By Emily Kestel

Beth Livingston and Tina Opie. Courtesy photo.

Right now, only 24 companies in the Fortune 500 are led by women. When you break it down by race, just four of those female CEOs are women of color. 

Women as a group make 83 cents for every dollar a white man makes. Asian American/Pacific Islander women are paid 75 cents for every dollar a white man makes. For Black women, it’s 67 cents. Latinas make 49 cents for every dollar. 

Notice any common themes? Discrimination exists when you look at gender, but it’s exacerbated when you factor in race and ethnicity. 

In their book, “Shared Sisterhood: How to Take Collective Action for Racial and Gender Equity at Work,” Tina Opie and Beth Livingston introduce “a philosophy on how to achieve equity across genders and racioethnicity.” 

Tina Opie is an associate professor of management at Babson College and the founder of Opie Consulting Group. Beth Livingston is an associate professor of management and entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business. 

Opie said she first heard the term “shared sisterhood” at a professional development workshop. It resonated with her, and she decided to develop it further.

“I noticed that women were struggling, but often separately. I asked myself, ‘If feminism is real, why aren’t Black and white women helping each other at work?’” Opie said. 

That was when she brought in Livingston, whom she’d known from previous conferences. 

“As someone who had been studying diversity and inclusion and gender, I was very excited about this and intrigued by it because I felt like it was an opportunity for us to construct solutions in a field where we’re often waiting for other people to tell us what to do,” Livingston said. 

Throughout the book, Opie and Livingston explore the historical relationship between Black and white women and provide tools to forge authentic connections with people across backgrounds. 

The following conversation with the authors has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What is shared sisterhood, and what is it not?

Livingston: We call shared sisterhood our radically optimistic philosophy towards achieving gender and racial equity at work. It’s constructed of three practices: dig, bridge and collective action. 

Dig is about being introspective about your identities and the way that they’re associated with power or the control over resources. It’s thinking about race and gender and what makes you who you are. 

Bridge is about building authentic connections across differences. Authentic connections are those that are empathetic, vulnerable, trusting and trustworthy, and are characterized by risk-taking across these differences. And then the important thing is that all those individual bridges that you’re building with your co-workers create this latticework that allows us to work together to achieve equity in the workplace in a way that is stronger and better able to withstand the difficulties to make change in today’s organizations. 

It is different from other perspectives in a couple of ways. First of all, we know there’s some cynicism around DEI in some places these days. We take a very optimistic approach in that we absolutely can change. It doesn’t pretend there’s some quick fix towards achieving equity. But it also takes these what’s often seen as dueling perspectives of “Do we need to change hearts and minds, these individual ideas? How do we become less racist, less prejudiced?” And then “How do we change systems and structures by recognizing the systems and structures that are created and maintained and re-created and re-maintained by people, particularly people with power?” We’re able to talk about how we can bridge those two perspectives with a shared sister.

Opie: It’s a strategic tool kit to finally do what so many people have talked about doing for so long. It’s practical. It synthesizes a lot of research, a lot of lived experience, and a lot of practical experience. This is something that helps organizations close the gap between their espoused values and what they say, and their enacted values for what they do. 

Some people may see shared sisterhood as being a form of allyship. In the book, you differentiate between allyship, accomplices and co-conspirators. 

Opie: An ally is someone who believes in equity in theory. That looked like in the summer of 2020, where a lot of people ran out and bought “How to Be an Antiracist,” and “White Fragility,” read the book, highlighted it and wrote notes, but that was pretty much the extent of it. It did not translate into changes in behavior, and at work in particular, or even in their neighborhoods. 

Accomplice is the next level, and that is someone who also believes in equity and someone who’s willing to act. They’re willing to work to dismantle inequity, but the direction of their work, their motivation is based on what they think is best. 

A co-conspirator is someone who believes in equity, but not just in theory. Their actions are driven by the voices of historically marginalized people that they’re ostensibly helping. For example, when [a co-conspirator] is by himself, he will go into places or spaces where women might not be and he will advocate for [them]. He will use his own political and social capital for the sake of dismantling inequity on the behalf of women and he knows that it also benefits him because when our whole team is treated equitably, the team performs better. 

Throughout the book, you refer to the example of the 1913 suffrage parade, where Ida B. Wells-Barnett was told to march at the back with the all-Black delegation, instead of with her state’s delegation. That event is a prime example of a prioritization of white women over women of color. Are there other historical examples of what could be viewed as the opposite of shared sisterhood? 

Livingston: In the wake of the election of Donald Trump, there was the Women’s March and it ended up becoming a reflection of white feminism. And what I mean by white feminism is one where when we talk about what women need and what women want, the default is what white women need, what white women want, how white women experience the world and the workplace. It does not acknowledge that these experiences of what it means to be a woman differ by race and by gender. 

We see it oftentimes with the way in which we see white people through voyeurism into the anti-racist space, which is like, “Oh, yes, I’m an ally. I care about this stuff. And I’m going to … give you all my knowledge and you can do the thing,” instead of saying, “There are so many Black women who are already competent, who are already well-trained.” I know it comes from a great place to say, “We’ll just give more training and more mentoring,” as opposed to saying, “We’ll just get out of the way.” That is the actual solution that is needed oftentimes.

Opie: One other contemporary example is the phenomenon of [employee resource groups]. Look at the ERGs in organizations. Most of the women’s ERGs are full of white women. White women’s issues are prioritized. And as a result, people like me, Black women, Asian women, Latinx women, Middle Eastern women, they have to go, typically, to the racial or ethnic affinity groups to feel like they can be fully seen. 

On the flip side, what are some real-life examples, whether historical or current, of shared sisterhood in action?

Opie: I definitely think Beth and I are an example. It was not love at first sight, as we jokingly say. I was resistant to trust Beth at first because some of the biggest betrayals that I’ve had in the workplace have been in the hands of white women. So when a white woman came towards me, I did not necessarily know if I could trust her. But then over time, we went through different iterations with each other. We had someone who was a mutual friend who vouched for Beth’s trustworthiness, and then we took it from there. 

Gloria Steinem had a really good relationship with someone named Florence Kennedy. Most people don’t know her. They have no idea who she was. And I really think that that has got to be remedied. Flo Kennedy really imprinted Ms. Magazine, and Gloria Steinem’s approach. When we talk about intersectionality, Florence Kennedy was doing it before the term had been coined. 

I will be honest with you, I cannot think of a ton of examples of women who are publicly confronting inequity across difference, which is one of the reasons I think shared sisterhood is so important. 

Livingston: Shared sisterhood is about these authentic connections, which means people aren’t going out and saying, “I have all these authentic connections with all of these people who are different from me.” A lot of people are engaging in shared sisterhood without identifying it as shared sisterhood. And that’s what we are trying to bring to the fore. When you’re talking about Bell Squire and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, they were building authentic connections because they shared a value of equity. We try to break that down in the book to say there’s not just some special magic dust that comes out. These are things you can do. As Tina said, it’s a tool kit for you to enact change. 

We see it tends to be easier in terms of the evidence that we cite in the book, when people are starting their own companies. It’s easier to create something that’s characterized by this authenticity than to change a culture in which you’re in. But regardless of whether that action at the end succeeds in the short term or doesn’t, we see those efforts persist beyond those initial failures. 

Another example that we gave in the book is Ava DuVernay and her production company on Queen Sugar, and how she specifically identified talent and specifically granted women of color the opportunity [to be] directors for the first time. 

There are women of color, people of color, people of all different races who have the skills already, but do not have the opportunity. We often gate-keep these positions, and we haven’t actually done the dig work to question ourselves as to why those are our standards. If you’re in a position of power in the workplace, it is your job, your responsibility to question those assumptions, to question business as usual and say, “Is this the way that it has to be? Is this the way it should be? And what can I do to navigate around that?”

While reading your book, I thought a lot about Mikki Kendall’s book, “Hood Feminism,” which argues that the previous waves of feminism placed white women’s issues, or white-collar issues, at the center, rather than taking an intersectional, more holistic approach. In your opinion, what issues does the next wave of feminism need to prioritize and address, and how can feminists utilize an intersectional approach to achieve equity for all? 

Opie: I think the wave of feminism has to have a shared sisterhood approach, where we are actually putting structures, systems and processes in place to facilitate cross-racial conversations. A big issue that is a big failing of “Shared Sisterhood” right now is that it’s written by two academics from the middle class. We did not address lower socioeconomic status issues, and for example, we’ve been talking about ERGs. ERGs don’t exist for people who are domestic workers, for people who are child care providers. That is a gap. I think what the feminist movement has to do is figure out how to get off the computer and into the streets and into the actual workplaces and the major convening places. We’ve got to figure that out. I wasn’t raised in a lower socioeconomic position, nor was Beth, and so Beth and I will never speak for a group that we’re not a member of. We want to be able to elevate the people so that they can voice it themselves. I think that’s critical. I think it is critical to prioritize voices that have, I hate to say it, historically been marginalized. 

Livingston: I concur with that. We built on the principles of intersectional analysis. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants, whether it’s Mikki Kendall, Kimberlie Crenshaw, Florence Kennedy, Gloria Steinem – a lot of people who’ve been thinking about this for a number of years. Tina and I don’t speak outside of our box for good reason, and that’s because we believe in the transformational power of a shared sisterhood approach to equity, because it’s centering relationships and authentic connections in a way that has not been the center of these sorts of movements. We believe it changes the game in terms of how we achieve these sorts of outcomes, and allows us to really think about the relationships that we have with other people. But we also recognize that we are going to need other people to get into these shared sisterhood circles to help us to dig more and to help us to build more bridges. And that’s what we look forward to in the next decade.

“Shared Sisterhood: How to Take Collective Action for Racial and Gender Equity at Work” is available on Amazon, Bookshop and Barnes and Noble.