Strategic Essentialism and Employee Resource Groups

However, antisubordination activists have engaged in a form of strategic essentialism as a means of resistance (Spivak, 1989). Mimicking conventional strategies of nonsubordinated power holders, strategic essentialism is a move by members of a subordinated category to simplify group identity and counter normative expectations.

Source: DisCrit—Disability Studies and Critical Race Theory in Education (Disability, Culture, and Equity Series) (p. 205). Teachers College Press. Kindle Edition.

Strategic Essentialism “…refers to a political tactic in which minority groups, nationalities, or ethnic groups mobilize on the basis of shared gendered, cultural, or political identity to represent themselves. While strong differences may exist between members of these groups, and amongst themselves they engage in continuous debates, it is sometimes advantageous for them to temporarily “essentialize” themselves and to bring forward their group identity in a simplified way to achieve certain goals…

Strategic essentialism is new vocabulary for me. I picked it up recently in my disability studies reading and am still learning how to apply it. I’m particularly interested in how it applies to running an Employee Resource Group.

This first thing that came to mind as I read the paragraph above from DisCrit is John Elder Robison’s piece that talks about using “neurodivergent” instead of diagnostic labels to build coalition.

When schools and workplaces move from autism programs to neurodiversity programs, they include every person with a cognitive difference, not just autistic people. The tent gets bigger, and it has room for all.

Whether your goal is competitive advantage or human service, you should be able to meet your goals better under a Neurodiversity at Work banner, as opposed to an Autism at Work one. In both cases the supports needed are similar, but the neurodivergent population is substantially larger than the “only autistic” population so your chances of success are magnified.

While labels like ADHD, autism, dyslexia, or PDD-NOS may be useful for therapists and childhood educators, the community-sourced alternative “neurodivergent” is probably better suited for colleges and workplaces. In those spaces, medical labels carry stigma that leads to conscious and unconscious marginalization. Expectations are always lower for people with disability diagnoses.

Neurodiversity is a new concept but the underlying reality has been part of human society forever. In the modern era work and school programs designed for the average person have excluded those whose cognitive styles fall outside that narrow midrange. Despite that, workplaces – including colleges – already contain plenty of neurodiversity so a primary program goal should be the better support of those people. Neurodiversity at School and at Work is not just about bringing new people into the fold.

The newest Neurodiversity initiatives recognize this fact.

By embracing the neurodiversity model instead of autism, employers can move toward a more inclusive welcoming environment.

Source: The Next Step for Neurodiversity | Psychology Today

I like to solve for the infinity, foreground complexity as the baseline, design for the edges, and design for pluralism. Sometimes, doing that requires coalition built on strategic essentialism.

…creating coalitions can subvert dominant hierarchies and transform the status quo.

Source: DisCrit—Disability Studies and Critical Race Theory in Education (Disability, Culture, and Equity Series) (p. 205). Teachers College Press. Kindle Edition.

Individuals, however, do not experience identity as a fractured reality. If we start instead with this understanding of intersectionality informed by DisCrit, the multivariant nature of experience may be a place for coalition.

Source: DisCrit—Disability Studies and Critical Race Theory in Education (Disability, Culture, and Equity Series) (p. 212). Teachers College Press. Kindle Edition.

I’m very glad to see the neurodiversity and queer ERGs at my workplace addressing gatekeeping, being broadly inclusive, and working together. This seems like healthy essentialism on which coalition and community can grow.

Community is magic.

Community is power.

Community is resistance.

Source: Disability Visibility: First Person Stories from the 21st Century

Do Not Be the Oppressor: Unlocking the Power of Employee Resource Groups

“It’s not the ERG’s responsibility to keep telling stories you’ve already heard repeatedly.” —Dominique Hollins

I love that line. It gets to the heart of advocacy and activist burnout.

There are lots of stand out lines in this talk that resonate with my DEI experience:

“Show me the money, and I’ll show you the outcome.”

“How are you gonna drive a DEI strategy with absolutely nobody in place to maintain continuity and accountability?”

“If you don’t have a dedicated person, how do you further this work?”

“Are we perpetuating oppression among our own by only focusing on our needs?”

“Don’t perpetuate oppression.”

“Prioritize the most marginalized, and we’ll all rise together.”

“To not have conversations because they make you uncomfortable is the definition of privilege. Your comfort is not at the center of this discussion.” —Brené Brown

“Every person who is struggling right now does not have the luxury to wait. We are literally dying.”

“Do not be the oppressor. You are perpetuating the pain.”

Neurodiversity Employee Resource Group at Automattic

Members of Automattic’s neurodivergent community launched this ERG in 2020 to support neurodivergent Automatticians, serve as a resource for Automattic at large, and promote the principles of neurodiversity.

Source: Employee Resource Groups – Automattic

I’m happy to say we have a Neurodiversity ERG at Automattic.

Some of our goals:

  • Advocate for neurodiversity-related improvements to hiring and team practices across the company
    • Work with TalentOps to review and improve onboarding for new hires and new team leads by adding neurodiversity resources
    • Be a resource for team leads, meetup planners, etc. to ask questions, so that it’s not entirely on team members to educate
  • Support our neurodivergent community internally
    • Provide resources for neurodiverseomatticians to learn more about their own neurodivergence
    • Promote ERG members’ accomplishments
  • Support our neurodivergent community externally
    • Put together resources for awareness days/months
    • Bring in neurodivergent speakers for internal talks
    • Attend, sponsor, and support neurodivergent-in-tech events
  • Examine internalized standards regarding competence, communication, and other traits valued at Automattic which are expressed differently by neurodivergent people
  • Stand in solidarity with groups who often overlap with us: physically disabled and mentally ill people in particular

Some things an ERG can help with:

At 90 percent of the companies I examined, ERG members helped new employees to get comfortable during the onboarding process. Studies show that the first 60 to 90 days of employment are a critical time for any new hire, and they can be particularly challenging for members of traditionally underrepresented groups. That short window of time can mean the difference between whether an employee stays for the long run or leaves the organization before the year is out. ERGs can be leveraged to acclimate employees and engender a sense of loyalty and belonging to their new company.

These groups can also be great partners for identifying gaps in an organization’s talent development process.

Many companies also successfully use their ERGs to improve the organization’s leadership development process, to drive results, to forge relationships, and to ensure alignment between their business and diversity strategies.

Source: Are Employee Resource Groups Good for Business?

Employee Resource Groups have evolved from employee support networks created to achieve diversity and inclusion to a strategic resources that enhances business outcomes in the following areas:

  1. Involve employees in recruitment and talent management efforts
  2. Offer leadership development and mentoring opportunities
  3. Capitalize on the knowledge of diverse employees to create consumer sensitive branding and product development
  4. Create an engaged and inclusive work environment
  5. Promote your organization as an employer of choice and community partner

Source: Employee Resource Groups: A Strategic Business Resource for Today’s Workplace

Cultural competence is a business imperative that can no longer be ignored and employee resource groups must serve as the engine to make us all smarter about the future that awaits.

Source: 7 Ways to Enable Your Employee Resource Groups into a Powerful Advancement Platform

A big downside of ERGs that we hope to avoid:

We joined the ERG because we needed help, but we became the help.

Source: Black employee groups in Silicon Valley find that their unpaid second job just got harder – The Washington Post