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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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!
21 thoughts to “Woke at Work: How to Inject Your Values into Your Boring, Lame-Ass Job”
DAMN! I was clapping for you through the whole post. Great response to that VP. I work with low income people in a public sector role, and let me tell ya, so much racism and sexism runs rampant. It is disgusting. Kudos to you for standing up for it
You can’t see me, but I’m applauding.
Makes me smile on the inside. Three days to respond with that? hah.
Ain’t that just the best part??? This is how I imagine that going…
Day 1 – Opens response email, types “they’re not old white guys.” Spends half an hour trying to workshop that phrase so that it doesn’t sound awful. Gives up, procrastinates.
Day 2 – Decides to give me the feedback in-person so she don’t have to leave a written account that could be forwarded to HR. Also can low-key check to confirm that I am not black or Indian myself. Does a single sweep of the office before remembering that none of our seats have nametags. Gives up, procrastinates.
Day 3 – Decides to use photo of black dude because she’s tired and it’s Friday.
Day 41: Actual conference thingie happens. Realizes that our collateral stands out the most in a good way as a result of the choice. Takes credit for all compliments. Spends the rest of the fiscal year patting herself on the back for spearheading diversity in the workplace.
I’ve noticed in a few workplaces that people with ‘non-white’ sounding names will tend to use nicknames or shorten their names, because it’s easier to pronounce than their actual name.
In these situations, I always ask the person what name they want to be called and make an effort to not only pronounce it correctly but to use their preferred name when talking about them to other staff.
I like to think that this not only makes the workplace a little better for the individual, but it also reminds other staff members that not everyone has a ‘white-sounding’ name.
That’s a great example!!
I just went to a press conference where our Governor was announcing a nice cost reduction for state corporations and companies because overall safety records were much better than in the past. Less people injured meant lower rates for all companies on their workers comp insurance. It was a nice story and I was happy to see that the one CEO who stood with the Governor to represent the business community was not a white male. Way to go Gov!
I work for an organization that is primarily made of white, rural, older, working class people. When choosing photos of members to highlight in our publications, I look for the few people of color present and try to include them. Also, young people as an effort to encourage more to join the org. 🙂
THREE DAYS that’s amazing. Your email reminds me of the advice I saw a while ago to ask people who tell racist/ableist/sexist/otherwise offensive jokes to explain why exactly it’s so funny and watch them squirm when they have to spell it out plainly. You’re damn right the black male CEO photo works just fine!
YES!! “But what do you *mean?*”
One of my favourite instances of this in my work place was piping up when my boss’ boss said, “They really have us by the balls here.” I immediately said, “That’s why you need more people without balls on your team.” There was a good pause and then he responded, “that’s very fair – any suggestions?” I had a dance party in the office bathroom by myself later because it felt so good.
You’re doing kick-ass work and I appreciate you both so much.
This resonated. I recently came in second for a job to a white guy who is objectively less qualified than I am within the context a field that never. hires. women. (And by this I mean they hired a white guy who can’t teach the required classes that I’ve been teaching for three years and that only one woman has been hired in the last twelve years within my very tiny specialty in academia). A friend on the search was trying to tell me it wasn’t sexist because the guy who blocked my appointment actually wanted to hire this other woman and settled on the white guy as a compromise.
I was like, “Yeah, that’s not how any of this works.”
Can you imagine what things would look like if more people infused that kind of intentionality in their work? I’m extremely lucky that my work is also what I’m passionate about in my personal life, but I still have to deal with major biases on a daily basis.
I have been thinking about this a lot lately. Here are my conclusions for my personal self:
1. I’m lucky that I work for an employer, a manufacturer, who actually makes good things, not widgets. And my job is ensuring those good things are good. So, at its core, my job is good even though it’s not at a nonprofit.
2. Along with what you all said, I am trying to champion my coworkers. The way I am doing that is all the ways you have said, and just generally speaking positively, complimenting everyone’s ideas to my boss, etc.
The number one way I’m working on is with my mini-me. We hired a new woman onto the team (in the same role and probably similar pay to me) who is 8 years younger and very like me 8 years ago. I felt my options were to be grumpy that she was so young and doesn’t know things, plus jealous, or root for sister and help her to go, just as I would have wanted. So I have made a concerted effort to do the latter.
That’s what I’ve got, for now.
I don’t have a white collar job, but I can definitely attest to how frustrating it is when trying to find diverse stock photos for my blog. For a recent post, I typed in every variation of “black businesswoman” I could think of. I got nothing. I thought to myself: “HOW hard is it to include pictures of a black woman in a business suit?!”
On second thought, I do make an effort to include diverse pictures at my internship. So yeah, that’s my contribution. Hopefully I can do more soon.
Your response to that VP was brilliant!!
I work in the arts, which is a notoriously white, privileged field because of the expensive education required that may or may not pay off in the end. About six months ago, I got the opportunity to write a job description and hire a part-time marketing associate to grow my department. I specifically chose NOT to require a degree of any kind, since social media and email marketing isn’t exactly something most programs teach anyway. Lo and behold, the candidates were way more diverse than the workforce I’ve experienced in the field so far, and the best person for the job ended up being a super insightful POC. I still don’t know if he has a college degree, but the job is getting done!
I was also able to contract a new graphic designer – a young woman – to replace a designer who wasn’t working anymore (an older white man). I asked for her rates, and when she gave me a range that was way lower than even the low end of the industry standard, I bumped it up. I hope she feels comfortable asking for more in the future.
Trying to be the change, yadda yadda.
This is amazing!
I run a women’s work wear blog and am CONSTANTLY looking for more WoC and differently-abled persons for inspiration. It’s tough to find but when I do I try to blog ALL OF THEM. It’s amazing how many minimal-work-wear things are only young able-bodied cis-gendered white people. Show me your business suits! Take pictures of your staff! We need more representation in front of our robot eyes!
I write scenarios for training purposes, and so instead of naming people Tom, Micheal, David and Robert, I name them Parminder, Huan, Tamara and Robert (for example).
I love, love, love your post – it’s about normalizing things, which absolutely has an impact. All the applauses!
ALSO, check out this hiking signage – person with turban, various skin colours, AND a hiker with a prosthetic leg!
As someone who works in a job where I’ve heard racist jokes pretty consistently this definitely just makes me want to call them out more. The problem is they come from my supervisor or director, I work in an office of 6, and yep those 2 are both MARRIED TO EACH OTHER. We have a lot of issues to comb through first before I can finally assert my social justice opinions 😐 But I am excited because we are celebrating women’s history and empowerment next year and I took over the project, as a women’s study minor in college they don’t know what they’re in for 🙂
Hello! I really like the article, it describes the kind of activism I do regularly (small things on a one-to-one basis)! There was one thing I noticed though– that person-first language was used to describe disabled people. The disabled community advocates for identity-first language over person-first language (‘disabled person’ vs ‘person with disabilities’). (Can you tell I’m used to direct approaches?)