Contents: UU World May/June 2002
Contents: May/June 2002

Making a difference and understanding difference in the workplace

by Rosemary Bray McNatt

How much difference does difference make? In the wake of faith-based terrorism both here and abroad, the immediate answer is: quite a bit. But we religious liberals cannot be satisfied with the obvious evidence of intolerance in our world. For we are the people called to live in hope. Two recent books, both written by researchers in the unlikely world of business and commerce and published by a prominent business press, focus on human differences not simply as challenges to be overcome, but as opportunities to be sought. In the struggles they've recorded in the area of work and wholeness, these authors derive insight with a surprising relevance for those of us in the pulpit and the pew as we pursue the never-ending work of creating beloved community.

 Tempered Radicals
Tempered Radicals: How People Use Difference To Inspire Change at Work. By Debra E. Meyerson. Harvard Business School Press, 2001; $24.95.
In spite of the recent wave of enthusiasm for corporate spirituality and the desire to infuse work with meaning, most people who work for a living feel they have traded their idyllic dreams for the depressing realities of a cubicle at Enron. More than one worker skittish about the post-September 11 economy feels fortunate to be working at all. Indeed, the uncertainty of twenty-first-century life encourages all of us to settle down, to blend in, and to fit.

Yet some brave souls persist in believing in the possibility of integrating the work they do with a life that matters. They hold fast to the dream of being both true to themselves and good at their chosen work. For the past eight years, Debra E. Meyerson, a member of the affiliate faculty at the Center for Gender in Organizations at the Simmons College School of Management, studied more than three hundred people in a variety of corporate workplaces. What the subjects of her study shared was a desire to remain in the corporate culture while attempting to make that culture more hospitable to their values — a desire that makes her examination of these workplace mavericks a subject worthy of the attention of religious liberals.

In her book, Tempered Radicals: How People Use Difference to Inspire Change at Work, Meyerson writes that such radicals "operate on a fault line": They are "insiders who succeed at their jobs," but "they are treated as outsiders because they represent ideals or agendas that are somehow at odds with the dominant culture." These people are not men and women who have defiantly placed themselves outside the system, Meyerson notes. They ask lots of questions of the system, but do not overtly rebel against it. Rather, they are committed to making small, quiet, and gradual changes in keeping with the issues most important to them.

Meyerson relates the story of Tom Novak, an openly gay man who felt he had earned the trust and respect of his coworkers until one afternoon when, visiting a colleague's office, Novak was asked why gay people had to discuss their sexual orientation at the workplace. Novak didn't want to get into a huge fight that would solve nothing, but he noticed a picture on his colleague's desk.

Meyerson quotes Novak as saying, "I pointed to the picture of his wife and children and said, 'Why are you announcing your sexuality? If you go in my office you won't see a photo of me and my partner. It seems that you're the one announcing your sexuality, not me.'" The coworker acknowledged the truth of Novak's statement and responded, "Touché."

Meyerson uses this story as an example of turning personal threat into opportunity, one of five possible strategies that tempered radicals use to put their ideals into practice. Other strategies include: resisting quietly; broadening the impact through negotiation; leveraging small wins; and organizing direct action. She goes to great pains to emphasize that, far from being choices that reflect a worker's specific personality, these strategies are often used by a variety of people and are in fact available to anyone.

Early in the book, Meyerson discusses the complex challenge faced by tempered radicals. She doesn't avoid the obvious question: What differentiates these men and women from hypocrites? Are their subtle actions a screen for those too frightened by the possible loss of privilege to speak directly against injustice? In negotiating the territory between the status quo and their own values, she argues, tempered radicals are in fact negotiating their own ambivalence, pulled as they are between the desire to conform to the norms of an institution that matters to them and the desire to rebel against policies or practices that violate a deeper sense of self. "Tempered radicals set themselves apart by successfully navigating a middle ground," she writes. "They recognize modest and doable choices in between. . . . They also become angry, but they mitigate their anger and use it to fuel their actions."

Meyerson relates this way of working to the ways she believes that organizations truly change — not by massive upheavals or major events, but through the organization's constant adaptation in response to a variety of events. "This view of organizational and social change makes room for lots of people to effect change in the course of their everyday actions and interactions," she writes. "It is an inclusive model that sees people on the margin as well as at the center making a difference in a wide variety of ways. Change agents are not just those characterized by bold visions and strategic savvy, but also those characterized by patience, persistence and resourcefulness."

As our congregations struggle to support the change agents who come to us for sustenance and renewal, and as our religious communities travel their own paths of institutional change, Tempered Radicals contains wise words and potent examples for the days ahead.

 Our Separate Ways
Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity. By Ella L.J. Edmondson Bell and Stella M. Nkomo. Harvard Business School Press, 2001; $29.95.
There are several ever-present ripples of displeasure that come with doing anti-oppression work of any kind, but one that we rarely acknowledge is a curious competition in which one "-ism" tops another in levels of seriousness or concern. In our own religious movement, for example, the tension between racism and sexism is one such whispered issue, but it is hardly an issue confined to Unitarian Universalists. (On a personal note, though, it is an issue dear to the heart of this reviewer.) In Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity, Ella Bell and Stella Nkomo have gathered eight years of data about the lives and work of African-American and white women in corporate America. Their findings provide some fascinating explanations for the tension between black and white women that many of us still experience; their findings hold implications for any of us who seek to work across the boundaries of race, gender, and class.

Bell, a visiting professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, joined with Nkomo, a professor of business leadership at UNISA Graduate School of Business Leadership in South Africa, to conduct in-depth interviews of 120 women managers and executives. The book highlights fourteen of these women — seven white women and seven black women. Bell and Nkomo develop a theoretical framework that takes into account core elements of the women's identity (gender, race, and class). But what they add to the mix is the additional contexts of culture and history — elements all too often overlooked in identity exploration of this kind. This addition allows the reality of African-American women's bicultural experience to be recorded and considered, a reality that has impact on the choices these women make.

In a dozen chapters outlining these women's life stories, work histories, failures, and successes, Bell and Nkomo highlight the differing paths white and black women must travel to make their way through the structures of corporate life. Bell and Nkomo also document the women's responses to a corporate world in which they are largely seen as outsiders. While black women in the study "worked from the understanding that they would never truly fit in," an understanding that "became an energizing force," white women in the study "entered corporations with a certain amount of ingenuousness. Most admitted not being prepared for the corporate cultures they entered and most did not expect to have difficulty fitting in."

Chapter nine is especially instructive about the differences in perception and action on the part of these corporate women. In their larger survey of managerial women, "78 percent of the white women had faith that their companies were truly committed to the advancement of people of color, while only 21 percent of the black women did."

The researchers found that black women adopted a variety of strategies to create change in their companies, but leaned toward externally oriented ways of making a difference. They relate the story of Shawn White, for example, the president of a small record company who has already planned her work as a political change agent: "I see myself funding a school, getting my friends together, forming a network of people who not only raise money but who directly finance the operation of the school. We pay a teacher $65,000 to educate ten black kids. We start from there, start with a teeny-weeny base and expand from there." White women in the study were less likely to make external moves toward change in part because they more often saw themselves as fitting into the corporation.

The most affecting parts of this book may rest in the misunderstandings and misreadings present among these groups of women about the other. Several black women interviewed perceived a tendency by white women to use sexuality as a tool. As Julia Smith told the authors, "I've seen white women use their femininity much more than black women to get promotions. I've seen some white women wear something tight and a little suggestive. They really turn it on in the presence of senior management." What is striking is that the black interviewees perceive this as a source of power unavailable to them.

Black women also tended to view white women as unconscious of racial identity and unable to recognize racial discrimination when they saw it. Thus black women felt abandoned by white women in the workplace about issues crucial to their well-being. Conversely, Bell and Nkomo found that "a majority of white women had no impressions of black women because they had so little interaction with women in the companies where they worked." When white women did have an impression of black women in their workplaces, it was rarely an affirmative one. One interviewee, Linda Butler, said: "I have a black female who works for me and is really good. But what is really hanging her up is that she doesn't trust anyone. She won't open up to anyone. You come here every day. You spend all kinds of time here and you have to develop relationships with people. She sets herself up. She's an island. She doesn't confide in me."

This is not a beach book, and it is not a perfect book. Its focus on black and white women clearly excludes insights that would be gained from the legacy of racism for Latina, Asian, or Native women. But those of us who have made a spiritual commitment to the work of antiracism often find ourselves confused by the kinds of resistance we encounter, particularly among women whose knowledge of sexism might, at least in theory, give them indirect insight into a different kind of oppression. Our Separate Ways gives testimony to the synergistic quality of oppression, and provides a set of tools rarely found elsewhere.

The Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, a UU World contributing editor, is minister of the Fourth Universalist Society in New York City.

 Contents: UU World May/June 2002
UU World XVI:3 (May/June 2002): 57-58

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