In a recent podcast interview, I was asked this final question: “What one thing do you know?” My answer, in short, was that we all have closets. That statement is in no way intended to detract from the very real experiences of people in the LGBTQ+ community. Rather, while acknowledging that “closets” are most closely associated with LGBTQ+ people, almost everyone feels compelled to hold something back of themselves. Most of us hide some part of ourselves in the shadows, typically out of fear (both founded and unfounded) of judgement of and rejection by others.
A recent Harvard study found that 61 percent of people closet some aspect of themselves!
This is especially true of women, and especially true in the workplace.
I had the privilege of attending a talk by America Ferrera at a recent conference. In her talk, America said, “Diversity is impactful only when we can show up in spaces as who we are. Our power comes from existing as authentically and as fully as ourselves.”
A Balancing Act for Women
In my book, Value and Voice, I focus on women’s ability (or inability) to fully participate. The barriers to full participation are many. One such barrier is the constant balance a woman in the workplace must maintain. She must exhibit enough feminine behaviors to be accepted under the social expectations of women. She must exhibit enough masculine behaviors to be rewarded based on the norms of the male-centric work environment. In other words, she must conform to conflicting stereotypes, while still existing authentically. The truth is, women have to constantly be adjusting these things. Men don’t have to ask themselves, “Who shall I be at work today?” Women do.
Is this balancing a form of closeting? I would argue yes – very much so. Despite the prominence of conversations about “authenticity in the workplace,” most women must hold back, keep in check, reserve, or closet some portion of themselves.
And while this is far too often the case for women and people in the LGBTQ+ community, anyone can be affected. I know I don’t freely share all of me. This is in large part because of judgment and potential ramifications.
Closets Take Emotional Tolls
Closets do take emotional tolls. Holding back those things we reserve very much impacts our performance. As noted by America Ferrera, the result is that we are unable to fully realize and leverage the known advantages of diversity.
Diversity is very powerful. But the advantages of diversity can only be realized when people can freely emerge from whatever closets they may occupy.
Leaders bear the responsibility of creating safe environments for everyone. But is everyone’s responsibility to embrace each other and their authenticity, to put aside judgments, to value everyone, and to make closets unnecessary.
How do we start? It’s simple. Take interest in each person. Ask about their interests. If a person has an artistic bent or hobby, or a unique talent, ask about it! And if a person expresses themselves in attire, hair style, or body art, offer words of approval. Show an interest in the person – the whole person – and watch them blossom. When a person gives more of themselves, everyone benefits. That is the real power of diversity.
Let’s imagine, and work to build, a closet-free world.