Tulane University Law School recently hosted a webinar led by Professor Saru Matambanadzo, Moise S. Steeg Jr. Associate Professor of Law and Senior Director of Online Legal Education. She moderated a conversation with Claire Rouge, MJ ’22, Vice President of Human Resources at Brown & Brown Absence Services Group. Focused on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI),—also referred to as Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB)—the conversation centered especially around safe spaces and allyship between men and women in the workplace.
Excerpts of the conversation follow here.
Safe Spaces and Allyship
Q: You and your CEO have been able to make some changes at your company. What are some of the key initiatives that have enhanced inclusion and engagement of your workforce?
A: A bit of background on this is right: In May of 2020, the George Floyd tragedy sparked in me this realization that my life had become very homogenous. The media I was consuming, the people I was around were very homogenous. I live in an area of the country that’s pretty much all white people. And I had allowed that to be okay, so I got really committed to changing that.
I wanted to make sure that the organization I was with had something around Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging. [I asked our CEO], “What do you need from me? How can I be of most use to you?”
He said, “I am in the twilight of my career. I'm 64 years old. I need you to help me figure out how to make sure my leadership is relevant.”
I thought about what a big responsibility that was. Because, as you can imagine, the insurance industry, it's all white guys. I took a look at our executive team. We're 12 people and seven of us are women. We're all white, but at least there are women.
I sent him an email that said, “Would you be willing to engage me in some form or fashion about how men can be better allies to women in the workplace?”
I've discovered that when men see other men standing up and declaring themselves as allies to women in the workplace, they feel safer to join in. And if the typical CEO—white, cisgendered, male, wealthy, goes to the country club on the weekends—would be willing to do this with me, who else would be willing to step up? Who else would be willing to say, “Yeah, I'm going to be a better ally to women in the workplace. I'm going to acknowledge my privilege and I'm going to make sure that I am active in ensuring that those voices are elevated, that they're heard.”?
He said yes. I thought, “What if we do a short video series once a month where he and I hop on camera together and talk through something that's meaningful, something that can help his leadership be relevant and something that is very much needed in our organization?” I knew that, if we were going to make any headway, there had to be psychological safety between the two of us. The road to belonging and inclusion is psychological safety. And so Safe Spaces with Mike and Claire was born.
When we did the How Men Can be Allies to Women in the Workplace [episode], he said, “I never knew about this concept of emotional labor in the workplace. How we saddle women with the emotional labor, whether it's taking minutes in meetings or making sure that the snacks are out for the celebration. I can take muffins out of a box just as well as my admin can. I'm perfectly capable of doing that. And I had no idea that, all this time, I was leaving that to other people—for birthdays or any things that go under this umbrella of emotional labor.”
We were able to have a really productive conversation. Now it's on Instagram, it's on LinkedIn, it's internal.
So it worked. And part of that is that he was ready to try something else on and be vulnerable. It was also that we had established trust, because I said, “I'm just going to be who I am and give you my advice and counsel. If you want to take it, great. If you don't, I will outline for you all the risks associated with your course of action and we will keep moving.” Just like a normal person. But the stars aligned and it worked.
Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging as an HR Function
Q: Has this translated to the ability to foster growth and capabilities for your employees and in your company?
A: Absolutely. During my interview phase, when I was asking about the DEI/DEIB efforts within the organization, it looked very performative—really superficial and calendar-based. “Oh, it’s Black History Month. Let's talk about notable Black people in history,” or, “It's Native American Heritage Month. Let's talk about the code talkers.” I knew that we needed to get to the next level and actually be something meaningful.
It's on my goals, it's on my review, it's tied to my merit increase, it's tied to my bonus earnings. So Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging is now part of the HR function where, even a handful of months ago, it was just this volunteer, “Who wants to help with this month?” kind of a thing. It has made a material difference.
Our communications are going through filters of talking about care and belonging, talking about commitment to diversity. I saw a new-hire class the other day and we had four Black people in it. I think we had four Black people in the whole company in my division before that. Now, how about we get some of these folks into leadership?
We did a course on covering. I'd never even heard the term that I knew of. I've been covering for my entire HR career. For the past 20 years, I've been minimizing and downplaying the fact that I'm a mother because I don't want to be seen as somebody who's less committed to her job and to her career trajectory. I have made it a point not to talk about the fact that I have kids or home commitments because I don't want that to impede my [professional] growth. And I never would've said that in front of anybody, much less realized it if [we] hadn't begun this journey.
Talking About Gender Bias
Q: Have you had any difficult conversations you can tell us about?
A: I was at a welcome dinner for the Portland, Maine executive team, and it was four men—including my boss, vice presidents, and the CEO—and me. We're having this lovely dinner and at the end, it's going around the table: “Who's going to get the bill?” My boss takes out his wallet. It’s big and he puts a rubber band around it, and they all started laughing, “Ha ha, look at Mike's wallet.”
Then the colleague next to me said, “It's not even a real rubber band. It's one of those girly ponytail holders.”
I was just starting to get to know this guy. It was my first day meeting him. And I whispered in his ear, “When you say that's a girly ponytail holder, you're saying that girly is pejorative. And as a girl dad, I would think you could do better.” He just took a step back.
A couple weeks later, he came to me and said, “I'm having such a hard time with [a colleague] and she's so aggressive with me.” The way he was describing her communication, it was all those cliché things: She's being aggressive, she's being pushy. I thought, “I wonder if this is some unconscious gender bias.”
I said to him, “Totally safe here, right? No judgment. But if she were a man doing these same things, do you think you would think that she's being aggressive? Would you be this upset about the way that she's communicating with you? Would you fear that she might file a harassment claim”—because that came up, too—“and [would you be] worried about your reputation?” He said, “I’ve raised two daughters and I have had a 30-year successful marriage in a very harmonious home. There's no way that I could have done that if I had any gender bias.” And I said, “Well, if you do, I'm sure it is unconscious and that you don't know you're doing it, but the gender of the children that you have, that you raise, does not negate you from having gender biases.”
Overcoming Resistance to DEI/DEIB
Q: What if you don't have the ideal management partner? Patience, education, and repetition, right?
A: I remember sitting in a meeting that was a compensation work group. [The topic was] "Do we need to adjust our wage bands?" I was chatting with a senior vice president in my organization who had no idea that there was wage inequity between the genders. And he said, “We don't do that. That doesn't exist.” Those kinds of conversations still have to happen.
A lot of this hinges on our credibility as HR practitioners, so anything we can do to come to the table with humble confidence is perfect. Fortunately, people have made the business case for why Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging is important, and the business outcomes that can occur when we have a diverse set of people bringing their minds together to come up with solutions—because they feel safe enough to bring their authentic selves to work, and we have that richness of perspective and experience. There are numbers out there, so [even if business leaders] don't care about it being the right thing to do, the business case is there for them to do it.
That translates to dollars, and that’s compelling. And it may not happen at once, but it can happen over time. We play the long game in HR. We don't expect change overnight. Hopefully, we see the seeds that we plant bear fruit.
The Impact of the Tulane Online MJ-LEL
Q: You graduated in May 2022, but you had almost 20 years of experience. How has the program contributed to the work that you're currently doing?
A: I use my learning from the program almost every day. It is such practical knowledge, even when I'm not doing my job, to have a comfort level with understanding where the laws and the regulations of our country come from. My bachelor's degree is in art history. I can tell you all day long about the merits of having an art history degree; all the things I got out of art history are really important.
But I couldn't help but wonder how many times I was getting passed over for executive-level jobs. I knew I needed to go to graduate school, and my favorite part about my job is that everything I do is grounded in the law. And so that was why I picked this program. I’m convinced that the reason they called me to interview for this position is because of my degree from Tulane. “Wow. She's got a master's degree in employment law. That's amazing. So let's talk to her because she obviously has some expertise here.” My experience got me the job, but my education got me in the door.
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