‘Covering’ to fit in and get ahead

Kenji Yoshino

August 26, 2015 — Legal scholar and gay Asian American Kenji Yoshino spoke on August 24 with Harvard Chan School staff, students, and faculty about his research and writings that examine the ways people “cover” or downplay those aspects of their identities that are based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and disability, in an effort to “fit in” and get ahead professionally and personally.

Yoshino, who is the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at New York University School of Law, has authored the book Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights and has also done research on the topic in conjunction with the Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion.

As Yoshino noted in his presentation in Kresge G1, he draws both on his personal experience as a gay Asian American and expands upon that experience to look at the common ways many individuals downplay their differences to become more mainstream.

He posits that individuals looking to fit in and minimize their differences “cover” along four dimensions:

Appearance – steering clear of grooming, mannerisms, or attire that could be identified with their group. For example, an African American woman might choose to straighten her hair to downplay her race.

Affiliation – avoiding behaviors that might be identified with their group. For example, a woman who has small children may downplay that she is a mother and take on night or weekend work to show that she is committed to her job.

Advocacy – avoiding activities such as demonstrating or speaking out that could be seen as advocating for their group.

Association – avoiding spending too much time with individuals who are also members of their group. A gay person might choose not to bring his same-sex partner to a work function so as to not appear “too gay,” Yoshino said.

Yoshino noted that in the research he conducted in conjunction with Deloitte, more than 3,000 employees of companies across 10 different industries were surveyed. People of all ages, genders, races/ethnicities, and orientations from many different levels within the organizations participated.

The results showed that 61% of those surveyed reported covering along at least one dimension — and that 45% of straight white men reported covering along at least one of the four dimensions even though they would be perceived of as being the most mainstream and needing to cover the least. None of the straight white men reported covering behaviors that would fit under “affiliation,” although members of all the other groups reported covering behaviors along all four dimensions.

Individuals who identified themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender reported the highest levels of covering, with 83% saying they had covered along at least one dimension. Seventy-nine percent of blacks, 67% of women of color, 66% percent of women, and 63% percent of Hispanics reported covering.

Yoshino said that it is imperative for businesses to focus on creating a culture in which people, regardless of their gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, or disability, feel that they can be more truly themselves and “authentic” — not simply because it is the right thing to do, but because it is good for business. In his research with Deloitte, 53% of respondents said they felt that their leaders expect employees to cover, and fully half of those individuals who felt this way said that this expectation by their leaders negatively affected their sense of commitment to the organization.

Yoshino talked about the importance of creating what political scientist Robert Putnam has called “bridging capital,” that is creating solidarity across groups. While ties within groups — so-called “bonding capital” — is naturally in more plentiful supply in many organizations, helping members of a work or school community understand the ways in which so many people in all groups are engaged in “covering” behaviors and encouraging a culture of authenticity is one route to breaking down barriers between groups, said Yoshino.

Julie Rafferty 

Photo: Emily Cuccarese