Esteemed NYU law professor discusses ‘covering’ identity in the workplaces

Published: October 7th, 2013

Category: Feature


NYU Law Professor Kenji Yoshino presented “Uncovering Talent: A New Model of Inclusion” as the Coif Distinguished Visitor at UF Law on Sept. 25. (Photo by Javier Edwards)

By Jenna Box (4JM)

Did you know that three out of four workers, including more than half of straight, white males, cover at least one aspect of their identity?

UF Law students, faculty and staff listened to Coif Distinguished Visitor Kenji Yoshino, the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at New York University School of Law, present on this very topic on Sept. 25 in the Chesterfield Smith Ceremonial Classroom.

His presentation, “Uncovering Talent: A New Model of Inclusion,” got people thinking about the idea of “covering” — or hiding disfavored aspects of one’s identity in the workplace to avoid stereotypes. Although diversity and inclusion seem to be sought after in today’s workplace, Yoshino’s study found that many workers say they have “covered” in some way.

They cover on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, and disability – and in some cases, more than one category. Women are asked to act more like men in the workplace. Gay people are asked not to display same-sex affection in front of co-workers. Those devout in religion are asked to minimize expressions of faith.

“This is a form of assimilation that is keeping individuals from feeling fully included in their organization,” he said.

Yoshino presented the full results of his study, which were released in September. In his work, he described acts of covering along four different axes: appearance, affiliation, advocacy and association.

Appearance-based covering refers to managing self-presentation so as to blend into the mainstream; affiliation-based covering has to do with how individuals control behaviors to often negate stereotypes that are associated with their group; advocacy-based covering is how much individuals openly stick up for members of their same group; and association-based covering relates to how much individuals associate with other members of their same group.

“Women may downplay their status as mothers or parents because they will be seen as a less-committed worker,” Yoshino said, offering an example of affiliation-based covering.

“Think about a minority identity that you hold, because we all hold at least one. It’s not normal, in 2013, to be completely normal in America,” he said. “Think about the ways in which you are being asked to cover along these dimensions and then crucially whether or not that’s a harm to you.”

Yoshino completed this work in collaboration with Deloit University Center for Inclusion, and the research is ongoing, he said.

“This is really about human flourishing,” he said, “being able to be engaged in a workplace and to bring your whole self to work.”

The event was hosted by the University of Florida Chapter of the Order of the Coif, with co-sponsors including the University of Florida Levin College of Law and its Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations, and Center on Children and Families.

The Coif Distinguished Visitor Program brings distinguished members of the legal profession to Coif Chapter campuses. UF Law is one of only three three campuses in the country to be selected for a Coif Distinguished Visitor lecture this year.

About Kenji Yoshino

Yoshino was educated at Harvard (B.A. 1991), Oxford (M.Sc. 1993 as a Rhodes Scholar), and Yale Law School (J.D. 1996). Prior to his appointment at NYU he was the Guido Calabresi Professor of Law at Yale Law School, and served as deputy dean there from 2005 to 2006.

Yoshino’s fields are constitutional law, anti-discrimination law, and law and literature.

Yoshino’s first book, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, was published in 2006. It won several awards and was assigned as the “first year” book to be read by all incoming students at four colleges. His second book, A Thousand Times More Fair: What Shakespeare’s Plays Teach Us About Justice, was published in 2011. His third book, on same-sex marriage, is under contract with Crown, a division of Random House.

Yoshino has published in a range of academic journals, including The Columbia Law Review, The Harvard Law Review, The Stanford Law Review, and The Yale Law Journal. He has also written for more popular forums including The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and The Washington Post. He makes regular appearances on various radio and television programs, such as NPR’s The Takeaway and PBS’s Charlie Rose and a variety of shows on MSNBC.

In 2011 he was elected to the Harvard Board of Overseers.