An overwhelming majority of racialized women say they feel invisible at work – unseen, unheard and largely “erased” by their white peers and bosses – according to a new study from organizational behaviour experts at University of Western Ontario’s Ivey Business School.
The study – an analysis of the work experiences of 65 such women – examined how differences in race, immigration status, age and seniority in the workplace affected how racialized women in Canada felt in their jobs. Participants in the study were mostly in white-collar office jobs and worked in predominantly white organizations.
The study was recently published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Applied Psychology.
Ninety-five per cent of those interviewed by the researchers reported experiencing “erasure” at work, meaning that they felt largely ignored or unacknowledged in their workplaces because of both race and gender. They described it as different from overt racial prejudice or hostility.
“It was almost surprising how pervasive invisibility was in the workplace,” said Barnini Bhattacharyya, lead author of the study, and an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at Ivey Business School. “Women described feeling like their opinions were largely ignored and this was particularly common amongst more junior racialized women,” Prof. Bhattacharyya added.
Over the past three years, organizations have increasingly shifted the focus of their environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals to emphasize diversity and inclusion, publicly acknowledging the structurally racist systems that have led to a lack of racial equity in many workplaces. For many employers, boosting the number of racialized hires in an organization became a key human-resources priority.
But the Ivey study suggests that systemic racism – albeit of a more subtle form – is still alive and well in many Canadian organizations.
One of the participants in the study, Tara, a 29-year-old software engineer of South Asian descent, was quoted describing the inequity she had experienced at work as being “not treated super well” compared with her white female peers. “The Indian woman gets talked over a lot more because she’s not yelling. A white woman doesn’t have to [yell].” The study did not provide participants’ full names.
Another participant, Eve, a 31-year-old non-profit employee of East Asian descent, told researchers that she frequently experienced the feelings of “erasure” at networking events.
“In a room of 50 people, maybe four or five were women of colour,” Eve said, describing a recent corporate event she attended. “I am short, and especially if I’m not wearing heels, a lot of these women tower over me. Their natural gaze is towards each other. They straight up ignore me.”
Racialized women who were more junior or who were newer immigrants and had stronger accents tended to experience invisibility more acutely, according to Prof. Bhattacharyya. “We found that this often led to self-blame and doubt, which would lead them to further minimize themselves in a workplace, rendering them even more invisible.”
The study also found that participants tended to experience a high degree of homogenization in a majority-white workplace – 86 per cent of interviewees said they were often treated as virtually indistinguishable from other racialized women. Black women, in particular, experienced homogenization most acutely and frequently, with white colleagues and bosses often mixing up their names and identities.
Approximately 78 per cent of participants, particularly those who were younger and of Latin heritage, described a feeling of being exoticized by their white peers for their appearance – reduced, in a sense, to foreign objects of fascination.
“In a way, it could make someone feel like they are more visible, but the participants described the impact of exoticization as one that made them feel othered and stereotyped,” said Prof. Bhattacharyya.
The study was also critical of organizations’ diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategies, noting that these initiatives were often not “sophisticated” enough to address the more subtle forms of discrimination that racialized employees face.
Many companies, said Prof. Bhattacharyya, still had a homogenous and one-dimensional understanding of DEI, tending to focus on the wants of company leaders as opposed to listening to racialized women.
“Celebrating International Women’s Day or Black History Month or conducting allyship training doesn’t really help those at the top understand the kind of marginalization employees of colour are really facing. Leaders need to pay attention and follow the leadership of women of colour in implementing policy,” she said.
Kike Ojo-Thompson, an anti-racism educator and founder of the Toronto-based diversity consultancy Kojo Institute, pointed out that organizations need to focus on incentive structures when crafting DEI initiatives. “DEI can be ineffective at best, or downright harmful if it is not preceded by a critical look at the organization’s culture,” she said.
“Are racialized employees being incentivized to uphold the status quo? If so, that is not true equity.”