Fear of Being Different Stifles Talent

Fear of Being Different Stifles Talent

by Kenji Yoshino and Christie Smith

Diversity is a near-universal value in corporate America, but the upper tiers of management remain stubbornly homogeneous. Consider Fortune 500 CEOs: Only 23 are female, just six are black, and none are openly gay. Why so few gains at the top? We believe that one factor is a phenomenon sociologists call “covering,” whereby people downplay their differences from the mainstream. Someone with a disability might forgo her cane at work, say, while a gay man might avoid using “he” or “him” if asked about his partner. Such behavior is driven not just by self-censorship or internalized biases but also by pressure from managers. It decreases employees’ confidence and engagement and, we think, holds women and minorities back.

We reached these conclusions after surveying some 3,000 employees in more than 20 large U.S. firms. Our subjects represented a mix of ages, genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and levels of seniority. Their companies spanned 10 industries, but all had a stated emphasis on inclusiveness. Yet 61% of the workers surveyed said they had faced overt or implicit pressure to cover in some way. For instance, one woman had been coached not to mention day care pickup or other family responsibilities, lest she incur a “motherhood penalty.” Another respondent observed that she made a concerted effort not to be seen around other African-American professionals to avoid the labels she’d seen placed on peers.

Blending into the Crowd

Of the employees who reported feeling pressure to mute some aspect of their identities, 66% said that it significantly undermined their sense of self. Fifty-one percent said that perceived demands for covering from leadership affected their view of opportunities within the organization, and 50% indicated that they diminished their sense of commitment. And although covering was more prevalent among traditionally underrepresented groups, including gays (83%), blacks (79%), women (66%), Hispanics (63%), and Asians (61%), we found a surprising incidence among straight white men, 45% of whom told us that they downplayed characteristics such as age, physical disabilities, and mental health issues.

Managers striving to develop a truly diverse set of leaders should recognize the fallout of even unspoken demands to conform and work to eliminate them. Just as important, they should look for opportunities to model a more authentic, inclusive culture by “uncovering” themselves.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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