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'It's OK to be different, as long as you act the same'

May 7 2014

When Kenji Yoshino began his first job as a law professor, he was openly gay and wrote about sexual orientation and constitutional rights. One day, a colleague pulled him aside and advised him that he had a much better chance of getting tenure as a “homosexual professional” than as a “professional homosexual.” In other words, it was okay to be gay, as long as his scholarship didn't focus on his own identity.

Yoshino, now Professor of Constitutional Law at NYU, calls this dynamic “covering.” The word, coined by sociologist Erving Goffman, refers to the pressure to hide elements of one’s identity in the background. In other words, individuals are told it is okay to be diverse—as long as they don't flaunt it. Yoshino's transition from understanding to action came through a collaboration with Christie Smith, Managing Principal of Deloitte University's Leadership Center for Inclusion. Together, they developed a framework of “uncovering” to help workplaces lift the burden of covering. 

The pair will present their ideas to Stanford at a May 21 event celebrating the launch of the Clayman Institute’s Center for the Advancement of Women’s Leadership. In addition to the keynote presentation, a panel that includes Christine Min Wotpika, Jose David Salvidar, and Phyllis Stewart Pires will address about how the concept of covering applies to a university environment—where for example, a student might avoid mentioning that he or she comes from a low-income family, or a woman in a heavily male department might avoid advocating for other women in order to fit in with her colleagues. 

“People were simply exhausted” by covering

Smith first heard Yoshino talk about his book, Covering: The Hidden Assault on our Civil Rights. Eight years after its initial publication, Covering is still among Amazon’s top 20 most popular civil rights books. Part legal analysis, part sociology, and part memoir, Yoshino’s book argues that workplaces subtly encourage covering from their employees: he found African-Americans fired not for their race but for wearing cornrows, women fired not for their gender but for acting “too feminine.” Covering is exhausting and isolating, delaying marginalized groups’ progress toward equality.

By the end of his book, Yoshino was quite discouraged. The law, he found, is too blunt an instrument to deal with most covering demands. Then, his discussions with Smith led to the development of a different solution to covering: building inclusive organizations and cultures. As a result of this work, Smith and Yoshino created a program called Uncovering Talent—an approach they discuss in a new Voice & Influence video from the Clayman Institute. 

Together, they ran a study across seven industries to examine the extent to which people downplay facets of their identity at work, and to assess the consequences. They considered four types of covering: Appearance (for example, downplaying one’s age by dying one’s hair), Affiliation (avoiding behaviors associated with one’s group, as in parents trying not to leave work early for children’s sporting events), Advocacy (not openly advancing the interests of one’s group), and Association (not associating with others in one’s group).

The Deloitte study found that “people were simply exhausted by having to hide some element of themselves,” Smith says. Indeed, 61% of all respondents reported covering in some way. The percentage was higher for many historically marginalized groups: 83% of LGBT individuals, 79% of African Americans, and 66% of women reported covering.  However, 45% of white men also reported covering, such as a father who couldn’t attend a child’s soccer game or a man with ADD.

Working toward inclusivity

How do we change the climate around covering, whether in an academic environment or at work? Smith and Yoshino urge every institution to investigate who feels they have to cover and why. They also suggest leading by example. At Deloitte, company leaders released short videos in which they told vulnerable personal stories.   

When institutions portray diversity as one of their core values, explains Yoshino, it doesn't make sense for people to feel obliged to downplay their responsibilities as parents, their sexual orientation, gender, age, race, or ethnicity. Besides, we are actually “more powerful when we are authentically ourselves.”

A conversation about covering can be an opportunity for an institution to articulate its values, as well as to make sure these values are made real for employees or students.

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