The Equalizing Power of Sisterhood

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Wednesday, March 29, 2023
By Tricia Bisoux
Photo by iStock/Tassii
So far, strategies to achieve gender and racial equity have been ineffective, say two management scholars. It’s time, they say, “for something new.”
  • Beth Livingston and Tina Opie argue that haphazardly applied corporate diversity policies and a lack of trust among women have contributed to slow progress toward gender equity.
  • The two scholars call for women to form “Shared Sisterhoods,” in which they share their struggles, build networks of trust and support, and combine their strengths to address systemic barriers to change.
  • Men, too, can join sisterhoods as “co-conspirators” who engage and support their women colleagues and work with them to create more equitable workplaces and societies.


While it’s true that gender equity and racial equity have improved over the past century, progress has stalled over the last few decades. Yes, 53 women now lead Fortune 500 companies, up from only four in 2000. And, yes, as of 2021, women headed 41 of the top 200 universities in the world and slightly more than 25 percent of AACSB-member business schools. But these numbers also indicate that women still have a long way to go to achieve true equity in leadership and other areas of society.

On average, women still earn just 83 percent of what men earn—and that pay gap is even greater for Black and Latina women. This disparity is only partially explained by the fact that women tend to work in lower-paying fields than men. A 2020 analysis by the Women’s Bureau and U.S. Census Bureau found that women also earn less than men, on average, within the same occupation. Moreover, the more women enter an occupation, the more the average wage in that occupation tends to decrease. If current trends continue, the World Economic Forum estimates that it will take another 136 years for women to close the global gender gap.

Tippie College's Beth Livingston with light skin, dark hair upswept into a loose bun and wearing a black shirt with lace cap sleeves with dark pants sits with Babson's Tina Opie with dark complexion and glasses, short salt-and-pepper hair, wearing a chunky gold necklace and a leather shirt with deep front-V and loose three-quarter sleeves and dark pants laugh with one another as they sit on the narrow ledge of a half-brick wall leaning back against wrought iron fencing with greenery coming through around them

Beth Livingston (left) and Tina Opie

Such slow progress is the result of corporate diversity and equity strategies that have been haphazard at best, argue Beth Livingston, associate professor of management and entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business in Iowa City, and Tina Opie, associate professor of management at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Both say that it’s time for a different, more unified approach.

The two colleagues have provided women with a blueprint for transforming the workplace in a new book, Shared Sisterhood. In the book, which is subtitled “How to Take Collective Action for Racial and Gender Equity at Work,” the co-authors assert that women could remove the barriers they face by forming alliances and building authentic connections with one another.

AACSB Insights recently asked Opie and Livingston to talk more about how they believe building stronger alliances among women could address the long-standing problem of workplace inequities. “We didn’t want to passively wait for other people to offer solutions anymore,” says Livingston. “We wanted to find a solution ourselves.”

In Shared Sisterhood, you point to a “racial chasm” that exists among women. How would you define this chasm? What forms does it commonly take in the workplace?

In our preface to the book, we quote Kim McLarin from The Washington Post, who said, “This is what Black women know: When push comes to shove, white women choose race over gender: Every. Single. Time.” The chasm we see is one of mistrust, particularly between Black and white women, but also between women of different races and ethnicities who do not share the same experiences at work. This lack of trust can prevent women from connecting authentically and making progress to change their organizations in ways that can help all women.

To what extent do you think women are aware that this chasm exists?

Women from historically marginalized groups are often more aware of this chasm between women across races than white women are, because they have had to do more digging into their history and present circumstances. This is one reason why we advocate for a “Dig and Bridge” approach—where people who want to build connections across differences first strive to understand the history of power that exists in their community.

In the book, you describe “Dig and Bridge” as a two-phase approach that could help women overcome divisions between them. What is involved with each phase?

The “Dig” phase is about looking inwardly and asking yourself questions. What groups are you a part of, and what is the history of power among those groups? What are your preconceptions about other people across race, gender, and other attributes? This process is important because it better prepares us to Bridge so that we do not cause harm.

A “Dig and Bridge” approach helps people who want to build connections across differences first strive to understand the history of power that exists in their community.

“Bridge” is about building connections authentically. There are so many ways to connect with people; we interact with people positively and negatively every day. What makes Bridge different is that we focus on authentic connections that demonstrate empathy and vulnerability—connections in which people work to build trust and take risks on behalf of the other person to demonstrate their trustworthiness.

How did you develop this process? What outcomes have you seen among those who take part in it?

The idea of Shared Sisterhood started with Tina first, years ago, at a conference. She asked herself the question: If feminism is meant to support equity for all women, why does it feel like white and Black women are so disconnected? What is dividing us? But Tina realized that to write about sisterhood, she needed a sister. And that was Beth. It wasn’t until both of us began working together that we were able to flesh out the idea into the book.

We have seen Shared Sisterhood work wonders to help people dig into their preconceptions about race and develop the skills to build authentic connections. It’s helped people advocate for change in their organizations and persist in centering and elevating voices of people who are often asked to make their interests secondary. 

The book opens with the example of the suffrage movement in the early 1900s, when women, both Black and white, took great risks fighting for the right to vote. What risks do you think women still face today as they form alliances and work collectively toward solutions?

Unfortunately, the example from a century ago is all too familiar today. White women may still fear social ostracism for standing up for people from marginalized groups The risks of losing out on promotions or jobs by making noise and advocating for equity still exist. And, even more concerning, we are seeing public policy emerge that seeks to minimize voices that promote equity across the country. This divide-and-conquer strategy is effective, which is why we need to build connections that are strong enough to withstand the difficulties created by those opposed to equity.

What is the best real-life 21st-century example that you’ve seen of women doing just that?

An example that sticks out to us involves Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell, two former Google employees who were the co-leads of the Ethics in AI group. They built a bridge over their shared experiences and took risks to support each other as they pressed for change, about not only ethical issues in AI, but also racial and gender inequity at Google. This example is a powerful one because even though they did not experience the support at Google that they wanted, and both were fired, they were successful in raising awareness and building a team that was inspired to continue to create change.

The risks of losing out on promotions or jobs by making noise and advocating for equity still exist.

Today, we see so much rancor over discussions about race—why do so many people still resist addressing racial and gender equity in work and academic settings?

Power. This word is such a tricky one because people think of it like a binary variable—you have power, or you don’t. In the Dig process, we ask people to think about power a lot, because it affects how much work they have to do to be ready to Bridge. We all have some identities that are imbued with power and some that are not, so we have to learn when it’s better for us to talk and when it’s better to listen. This is very hard for many of us, even if we insist that we share the values of equity.

You call Shared Sisterhood “the antidote to male-typed organizational advancement that privileges individual competitiveness.” And yet, the competitive model seems to persist. What will it take for the competitive model of success to be replaced by a more collaborative model?

Systemic change. Shared Sisterhood’s goal is systemic change via collective action because we acknowledge that waiting for company culture to change on its own has not gotten us to justice. We want to present a viable alternative to the competitive model of success that we have seen implemented so often. Ideally, this would correspond with systems of evaluation and compensation that incentivize and reward behaviors that promote collaboration, communication, and equity.

What could business schools be doing better to support the creation of sisterhoods dedicated to finding and implementing effective solutions?

Every business school should find ways to teach the concepts and principles of Shared Sisterhood, which connect to leadership, inclusion, culture, DEI, strategy, and so much more. Further, business schools can be important drivers of change. We saw it when business schools decided to invest in business ethics in the wake of national scandals such as Enron. Curriculum shifts can both recognize cultural moments and move the conversation in a direction that serves a wide variety of stakeholders.

The best pushes for social change are often driven by students. What actions have you seen students taking to work together toward solutions?

Students were the key drivers behind the Civil Rights movement. We can learn a lot from how they built coalitions and how they learned to encourage people from all walks of life to work together to collectively pursue equity and push for change, such as the historical Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Students are often more willing to show vulnerability and take risks to build connections because they are not yet worried about assimilating in organizational cultures where such actions may affect their career paths. They have a great opportunity to engage in skills—such as empathy, vulnerability, trust, and risk-taking—that will help them build collectives focused on equity in the workplace.

Anyone can be a sister. We both have many examples of bridges we have built with men who are willing to be co-conspirators with their women colleagues, not speaking over us, but engaging with us.

What steps can women enrolled in business schools take now to set the stage for Shared Sisterhood after they graduate?

Women business school students have an opportunity to develop their Dig and Bridge skills now so that when they join the workforce, they can work to build sisterhood-safe cultures at their organizations.

Also, please know that anyone can be a sister, regardless of gender. We both have many examples of bridges we have built with men who are willing to be co-conspirators with their women colleagues, not speaking over us, but engaging with us with empathy, trust, and vulnerability. We use the term sisterhood to contrast with traditional conceptions of masculinity, but we welcome collaborations that center authentic connections across differences.

Men enrolled in business school also need to learn how to engage in empathy, trust, vulnerability, and risk-taking. They need to help to dismantle systemic inequities. When they do, they will also experience liberation.

A message of the book—that leadership based on collaboration can be a more powerful force than zero-sum-game competition—has applications beyond gender dynamics. What would you say to the large numbers of people who still view competition, rather than shared action, as the dominant path to success?

How is that model working out? The Great Resignation suggests that the “good ol’ boys’” hypercompetitive, profit-driven focus is leading to a workforce that is sick and tired of being sick and tired. It’s time for something new. Shared Sisterhood offers a solution.

Tricia Bisoux
Editor, AACSB Insights
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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