The hidden costs of conformity

It is exhausting to feel left out, to be excluded because of your cultural identity
It is exhausting to feel left out, to be excluded because of your cultural identity

Ritu Bhasin is a diversity consultant and a lawyer, who previously worked on Bay Street for close to a decade. Bhasin recently published her first book, The Authenticity Principle: Resist Conformity, Embrace Differences, and Transform How You Live, Work, and Lead. What follows in an exclusive excerpt from that book, in which Bhasin explores the roots of conformity in the corporate world.

When professionals feel pressure to conform and mask who they are in order to get ahead, it ties back to a concept called “minimization,” an experience wherein people feel pressure to downplay their cultural differences and instead focus on the commonalities they have with the people they’re interacting with. Essentially, minimization pushes people to conform and mask in order to advance in their careers.

Across global workplaces, women in particular continue to be compelled to perform. Here are some examples of what women professionals who work in minimization cultures have told me about how they have to modify their behaviour in the workplace:

  • They change their appearance, like their hair, dress and jewellery, because they worry about looking too womanly, manly, sexy, frumpy, contemporary, conservative and so on — basically, they feel caught in the double binds of appearance-based bias (damned if you do, doomed if you don’t).
  • They constantly rethink what they want to say and how they want to say it because they fear that they will be judged as being too timid, bitchy, nasty, indirect, direct, team-oriented, independent, quiet, vocal and so on —again, they’re caught in the double binds of “damned if you do and doomed if you don’t,” in this case with communication.
  • They water down what they share at work about being a mom, afraid that others will think they’re more interested in motherhood than career opportunities — so when asked about their weekends, for example, they’ll talk about news headlines instead of family stuff.
  • They pretend to be interested in sports and may even take up certain sports like golf (ugh, I did that for about twelve days) or read/watch news about sports to “keep up” even though they hate it.
  • They go to women-hanging-from-poles strip clubs for client-and team-building events. Particularly in the highly male-dominated sectors I consult for, many women professionals have told me that they’ve gone unwillingly to these places because if they hadn’t they would have been the only team member who didn’t and therefore would have missed out on spending time with their boss, co-workers and clients.

Unfortunately, my list of examples of how women conform and mask at work because they feel compelled to by a minimization culture is much longer than this. Also telling is that I have a similar laundry list of how people from many other identities perform — people of colour, immigrants, people from LGBT communities, persons with disabilities, millennials, those who practice religion or a faith (my inclusion work has shown that most workplaces intensely push people who are religiously or spiritually observant to conform and mask) and people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, to name just a few.

The reality for many women, diverse professionals and others who are different (whatever those differences are) is that they’ll likely perform at work in many areas, they’ll adapt in others and they’ll be authentic in just a few, if any. If you can relate to this, you know how draining and disillusioning this feels. As I have been told again and again, it is “exhausting” to feel left out, to be not included for who you are, and to be someone you’re not while at work. You can now see why I refer to minimization as the enemy of, and the biggest barrier to, authenticity (and inclusion) in the workplace.

Ritu Bhasin is an award-winning diversity and inclusion consultant and global speaker. This is an excerpt from her new book, The Authenticity Principle: Resist Conformity, Embrace Differences, and Transform How You Live, Work, and Lead. To learn more about the book, visit Bhasin’s website.