In March 2019, the founding cohort of New Voices, a project of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine dedicated to promoting new and diverse voices to solve national and global challenges, hosted a public panel of leaders from multiple sectors on diversity in science, engineering and medicine. Convened at the National Academy of Sciences, selected panelists from government, industry and academic sectors engaged in a vibrant and candid discourse led by New Voices’ members.
THE VALUE OF DIVERSITY
The panelists agreed that diversity adds value in all sectors and is necessary for scientific advancement. Hiring practices that value diversity provide access to talent with multiple perspectives and improve the quality of research and business outputs. They also agreed that comprehensive programs must be developed to attract, develop and retain diversity within any organization, and that no single action or program can be effective in isolation.
Panelists representing federal agencies noted that diversity benefits individuals, teams and corporations by providing strengths that may be lacking in more homogenous groups. Representatives from the government sector highlighted that basic scientific research at federal agencies hinges on a diversity of ideas and the representation of individuals from all sectors of society asking novel, timely and socially relevant questions.
For example, an increase in the number of women in the field of cardiology has led to better outcomes for women with heart disease—because women understand that women express symptoms differently. This thinking can and should be extrapolated to other aspects of diversity, with implications for multiple medical conditions and surgical interventions.
The panelists from industry concurred that in their experience, diversity and inclusion has led to the generation of better ideas and solutions to pressing problems, and that inclusivity can be self-reinforcing, helping to attract a more diverse workforce. They stressed that diversity is profitable for private companies, as reported in recent studies (described or referred to here, here, here, here and here). Successful companies are striving to become more innovative, sustainable and inclusive. They agreed that when we build better quality businesses, we are better able to serve the public.
While the United States is much better positioned than most of the world, it still has a long way to go with regard to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Industry leaders on the panel felt that the business case for diversity has not translated to industry leadership, in part because of unconscious and conscious biases. For example, affinity bias causes leaders to unconsciously prefer candidates who are similar to them, which can reduce opportunities for individuals from diverse backgrounds. Diversity is an issue that needs to be continuously and intentionally addressed; everyone must actively identify, own and address their personal biases, privileges and behaviors.
The panelists agreed that bias can also affect which individuals apply for programs, and who feels welcome once a part of an organization. For example, most federal agencies conduct and sponsor merit-based research, and offer competitive awards, fellowships and grants based on the best ideas. Unfortunately, there is commonly a lack of transparency in the selection process and inclusiveness in the language of announcements, which can make some individuals feel like they cannot participate.
Even when individuals are aware of these opportunities, a lack of representation affects rates of recruitment and retention in many programs. Representation also affects newcomers in any work environment, and women and underrepresented Minorities (URMs) are some of the most affected groups, especially when young children are a part of the equation.
WHAT WE “HEARD”
The members of New Voices were impressed with the frank discussion and appreciated the willingness of panelists to speak to the real-world challenges their organizations experience, as well as the lack of measurable progress.
The loudest message we heard was that an institutional-level, holistic approach is needed to solve this problem. Given that we as a society know how to build and organize institutions for specific outcomes and successes, we need to recognize and reorganize in a way that values DEI and promotes positive organizational health. Our focus should not be on changing attitudes, but rather on changing behaviors, which means pointing out biases where they occur and rewarding good practices that improve accountability.
We need to create an environment of inclusivity—where community members have space available to them to openly discuss their feelings and their fears, and where people feel safe to bring their whole self to work. There is no universal approach to DEI, and each institution should develop its own specific strategy. Organizational DEI health is analogous to human health—we must treat the whole system, and we must take preventative measures.
The results of institutional DEI initiatives should be made public to build trust and enable objective evaluation of progress. Periodic reviews of metrics, especially with reference to mid-level and upper management’s contribution to inclusive, diverse and equitable leadership, are critical. Partnerships among industry, government and academic institutions, especially for leaders responsible for improving DEI, may also enable participants to leverage the wisdom of the collective, understand larger-scale problems and proactively take corrective actions.
Our panelists highlighted that a tiered approach has been the most effective for initiating change. This includes increasing diversity in the talent pipeline, ensuring transparency in hiring decisions, convening diverse interview panels and search committees, bringing accountability in hiring practices at all levels, focusing on middle and senior levels, providing mechanisms for new mothers and others reentering the workforce, and incentivizing mid-level executives to pursue diversity.
HOW WE REACTED
As New Voices, we understand that engendering more diverse, equitable and inclusive organizations requires multifaceted approaches that focus on hiring and recruitment, mentorship and training, evaluation and feedback, recognition and promotion, and retention and succession planning. From our perspective as early-career leaders, this needs to take place at all levels within an organization.
Efforts to improve DEI should not rest solely on the shoulders of URMs, even though they are often the first to volunteer or be asked to promote such efforts. The systems were not created by them, and thus require an “all-hands-on-board” approach and a set of allies who are willing to recognize and use their existing privilege as often as possible to support this mission. Allies need to be mentors, coaches and champions. They need to be self-aware and willing to listen and learn, with the ability to recognize implicit bias in their instinctual actions and approaches.
This means being conscious of microaggressions and the implicit bias that they or others might have and its effects in every aspect of their interaction with minoritized scholars, including during discussions concerning the recruitment, success and retention of scholars from underserved communities.
This panel was just the beginning; we see this as the first of many conversations on the important topic of DEI. Join our continuing conversation at www.newvoicesnasem.org.
The initial cohort of New Voices in Sciences, Engineering & Medicine initial cohort includes:
Patricia Silveyra, MSc, PhD is an associate professor, Beerstecher-Blackwell Distinguished Term Scholar and director of the Biobehavioral Laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Olujimi Ajijola, MD, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Medicine in the University of California Los Angeles Cardiac Arrhythmia Center, David Geffen School of Medicine.
Tyrone Grandison, PhD is the founder of the Data-Driven Institute.
Colleen M. Iversen, PhD is a senior staff scientist in the Environmental Sciences Division and Climate Change Science Institute, Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Ali Nouri, PhD is the president of the Federation of American Scientists.
Alison Sheets-Singer, PhD is a principal researcher in the Nike Sport Research Lab, Nike, Inc.
The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent positions of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.