Diversity Summit explores barriers to an inclusive workplace
MIT Lincoln Laboratory hears research results on unconscious biases
MIT Lincoln Laboratory's second Diversity Summit addressed the challenges in fostering an environment of inclusion. Held on February 22 in the Laboratory's main auditorium, the summit is part of the Laboratory's commitment to finding and supporting excellence in its staff. The event complements MIT's diversity initiatives, said Alyce Johnson, manager of Staff Diversity and Inclusion at MIT, who outlined the Institute's enduring diversity goals at the opening of the summit.
The event featured a talk by Dr. Kristin Lane, assistant professor of psychology at Bard College, whose research on bias highlights how people's conscious beliefs about their biases are often at odds with implicit attitudes they unconsciously hold. These implicit biases present a hurdle to creating a truly inclusive workplace.
Approximately 250 people attended the summit, participating in exercises that Prof. Lane posed to demonstrate how beliefs we are unaware of can influence behaviors. One exercise asked the audience to respond to the conjunction of science terms with names for either men or women. The response time for linking male names with science was shown to be quicker than the response time for linking women's names with science, suggesting that many people still hold a mindset that science is the province of men. Prof. Lane has found this result in a range of groups, including ones at universities and laboratories in which women hold prominent positions in science fields. Currently, she is investigating how implicit biases may contribute to the continuing underrepresentation of women in science. She has performed doctoral and postdoctoral research on bias at Harvard University's Implicit Social Cognition Laboratory as part of Project Implicit.
"We hold three assumptions about our behavior—that behavior is controllable, that we can easily and accurately identify our motivations, and that behavior is intended, conscious. Research has shown that these assumptions are wrong," said Prof. Lane. She did not presume to offer a "cure" for the implicit bias problem, but she shared some research results that show that biases are not necessarily permanently fixed.
The second half of the summit was a panel discussion led by six Lincoln Laboratory employees from various disciplines: Paula Ward, Dr. Nestor Lopez, Dr. Jeffrey Palmer, Gary Brendel, Ngaire Underhill, and Dr. Christ Richmond. Through the perspectives of the panelists, the audience gained an overview of the Laboratory's success at creating a workplace that welcomes diversity and ideas for improving inclusion.
The panel agreed that the Laboratory was generally a welcoming environment. Palmer, assistant group leader in Bioengineering Systems and Technologies, said that he found MIT and Lincoln Laboratory to be places where "what matters is what you know."
The audience and the panel proposed ideas for maintaining an inclusive environment. Both groups emphasized that communication is key. Sometimes people are unaware how their behavior or remarks generate an atmosphere of exclusion; therefore, open discussion can foster understanding. Brendel of the Laboratory's Advanced Sensor Techniques Group recommended stepping back from too readily interpreting things as motivated by bias. Lopez, a technical staff member in the Advanced Concepts and Technologies Group, noted that groups such as the Laboratory's New Employees Network and the Hispanic Latino Network help create a supportive atmosphere and help members integrate into the Laboratory culture.
Bill Kindred, manager of the Laboratory's Office of Diversity and Inclusion and organizer of the summit, summed up the importance of the event. "We all have unconscious biases. If we don't create ways to account for these biases, we could unintentionally contribute to a work environment that causes a valued employee to leave the Laboratory. The summit is one way to open a dialogue about these issues."
Posted April 2013
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