Opie had worked with Livingston previously, and the two connected and discussed what the divide might be keeping White and Black women, in particular, apart in the workplace. What the pair determined was that closing this divide couldn’t be an individual type of approach. “It couldn’t just be what’s in your heart, and at the same time, it couldn’t just be ‘well, change the system,’” Livingston said. “There had to be a connection between the way people feel about race, gender, and equity; their values; and actions that they were taking to change things for the better.”
“The big gap we saw was these relationships—and distrust. What’s missing are authentic connections with people at work. Not just being work “besties” and hanging out, but actually feeling like you are seen and heard, and knowing someone will stand up for you if you’re not there.”
The Steps to Building Shared Sisterhood
Opie and Livingston developed a three-step process for individuals to build Shared Sisterhood. These are steps that have to happen both at the individual and community levels (remember that even a workplace is its own community!) and can be facilitated by leaders.
- Dig — The first step centers on the individual. People are encouraged in this step to dive into their own preconceptions about race, gender, and power—interrogate their own beliefs. Ask themselves why they feel the way they do, and what would happen if they were actually wrong about their long-held beliefs? This is a necessary step, but not the whole picture. To fully embrace Shared Sisterhood, you can’t stop here.
- Bridge — Now individuals can start building authentic connections with people who are different from them. It’s important to do this step after the dig step, although some people try to jump ahead. This is because the previous introspections help build empathy and learning about oneself enough to show appropriate vulnerability and willingness to be wrong and make adjustments. You can start building trust by taking risks and showing that you’re willing to put in the work and put your time, resources, and comfort on the line for the values of equity and fairness.
- Collective action — The bridges built in step two serve as a foundation for the final step, which is to advance all women across the organization and beyond. Authentic bridges are strong enough to hold up under the difficulties that arise anytime change is being fought for. Through collective action built on these strong relationships, women and their allies are able to put more pressure on organizations and existing structures that might be more hesitant to enact meaningful change to realize greater racial and gender equity.
How Emotions Inform Our Journeys Forward
Opie an Livingston stress that we aren’t all starting at the same point when it comes to our journey toward building more equality in the world and in the workplace.
“The norms of a society are determined by the way people of particular identities navigate the world,” said Opie. “The people in historically marginalized groups have had to become adept at navigating these norms, but the dominant group doesn’t need to think about them—they might not even be cognizant of them.”
Still, they recommend letting emotion serve as just one data point—not the sole basis for our actions. It doesn’t need to be all or nothing. It’s important to determine one’s feelings and deconstruct why they’re there—that’s what makes the dig step so important, they point out. “It’s not about getting rid of your emotions,” points out Livingston. “It’s about learning to interrogate them and ask yourself why you’re uncomfortable with a situation, what’s the source of those feelings, and prepare yourself for hard answers to those hard questions.”
“Vulnerability feeds into empathy. Once you’ve begun that bridge, those moments make it stronger,” she added.
Opie also pointed out that the term “sisterhood” is intentionally playing with the idea of masculine norms, but anyone can be a “sister” in solidarity with others, regardless of their gender. Certainly, that fits with the idea of building a bridge—across genders if needed, same with race, sexuality, ability, and other personal identifiers.
From Intention to Impact
One more thing that Opie and Livingston emphasized was the work we should all do to separate intentions and impact—but recognize that both of them are important in their own ways.
“Sometimes we say, ‘well, intentions don’t matter, it’s only impact,’” she said. “But they both have their place. Intentions matter because they tell me if you’re someone who is going to do the work or if you aren’t willing to go through the dig process or bridge with someone.”
So, an intention to be a better person and part of the solution toward inclusivity and equity in your workplace is the beginning point. Then, through the process of introspection, followed by authentic connection, collective action can take place that brings us all one step closer to a more equitable workplace and a sisterhood that can be shared by all.
If you have good intentions and want to help move the needle toward greater racial and gender equity at work, a good place to start is with Opie and Livingston’s Shared Sisterhood that maps out a path for you to have a greater impact on these fronts.