I generally don’t find it hard to live my values in my personal life. I vote. I’m conscious of where I spend my money, which is another kind of voting. My primary hobbies are fostering rescue dogs and writing this blog. I do these things because I am a bitter old crone who thinks that most people are trash, yet hasn’t fully abdicated her responsibilities as a member of the human race. Go figure.
Where I struggle is in my working life. Like lots of folks, I work in a white collar job that doesn’t have anything to do with any kind of social issues. My background is graphic design, and my past clients have mostly been super lame and boring. Think commercial real estate databases, catering associations, paper shredding companies.
Nevertheless, over the years, I have managed to find unexpected opportunities to live my values at work. I started out as an SJW ninja, finding sneaky ways to slip in and shift the culture. Since then, I’ve graduated to bigger and bolder actions that are getting me a lot more traction.
If you want to be a good ally in the workplace, I believe that the first and most powerful thing you can do is to be solid and cool to your fellow workers. Be kind and respectful. Don’t be a shitty, judgmental, gossipy, mean coworker. Don’t work unpaid overtime. Take your vacations. Share salary information. Support unions. Expose harassment. Use your privilege for good.
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- Stop Undervaluing Your Freelance Work, You Darling Fool
- Can Looking Weird at Work Be Good for Your Career?
But today we’re going to focus more on what you can do in your job roles.
… Job rolls?!
What does a CEO look like?
One of the first tasks assigned to a junior graphic designer is to pull stock images for use in other media. I once got a request for a still image of “a CEO” for some conference or another.
As usual, I sent three images for the client to choose from. All three were polished, confident-looking people in suits. All three were standing in subtle power poses in posh conference rooms overlooking a high-tech city. Very classic CEO vibe all around!
One was an older white woman with naturally silver hair, smiling faintly. The second was a younger, slightly hip-looking Indian man, grinning cockily. And the third was an older, almost stern-looking black man.
My choice not to include an older white man was deliberate. 91% of Fortune 500 CEOs are white men. As a marketing professional, it makes logical sense for me to choose an image that reflects that reality.
But instead I chose to question why that demographic is the way it is. Women are 50% of the population, so why are they only 5% of business leaders? 39% of Americans are some ethnicity other than white, so why are they a mere 4%?
What does a CEO not look like?
There is absolutely no satisfactory answer to these questions that is not predicated on misogyny and white supremacy.
I swear to god, if any of you come into the comments with some of that “well actually, men are better at taking risks” crap I will moderate you out of existence. No shit we don’t take risks, risks land us starring roles in true crime podcasts! Don’t you come into my house with that “the best person for the job is coincidentally always white” bullshit. You cannot see two statistics that are 10% of what they should be and say the status quo is fine and fair and doesn’t need changing. It isn’t, and it does.
Moreover, a CEO isn’t just any role. It’s a powerfully symbolic position. Like presidents, astronauts, actors, and sports stars, they’re what many young people aspire to be one day. By choosing an image that acknowledges an unjustifiable status quo, I not only reinforce it—I quietly, subtly discourage young people from envisioning themselves in that role some day in the future.
So I ignored the demographics. I gave three great options I knew subverted my client’s expectations.
I’ll give you three guesses what my client’s response was!
“Can you send us other options? None of these people look like CEOs.”
I looked at this email for a long time. The person I was responding to was a Vice President, approximately twenty years my senior and five career levels above me. I thought hard about my position as an extremely junior contributor. I questioned whether what I was trying to do was really all that worth it. After all, I wasn’t going to magically make anybody a CEO through my stock photo selection.
Then I asked myself, “If not this, what?” The answer was “nothing.” If I could not stand up and do this, I could do absolutely nothing.
So I typed this response.
“Okay, no problem. Can you let me know which part of them doesn’t look like a CEO? If I know, I can avoid it in my next round.”
Three days went by. Then the VP sent a short reply.
“Nevermind, the third option will work.”
All I had to do was ask her to give voice to her thought process. I’m sure she typed out her reasoning, saw how indefensible it was, and decided it wasn’t worth it. I didn’t have to take her to the mat over her racist, sexist assumptions. (And yes, women can be sexist.)
My first instinct is always to shake a bitch until she wakes up. It feels satisfying. But such a direct approach often backfires. There’s a lot of research demonstrating that traditional diversity training programs do more harm than good. People are extremely sensitive to being told they are discriminatory; they also really, really don’t like lectures. The reason behind that sensitivity is dumb as shit, but it’s dangerous to ignore. If real change is your motive, you’ve gotta cater to it, at least initially.
Put your mouth where your money is
This was my first time standing up for my values at work, and it was a major success. It was so silent, so invisible—but it was incredibly meaningful to me. As I grew in my career and had more responsibilities, I also had more opportunities to live my truth.
I have, on multiple occasions, declined to use a provided map of a country when that map includes hotly contested borders, or areas recently claimed by violence and imperialism. It’s been a particular problem with maps of Israel/Palestine, Russia/Ukraine, and China/Taiwan. I’ll work with my client to provide a workaround that doesn’t dignify or legitimize oppression.
An S&P 500 company’s brand book has a rule that no photo can be used if more than half of the models present are evidently thin, white, able-bodied, and between the ages of 18-35. That rule was written by me, and it is followed by hundreds of marketing professionals to this day. It not only sets a new precedent for the company—it also puts more money into the pockets of stock photo producers who recognize the importance of showcasing what a real workplace actually looks like. Old people, fat people, people of color, and people with disabilities are valuable and productive members of society—an obvious truth that is obscured when they are pushed out of sight.
(If all of that sounds crazy to you, you’ve clearly never worked with stock photos. Here are standard search results for “office workers,” “lab technicians,” “nurses,” and “call center workers.”)
Do the things within your power to do
In my current role, I get to partake in designing high-level diversity and inclusion initiatives that go far beyond optics. We’re making unconscious bias training programs, cultivating a remote work culture that normalizes the needs of caregivers and people with disabilities, developing outreach to historically black colleges, sponsoring Pride events… all sorts of fun, rewarding, inclusive shit.
Obviously not everyone’s work affords them the same opportunities to contribute to a level playing field. My friend who is a grade-school teacher probably has way more of these chances than my friend who is a plumber. But I have been truly surprised by all the ways I managed to live my values through my boring-ass white-collar career.
I can’t be alone in this. Have you found tiny, quiet ways in your job to tell The Man to go fuck himself? Because I want to hear all about them! How do you stay woke at work? Tell us in the comments below!