Understanding Social Identities in the Workplace

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Each of us has vastly different lived experiences, assumptions, and values, and much of this is wrapped up in our social identities. As you’ve likely noticed, even in our increasingly digital world, social identities still play an important role in our daily interactions. They’re the ways in which we categorize ourselves and are categorized by others based on certain characteristics, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, age, class, ability/disability status, etc. In the workplace, understanding social identities is important because they can impact how we interact with each other and how our work is evaluated.

There are a whole host of factors that affect how we identify in relation to other people. Here are some of the most common characteristics used to describe social identity groups.  

  • Multiple – a person has a number of identities that exist simultaneously, so a person is present in a number of identity groups simultaneously.
  • Interconnected – our membership in one or more identity groups can overlap with others, creating complex experiences. This idea, that our identities can’t necessarily be separated from each other and that people may experience prejudice and discrimination on multiple fronts, is the foundation and key concept of intersectionality, a topic we’ve explored previously.
  • Fluid – many social identity groups– and our memberships in them– aren’t fixed, but can change over time. A great example of this is our age.
  • Not necessarily in our control – some of these group memberships are affected by our choices and behaviors, and some aren’t. 
  • Observable – we can observe and understand some of these identities through visual and other cues; some we can’t.
  • Salient – we become conscious of certain identities through interacting with our physical and social environment, and vice versa. Different group members often have different levels of consciousness about how their identities function in those environments.
  • Importance – we may identify with certain social identities more than others. The weight we place on an identity can be affected by our experience within the group, the group’s relationship to other groups, or the group’s interactions with external systems (e.g., law and cultural acceptance).

To a certain extent, we form social identity groups naturally because we’re instinctively drawn to people who we think are like us, which isn’t necessarily bad or harmful. However, this social grouping can become harmful when the power balance between groups is disrupted. The inequality and inequity that results from this kind of imbalance can be far-reaching and difficult to correct. That’s where diversity, equity, and inclusion work comes in!

By opening our eyes to the many dynamics that can affect a relationship or social interaction, we’re taking the first step toward righting the inequities between marginalized and non-marginalized groups.