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How Does Social Oppression Show Up in the Workplace?

How Does Social Oppression Show Up in the Workplace?

Are there constructs in our workplaces that reinforce forms of social oppression? How do we tear these barriers down? And what are some of the pitfalls employers can avoid in trying to address this? Lisa Toppin, global head of diversity and inclusion at Illumina, joins the podcast to discuss.

Camille Lloyd is the Director of the Gallup Center on Black Voices. Follow her at @policyresrchbuf

Dr. Ella F. Washington is the CEO of Ellavate Solutions and a Professor of Practice at Georgetown McDonough School of Business. Follow her at @EllaFWashington

Learn more about the Gallup Center on Black Voices at

Below is a full transcript of the conversation, including time stamps. Full audio is posted above.

Camille Lloyd 00:10

Well, Dr. Washington, I'm excited about this week's episode, for a number of different reasons -- not just because of who we have as our guest, but the fact that we've unpacked on previous episodes individuals' experiences, the role of the organization. And this week, we're really trying to focus more on those structural things and structural barriers. The work that we're doing at the Gallup Center on Black Voices is really around our jobs and work pillar is really trying to understand what are those kind of overall structural and systemic barriers that get in the way for Black Americans to get a job that allows them that opportunity to create equitable life outcomes. And so that's why for this week, I'm just excited that we're gonna be talking a little bit more about those, you know, structural barriers that exist. You know, those -isms. This is, this is new territory for us.

Ella Washington 01:05
Absolutely. And, you know, from a research perspective, it wasn't until the last 10 years that we even started to recognize that part of the D and I story is structure. That's why you see so many more companies in the last two years adding equity to their D and I efforts, which is great. You know, we love to see a more holistic focus around diversity, demographically and holistically, equity around structure and process, and inclusion around culture and how people feel within their teams and in the larger organization. And so I think what people really want to understand is the "How." So they're finally looking at things like, OK, structure is a part of this story that I have to pay attention to and I might have an opportunity to influence. But lots of people still just don't know how to do it. So, I am excited to hear from Dr. Toppin today on this specific subject.

Camille Lloyd 02:02
And Dr. Washington, I believe it clicked for me when I was hearing you talk one day, and you said, "Well, if you want to really quickly understand the D, the E and the I," and I'm not going to share it because it was your beautiful idea, where you said, you know, "If you think about diversity as the aggregate, ..." so I'm gonna let you finish that. But that, for me, is where it clicked. But I don't know that a lot of people and a lot of our listeners would understand the distinction between the work on when you're working on diversity, what's working on equity and what inclusion? And what are those kind of "unit of analysis" for a user research term, that are engaged in those different activities?

Ella Washington 02:37
Yeah. So I think people understand diversity is a lot about who's in the room, who's at the table. Demographics is a lot of what we lean on. But it's really the breadth of diversity that we really want to be thinking about. So, you know, the big three, I like to say, are race, gender and sexual orientation. But there's so many other facets of diversity. Beyond that, I think people are starting to understand that inclusion is both an active process -- you actually have to do something to include other people -- but also you have to do a pulse check on that emotional outcome. Are the things that I'm doing, at an individual level and at an organizational level, having the intended impact? So that's how I think about inclusion.

Ella Washington 03:19
But equity -- that, that piece that sits in the middle there -- is really about how the processes and policies of the organizations are making sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed. And we are dismantling the necessary structures that have created inequity in the first place. So it's not just about us doing the right thing in this moment, but it's also about looking back and seeing, Is this structure broken to begin with? Do we need to start from scratch? And sometimes you do.

Camille Lloyd 03:51
In this week's episode of Cultural Competence, we are excited to have Dr. Lisa Toppin. Dr. Toppin is Illumina's global head of diversity and inclusion. She joined the company in September 2020 and is responsible for overseeing all D&I efforts, including shaping Illumina's D&I strategy to evolve the company into a D&I leader; serving as a proactive critical adviser to the executive leadership team; spearheading employee resource groups in the diversity council; and fostering a culture of inclusion and fairness across all aspects of Illumina. Dr. Toppin has 20-plus years of experience as a human resource executive leading D&I functions at other companies, including Charles Schwab and LPL Financial. She has consulted at a variety of institutions, including financial services companies, universities, secondary schools and other community groups interested in improving their D&I outcomes. Welcome to Cultural Competence, Lisa!

Lisa Toppin 04:51
Thank you so much. So delighted to be with you.

Ella Washington 04:54
Hi Lisa. We're so happy to have you here. You know, the issue of creating a workplace that's inclusive for everyone and not just some groups, not only by addressing internal organizational barriers but also tackling some of those larger structural and societal barriers, is really important. Can you explain to our listeners what social oppression is, and how it shows up in the workplace?

Lisa Toppin 05:20
Sure. I think, I'm so glad we're having this conversation, because I think this is the piece now that we get to really understand and tackle. So the way I like to talk about social oppression, I think the easiest way to understand it is think of your -isms: think of sexism, racism, ableism, heterosexism and, and, and, you know, you understand the list. And so the, the way it, it operates, it's really sort of this, this larger system that we don't see. And it operates all of the time, and anybody can enact the tenets of the system on a person. So just as an example, as a woman, anybody could question you -- if you were sexually assaulted, anybody could question you, "Well, where were you? And how were you dressed?" And so they turned those things back on the victim. And that's sort of a normalized way of exploring or and/or understanding the things that happen in our society that -- blame the victim, keep the victim silent. And it's a, it's a, it's the way in which we perpetuate sexism, as an example.

Lisa Toppin 06:34
And I think the other part of your question really is, How does it show up in the workplace? Right? And so, so, you know, we're not typically running into situations where people are inappropriately dressed in the workplace. We're not questioning each other's, other's attire. But it's more like, things that keep the structures in place. So think of a hiring situation, and everybody's in the room, and everybody is explicitly supportive of bringing in diversity. And we want to have a diverse slate, and we're all for it. And then someone says, "But we want to make sure we hire the best candidate." And as soon as we say that, all systems stop and revert back to the expectations that we have that, in the back of our minds, the best candidate really is our white male counterpart. That's who, and that's who deserves the job, because after all, we are in business, and we want to be wildly successful, and we must always have what we perceive as the best candidate. That language perpetuates the system that keeps out, others out. So hope, hopefully that gets to sort of what you're what you're getting to.

Ella Washington 07:49
Absolutely. And, you know, as a follow up to that, I hear that exact scenario so much that you just talked about. I hear it with my clients in organizations; I hear it from my students who are really trying to grapple with these challenges as MBAs and undergrads. And it always just behoove me to have to break down to them, we're talking about structural issues here. But the behaviors and comments like the one you made, you know, assuming that the minority candidate is not the best person for the job, it reinforces those structures of inequity. And I think a lot of organizations really struggle with acknowledging that they had a structure of inequity to begin with. So in talking about hiring, in order to make it equitable for everyone, they have to acknowledge that the way we hire right now is not equitable. It's not about adding more women to the pot; it's not about adding more people of color, etc., or any of the -isms, right? It's more about, OK, how do we create a structure that's fair for everyone from the beginning? But that would mean that we have to acknowledge that something we've done along the way is incorrect.

Lisa Toppin 08:57
Oh, you make a huge, valuable point. That's true, and that's so hard. Because in some ways, acknowledging that it has, that that there has been some inequity in how we've been doing it is a takeaway from the people who are in place. So that means -- to follow that, that, thinking along -- that means that maybe I wasn't the best candidate. Maybe I'm not the best one, and that there was some advantage that I got that put me in this seat, and that, I don't want to think that. Like, who wants to think that? I want to think I was the best one. Y'all wanted the best candidate, and y'all got it. Right? And so that's the, that's the hurdle as, as you're describing that. But it's a really, really good point, and probably we don't talk about that enough. We got to, we got to acknowledge that we haven't been doing it as well as it can be done.

Camille Lloyd 09:45
So, that's a great point, because it made me ask a question. You gave the hiring example, and you and Dr. Washington were talking about how some of these structures exist. What are some of the constructs in our workplaces that facilitates or reinforces these socially oppressive practices? Because that's a little bit different, when you think about some of those structural things, that there are probably things in the way we operate, that, you know, or, you know, our organizations are, are set up, that facilitates some of these social oppressive practices. What are some of those?

Lisa Toppin 10:17
Well, I think, continuing in that same model, I think the idea, believing that managers have the answer and that they're equipped to deliver the answer. So if I ask you to rate your people or to assess your people and to tell me who you believe the right successor is, that what you submit to me is indeed a fair and right answer. And we haven't really changed our processes around talent management for many, many years. So if you go from one company to the next, the processes look the same in terms of performance management, talent review, succession planning, sort of, all of the -- I'm gonna say -- major structures of talent, they look similar across organizations. And we really haven't, I'm gonna say stopped to deconstruct them and then reconstruct them; to reconsider how they work and how they have social oppression baked in. And one of the, one of the big ones is of course, leveraging managers as, as being prepared and ready to, to deliver answers that are objective and unbiased and, and actually most accurate.

Camille Lloyd 11:28
What is tearing down? How do you address some of those issues? Can they be addressed? You know, where do you begin starting to tear some of those barriers down?

Lisa Toppin 11:36
Yeah, well, I think it goes back to what Dr. Washington said at the top, like we've got to, accept that the way we've been doing it hasn't been exactly equitable. I'm saying it with some euphemism built in, right, "exactly equitable," maybe -- maybe, you know, we have to accept that it hasn't been exactly fair. And so we've got to accept, you know, address, consider the idea that it could be better. Now that's to say that, you know, we've got some great people; companies have had great success. Obviously, we've leveraged some great talent for those outcomes. But what could it be if we got better at this?

Lisa Toppin 12:15
And I think giving us our, giving ourselves that space to get better at what it could be. I like what, I think it was Adam Grant in his Think Again book says: Throw out the idea of best practice. Like, let's step away from that, because that anchors you in what has been as the best way. And let's open it up and say, What could it be? How could we get to something really amazing? And we know we're leave, we know we're leaving talent on the table; we know we are. So we just have to, we've got to question our, question ourselves, I think, to, to get to the answer that you're asking for, but it can be done.

Ella Washington 12:51
And Lisa, what really that takes is a mindset shift. And, you know, many organizations are triaging right now, they're like, "Oh, we gotta fix this; make sure we do this quickly and right now, and we don't want to be embarrassed; we don't want to be behind our competitors. Our, our customers and employees are looking at us to do something right away." And so it's really this, this patchwork that they're doing, in a lot of instances. Even if they're hiring a brand new chief diversity officer, it's patchwork because they haven't thought about the structure of that role and how that role can be successful, and how everyone else in the organization will support the role.

Ella Washington 13:27
And so instead of having this triage, "Let's just fix it" mindset, what you're really calling for organizations to do, it sounds like, is to reimagine: like how do we kind of start from scratch, and are we bold enough and brave enough to do that? And, you know, I think some organizations want to, but they need a little bit of permission to do that.

Lisa Toppin 13:46
I think that's right, and I think that -- so I am; you've captured it well -- I am saying we've got to be bold and, and break the mold and try again and really pioneer, if you will, in terms of how we're thinking about this. And people do want -- people, people, we know that people were hurting after George Floyd, right? So many people across lots of communities, really hurting. And so the need, the want for immediate answers -- I get it. And we aren't going to train our way out of this, right? So the quick answer has always been, let's get some -- Dr. Washington, I know you've been talking about this -- we're not going to train our way out of it. And it requires really much deeper work, person by person, along with what we do at an organizational level.

Lisa Toppin 14:37
And so I think we, I think we have to give ourselves the time, but also the commitment to do that work. And, you know, and if, if people see that we're doing the work and if we're bringing people along in the work, then everybody will sort of have patience around the work, because it's complex. These things, I mean, these systems have been in place for, you know, hundreds, thousands of years. This is not new. So it's, it's, so we're not gonna solve it with, OK, well, we got the training program and, you know, that's good. We got it. Everybody's, everybody's all trained up. We got it. OK. That's, that's, that's not how this is gonna work. It's gonna really require deep work. I mean, I'm learning things every day.

Lisa Toppin 15:19
So my, my suggestion is, we're all carrying the, the tenets of social oppression. We're all applying them in different ways, right? So we, we don't see it. So one of the ways we talk about this at Illumina is practice. We have to practice. If we're going to get good, you have to practice. I, I always use yoga as my example, just because I think many people have now taken yoga classes. Right? So the yoga instruction, instructor always tells you to pay attention to your practice. So don't look on the, on your neighbor's mat, because right now they're in a position holding their foot over their head, standing on one foot. You can't do that! You're gonna hurt yourself. Don't do that. But, but if you pay attention to your practice, you'll take a vinyasa a little bit deeper each time. You know, that, it's your thing.

Lisa Toppin 16:16
So wherever you're starting in this work, that's your practice and the idea is that we continue to get better. There's not an answer; there's not a destination. We're constantly, we're constantly learning, constantly developing. There's more that we continue to, to get that becomes available for us to understand.

Ella Washington 16:33
So Dr. Toppin, dream with me a little bit. So one of the things that we are really, this, this idea of, of taking an objective approach. Over your career, you've worked with a number of different organizations in really trying to address some of these structural issues by taking an objective approach. What does building a talent process without social oppression look like? Dream with me.

Lisa Toppin 16:57
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. You know, it's not, it's not such a far reach, in terms of dream. I think that the, the tools are available; it's just assembling them in a, in a new way in terms of how we're thinking about it. Historically, I worked in an organization where we leveraged candidate assessment. And what we learned from candidate assessment is that we got a more, we were successful in selecting for talent that looked like our very best, best folks. What we also learned was it was a more diverse group. Like we were selecting in people from all different backgrounds, because we took the humans out of it, in terms of the selection.

Lisa Toppin 17:40
So there was no getting caught up in the fact that you went to the same school I went to, or you're from the same town I went to, or you got to -- the same dog I have. All of that came off of the table, and we started selecting talent based on objective measure. So that was that that's an easy example, and candid assessment tools have been around for a long time, and they're very effective at that. So why aren't we using them more? I think the other piece is leveraging what research has told us around process. So we know that interviewing in and of itself is the worst way to select talent. Now, how many organizations are still using interview as their primary way to select talent? Most everybody.

Lisa Toppin 18:22
And so exploring the, just the idea what research says about interviewing, well, if you use two people to evaluate one candidate at one time, the outcomes are much more objective. Because something happens when I'm in the room with you. I'm much more objective in terms of my assessment of you because you're watching me, and I'm watching you. And so we get better at our ability to assess. The candidate experience is still great, and you're getting that -- to better outcomes. Now the research, that's been sitting there for a time, but most companies don't do that. We still do it one by one by one. And, you know, so there's, the ways in which we could leverage what we already know. We just haven't assembled it in a way that actually gives us the lift that we're, that we're all looking for.

Ella Washington 19:15
Dr. Toppin, you are hitting on my personal passion of connecting research and practice. You know, we don't do it. As, you know, there's been so much research done in the academic space. Practitioners are really, you know, doing valuable work. But if we don't connect the two, we're missing out. And we are behind in both spaces because we're not learning from the other space; we're not using that as a feedback loop. And so I love that example that you're giving. And, you know, some organizations just may not know, right, about the research. But there's plenty that, when shown the research, they still continue this inertia of, continue to do what they've always done because it's worked -- in their opinion -- in the past, and not looking at it as something that hasn't worked in the past.

Lisa Toppin 20:01
Yeah, no, I like what you said there, just, just in terms of connecting the two. So this means master's students, doctoral students -- give them access to your organizations. Allow them to conduct the research that then you can turn on and use very practically, very immediately. Now, of course I'm biased, because at one point I was a doctoral student looking for sites. Right? So I'm just, I'm always plugging; I got to, I got to support my folks. But, but there is a very practical outcome of, you know, leveraging that and using that as a tool, because doctoral students will help you get to where you're trying to go, using and understanding your organization. It's where research and practice come together in a beautiful way.

Camille Lloyd 20:44
So maybe this is a question for both of you -- Dr. Washington and Dr. Toppin. And it might be an unpopular opinion -- so back to our Cultural Competence unpopular opinion -- Can we truly solve for this? We're talking about human beings, and the fact that you're trying to somehow, you know, mitigate human behavior is impossible. Can we truly solve for this, where leaders can aim to be better and, and, and have better processes and change the current processes and, and, and put that research into practice? Is it feasible?

Ella Washington 21:17
Well, I would say, it starts with first acknowledging that this is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Right? And so I love Dr. Toppin's example of, you know, not comparing your practice to other people's practice. Because, as you've heard me say before, the No. 1 question I get from leaders are, Where are we on the journey? And how do we compare to other folks? And while that's valuable information, it doesn't tell us what we really need to know of, you know, what, what are our pain points for our people in our organization, and how can we solve them? And how do we show progress internally? And so I see it as acknowledgment of, there's an individual and an organizational process at play here. And the two certainly feed off of one another. So I think we've been talking a lot about the organizational structures, which are key to change. However, I would love for Dr. Toppin to weigh in on that individual inclusive leadership side. Like what roles do leaders play in this ecosystem of breaking down the structural barriers?

Lisa Toppin 22:18
Well, I mean leaders play a key role, because we're still operating in an organizational structure. Right? And so there are, there is leadership. And the power of leadership, I think, can be found in, I would say the research of Tom Rath and Barrie Conchie on followership. And they, they put forth a very, what I'm going to describe as, a very elegant model. It's very practical and accessible and useful to understand how, what you are actually doing day to day. And the four tenets are: trust, compassion, stability and hope. So the idea is, those are the reasons why a person chooses to follow you. So if those are the four reasons. As a leader, how am I delivering on that? How am I, am I, am I trustworthy? Should you trust me? So you might trust me, but should you trust me? Am I really delivering on your behalf?

Lisa Toppin 23:12
Compassion is all about not only having empathy for your set of circumstances, but wanting to do something about it. It's not enough just to have empathy. You gotta wanna, you gotta want to care and to, to, to take action. Stability is all about steadying the ship, right? How do you give me cover until we get to fairer winds, or how do you, how do you get us through this difficult time? And I'm looking to leaders to do that.

Lisa Toppin 23:40
And then finally, hope. Like, do you see possibilities for me in the future? Can it work out? So every leader can assess themselves against that model every day. I, I assess myself against that model in parenting, right? I want, I want to be the first call with -- if my kids ever run into difficulty; I want them to say, "I should call mom," because they know they can trust me. Because they know I'm gonna respond with compassion. Because they know it's going to be steady. Because they know that I'm going to always point toward what's next and how we're gonna get out of it and what the future is. So when they say, "I know what you're gonna say," that tells me that I've given good stability because I'm consistent. "You know what I'm gonna say. So why did you do that?" So it explains everything. So I think leaders can use that model with everybody. And if you're extending that to everybody, by definition, you're starting to build inclusion.

Ella Washington 24:40
I just love that model. I mean, I think it's so valuable. It gives us tactical things that we all connect with. You know, when, when, those four words, when you said it, I could imagine what that looks like at home, right? But also in the workplace, what a good manager might show up by doing those things. And it's not rocket science; it's humanity at its core. But it does take intention. So thank you for sharing that.

Lisa Toppin 25:03

Camille Lloyd 25:05
Dr. Toppin, what are some of those common pitfalls you believe organizations make when trying to address inclusion?

Lisa Toppin 25:11
Yeah, no, I think the, the biggest one is not appreciating the kind of help and support that managers need to do this well, and not leveraging the tools and -- to Dr. Washington's earlier point -- the research that's available to really firm up the process. So sometimes we're running really fast. We want to have a fast answer. We want to prove a fast outcome. And that's not the nature of this work. And I think our, our leaning toward fast outcomes is major league in our way. And then looking to the humans that we haven't trained, that we haven't supported, that we haven't developed to look at talent in a different way for answers and/or to deliver something different than what they have known, is not fair. It's not the right setup. And I think that's, that's hugely in our way as well.

Ella Washington 26:10
So Dr. Toppin, you have had a illustrious career doing this work, doing the hard work. And we know that sometimes it can be frustrating, right? Sometimes it can even be demotivating, because there's no end to this journey. However I do like to kind of imagine what would a utopia look like? What would workplace utopia around these DE&I structural issues look like? So I'll ask you, when you imagine, you know, the best organization that it could be, What does that look like?

Lisa Toppin 26:41
Well, I imagine. So not only, not only are we leveraging the, the tools and the research that are available to us, but that through the fabric of the organization, leaders have done the work. So when new leaders come in, they're pushed and have the opportunity to do the work. So it's self-replicating. It's like good genes; they keep showing up. And so you've got to create the kind of cultural experience that allows for that kind of, I'm gonna call a gene replication. And so I think we've got to get to that. And so you find the first layer and we create it, and then we start to continue to advance it and then eventually get to a place where we really embed it in the, in the, in the fabric. So that as things are happening, it's not just my voice in the room that's saying, "Well, what about inclusion? or "What about diversity?" or "What about belonging?" Like everybody's bringing it up -- so much so that I can't get to it fast enough. And I'm feeling a little, I'm feeling a little vulnerable, like maybe I don't have a really strong job. Like I've worked myself out of a job. Like that's, that's the utopia: when the organization is happening in such a way where I'm like, "Shoot, where can I, where else can I play? Because I think I'm, I think I'm done." So --

Ella Washington 28:06
I mean, that's really the best-case scenario, right? When we have changed our culture so much that, you know, someone who is not, not down with inclusion, not down with equity and diversity, they don't even want to be here because it doesn't feel comfortable for them anymore. We make it uncomfortable for them to exist in a space where this is not the foundation of who we are. So, I love that. Thank you, Dr. Toppin. And we have really enjoyed the conversation today. Thank you for your insights and your wealth of knowledge and experience. We'd love to tell our listeners how they can stay up to date with your work. So where can they find you?

Lisa Toppin 28:41
Oh, thank you! Well, they can certainly find me on -- my web page is, and at LinkedIn Dr. Lisa Toppin, and Twitter Dr. Lisa Toppin. So looking forward to connecting with folks and, and continuing the conversation. I thank you so much for, for having me. I've, I've enjoyed this immensely.

Ella Washington 29:02
Thank you. And that's this week's episode of Cultural Competence. I'm Dr. Ella Washington

Camille Lloyd 29:08
And I'm Camille Lloyd.

Camille Lloyd 29:12
That's our podcast. To subscribe to Cultural Competence from any podcast app, just search "Cultural Competence." You can learn more about the Gallup Center on Black Voices by visiting Cultural Competence is directed by Curtis Grubb and produced by Justin McCarthy. I'm Camille Lloyd.

Ella Washington 29:29
And I'm Dr. Ella Washington.

Camille Lloyd 29:30
Thanks for tuning in to Cultural Competence -- a diversity and inclusion podcast.

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