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IDEAS

  • Writer's pictureFletcher Consulting

Several years ago, I was in Nashville with my daughter Maya, visiting colleges. We went to lunch with my aunt and a bunch of her friends who were in their early to mid 60s. 


They were all gushing over how pretty and smart Maya was. (Correctly, I must say). 


And at least two of them said, “Ooh, I want to introduce you to my son!” 


Maya just smiled and didn’t say anything. But I knew what she wanted to say—and afterward she confirmed it:


“Do you also have any daughters?” 


Maya came out as bi in high school. Right from the start it was very important to her that people know that about her, and not assume based on her appearance that she was straight. I remember she sat me and her father down and presented us all with this research she had done to help us get ourselves educated. 


I’m still grateful for that education.


Like many people, I’ve made assumptions about people’s sexual orientation based on how they look to me. I suspect I often go for heterosexual as the default. I usually don’t even know I’ve made an assumption until someone tells me and I find myself feeling surprised.


In a recent workshop, a woman who works in property management and construction raised her hand to share that male contractors and vendors she meets through work routinely ask her what her husband does. 


But she has a wife. 


As far as they’re concerned, she presents as “feminine”—which they conflate with “attracted to men.” 


The participant went on to explain that when they do that, it forces her to make a choice between correcting them—when she might not be interested in sharing personal information—or letting it go and feeling inauthentic and unseen. 


The lesson, of course, is to practice a simple change in our language: say “spouse” or “partner” or “significant other” if you are referring to a couple whose genders you don’t know. Intellectually you know that you can marry someone of your own gender, but our small-talk habits may not have caught up.


A few weeks ago I wrote a similar thing about misgendering someone. The fact is, our society is in the midst of a dramatic shift in acknowledging and including a wider range of gender identities and relationships. 


Everyone should be able to be themselves and not conform to the binaries and homophobia that have been enforced for a century. Adjusting our language accordingly is simply a matter of etiquette. 


P.S. Ever since Maya started dating Olivia, many people have assumed she is a lesbian. Now they are engaged to be married—and Maya is still bi. Assumptions abound.

“Getting older is cool—everybody is doing it.” 


That’s what Nora Moreno Cargie said to me earlier this year when I was interviewing her for a LeadBoston program. 


As I celebrated my birthday yesterday (happy birthday to me!) I remembered that quote and cracked up again.


But then I thought about it, and I realized it’s funny because it’s, well, a joke. Aging isn’t cool. At least, it isn’t treated that way in our culture. Women especially seem to drop in status as we get older. 


This phenomenon comes up sometimes in my workshops. Recently I was working with a group of new managers, discussing the behaviors of managers they had experienced over the years. Which would they want to emulate or avoid? 


I was listening to one small group discussion and heard a participant share how frustrating it is when a senior member of a team isn’t willing to use technology. Failure to use it makes more work for everybody else. 


Others at the table piped in with comments implying that age made it harder for them to learn, that they didn’t want to put in the effort, and that they were stuck in their old way of doing things. 


Now, I can certainly understand the frustration. But I wondered if these young managers were making assumptions about why their older colleagues weren’t using the technology. 


Back in the large group discussion, I probed a little. The participant acknowledged it was possible that the senior colleague had had a bad experience with the tech. Even she admitted it didn’t always work well.


I probably recognized that potential bias because it’s one I’ve caught myself experiencing. Not long after the workshop, I was at the grocery store heading for the checkout lane. When I saw an older person in front of me, I thought for a moment, “Uh oh, this lady will be slow, confused about the buttons, and needing a lot of assistance. I’d better switch lines.”  


Then I paused. I was doing it again—jumping to stereotypes I’d picked up and judging someone unfairly. 


When I stopped to look at my fellow shopper, I could see she was moving with agility, quite able to lift the detergent bottles to the belt, and already had her credit card out to tap on the machine. 


Other cultures revere their elders, and the wisdom they have to share from their experience. What is it about our culture that we have so much trouble embracing this idea? Like all biases, ageism makes us miss out on people’s inherent value. Why sideline people who still have more to give? 


I guess this question feels especially resonant today, as I am a year closer to being one of the elders!

  • Writer's pictureFletcher Consulting

Critics say the field of DEI is ineffective. But we are hearing very different opinions from our clients.


“Objectively, we’ve gotten better because of this work,” says Chuck Wehrwein, COO of Housing Partnership Network, a national collaborative of housing and community development organizations. “Our fundraising is up. Our capital placement is up. We're thriving.”


I asked HPN’s leadership team to share their story as an example for others—and they jumped at the chance. They described a journey that grew organically in order to solve specific organizational challenges:


  1. Data. When HPN initially invested in DEI work years ago, their goal was to retain employees and increase the diversity of their team. Gievaughann Brown, Senior Talent & Culture Associate, brought data-driven tools to mitigate bias in every step of the recruitment journey, from job descriptions to candidate sourcing, interviews, and selection. “I've seen from our past data points till now the increase in Black and brown people and people of color that have been hired throughout the organization over the years.”

  2. Conversations. This increased diversity led to deeper shifts. “As our staff has changed, it influences the conversations that we have about the programs and services that we deliver to our members,” says Robin Hughes, who became HPN’s first Black President & CEO in 2022. At a recent meeting of member organizations, participants bravely shared real-life experiences and stressed the importance of centering racial equity in serving their mission.

  3. Skill Building. The staff realized they needed support to overcome discomfort and translate the conversations into actionable change. Sherry Burton, Vice President of Talent & Culture, took on this challenge, alongside her colleague Gievaughann. “How do we more formally approach this, outside of just ‘how are we feeling?’” Sherry asked. Fletcher Consulting was honored to provide a year-long learning series to provide tools to the entire organization: clarifying terms, analyzing case studies, and practicing core skills like interrupting bias, sustaining an inclusive culture, and identifying systemic barriers to equity.

  4. Strategy. Now, DEI is deeply integrated into all aspects of the organization. “We are not just checking off a box,” Robin stresses. “It's not just in Talent and Culture—it's in how we procure vendors, how we engage with members, and how they engage with their residents. It’s in our strategic framework and operational plan, where we've given a lot of priority to housing justice and racial equity.” 


As proud as HPN’s leaders are of the progress and impact of DEI, they are frustrated by the growing backlash in the field. “Our members have experienced waning philanthropic support funding DEI work,” Robin shared. “They also have expressed concerns that those commitments made by corporate America are not being realized.“


But she emphasizes that HPN is an example of why it’s worth persisting. “In terms of our commitment as an organization,” Robin confirms, “I don't see that waning at all. It makes us better as a company. And it's the right thing to do.”

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