By Jaya Saxena • July 01, 2015•Writers in Residence
We all cover.
It’s taken me a long time to share my thoughts on this topic on this very public forum. Yes, between family commitments, travel, and a recent transition in my role at work, I’ve been very busy. But, when I look myself in the mirror, it’s also (and, perhaps, even more so) because this topic is very personal. It’s about our core selves, our identities. And, it made me think about how I cover in my own life and in my workplace.
Covering might come in the form of a woman who avoids references to her children at work so that she is seen, first and foremost, as a hard working colleague and then as a mother. Or, an African American woman being told she can’t wear cornrows or dreadlocks to work; essentially, she is being asked (or coerced) to “cover” her racial identity to blend into the mainstream. It might be an individual with a disability forgoing a cane to cover the disability.
In each situation, the individual is “ton[ing] down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream” or…covering. Sociologist Erving Goffman coined the term in 1963 and Kenji Yoshino further explored it in his book, Covering, published in 2006. In his book, Yoshino addresses this topic by taking readers on his personal journey to become an openly gay Asian American man.
Yoshino describes how people and gay individuals, in particular, can cover across four dimensions:
- Appearance: avoiding aspects of self-presentation (e.g. grooming, attire, mannerisms etc. associated with their group)
- Affiliation: avoiding behaviors identified with their group
- Activism/Advocacy: avoiding engagement in activities on behalf of their group
- Association: avoiding contact with individuals in their group
So why does any of this even matter?
It matters because all of us, or at least a majority of us, cover.
In writing this post, I came across “Uncovering Talent: A New Model for Inclusion,” an interesting report co-authored by the Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion and Yoshino, in 2013. The findings in this report are based upon a survey that was distributed to approximately 3000 employees of different organizations to assess the prevalence of covering in the workplace. Sixty one percent of the total respondents reported covering at work. Specifically,
- 83% of LGB individuals,
- 79% of Blacks,
- 67% of women of color,
- 66% of women,
- 63% of Hispanics, and
- 45% of White men reported covering in the workplace.
Yes, even White men cover.
Along the four dimensions of Appearance, Affiliation, Activism/Advocacy, and Association, 29% of respondents reported covering based on Appearance, 40% based on Affiliation, 37% based on Activism/Advocacy, and 18% based on Association.
It matters because covering can have a negative impact on our sense of self; it impedes our ability to be our true, authentic selves.
According to the Deloitte report, a high percentage of the survey respondents stated that covering was “somewhat” to “extremely” detrimental to their sense of self.
One recurring theme throughout Yoshino’s book is authenticity. He states, “All of us struggle for self-expression; we all have covered selves.” And, he describes the desire for authenticity as the “common human wish to express ourselves without being impeded by unreasonable demands for conformity.” When we cover, not by choice but out of a need to be accepted, we are unable to be our true authentic selves.
It matters because covering can have a negative impact on our ability to thrive in the workplace.
According to the Deloitte survey, 53% of respondents stated that their leaders expected them to cover and 48% said that their organization had a cultural expectation that employees should cover, both of which affected their sense of opportunities available to them and their commitment to the organization.
A key finding in the Deloitte report was that the ability to bring our authentic selves to work leads to greater productivity and success. As indicated in the report, respondents observed:
- Covering “takes energy that I would rather give to my job.”
- “Once I decided to bring my whole self to work, it was liberating and I became a lot more productive and successful.”
- “A company that allows people to be themselves and judges them only (on) the quality of work they do will be far ahead in the long run.”
So, my reflection on all of this, begged the question – how have I or how do I cover in my life, in my workplace?
I am a youthful appearing Asian American woman. I don’t mind this in social settings; however, in the workplace, I am particularly mindful of my presentation especially as it relates to my age, ethnicity, and gender. This was particularly true when I was a practicing attorney. I vividly remember dealing with a haughty landlord when I was representing an elderly woman in a landlord-tenant case. In the days and weeks leading up to trial, I had numerous telephone conversations with the landlord. On the day of trial, I introduced myself to him in court and the first thing he said to me was how he expected me to look different based upon how I sounded on the phone. This comment reinforced the need I had to alter my appearance – be it with eyeglasses, my hairstyle, or outfit -so that I would appear older and wiser. As an aside and in case you were wondering, the end result was a favorable outcome for my client.
At other times, I’ve found myself covering my ability to make an impact in the workplace. I have had a tendency to maintain an air of deference, as I don’t want to appear threatening or disrespectful to more tenured colleagues. Unfortunately, this can come at the price of not contributing my full potential.
In his book, Yoshino quotes the minister at his church who once told him, “Your greatest gift…is your capacity to face yourself.” As I strive for authenticity, I’m continuing to explore how I cover. I invite you to join me in this journey of uncovering our covered selves so that we find the freedom that comes with being who we are.
Until my next post,
 Kenji Yoshino, Covering (Random House Trade Paperbacks 2006)