Women of Color: Lived Experiences with Inequality

GSEHD professor Shaista E. Khilji’s research explores individual experiences of inequality in organizations and its lasting impact.

Shaista E. Khilji
Shaista E. Khilji moderated roundtable discussions about personal experiences or observation of inequality and its impact. (Photo by William Atkins/GW Today)
February 04, 2020

By Tatyana Hopkins

While women of color are a growing force in workplaces around the nation, they still face systemic challenges in achieving equality within their organizations that have negative effects on their well-being, said Shaista E. Khilji, a professor of human and organizational learning at the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development.

“Women’s experiences illustrate systemic dehumanization within organizations that both test as well as challenge their self-worth, contributions and well-being,” said Dr. Khilji, who is also a professor of international affairs with the Elliott School of International Affairs.

Dr. Khilji spoke about the inequality that women of color face in the workplace at a discussion that previewed her most recent research, where, as part of a qualitative study, she spoke with participants of different races, genders and ages about their personal and workplace experiences with inequality to uncover patterns of exclusion and/or inclusion.

The full report is currently under review. Her preview, part of GW’s MLK Jr. Week celebration, was hosted in partnership with the Nashman Center of Civic Engagement and Public Service and Faculty Senate’s University and Urban Affairs Committee.

 “Women spoke of the pain that institutionalized inequality and everyday experiences inflicted on them,” she said. “Participants described various layers and enduring patterns of exclusion within their organizations that proved challenging for their well-being as well as restricted their career and social mobility.”

Dr. Khilji said the experiences of the women of color in the study illustrated the persistence of rigid social categorization that perpetuate and create inequalities within organizations. For example, she said non-neutral expectations women of color encountered in the workplace often collided with their individual self-perception.

She noted examples from her study including a Latina immigrant, Ellie (a pseudonym used for anonymity), who felt the need to hide parts of her identity. Ellie avoided sharing details about her culture to circumvent possible negative reactions from her co-workers, which in turn prevented her from building meaningful relationships in the office. An African American woman study participant, Scarlett (a pseudonym used for anonymity), shared that she felt like she constantly had to prove herself and struggled with gaining a sense of belonging at work.

“I found several examples of women deliberately engaging in equalizing efforts to overcome othering in their organization,” Dr. Khliji said.

She said women of color were disproportionately underrepresented in leadership, were less likely to feel that their ideas were valued and more likely to feel the need to defend their competence or that their success came at the cost of their authenticity. As a result, she said, many women spoke of building their skills as an equalizing factor to overcome patterns of exclusion and restriction on their careers.

Following a presentation of her research findings, Dr. Khliji and Zoe King, M.A. ’19, a senior recruitment partner in the division of Human Resource Management and Development, led a roundtable discussion, where event attendees shared how cultural, political and class structures shaped their experiences or observations of inequality.

“It looks like everybody in this room has experienced inequalities,” Dr. Khliji said.
“As we all know, inequality is a daily experience, and for some of us, it is a moment by moment experience.”

She said although many sociologists have argued that inequality is an inherent part of society, we must also focus on the debilitating social and emotional impact it has on individuals. Therefore, she said research should consider inequality “beyond numbers” and aggregate human experiences. 

“If we really want to address inequality, we must first start focusing on humanity because this is what really matters at the end of the day,” she said. “People want to be treated with respect, people want to be treated with fairness, and people want to be heard and listened to. If we can make that tiny little switch in our daily interactions with others, I think we will probably start addressing some of the challenges that make inequality so very difficult to talk about and address.”

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