Employees’ lived experiences aren’t obvious from the outside

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Employees’ lived experiences aren’t obvious from the outside

Two key pieces of Momentive research highlight the difference between reality of people of color's experience at work and how it is seen by others.

Colette Des Georges

April 12, 2022 | 5 min read

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As more companies prioritize diversity, we’re starting to see the shape of a more equitable workforce—but there’s still a split between what some people see and others experience. 

It’s always hard to recognize challenges that you aren’t personally experiencing, and in the workplace that often means that the people making key decisions and the people living with the consequences are separated and even statistics, like diversity numbers, might not tell the whole story. DEI requires multiple lenses. 

Two different pieces of Momentive research, taken together, paint an eye-opening picture about how relative experiences can differ—even in the same work environment. 

LeanIn and SurveyMonkey’s 2019 Black Women’s Equal Pay Day research revealed that consistent inequities that create near- and long-term obstacles to Black women’s professional development and successful careers—not just in pay but also in opportunities and influence. Meanwhile, our 2021 DEI disconnect research made it clear exactly how differently leaders perceive that experience.

The data is a good reminder that we can’t make presumptions about other people’s experiences based on impressions and that change goes beyond good hiring.  

How Black employees experience the workplace

It’s well recognized that the people making hiring decisions have a huge influence on company culture and a disproportionate amount of power—but white men are still usually the ones making the decisions. Even with a rising emphasis on diversity, 37%  of white men report involvement in hiring at their company, compared to just 20% of Black women.

The playing field is tilted in other ways, too:

  • Not everyone gets a seat at the table. Our research shows that Black women are half as likely as white women and one-third as likely as white men to report having access to senior leadership in their organizations.

    Employees who engage with senior leadership have myriad advantages at work. They get insight into high-level company strategy, recognition, and a seat at the table. When you’re invisible to top leaders, it’s less likely your successes will be recognized, making it harder to stay motivated. Our research shows that Black women are half as likely as white women and one-third as likely as white men to report having access to senior leadership in their organizations.
  • Training is still not made equally available. One in three white men (33%) and 30% of white women have had access to job or executive leadership training, compared to 19% of Black women.There’s a popular concept that “professional naturals” emerge based on raw talent. But even people with an innate skillset, temperament for management, and or talent for getting things done will still benefit immensely from training. Certain skills simply take time and access to develop, and many employees don’t have the resources to pursue growth opportunities on their own—and nor should they need to. 
  • Mentoring isn’t accessible. Adviser, coach, cheerleader, therapist—a mentor helps you build skills and knowledge in your field, set clear goals and cultivate the discipline to achieve them; keep your focus and maintain perspective; learn from missteps and recognize victories. Mentors also provide invaluable networking support. What do the numbers tell us? White men (31%) and white women (27%) are considerably more likely than Black women (20%) to have had a mentor or sponsor at some point in their career.

How some people think Black employees experience the workplace

It’s been said that privilege is assuming the world works for other people the same way it works for you. Too many leaders and managers think putting a diverse workforce in place means, “mission accomplished” on all things DEI. They assume the same opportunities and paths to professional advancement that worked for them, will automatically open for everyone. Of course, that’s not actually the case, as our DEI disconnect data makes clear.

  • Nearly 50% of Latinx employees have reported feeling pressure to change aspects of their behavior or appearance to fit in at work, while only 30% of white managers believe their diverse employees feel such pressure.
  • Nearly 80% of leaders polled thought diverse employees had professional allies while only 61% of Latinx, 63% of Black, and 62% of multi-racial employees agreed, painting a very different picture.
  • Fewer than 30% of white managers think employees worry about negative repercussions from reporting discrimination but nearly half of Asian employees said they do worry about it.

The bottom line: balancing your demographics isn’t enough. Diversity is a necessary condition for inclusion and equity, but one doesn’t magically, automatically follow the other.

Meaningful change stems from shared understanding

The dissonance between what people of color experience and how leaders might perceive it won’t go away unless we address it. This is a time for honest conversations around potentially tricky topics. Businesses need to ask hard questions and know some of the answers might be tough to hear. 

Business leaders need to open conversations with their employee base and build channels where people feel safe offering clear, authentic feedback. If you do so, make space for nuance and even for ambivalence. DEI is complicated and more than one thing can be true at the same time, even within one person’s experience. And be sure your company gives itself credit for the courage required to undertake this kind of unblinking self-examination!

At Momentive we developed a solution specifically to capture insights about the holistic DEI experience in an organization, enabling leaders to understand life “on the ground”, identify gaps and create accountable action plans. In the spirit of practicing what you preach, we used it to audit our own company culture—and shared it publicly to hold ourselves accountable for change. 

We want to model prioritizing transparency and positive change and want our values to be reflected in the company’s reality. And we feel strongly that these conversations need to be happening everywhere, in workplaces and beyond. We know that equity and inclusion don’t simply materialize once you have the right demographic foundation. They must be cultivated with intention and regularly examined, so that we’re never operating on gut instinct. We have to understand people’s lived experiences if we want to support them.

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