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The impact of code-switching on underrepresented demographics in the workplace


It’s Monday morning, and it’s time for work. Black women are flat-ironing natural curls and forgoing their favorite shade of lipstick. Non-native English speakers from all walks of life are practicing greetings and pronunciations. People who don’t conform to one gender are wondering if a blouse could mean termination or worse. Skirt or trousers? Hijab or not? My birth name or something easier to grasp?

For many people, this Monday morning routine is just the beginning step required to navigate the world, in or outside of the office. The Harvard Business Review defines code-switching as “adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities.” That means much more than remembering to shower after your run; it means conscientiously covering your background to be more presentable in standardized settings.

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Putting on your professional self

Each of these actions relies on social norms and is inherently indicative of the cultural context in which it sits. For many in the United States, code-switching is a daily practice. It requires a prescribed set of behaviors and script-adherence, enforced primarily because “if your presentation doesn’t make sense, you won’t make cents either.” The capitalist framework that our country believes in ensures that any deviation from the traditional behaviors of a professional context can, and often does, affect the bottom line. Promotions, salary negotiations, and inclusion are often contingent upon playing by the rules.

But what if you don’t know the rules? Or, what if the very existence of those traditional behaviors is an affront to your authentic identity? When does the cost of professional assimilation outweigh a weekly paycheck? For people from underrepresented groups, traditional work environments can require a kind of cultural contortion that is invisible to those who are a part of majority culture, or who are so acclimated to professional norms that the cost appears negligible. In short, it requires code-switching.

In practice, code-switching might entail stifling an accent so as not to betray one’s ethnic heritage or allow their pronunciation to be scrutinized as an indicator of intelligence. It might also mean donning a suit, tie, or heels instead of garments that warrant religious, ethnic, or gender identification. For others, it can feel like the stripping, scrubbing, and erasure of any differentiating factors: the burying of any character qualities that make us feel unique. 

Standing out, after all, could mean the loss of opportunity. To note this, though, is to acknowledge the existence of in-groups and out-groups that make code-switching possible and often necessary. There is a certain standard — largely upheld by Western, white, heteronormative structures –that deems all others identities as non-normative and, therefore, substandard. 

So, why do people code-switch? What is the trade-off for downplaying individual identity in the workplace?

The gains of code-switching are strikingly clear. When professionals code-switch, they’re more likely to be hired, taken seriously in the workplace, and deemed worthy of leadership positions. To assimilate in the workplace could mean the gain of significant income and opportunity throughout a career. In a blog dedicated entirely to the topic, NPR’s “Code Switch” delves into what is gained by consciously (or subconsciously) participating in the practice. Sometimes, it means adopting a Southern y’all to earn a hefty tip, adopting one’s native dialect on a business trip to earn a client’s trust, or modifying behavior to preserve diplomacy (yes, even for former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle).

In the book Working Identity, legal scholars Mitu Gulati and Devon Carbado argue that “minority professionals tread cautiously to avoid upsetting the majority group’s sensibilities […] they can be visibly Black, but don’t want to be perceived as stereotypically Black.” Chemically straightened hair and a calm, approachable demeanor? Yes. Dreadlocks, assertive communication, and hoop earrings? 

Absolutely not. 

However, people are not chameleons. All of this shapeshifting comes at a cost. The physical, emotional, and physiological effects of stifling natural expression in the workplace have been studied, and the effects are devastating. The sheer loss of productivity and innovative thought that could be powerful catalysts for social progress are lost due to conscious and unconscious bias.

What does code-switching say about us and about work?

In more ways than one, the pandemic swing toward working from home has lain bare the value of professional code-switching. People from underrepresented and underserved groups who have the privilege of working from home have taken to social media to unleash a collective exhale: without the social pressures of an office environment, they can collectively recover from the demands of performative professionalism. Could the solution to code-switching be found in the throes of a global pandemic? Could a silver lining have revealed itself outside of the traditional office context? 

Perhaps the shift to remote work will serve to make us more aware of what’s actually essential for professional success, peeling away what should have never mattered in the first place. Nevermind the coils in their hair, the lilt of their voice, or their resistance to a weekend round of golf to earn a seat on the Board. Can the person on the other side of the inbox do this work well? That’s the question we should have been asking in the first place.

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Ashley Strahm is a content strategist, activist, and writer in Durham, NC. A Guyanese-American tri-state transplant, she is committed to justice, enthralled by stories, and inspired by the prospect of an equitable future for all.

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