Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Death by a thousand paper cuts: How subtle workplace discrimination can undermine our sense of self

By better understanding how identity threat plays out, organizations can recognize when it's occurring in their midst and react quickly

Published: Oct 23, 2023 04:24:41 PM IST
Updated: Oct 25, 2023 10:05:30 AM IST

Death by a thousand paper cuts: How subtle workplace discrimination can undermine our sense of selfFeeling that their leader identity was valued less by others and that they may no longer be able to express their leader identity was linked to women’s emotional exhaustion. Image: Shutterstock

Diversity and inclusion are global priorities, and there’s evidence that authenticity at work can impact well-being: this points to the importance of a workplace where employees feel welcome and comfortable being themselves. To make this happen, this points to the importance of a workplace where employees feel welcome and comfortable being themselves. To make this happen, we need to have a better grasp of what happens when “who we are” is called into question. Researchers call this experience “identity threat”. Identity threat can result from discrimination at work or certain types of organizational culture, and it can lead to burnout and turnover. Using their newly developed scale in an article now published by the Journal of Applied Psychology, Karoline Strauss, Professor of Management at ESSEC, Maïlys George (former PhD candidate at ESSEC and now Assistant Professor at EDHEC Business School), Julija Mell (Rotterdam School of Management) and Heather C. Vough (George Mason University) studied how people react to identity threat and pinpoint the triggers and outcomes of these threats (1).

When someone asks who you are, what comes to mind? The answers form your identities, and you can hold multiple identities at the same time. It encompasses how we perceive ourselves, and can be related to our demographic characteristics, our relationships, or our societal roles. For example, you might identify as a woman, as a leader, as a lawyer, as a friend… When you experience an “identity threat”, it means that “who you are” is in question, which can be a destabilizing experience. This can have far-reaching consequences beyond the affected person, and even impact the organization and society at large.

Dr. Strauss and her colleagues developed a scale to measure identity threat, and then studied identity threat in samples of pregnant female leaders and professionals who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community. By better understanding how identity threat plays out, organizations can recognize when it’s occurring in their midst and react quickly.

Also read: Working moms are mostly thriving again. Can we finally achieve gender parity?

Leading while pregnant

Pregnancy can be a challenging time for professional women, and not just for the clear health reasons: pregnant women often experience discrimination and a lack of support in the workplace. Pregnant leaders may face additional issues, since people often associate leadership with “stereotypically masculine” traits (2) and many pregnant women are concerned that others will treat them differently because of their pregnancy (3).

This can mean that women may experience a threat to their leader identity while pregnant. After studying almost 200 pregnant women in leadership roles at two time points, looking at how their experience has changed since becoming pregnant, the researchers found that when pregnant women experienced unsupportive workplaces, they tended to feel higher levels of identity threat. Feeling that their leader identity was valued less by others and that they may no longer be able to express their leader identity was linked to women’s emotional exhaustion. Women who felt that the meaning of their leader identity was under threat were also more likely to want to give up their leadership role altogether.

Also read: Why workplaces need to embrace multi-dimensional identities


The LGBTQ+ community

Members of the LGBTQ+community still face both covert and overt discrimination in the workplace, ranging from micro-aggressions to more blatant discrimination. It can also be complicated to navigate at work: research from ESSEC professor Junko Takagi found that it’s something new graduates take under consideration during their job search (4). Using their novel identity threat scale, Dr. Strauss and her colleagues found that individuals who experienced discrimination often also felt that their LGBTQ+ identity was under threat, which in turn left them feeling emotionally drained and considering leaving their job.

These findings suggest that the consequences of identity threat stemming from workplace discrimination can be severe, and include emotional exhaustion, burnout, and intentions to quit one’s job or profession. This could mean that talented people leave their company or even their profession entirely, and it may lead to a brain drain if companies do not cultivate a supportive environment.

As more and more organizations are implementing diversity and inclusion policies and training, the new measure of identity threat the researchers developed could help these initiatives be more effective by assessing changes in identity threat levels before and after such initiatives – therefore also making companies more accountable. This can even be done at a lower level, by individual managers who want to support their team members and evaluate the impact of a given change initiative.

When employees experience identity threat, it can have implications for both the individual and the organization. This means it’s key for researchers and employers to understand identity threats to better support employees and make it possible to safely bring their whole self to work.

This article was first published in ESSEC Knowledge

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