Research Findings

Inhabited ecosystems of change: Attending to the “social” aspects of movements

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June 17, 2021

Workplaces exert considerable influence in society. They mediate the economic exchanges that enable modern life and facilitate (or block) achieving large-scale, collective goals. As such, they are integral to the advancement of social progress. Unsurprisingly, therefore, they are often implicated in movements promoting social justice.

The substantial research on workplace organizations and social movements focuses primarily on how outsiders target specific organizations through protests or boycotts or on how employee activists leverage insider knowledge to effect change from within.

Our work purposely blurs these distinctions, exploring a case where it was neither simply the work of external agents applying pressure from the outside, nor of insiders skillfully manipulating the internal levers of change, that propelled change. Rather, it was a community of workplace activists, linked together and acting between and through their organizations, to face opposition yet sustain and even expand their efforts with and for each other.

A contested change effort

Our study involves the work of employee affinity groups from workplaces in geographic proximity to secure domestic partners benefits (DPBs), which extend spousal benefits to LGBTQ+ employees’ partners. We conducted in-depth interviews with 70 individuals from 24 organizations with LGBT employee groups trying to secure DPBs in the mid-1990s, when such efforts were not only uncommon, but often met with hostility.

For context, in 1990 Lotus Development Corporation was the only publicly-traded company to offer DPBs. Five years later only 6% of companies with over 500 employees offered them. In the United States, health insurance is often linked with employment as an employee benefit, so before marriage equality was affirmed in 2015, LBGTQ+ employees at firms without DPBs did not have the same access to health insurance for their families that their married heterosexual colleagues enjoyed.

The 24 employee groups had varied success securing DPBs in their organizations, given the opposition and debate at the time. Groups led by employees in high status positions or with finely tuned political skills met little or no resistance and readily handled it when they did. Others worked hard to rally support and convert naysayers into allies, with mixed success. Still others faced steadfast opposition from corporate leadership or pressures against change coming from industries, politics, or cultural norms.

Your results may vary

This variety itself, while not surprising, offers interesting insights into the messy nature of how social movements evolve. Social movements are oftentimes viewed through the lens of diffusion, where simply adopting a newly advocated practice is a proxy for success. In our case, the movement for DPBs would likely have been deemed a failure, because only 7 of the 24 workplace organizations were adopters of DPBs at the time of our study.

However, by looking at the different experiences of those employee groups, we found much more variety – including surprising “small wins” – than was captured in the simple “yes/no” indicator of adoption. Our analyses revealed five distinct patterns, or clusters, of “lived experience” of the activist groups in dealing with opposition and their own perceived capacity to move forward. Whether their employer had adopted DPBs or not was not the main determinant of whether the groups had momentum and pushed new change agendas regarding workplace LGBTQ+ issues.

One subset of adopters who secured DPBs without significant contestation effectively withdrew from the broader movement. We label their experience “One and Done” – securing DPBs without incident, they did not build the capacity or momentum to promote other forms of workplace equity. In one sense, they are “success” stories and give some hope, but in another sense, they do not fuel the overall movement.

In contrast, a cluster comprising only “non-adopters” remained actively engaged in efforts to secure DPBs while simultaneously bringing the fight for nondiscrimination into new domains, such as the right to use sick time to care for a same-sex partner. We labeled this group “Battle Ready,” reflecting their active engagement in the fight for DPBs and its spillover into larger efforts to reduce workplace discrimination, even while thwarted in pursuing DPBs. Not “successful” in winning DPBs, they are nonetheless successful drivers of the broader change effort across organizations.

Another cluster we named “Opposition Overcome” was distinctive because it comprised a nearly equal mix of adopters and non-adopters. Their common experiences were characterized not by whether they had secured DPBs, but rather by a capacity and determination to take on challenging opposition. Those who had not yet secured DPBs were confident of their eventual success, in part because they saw their own efforts mirrored in those who had overcome similar opposition.

Obstacles were the defining aspect of the final two clusters. The groups characterized by “Frustrated Engagement” faced significant obstacles but remained engaged in the change effort through their connections to employee groups in other workplaces, while isolation typified those who were “Blocked.”

Activists were mutually aware of others’ situations across these five patterns of engagement. To people still fighting for the larger cause, obstacles faced by others served as salient examples of the high stakes and the work still to be done. Personal and professional connections among them animated the change effort in what we term an “inhabited ecosystem.”

Inhabited ecosystems and social change

Frequently shared stories animated the change effort. One story featured a CEO who was so steadfast in opposing the LGBTQ+ change effort that he said employees would get DPBs “over my dead body.” When a gay man was one of the winners of a sales competition that included an all-expense cruise for two, the CEO changed the rules to explicitly exclude non-married partners. As a result, the gay man was not allowed to bring his partner, and in addition, another winner was not able to bring his fiancée. The punchline of the story was that an incentive does not work if it involves exclusion.

This story reverberated through the ecosystem, becoming part of the cultural toolkit used by change agents, a ready resource in response to the commonly asked question, “why does sexual orientation matter in the workplace anyway?” This story and others accumulated into a repertoire sourced from the experiences of real people from their region, not abstract allusions to injustice.

Another oft-repeated story contrasted the experience of a woman who was allowed to take a sick day to care for her husband when he “merely had a cold,” while a gay man she worked with was unable to take a sick day to be with his partner who was hospitalized. This story was told to promote equitable policies for a range of HR benefits. Interestingly, access to exactly these sorts of “soft benefits” would later become a distinct category in the Equality Index developed by the Human Rights Campaign to rate “LGBTQ-inclusive” workplaces.

While stories like these became cultural resources deployed across the ecosystem, the human connections formed among the employee activists turned their varied experiences of struggles, setbacks, and successes into sources of motivation. Compassion, empathy, and aspiration all fueled their fight, whether in the face of dogmatic opposition or in celebration of a win. A failure in one organization became a rallying call in another; a success in one, the reason for hope and perseverance in another.

Read more

Rich DeJordy, Maureen Scully, Marc Ventresca, and Doug Creed. “Inhabited ecosystems: Propelling transformative social change between and through organizations” in Administrative Science Quarterly 2020 (open access).

Image: Bill Smith via flick (CC BY 2.0)

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