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The Power of Diversity in the Lab

The Power of Diversity in the Lab

Different experiences and perspectives bring new ideas and solutions to the lab  

Sherri L. Bassner, PhD

Sherri L. Bassner, PhD, obtained her PhD in inorganic chemistry from The Pennsylvania State University in 1988. She began working for Air Products and Chemicals, Inc., in the fall of that...

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For more than three decades, lab managers have been wrestling with the challenges of developing diverse workforces and building an inclusive culture to take best advantage of the strength of those differences. The issues and challenges are broad and deep. This article is intended to uncover some of the nuances of this topic and inspire lab managers to further pursue strategies and actions.

Any discussion of diversity and inclusion must begin with definitions, or at least an understanding of what the terms are intended to represent. True “diversity and inclusion” means recognizing each individual as the unique combination of experiences and perspectives that they represent, and creating a culture that allows each individual to contribute to their fullest ability. 

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These, of course, are lofty and difficult goals. However, as with targets of “zero lab safety incidents,” the difficulty of achieving the end point should not inhibit aggressive actions to attain it. Each action along the way toward true diversity and inclusion provides incremental benefit to the business and all within it. 

Diverse representation in the workforce

As a first step toward the creation of a more diverse workforce, many organizations use proxies as representations of difference. The most common proxies are gender, race, national origin, and sexual orientation/gender identity. Some less common proxies include education level or university, a region of the country someone grew up in, and even social or economic class or background. Even with several decades of focus, efforts along these lines have had mixed success. For example, data from the Census Bureau show that women have made significant gains in STEM employment in the physical sciences, growing from 15 percent of the workforce in 1970 to 41 percent in 2011 (approaching the 50 percent representation in the workforce as a whole). Blacks and Hispanics have not fared as well. Those groups are represented in STEM fields at less than half of their representation in the workforce as a whole. Data exist on many other measurable aspects of difference, but that is only the beginning of the story.

The intent on increasing representation of these proxy groups in the workforce is that people from different backgrounds will bring different experiences and perspectives into the workplace. As scientists, we are well aware that the best ideas often come from the intersection of existing knowledge bases. In fact, entire new fields of study arise when scientists with different backgrounds come together to solve problems. Biochemistry became its own field of study when biologists and chemists began to work together to understand the chemical processes behind living systems. Neuroeconomics is an emerging interdisciplinary field aimed at understanding human decision making. The power of a diverse workforce is that those different experiences and perspectives bring new ideas and ways of solving problems into daily discussions.

Measuring success

So, does it really work? The difficulty, of course, is that we cannot run a true control experiment. We cannot take an organization of similar people from similar backgrounds and simultaneously have an organization with a diverse workforce facing the exact same conditions and challenges and see which business performs better. There are always confounding conditions, as well as the challenge of cause and effect: does an organization perform better because of its diverse workforce and inclusive culture, or do well-performing businesses have the resources and bandwidth to support such an environment?

There are, however, recent studies that point to the performance and financial benefits of investments in diversity and inclusion. Boston Consulting Group, in an article published in 2018, focused on “innovation revenue” as a function of “diversity score” and found that companies with a higher diversity score (defined as diverse representation on their leadership teams) outperformed those with a lower score (as measured by percent of revenue from products and services launched in the preceding three years), 47 percent to 26 percent. McKinsey in 2020 focused on financial outperformance compared to national industry averages. They found that gender diverse companies outperformed their industry average by 25 percent while those companies considered ethnically diverse outperformed by 36 percent.

While these studies have necessarily focused on those proxy measures for a diverse workforce, the rational lab manager understands that their goal is to leverage the uniqueness of each employee. Representation across a number of historically underrepresented groups is not enough. Beware of the trap of different outward appearances cloaking similar thought processes. To truly unlock the power of their workforce, the lab manager needs to create a culture that invites broad input and creative thinking. This culture creation is difficult, requires consistency and persistence, and above all, begins with the leader doing a self-evaluation. Consider the tips below as a starting point on the journey of creating a truly inclusive workplace culture.

Strategies for lab leaders

Since the leader sets the tone for behavior in the work environment, the place to begin is with that leader taking a hard look in the mirror. The challenge of uncovering unintentional bias is too complex for this short treatment and the reader is encouraged to seek out further guidance. An important note—the goal, to quote Brené Brown, is “to get it right, not be right.” 

Everyone carries unintentional bias. It will never be eliminated. The objective is to constantly work to be aware of bias and challenge biased thinking. This is a never-ending journey for all of us, and the expectation needs to be on learning and improving, not eliminating and perfecting.

In addition to understanding their own unintentional bias, the leader needs to get comfortable with discomfort. If the goal is to bring new and creative thinking to the table, then ideas that don’t fit the leader’s experience and thought processes are going to need to be nurtured, not dismissed. This is counter to how many leaders have been coached and developed, as well as counter to the confidence the leader has developed in their own preferred ways of approaching a problem or achieving a goal. An old joke among managers about empowerment says that, “Anyone is empowered to make the same decision that I would have made.” Making room for other approaches requires intent on the part of the lab manager. That intent includes asking for other thoughts, not dismissing an idea without serious investigation and discussion, and modeling this behavior consistently for the rest of the workforce. Changing natural behaviors requires conscious thought, the aforementioned intentionality, and consistency. It must be front of mind and thus a top daily priority.

Once an employee sees that their ideas are getting a solid hearing from management, they will be encouraged to bring these differing thoughts forward more broadly. This is exactly what the leader wants, but if the broader culture is not skilled in constructive debate, then the openness will quickly shut down. This ability to listen to and build on ideas different from your own is a learned skill. The skill building in constructive debate also needs to be tied to the right incentive structure to encourage both the comfort in bringing forward new ideas, as well as the desire to build on them usefully.  Since this sort of cooperative idea building is counter to the instincts of many in a competitive lab culture, the leader needs to actively teach that capability, and consistently reinforce its use.

The business case for diversity has been discussed, debated, and measured for decades now. Most agree that greater inclusion of different thinking is critical to the competitive differentiation of any business. While many companies have focused on the easiest component—increasing representation of historically underrepresented groups—the true impact of a diverse workforce is only possible with the creation of an inclusive culture. Building this culture is a difficult but powerful undertaking. Investing in yourself as a leader and in your organization is worth the effort. The difference between a good business and a great business is the discretionary effort employees choose to contribute. Having a workforce truly diverse in their thinking unleashed in an environment that values that broad range of ideas should be every lab manager’s top business goal.