Recovering Ourselves: The Secret to True Diversity at Work

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is upon us, and disguise is on my mind.

Let me explain. I’ve been mulling over the concept of “covering”—a word that is new to me in this context but has apparently been around since 1963, when it was coined by sociologist Erving Goffman. “Covering” refers to the practice of hiding or ignoring some aspect of one’s authentic self—even when this aspect is, technically, not a secret. The example Goffman gave (according to my secondary source, an excellent post by journalist Annie Murphy Paul), was of FDR, who would apparently always make sure to be seated when members of his Cabinet entered the room. Of course the Cabinet members knew he used a wheelchair. But he chose not to remind them of the fact.

This meaning of covering was taken up more recently by Kenji Yoshino and Christie Smith, in a report published by Deloitte University Leadership Center for
. In an assessment that confirms what many of us have noticed anecdotally, Smith and Yoshino revealed the prevalence of covering in the workplace, finding that employees today cover in ways that include modifying the way they look, dress, behave, talk and more. I learned about it, in turn, from an excellent break-out session, led by Dr. Vanessa Weaver, at the fall Working Mother Work-Life Congress. (Weaver, a diversity consultant, was in full Venetian Carnival-style costume when she came out to introduce the topic!)

Paul does such an excellent job of explaining this that I’ll just let the link speak for itself. But I’m personally happy to have discovered this research because it puts some factual muscle behind an intuitive corollary I’ve been saying for years: Allowing employees to bring their whole selves to the workplace benefits everyone involved. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s impossible to have true inclusion where covering is the norm.

Here are some of the many benefits of uncovering:

  • It’s practical. It means you can schedule your child’s doctor’s appointments from your desk, because everyone knows you’re a dad.
  • It’s way less stressful. You can chat with co-workers about your weekend. You can put a picture of your girlfriend on your desk—even if you’re a woman. Less stress means better health, and that’s better for everyone.
  • It gives you permission and authority (the authority of being a member of a group or class) to address harassment and bigotry head-on.
  • It spreads tolerance, and gives others permission to bring their authentic selves to the workplace.
  • It sends a message: think how many men might feel they have permission to take paternity leave, once the boss openly does it.
  • It opens communication and shines a light on what kinds of programs and policies employees might really need in order to be supported.
  • It undoubtedly promotes productivity: no one is wasting time and emotional energy on hiding.
  • It makes “diversity and inclusion” a meaningful goal. The whole point of diversity and inclusion, from the employer’s standpoint, is to bring new perspectives. But if individuals feel a need to mask the details of their diversity, how included are they, and how much perspective can they really bring?

Women more than men
During Weaver’s break-out session at the Work-Life Congress it struck me how women, in particular, are so often expected to cover. Although there is no doubt that many men (all men, I guess, if you believe Yoshino that everyone covers) at least sometimes have to hide or tone down their identities at work, I firmly believe this is still more of a problem for women.

In the 1970s and 80s, when women were first entering the modern workforce in great numbers, they were encouraged to wear clothes that were a blatant imitation of men’s business attire. It was a weird kind of play-acting, sending the message, work is for men—you can join but only if you make yourself seem as much like a man as possible. (The whole concept of “Dress for Success”—which was the title of two popular manuals published in 1975 and 1979—one for men and one for women—is based on the idea that clothes represent a kind of disguise—this article on the topic even refers to Goffman’s research.)

While the female “power suit” is thankfully a thing of the past, most women today continue to feel they must make more careful wardrobe choices than men, to ensure no one takes them for sexual beings (heaven forbid), and often to stave off the sort of bias that men rarely have to contend with. And some women, especially non-white, non-heterosexual women (as well as men) have to make choices about other sorts of covering.

A woman in our break-out session talked about the condescending and bigoted comments a male co-worker made one day when she opted to skip her usual morning ritual of blow-drying her hair straight, showing up at work up with her natural Latina curls. A few years ago, the U.S. military caused a stir when it issued new rules for women’s hairstyles which blithely ignored the realities of black women’s hair. (After a tremendous, outraged response, the regulations were rescinded.) I’ve known women who have been told to cut their hair short to look more professional, and I’m pretty certain there are some Muslim women today who might normally wear a headscarf, but are just now choosing not to wear one to work.

So during this time when the U.S. seems more divided than ever on questions of race, religion, immigration and so many other aspects of diversity, let’s add this to the mix: diversity at the workplace is about much more than numbers, it’s about letting people recover (i.e., un-cover) their true identities.

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  1. Beth Estrine says

    Spot on, Robin. However, from my perspective, it can take almost a lifetime to recover one’s self. The desire to uncover or go public is in relation to the meaning for the individual of what is covered, and the degree of shame, too, Also in relation to covering, I would imagine, is the type of authority the boss displays at the workplace. Ideally, this should be low keyed. I too think that relaxed people tend to be creative and productive in the workplace. I admire your efforts. Great article.

  2. Thanks, Beth. The authority of the boss in the workplace is precisely my point–its the boss’s and the organization’s responsibility to create a culture where employees feel comfortable being themselves. Employees may take on a huge risk if they “uncover” in a hostile environment, and I wouldn’t suggest anyone do that without careful thought.

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