness, as inauthentic as it may feel, in order to succeed professionally. We justify our behaviors by telling ourselves that having a career and a stable income is more important than almost anything else including our personal growth.
But, the undeniable reality is that work is a part of life, and life is a part of work, and we are at a point where the two can’t be fully separated. There are many lessons we learn in our personal lives that carry over to our work and vice versa. Our sense of self, purpose in life, and our identities and personas are deeply intertwined with our jobs and careers that take up more and more of our time and energy. We need the connection between work and life to be strong, so that we can create more meaning in how we spend our lives. But, we continue to insist on the separation of these two spheres.
- Segregation between workers is an observable phenomenon.
This includes, but is not limited to employees who tend to gravitate to work groups based on their perceptions of shared backgrounds, language or heritage. The desire to practice and express personal culture in otherwise unfamiliar environments is compelling in its level of comfort, especially when we consider the transitions and adjustments needed to acclimate to the current corporate culture and job market in the United States. The need to seek out and belong to a group that is similar to us boils down to survival, and physical, mental and cultural safety.
However, in limiting our interactions to only those who are like us, especially there are many members in our group, we run into the danger of stifling our growth in very important ways. Creating these types of work groups establishes cliques and internal networks fraught with stereotypes, prejudices and assumptions of similarity. Too much assumption or too much similarity hurts diversity of thought and increases groupthink (more on this in a future post). The visibility of such groups also sends clear signals, especially to leaders and leadership teams, that segregation and exclusion are tolerated, and perhaps, even expected by the employees in these groups.
- Segregation between employees and leadership is a real trend.
Just as workers may separate themselves, many existing organizational structures and hierarchies also segregate employees from leadership in ways that exclude employees from having access to the full breadth of growth opportunities available. The impetus behind having organizational hierarchies is to maximize operational efficiency and to clearly define responsibilities, especially among leaders. However, when unchecked, the power differences in these hierarchies increase segregation. Employees and leadership are significantly segregated along racial and gender lines, but there are also the smaller things such as separate, inaccessible lunch spaces for executives, or other perks that are unnecessarily divisive.
Segregation even happens directly within the diversity, inclusion and leadership space when trainings are ineffective in fulfilling their objectives of increased diversity and inclusion by failing to include everyone in them. When everyone is expected to buy in to a company wide standard of diversity and inclusion, but there are no comprehensive, system wide trainings that build participation and engagement across all levels, the power and potential of inclusion in that space are drastically affected. The organizational hierarchies that exist for the purpose of creating defined roles turn into tools of segregation.
While there are other forms and examples of segregation that happen in workspaces, these examples show some ways in which segregation is manifested in the course of everyday operations in the work environment. Long-term unhindered practice of this kind of separation drastically stunts people’s growth, and it definitely gets in the way of greater societal progress toward inclusion. One could argue that the corporate world has no part to play in proactively counteracting the segregation that has been built into society. Personally, I think that employers have an important role to play as drivers for inclusion in all spheres of life. But, more on that in a future post!