Being the ‘Other’: How Othering Holds Women of Color Back

African-American Woman with computerBy Tina Vasquez, Managing Editor

Contrary to commonly held stereotypes, women who feel racially/ethnically different are not less qualified to lead. According to Catalyst’s latest report, Feeling Different: Being the “Other” in US Workplaces, which is based on data from high-potential women and men who have MBA degrees, differences in experience, such as the time since they received their degrees, do not explain the gaps in rank that exist between women who feel racially/ethnically different and those who did not or between these women and men who felt different. It appears as if a great source of these gaps is something called “otherness.”

Feeling Different & Being Excluded
As defined by Catalyst, otherness is about being different or having characteristics that set you apart from the dominant group or groups in a given context. Those who feel like an “other” not only feel different, but also feel separated from the essential aspects of a group. The issue is that when women of color, or anyone who feels in the minority in the workplace, do not experience belonging in a group, they may consequently be excluded.

Don’t be mistaken: This isn’t just about “feelings” or being excluded from after-work drinks – though exclusion from informal networks can be a concern. Othering translates into a serious problem for women of color wanting to get ahead and for companies who need diversity to compete on the global stage. The report states:

“Those who experience otherness in the workplace are by definition not part of the dominant power structure at the top of a company. Many people believe that their lack of advancement is a result of a lack of insider knowledge or training—for instance, not knowing that they should seek out mentors within their company or that a lack of visible projects can hold them back. Our findings, however, suggest that it is not lack of knowledge, but rather lack of access, that impedes the advancement of those who feel different from the majority in their workgroup.”

According to Catalyst’s report, women who felt racially/ethnically different were the least likely to be at the senior executive/CEO level (10 percent) compared to men who felt different (19 percent) and those who did not feel different (16 percent women; 25 percent men). Of women who felt racially/ethnically different, 48.2 percent had received two or more promotions. In contrast, 51.4 percent of men who felt racially/ethnically different had received two or more promotions as had 55.6 percent of women and 58.4 percent of men who did not feel racially/ethnically different.

In other words, those with multiple dimensions of otherness (e.g. women of color) are positioned at lower levels of companies. Gender and race/ethnicity are two common bases on which you can feel like the “other.” Catalyst research found that women—“others” in a predominantly male-led workforce—“are impeded in their advancement through the business world and women who are also set apart by their racial/ethnic identities often fare even worse.”

For example, of those with mentors, women who felt racially/ethnically different were less likely to have senior-level mentors than any other group. Only 58 percent of women who felt racially/ethnically different had mentors who were CEOs or Senior Executives, as compared to 71 percent of women who did not feel different, 72 percent of men who did feel different, and 77 percent of men who did not feel different.

Downsizing Aspirations
The consequences of being excluded extend far beyond a woman’s job. Catalyst found that after years of being passed over for “hot jobs” that propel high potentials’ careers ahead further and faster or career-changing sponsorship/mentorship opportunities, many women began to downsize their aspirations. Alixandra Pollack, a Senior Associate of Research at Catalyst and one of the co-authors of the report, says this downsizing is a “huge loss.”

“If you’re not comfortable being your whole self and you’re consistently missing out on opportunities to move your career forward, you’re not going to be empowered to contribute your best work, and may even walk away from the company. This is a big missed opportunity for companies, causing them to lose talent and miss out on the diversity of thought they need to be successful,” Pollack said.

Jennifer Thorpe-Moscon, Catalyst’s Director of Research and co-author of the report, says it’s important to note that anyone can feel othered; it’s not limited to any one demographic and it widely depends on the makeup of the company. The fact that this is relevant to every person will hopefully make companies pay attention.

“This can happen with any business and the end result is always the same: a loss of talent that is often badly needed,” Thorpe-Moscon said. “In the same vein, this is a topic that can be addressed by anyone, and companies can address this head-on.”

What Companies Can Do
To ensure that every high-potential employee has access to high-level sponsors, Catalyst recommends helping all employees cast a wide net to bolster their networks and providing multiple ways of gaining mentors and sponsors, such as one-on-one mentoring as well as group mentoring settings.

The organization also says it’s crucial for key decision-makers within a company to be aware that women who feel different from their workgroups based on race/ethnicity may have less access to critical development opportunities. Metrics need to be put in place to track who gets access to these important opportunities. Key decision-makers must also hold employees accountable for ensuring all high potentials get equal access to the career-accelerating hot jobs.

“It’s about being accountable,” Thorpe-Moscon said. “Conversations need to be had about who is getting opportunities and why. Senior executives need to take a look at who they’re sponsoring. Do all of the people they’re sponsoring look like them? If so, these conversations really need to happen.”