Last fall, we began a conversation on an episode of HBR’s “Women at Work” podcast about an important, though difficult, topic: how to forge deep and meaningful relationships at work between women of varying races or ethnicities, with the goal of collective advancement in the workplace. This idea of shared sisterhood “allows us to share struggles together, realize that we’re not alone, that the pain we’re going through is something bigger than us,” said one of us (Dr. Tina Opie). It involves designing strategies, dismantling structures that prevent advancement, or even just offering mutual support so everyone can cope together.
But there’s still a lot we don’t know about what might precipitate these relationships in the workplace. And we don’t have a fully clear picture of what shared sisterhood actually looks like. Who, exactly, is involved? How do we know when it’s working? Shared sisterhood could involve a meaningful experience between two women within an organization. It could reflect a broader organizational commitment around inclusiveness and diversity. Or maybe it involves an interplay between the two. We decided to analyze these possibilities.
Understanding High-Quality Connections and Inclusive Workplaces
The first step in our analysis involved reviewing what we know about how people build connections and community at work through each of these lenses.
The first is individual relationships. High-quality connections, as defined by scholars Jane Dutton and Emily Heaphy, are relationships where people are safe to express and display emotions; where people can withstand conflict or strain; and where people can be creative and get work done. These researchers, along with John Paul Stephens, also argue that these connections are usually born out of short-term, positive interactions between two people. They can transform how people experience work because they encourage respectful engagement that can empower employees, affirm their identities, and affirm their competence.
Second is the organizational level. Inclusive climates are defined as those that have fairly implemented employment practices, proactively integrated the identities of employees, and promoted inclusion and participation in decision-making. These climates have been shown to reduce interpersonal conflict that can occur from demographic difference and to make turnover from that conflict less likely to occur.
And yet the research on inclusive and diverse work climates has often overlooked their ability to generate positive, high-quality outcomes, such as innovative solutions or increased feelings of solidarity and support from diversity. The latter is the primary focus of our shared sisterhood research, which we’re undertaking with the help of HBR readers.
Last fall, we asked a series of questions using a broad survey of the HBR readership. We looked at readers’ opinions on both individual and organizational elements of inclusion at their workplaces.
On the individual side, we asked questions about whether people could be vulnerable, emotionally, with their coworkers, a construct called “emotional carrying capacity.” Example questions included: “I can fully express my emotions to my coworkers,” and “When I talk about my emotions with my coworkers, I feel like it is constructive.” We wanted to know whether women trust their coworkers with their emotional vulnerability. This, we hypothesized, could be the individual precursor to being able to build a shared sisterhood community.
We also looked at whether the answers to the following questions could lead to women of different races perceiving their coworkers as emotionally available. This, we hypothesized, could be the organizational precursor to shared sisterhood:
- How much do you believe that your organization promotes an inclusive climate — one that values diverse voices and has fair and open procedures?
- How interdependent is the work that you do? In other words, how much do you depend on other people at work to do your job?
- How much do you trust your organization to do right by you?
- How competitive is your work environment?
- How large is your work group?
- How large is your company?
- Are you at a director or higher level in your organization?
We had 778 women from across the country respond (and many from outside the U.S. as well), ranging in age from 19-71 (average age of 42 years). Within the U.S. sample, respondents self-identified as white (76%; N=620), about 5% black (N=41), 4% Asian (N=32), 5% Hispanic (N=41), and 3% Multiple races (N=24). Most (83%) worked between 31-50 hours per week and had been in their field for more than five years (79%). Power analysis suggested that our sample of black and Hispanic respondents were large enough for the comparisons we conduct below.
Generally speaking, we found that both individual connections and inclusive climates are good for the promotion of emotional vulnerability. However, we saw some interesting results when we broke this finding down based on the race and ethnicity of respondents. When personal success or performance is dependent upon coworkers, who is more or less likely to be vulnerable?
For black women in more interdependent jobs, that is, jobs that require more interactions with others to get their work done, inclusive climates led to lower levels of emotional vulnerability. This indicates that, though having an inclusive climate was overall a good thing for all women, the more that black women’s job execution depended on others, the less emotionally vulnerable black women were willing to be. This suggests that an inclusive climate alone may be insufficient to foster black women’s high-quality connections with coworkers. Importantly, a similar pattern emerged for Hispanic women.
We furthered this analysis by directly comparing the experiences of White and black women. We found that inclusive climates help black women feel supported most often when their work is independent. That is, inclusive climates are good and important, but are more effective when black women do not have to rely on their coworkers too much in the course of their day-to-day job performance.