Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Women of differing ethnicities can come together to fix the inequities they have in common, such as lower pay, disparity in promotion and incidents of harassment.Getty Images

Despite facing many of the same barriers, women don’t always come together to address inequity in the workplace.

In her book, Shared Sisterhood: How to Take Collective Action for Racial and Gender Equity at Work, Dr. Tina Opie highlights how white women and women of colour rarely work together to fix the inequities they all face even with the commonalities they experience, like lower pay, disparity in promotion and incidents of harassment.

Dr. Opie, an associate professor of management at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., references research by Dr. Ella L. J. Edmondson Bell of Dartmouth College and Dr. Stella M. Nkomo of the University of Pretoria. This research found white women are more likely to be raised in individualist communities where success is based on individual work ethic, while Black women (and, in Dr. Opie’s research, other women of colour) are more likely to be raised in communities of resistance, where they are taught to work hard but to remember the world is not designed for them.

As a result, when women head into the workplace, they look for women who look like them, who they can relate to and who they connect with.

“There’s this completely different understanding of what it even means to be a woman,” says Dr. Opie. “[As a Black woman], I expect to help other women, that’s how I was raised, that’s what I expect to do. But in many Western societies, for white women, that effort towards promotion is individual.”

Carol Agocs, professor of political science at Western University, adds that, “This culture of individualism works so well for white women because they have networks of privilege that they can draw on, and that means they have to realize they have a responsibility.”

Anisha Phillips, lead consultant and strategist at Canadian Equality Consulting in Toronto, notes that the separation between white women and women of colour can go even deeper. “Trust is central, and trust is broken,” she says. “That’s rooted in historical legacies that have present-day manifestations.”

One of the greatest barriers to connection is defensiveness and discomfort in simply acknowledging the issue and facing it head on, says Ms. Phillips.

“Women are so often made to be competitors and seen as needing [their] piece of the pie. There’s this view that there can only be so many of us in male-dominated workplaces,” she says. “But we know that in patriarchal systems … we all lose. So, instead of seeing this work as this zero-sum game, we all need to engage in equity inclusion work.”

She adds, “There is room for all of us, we just don’t always see it.”

How to make it happen

In order to mend divisions and work together, it can help to first gather together, says Ms. Phillips.

She suggests developing a personal advisory board – a loose network of trusted colleagues from whom you can get advice in all areas of work and life. This can begin with friends from outside the workplace and then evolve into something bigger with co-workers or others in your field, including women of differing backgrounds and ethnicities. The gathering space should be outside the workplace to create a safe space and room for sharing.

“Ask [the people on your personal advisory board] to provide you with feedback on your collaboration skills and/or your biases,” says Ms. Phillips. “This network can be a space for you to lean into learning and better understand your areas of growth.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Anisha Phillips of Canadian Equality Consulting in Toronto says the separation between white women and women of colour can be 'rooted in historical legacies that have present-day manifestations.'Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

While informal networks are useful, so, too, is a formal women’s association or caucus, says Dr. Agocs. In an association of this kind, members can initiate discussions about issues shared by members (such as work-family conflicts or lack of proper health and safety provisions for women) and also function as a voice for women hoping to bring an issue to their employer or union.

In Shared Sisterhood, Dr. Opie describes three action items necessary for white women and women of colour to work together: digging and questioning one’s own views on race; finding authentic connection with each other; and using this new trust to stand together and address inequity. Dr. Opie notes that this is not likely to be a comfortable endeavour, but building a safe space does not necessitate comfort in this context.

“Somebody feeling nervous or wanting to cry because they think I’m going to call them racist or because they just said something racist and I call it what it is, [that] is not the same thing as experiencing a threat to their physical body,” she says. In these instances, Dr. Opie says the conversation must continue; maybe you slide some tissues across the table, but there is no room for pause. “We’re going to keep the conversation centred on the pain and trauma of women of colour, we’re not going to allow this conversation to be sidetracked by weaponized tears.”

Beyond allyship

When choosing people to work with, Dr. Opie says it’s key for equity-seeking individuals to identify the differences between the ally (someone who believes in equity in theory, who might buy the right books but won’t actually challenge authority), the accomplice (someone who believes in equity, but will act in a self-determined style by informing others how they should act), and the co-conspirator (someone who believes in equity, is willing to act and whose actions are based on the voices of the people they are ostensibly helping). It’s the third character who is the end goal, she says. As an example, this could be a man who is able to enter spaces his female co-workers cannot and who will use his voice to advance their agenda.

Dr. Agocs notes that much has been achieved by women uniting together, whether in the labour movement or around women’s reproductive rights, for example. The proof that uniting works is endless, she says.

The tough part is pushing through, says Ms. Phillips.

“Unlearning white supremacy, the biases, the privileges isn’t Instagrammable, it’s deeply personal and very difficult work,” she says. “If you are doing it, it feels horrible, it will make you cry, it will be lonely and isolating, and it can and will shatter what you previously believed to be true. But do it anyway, and do it because of those things.”

This means not just buying the books and getting hashtag educated, but listening to and understanding your co-workers, their work experiences and what they need, she adds. In a more specific way, this can mean taking accountability when harm happens.

“There have been times where I’ve been called out when I’ve learned the most, and when I’ve been willing to humble myself and be accountable,” says Ms. Phillips. “It’s a journey; it’s not about the times that you mess up, but how you respond when you do. Part of embracing our humanness involves stepping into vulnerability … and that is how we create change. If it’s hard, that means you’re doing it right.”

Interested in more perspectives about women in the workplace? Find all stories on The Globe Women’s Collective hub here, and subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Have feedback? E-mail us at

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles