Diversity Isn’t Going to Cut It

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Diversity Isn’t Going to Cut It


K. Renee Horton, PhD, Founder of Unapologetically Being, Inc.

Photo by Pep Holman.Diversity is easy to achieve. Inclusion is the hard part.

Diversity within an organization refers to intentionally employing and/or engaging individuals of varying genders, religions, races, ages, ethnicities, political ideologies, sexual orientations, education levels, and physical abilities. Some organizations go further and include life experiences and cognitive approaches toward problem solving as well. All of these variables characterize us as individuals.

When you think about your team at work, at school, or even in your network, you likely see some diversity, maybe in race and gender. But this categorical approach doesn’t really hit the essence of what it means to be a richly diverse organization. Such an organization looks beyond race and gender data to inclusion. Embracing and valuing diversity is key to the success of the organization and, by extension, the success of its individuals.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order (EO) known as Affirmative Action that stated that US government employers could not discriminate against employees or job applicants on the basis of race, creed, color, or national origin. This was an attempt to eliminate the unfair, unequal treatment of minority ethnic groups who had historically faced discrimination. If this EO had not been signed into law, Katherine Johnson and the other “human computers” of color that played a key role in getting us to the moon may not have even been hired. Thankfully, they were hired, and, well, the rest is history.

Affirmative Action and subsequent laws to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, ability, and veteran status force us to confront a painful reality at the core of our history. The country in which we live was not built on the principle that all races or genders are equal, nor were many of our personal worldviews. Affirmative Action is a measure against organizational practices based on a fundamental belief system that one race or gender is superior to another.

Even if you support the law and bring in people who are different, it can be hard to include them simply because they are different from you and you don’t know how to process those differences.

In my first research position as a new PhD, I was not readily accepted. I tried hard to gain acceptance from several places—the engineering group to which I was assigned, the tech group in charge of training me, and even a group of minority employees. The latter worked to influence the ability of minority employees to excel at their positions, but only if they considered you part of their group.

I knew I had a lot to offer the company, but the stress of trying to be included, to fit in, was draining. My colleagues constantly told me, “It’s not rocket science,” implying that I was just too smart for this position and they didn’t need me. My guard was up, and I was in defense mode.

I didn’t understand it then, but my brain was having a physiological response to the exclusion. When you experience pain from exclusion, a part of your brain called the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) lights up. The dACC is also known to activate when we experience aversive feelings of physical pain. This suggests that social and physical injuries are similarly processed by the brain, which leads us to the understanding that pain from exclusion and physical pain can have an identical effect.1 Now I know why I was exhausted back then. Within 90 days of starting, I was let go because the company deemed I wasn’t a good fit. I was relieved – I never saw myself being included or valued.

Inclusion is the hard part. It’s a state of being valued, respected, and supported. It is about focusing on the needs of every individual and ensuring the right conditions are in place for each person to achieve their potential. Inclusion is about making sure the climate and the culture of the organization are willing to accept diversity and value the differences presented by each individual. Inclusion pushes each of us to examine our values and our biases. It challenges us to consider that there are some things we may need to change or be intentional about when it comes to our colleagues.

Our brains have a tendency to categorize things—a useful function in a world of infinite stimuli—but this can lead to discrimination, baseless assumptions, and worse, particularly in times of hurry or stress. Psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt states that same-race recognition isn’t inborn, “It’s a matter of experience, acting on biology: If you grew up among white people, you learned to make fine distinctions among whites. Those are the faces our brain is getting trained on.”2 I think this holds true for gender and other aspects of diversity as well.

To make inclusion work, we have to be willing to accept differences, value what each person brings to the table, and believe that they belong at the table. We have to be intentional about changing and correcting our unconscious biases with factual data about individuals, let our guard down, and be open to the perspectives and opinions of others. Just think: the answer to your problem, the key to your team’s success, could be locked away in the brain of the person you exclude, whether it’s done consciously or unconsciously.

Being truly inclusive may put you in situations that are uncomfortable. Including someone who is different may go against the culture of your company, your team’s ideology, or your own belief system. It’s easy to seek out comfortable situations, but to be an agent of change and ensure that diversity and inclusion coexist, you have to prepare yourself to be comfortable in the uncomfortable.

1. Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., and Williams, K. D. 2003. Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science 302:290–2. doi:10.1126/science.1089134
2. Starr, Douglas 2020. Meet the psychologist exploring unconscious bias—and its tragic consequences for society. Brain & Behavior Social Sciences. doi:10.1126/science.abb9022

Disclaimer: This article is written in my personal capacity as the founder of Unapologetically Being, Inc., a nonprofit that advocates for changing the face of STEM. The opinions expressed in this article are mine and do not reflect the view of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, referred to as NASA, or the United States Government.

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