By: Sahana Sriram, Associate Consultant and Client Services Manager.
I interviewed our team member Megan Doherty Baker on how her identity and experiences shape her approach to her work as an organizational psychologist. In this interview, Megan shares insights on the impact of identities on work, emphasizing the importance of self-awareness and the ongoing journey of ‘coming out’. She highlights the transformative power of unpacking and dismantling imposed beliefs and cultural lenses, fostering empathy, compassion, and deeper connections within communities.
Sahana: Hi Megan! Thank you for joining me today. I’ve always admired your wisdom and I’m excited to learn more about your journey and philosophy in this work.
Megan: Thank you, Sahana! I appreciate the opportunity to have this conversation with you. It’s been a great experience working together, and I’m looking forward to discussing our thoughts and experiences.
Sahana: Could you tell us a bit about yourself and the work you do, including your identities?
Megan: Absolutely! I’m Megan Doherty Baker, an organizational psychologist specializing in inclusive leadership for nearly a decade. I come to this work as a white woman, in the US. I’m a third-generation San Franciscan and the culture of the Bay Area has definitely influenced me
I identify cisgender lesbian and I don’t abide by a lot of gender and cultural norms that we tend to be socialized into. I’ve been that way since I was a very little kid. I didn’t understand the binary of why boys were told they could do certain things and girls were told they’re supposed to do other things. That has been a thread that has remained true throughout my life.
I’m also a tía or an aunt to three teenage nephews, and a six-year-old niece. I love that very much! I think those are some of my core identities. I’m a writer and I like to think and play creatively. I was brought to this particular work of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging through my own lived experiences. Additionally, I studied organizational psychology – I got my master’s degree from Teachers College, and I was really interested specifically in the program there that focuses on conflict resolution and mediation. When I was younger, I got a Bachelor’s in urban studies.
I’ve always been interested in people – what forms and shapes us and how cultures build.That’s a little snapshot of who I am and what brought me to this work.
Impact of Identities on Work:
Sahana: From my little experience of working with you, your approach seems rooted in this background you shared. You also bring affection and belief in the people you work with as well as curiosity to understand people. How do you believe our identities shape the work we do?
Megan: Thank you for reflecting all that back to me. As a white woman in the United States, even more so as a white, queer person who’s doing facilitation and design work in DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) spaces, one of the most important things is to commit and recommit to doing that self-awareness work. I’ve been fortunate to work with all kinds of people all over the world and coming from all kinds of different organizations where we know that we hold these identities at some level but I think there is always an opportunity for us to dig a few layers deeper underneath.
So when I enter into a space, my race and all that it entails and that history of how white women as a group have betrayed women of color, black women, black people; have weaponized this twisted notion of innocence in order to inflict violence comes in with me. This is a constant ongoing process of critical self-reflection – What do my identities hold? When did I even learn to understand anything about my race? How did I grow up? How did that influence how I show up? What did the community I grew up in looked like?
Sometimes, folks get a little worried or scared and hesitate to keep peeling back the layers. But I’ve actually found that that process of building self-awareness, remembering and excavating my own stories about the way that the intersection of my identities influences how I show up in different spaces to be profoundly liberating.
Importance of Self-reflection:
Megan: Self-reflection is the gift you give yourself to dismantle and let go of some beliefs that often are imposed upon us. As we become adults, we get to say, “Hey, do I agree with this? Does this work with my values or where I am in my life?” If I don’t actually take my identities out of the box and spend some time with them, love them and understand them, I’m missing an opportunity for myself.
Reflection can help me understand how I can impact the communities that I care about and how I can build empathy and compassion. At Hyphens and Spaces, we use the identity wheel to reflect. I wonder if engaging in several days of self-awareness work will help teams be more effective, productive, and inclusive. This work is personal and it does need to be done alone with a commitment to introspection. However, there is a point where you come back to the community and share. And the more we can have those kinds of discussions about what we bring into the rooms we come into, it will help.
Often we don’t acknowledge that gender dynamics, power, race and racism are always at play, and that these things live and breathe! We have two choices – we acknowledge it, work with it, understand that these dynamics are always operating, and bring that into the room, breathe life into that, and see how we can build connections deeper. Or… we don’t! And when we don’t, it’s similar to colorblindness and that doesn’t serve anybody. When we don’t actually grapple with our own identities, we lose because iit often stalls our progress to be able to move forward as a collective towards our mission or our vision or even business goals.
The one big caveat is that it is a cost-benefit analysis and a risk-and-reward ratio. Take care of yourself! If you’re not ready to bring an identity that is yours or if you’re still exploring whatever it may be, my advice would always be – don’t! If those opportunities emerge, then great! I also want to honor that it isn’t this pie in the sky and say “Bring all of yourself to work and share everything about yourself.” It’s just that in certain moments, it can be valuable to share more.
Costs of bringing your identities to work
Sahana:. The journey of self-work and discussing identities can be challenging. What do you think holds people back from embracing this process and bringing their identities to work?
Megan: The fear of vulnerability! I think we are constantly doing whatever we can to avoid being vulnerable. I think that’s where role models and representation and people leading were critical for me.
I was in the closet until I was 22 years old. It was a pivotal turning point for me that I had a manager and a mentor, who was an out lesbian woman, who was an Executive Director. All of a sudden, I could see what was possible! All the fears I was holding about coming out really dissipated.
I think why people hesitate to name their identities at play is a function of binary thinking. It’s an easy and unfortunate outlet sometimes for people to think that anything in this realm of equity or inclusion is a fork in the road – we’re going to be about business and revenue and that means the bottom line OR we’re going to have compassion, care, and acknowledge that different people in this workplace are grappling with different challenges that deserve to be addressed. Often the efforts are to bring those two things together so that they can serve one another and aren’t on opposite ends of the spectrum in the way that society and the media make it to be.
I think the other thing that is maddening and depressing is this notion that we can’t be invested or care for communities if we don’t see some element of our own identities reflected in those communities. We can’t put on our warrior gear unless we are directly impacted, which is so unfortunate because then we’re sitting around waiting to take a hit.
Majority groups that hesitate to speak out
Sahana: Yes! That’s probably why the majority groups in most cases wouldn’t be the first to speak out even though they might be witnessing inequity around them.
Megan: There’s a lot of energy devoted to keeping the narrative intact of “you might lose privilege if you engage with a community that isn’t yours.” John A Powell who leads the Othering and Belonging Institute based at UC Berkeley has this notion about expanding the circle of human concern that I love. If I cannot see myself reflected in you, we’ll never be able to come to a common ground where we can move forward.
When you want to connect with people who you believe are different from you, you have to have staying power. You have to care enough, have stamina, and work through discomfort and gunk.
‘Come out, come out, wherever you are’
Sahana: You’re talking about empathy and saying, “Can I empathize with you even though we don’t have the same lived experience?” Can you elaborate on your concept of “Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are” and its significance?
Megan: The idea originated from a conversation with a straight cisgender friend who may not fully grasp the unique coming out experience. In this conversation I said, “Well, I think everyone has something to come out about, especially in the workplace.” We’ve been socialized to believe that we’re supposed to hide based on professional norms based in white supremacy. We as a society are taught to compartmentalize and put those things away. I suggested she share about her authentic self, her challenges, learning and beliefs with people close to her at work.
I wonder what it could look like for us to come out, come out wherever we are, as ourselves. One of my favorite things in the world is when people feel willing to share their coming out stories. Those can be some of the most beautiful and heartbreaking stories. My own process of coming out was sad and tragic and beautiful and liberating. Even with visible identities – having the agency to say, “You may see my race but here’s some things that you might want to know about my cultural background that you can’t tell just by the pigment of my skin. These are important parts of me that drive who I am, how I show up, and how we might work together. If you understand that better about me, and I understand it better about you, imagine what might be possible!”
I know so many people who deal with chronic pain that don’t experience the psychological safety they need to share their challenges at work. I have seen power in folks coming out wherever they are. That helps us feel and be seen as whole human beings. We all deserve that! It’s really unfortunate that these structures and systems in many ways teach us the exact opposite.
The other side of that coin is to ensure that we’re going to be safely held, not be judged or discriminated against, joked about, or made to feel shame about anything that we share. Our stories are our own and they deserve to be owned by us completely and fully. How do we do that? With intention and care for ourselves and for our communities!
Vulnerability in a therapy room
Sahana: That’s beautiful! As a therapist, I belive that a large part of healing and therapeutic work is coming out to yourself, but also being able to do that out loud in presence of others who acknowledges your stories.
Megan: In your experience as a therapist, have you seen great things happen when people are vulnerable?
Sahana: Sometimes the vulnerable part of ourselves is the one we hate. We tend to add disclaimers – “It’s so stupid that I feel sad about this!” The goal is to get rid of the judgment. Hence, if you keep coming out and start listening to the stories within you, that’s where you heal. There’s this book called ‘No bad parts’ that describes what I’m saying in a beautiful way.
Recommendations to leaders and organizations
Sahana: How can we support each other to come out? What would you recommend leadership and HR in organizations?
Megan: My previous colleague Dr. Dixon had once said to me, “If you aren’t in a place where you’re ready or the healing hasn’t been done, don’t share it! Give yourself the dignity of tending to it first.” I needed that piece of wisdom because I was sharing too deeply about my queerness that wasn’t fully healed. This work requires space and time. People tried to out me for years before I was ready to come out. All that it resulted in was harm. “You thinking you know that I’m ready for something before I have decided I’m ready to share it”, isn’t the right move.
Folks can hear an interview like this and subconsciously start thinking of other people who should come out. The best thing to do for people is to be caring, be open, be receptive, and listen. Being outed is having something valuable stolen from you.
Cultivating psychological safety for vulnerability
Sahana: You’re reiterating the balance between being vulnerable and setting boundaries. Often we hear of privilege walks or open discussions on race and gender in the workplace going wrong. I love your idea of inviting people to come out through care and openness instead of pushing them to do it.
Megan: Yes! Build the scaffolding for vulnerability to be possible. Don’t throw someone in the deep end at the pool. Build the ladder up to the diving board. The element of consent and choice is crucial. Simultaneously, I respect those who hold whatever they need to hold. We can create more spaces for dialogue about our humanness but there’s no playbook here or a ‘one size fits all’ approach.
Gratitude and inspiration
Sahana: This has been incredibly enriching. I wanted to end with a story. Last week I updated my ‘Therapist Bio’ on the website and it’s the first time that I publicly acknowledged being bi-sexual. I’ve known this for years and have casually mentioned it under my breath to people close to me. My interactions with people who have come out and live authentically have helped me. You’ve been a very big role model in that journey.
Megan: Wow! I’ve got tears in my eyes. I’m so happy for you. I wish I could give you a hug in real life.
Sahana: Thank you so much for speaking with me today and for your care.
Megan: Thanks for this conversation. It’s always easy with you!
Hyphens and Spaces
At Hyphens and Spaces, we’re committed to creating a community of people who are practicing new leadership styles and building justice-centered organizations. You don’t have to do it alone. For more information, contact Hyphens and Spaces via our intake form here or send an email to [email protected].