Three questions with Adia Harvey Wingfield on building a more inclusive workplace

In 10th grade, Adia Harvey Wingfield took her first sociology course. “It changed my life,” she says. “It really spoke to me and had a real impact on how I thought about a lot of things.” She also was interested in the dynamics of race that she saw playing out as she grew up in 1980s post–civil rights North Carolina. “My schools were integrated in a way that was reflected in many Southern states’ wrestling with how they wanted to integrate and what they wanted that to look like,” she says.

Wingfield then attended Spelman College, the historically black college for women in Atlanta, before going to graduate school at Johns Hopkins University. There she took a Women and Work seminar, and “my focus on issues related to work and professional work in particular really crystallized,” she recalls. “That was the equivalent of my 10th-grade sociology class, where once I took it, I felt like things fell into place.”

Now, Wingfield’s research focuses on the intersection of race, work and sociology. In addition to writing regularly about such matters for The Atlantic, she also has written numerous scholarly articles and books, including Doing Business with Beauty: Black Women, Hair Salons, and the Racial Enclave Economy, about black-female hair salon owners; Changing Times for Black Professionals, a study of the challenges, issues and obstacles facing black professionals in the United States; and No More Invisible Man: Race and Gender in Men’s Work, about the impact working in high-profile, white-male–dominated professions has on black men.

Here she talks about ways we can improve diversity and inclusiveness in the workplace.

What can people do to make workplaces more inclusive?

I think there are actually a number of things that people can do to make workplaces more diverse and inclusive. One really important one I think is to be open and mindful and really listen to colleagues who are in the minority in different ways: particularly when they talk about things that may present a noninclusive and unwelcoming environment. I think it’s very important for workplaces to foster an environment and a culture where those who are in the minority feel as though they can speak up about the issues that they face without retribution or sanction.

And you’ve found that diversity training doesn’t help?

That was a finding in a study that I did on the ways that black professional workers manage or share their emotions. One of the things that many respondents told me was that in settings that are actually intended to alleviate and address racial issues, those settings actually can paradoxically have the effect of replicating and recreating the same types of issues that they’re intended to offset. So many respondents talked about being in diversity training and feeling as though those environments were ones where their white colleagues simply got to share all the things that made them uncomfortable about working with people of color, but there were no real commensurate efforts to change the workplace in ways that made [it] more reflective and inclusive for the people of color who worked in those environments.

 Is there anything an individual can do?

I spoke with an engineering professor who talked about being aware of the ways that engineering can be hostile to women at large. And he said that one of the things that he does is when he has to give an example to the class, he’ll say, “Suppose a bike rider wants to stop her bike in the quickest amount of time. What should she do?” Or if he’s giving a test, he’ll say, “This exam will really separate the women from the girls,” instead of saying the men from the boys. And he pointed out that even though there may be 8 women and 40 men in his class, there’s no reason not to frame a question like that, because from his own experience he knows that part of the issue is to feel as though you are part of the equation and not to feel as though you’re being sidelined and marginalized in spaces where you’re in the numerical minority. So I think things like that are small-scale everyday examples of ways that people can be more mindful about how people who are in the numerical minority may not experience the organization or the workplace in the same ways as those who are in the majority group.


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