Covering in the Workplace

Downplaying or masking certain facets of one’s identity can undermine one’s sense of well-being and efforts for authenticity at work.

By Marcie Mathis, SWE Editorial Board defines covering as “the act of hiding or downplaying aspects of one’s identity in order to try to match — or to avoid violating — the norms of a group. This often involves aspects of a person’s identity that they believe will be viewed negatively or result in mistreatment, such as those related to their culture, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality, among many others.” Examples include a Black woman’s avoiding natural hairstyles, a parent’s refraining from mentioning child care responsibilities, or a gay employee’s avoiding dancing with their partner at a company party.

To further clarify how this plays out in the workplace, in a She+ Geeks Out blog (“Superhero Series: What It Means to Cover or Pass at Work,” Dec. 5, 2018) Rachel Murray writes: “To distinguish between covering and passing, when someone covers they have disclosed their identity to others, but are downplaying its significance — as opposed to passing, where the individual is striving to make sure that they completely hide their identity from those around them.”

In his 2007 book, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, Kenji Yoshino, J.D., delves into legal and philosophical ideas about covering. He defines the concept of four axes of covering: appearance, affiliation, advocacy, and association. He asserts, “Our major civil rights laws … do not currently provide much protection against covering demands.” (I recommend the book if you want to learn more.)

While there have been many court cases tied to covering, such as employer-mandated hairstyles, most covering expectations take place on an ongoing personal level, rather than as employer demanded. To put it in perspective for myself, I look back at some of the times during my career when I have felt the need to cover. When I began my engineering career, I felt I wouldn’t be taken as seriously if I didn’t act like “one of the guys.” In some ways it was easy because I am interested in technology and like football, so not all of it was covering for me. But trying to fit in also meant I stayed away from some of my favorite hobbies, such as quilting and other needlework because I thought them too feminine. I hadn’t done much needlework while I was a student, and because I felt a need to downplay my interest, I took years to get back to it. Now it’s one of the things I enjoy the most. This covering wasn’t demanded of me but was a perception on my part.

Other examples in my life include that, even though I am out as a gay woman and active in my LGBTQ+ employee resource group, I still am not comfortable putting up pictures at my desk of just my partner and myself and instead have one of us in a group, or talking about my family in many work situations even when other folks are talking about theirs. I am also not part of the majority religion, and I am often uneasy about admitting that at work.

How prevalent is covering?

A 2018 survey¹ by Deloitte University was distributed to employees in organizations spanning 10 different industries. The 3,129 respondents included a mix of ages, genders, races/ethnicities, and orientations. The respondents also came from various levels of seniority within their organizations. Deloitte found that: “83% of LGB individuals, 79% of Blacks, 67% of women of color, 66% of women, and 63% of Hispanics cover.” (Note: The study used “LGB” rather than LGBTQ, or SWE’s preferred usage of LGBTQ+.)

The Deloitte study, well worth a read, provides an “uncovering talent” model, which “presents a new alternative to existing inclusion efforts.”

In 2007 Kenji Yoshino said, “This covering demand is the civil rights issue of our time.” And I believe it is still the case in 2023. In diversity and inclusion circles, I hear about the importance of employees bringing their authentic selves to work, but not enough about how to make it really happen. I am intrigued by the ideas and solutions in the Deloitte study. Uncovering may be the next step in diversity and inclusion work, and I hope workplaces begin to look seriously at this aspect and evaluate any of their policies that mandate covering for employees.

For now, though, in most workplaces it remains something personal for each individual based on their workplace culture and may include day-to-day decisions about what to wear and what to say. In my experience, I find it is hard to know how much covering impacts the perceived quality of my work or my treatment by co-workers and supervisors, and how much is just my perception. It is up to each of us to decide how much about ourselves we wish to reveal so that we may feel comfortable and safe at work.

1. Yoshino, K. and Smith, C. (2013). Uncovering Talent: A New Model of Inclusion. Deloitte University.

Marcie Mathis (she, her, hers) graduated from the University of Washington with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. She has spent most of her engineering career as a civilian U.S. Navy employee and works at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Bremerton, Washington. She joined SWE in 1988 as a student and serves on the multicultural committee and as a member of the editorial board.