02 // Thinking Critically About Inclusion

As a woman of color learning and working in STEM fields, I hear the words diversity and inclusion bandied about a lot. As a new and skeptical resident of Silicon Valley, I’ve also been thinking a lot about what innovation actually means. So when I had the opportunity to apply to Fostering Innovation Through Inclusion, a d.school pop-out course hosted by Google, I couldn’t resist.

Image credit: Ryan Phillips

The two four-hour class sessions were held at Google’s Garage in Mountain View on consecutive Thursdays. Upon arrival, we were sorted into five-member groups and told to come up with a 60-word statement on the relationship between inclusion and innovation. The next step was to cut the length of the statement by half, and then half again. My group’s final 15-word statement read as follows:

Feeling included empowers people to innovate. Both inclusion and innovation are iterative, changing as people evolve.

Image credit: Ryan Phillips

Surprisingly, when discussing the relationship between the two processes, we never addressed what inclusion and innovation mean themselves. Nor did we, in the 8 hours we spent together, ever think critically about whether inclusion and innovation are de facto good.

Whether a particular thing qualifies as good is, of course, a highly contingent evaluation. The goodness of a thing depends on its value to and effect on a group of people. Furthermore, that group of people has to be sufficiently narrowly defined that all members of the group have the same relationship with the thing. Evaluating the goodness of a thing quickly becomes an abstract exercise in philosophy and logic - and since I’m no philosopher, I’ll sum up the issue as a case of what’s good for the goose may not be good for the gander.

Philosophical exercises aside, I have been thinking a good deal since the course about (1) what diversity, inclusion, and innovation are, (2) pitfalls of inclusion, (3) context-dependent benefits of exclusion, and (4) our personal responsibility to foster inclusion. In this post, I’ll focus on those questions in the context of the workplace.

(1) Attempting to define diversity and inclusion

On the one hand, diversity can be and often is described quantitatively - as the percentage of employees of particular racial/ethnic backgrounds, education levels, gender identities, sexual orientations, abilities, religious beliefs, citizenship status, etc. Yet such metrics are necessarily reductive - they can’t capture the full range of life experience in a group of people. On their dedicated diversity webpage, Apple states,

We see diversity as everything that makes an employee who they are. We foster a diverse culture that’s inclusive of disability, religious belief, sexual orientation, and service to country. We want all employees to be comfortable bringing their entire selves to work every day. Because we believe our individual backgrounds, perspectives, and passions help us create the ideas that move all of us forward.

As Apple’s statement hints, more diverse teams have the potential to design more innovative products and processes, a view broadly supported by both research and common sense. Innovative products and processes are ones that address heretofore ignored challenges, impact and/or serve more groups within society, solve problems in new ways, or improve upon existing designs.

This self-evident truth underlies in large part the business case for diversity - namely, that a workforce reflective of society’s diversity is better equipped to cater to the needs and wants of society. For those not convinced by the moral case for diversity, the business case has been proven time and time again. In 2015, for instance, Bersin at Deloitte’s two-year research study of diversity in business found that of nine groups of factors (comprising 128 factors in total), embedded diversity and inclusion was the strongest predictor of a business’s performance.

The business case for diversity is neither new nor revolutionary, but some corporations credited with being innovative have yet to embrace or implement it. Ellen McGirt writes in Google Searches Its Soul (to be published in the February 1, 2017 edition of Fortune Magazine) that,

A growing realization inside the company’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters that not embracing diversity might impede Google’s ability to keep growing. How can it learn to better serve the billions of people on the planet for whom its search has not thus far been optimized?

Simply assembling a diverse group of employees does not make a team of them. Researchers and management professionals contend that this is where inclusion plays an essential role. Broadly speaking, inclusion is involving, empowering, and accepting diverse groups of people. In some ways, the relationship between diversity and inclusion is akin to that between tolerance and acceptance. Inclusion goes beyond quantitative measures and brochure-friendly statistics. In fact, one complication of studying inclusion is that it doesn’t look a particular way. Research on workplace and team inclusion largely agrees that it does, however, feel a particular way - namely, psychologically safe.

In a recent review of psychological safety, Edmondson and Lei write that, “Psychological safety describes people’s perceptions of the consequences of taking interpersonal risks in a particular context such as a workplace.” As described in Google’s guide to understanding team effectiveness,

Taking a risk around your team members may sound simple. But asking a basic question like “what’s the goal of this project?” may make you sound like you’re out of the loop. It might feel easier to continue without getting clarification in order to avoid being perceived as ignorant.

Research indicates that feeling psychologically safe enables not only risk-taking but also collective learning from failure, both of which are key to the iterative process of innovation.

Image credit: Ryan Phillips

(2) Cons of inclusion

Heretical though it may sound, I’ve been contemplating potential downsides to inclusion initiatives.

For one, how does inclusion square with work-life balance and boundaries? On their diversity and inclusion webpage, Apple states, “We want all employees to be comfortable bringing their entire selves to work every day.” But what about those employees who want to establish appropriate boundaries between their whole selves and their work selves?

Our views and expectations of work-life balance are evolving rapidly. Some entrepreneurs, for instance, rave about the necessity of work-life balance to the creative process. Others decry the pressure to achieve a work-life balance, and suggest striving for work-life integration instead.

Our constant connectedness makes ever truly leaving work difficult, too. Who among us hasn’t complained about having to check work emails outside of business hours, or while on vacation? Some employees aren’t just grumbling amongst themselves, either - the French were alternately lauded and panned in the international press for their recent right to disconnect litigation.

And what about companies that promote an insular and inward-looking culture through employee perks and benefits? At Google for example, employees need not leave the sprawling campus to enjoy a meal, go to the gym, or participate in interest-based groups. These sorts of perks are old hat in the tech industry. But what do people lose by associating primarily with coworkers? Moreover, since diversity hasn’t been achieved at many companies, what do people lose by associating primarily with coworkers who are in many ways just like them?

My instinctual response is that such policies and environments create narrower communities, segregated by industry, age/generation, gender identity, income, and political views, among other metrics. As our recent presidential election illuminated, American society has grown sharply divided along these and other lines. Whether my response is strictly true, I’d wager that the answers to these questions are therefore of societal, and not just personal, significance.

(3) Who are you excluding?

One of the questions we were encouraged to ask in the d.school course was, “Who am I excluding?” Implicit in the course was the idea that excluding anyone from a particular product or process was a negative thing, and that we could create better products for everyone by designing products for a wider range of people. In terms of general product design principles, that’s not difficult to agree with.

But striving for inclusion may not be appropriate in every context. Selective inclusion or association can be an important tool for marginalized, oppressed, and otherwise disadvantaged groups within society. Should feminist spaces feel obligated to include misogynists? Should groups focused on the experience of people of color have to make an effort to include white people? Should my women in science and engineering community group try to include men in STEM?

I would argue no - groups for oppressed members of society have no obligation to pander to their oppressors. In certain contexts, bringing in people from outside the group might be appropriate - in the event of a panel discussion, for example - and a way to build understanding. But the onus to build bridges cannot rest solely with the marginalized and oppressed, for both moral and practical reasons. After all, it is those in power who have the ability to effect change.

Thus, by examining the question from the perspective of power dynamics, it seems that the obligation to include rests with the privileged and powerful - that is, those with power are obligated to include those who have been excluded from power. In common parlance, with great power comes great responsibility.

(4) Personal responsibility

What does all of this mean for how we act in our day-to-day? Well, a good friend of mine is fond of saying, “Action is the best medicine.” For me, that saying is especially important now, as those in power abuse their privilege more and more flagrantly. Understanding the power that we do have is a critical precursor to thinking about what our responsibilities are.

Image credit: Ryan Phillips

While I’m at a disadvantage as a woman of color in STEM, I’m also highly privileged to be a graduate student when only 12 percent of Americans aged 25 and older have advanced degrees. Furthermore, I’m highly privileged to be a graduate student at Stanford University, which has its own issues in terms of diversity and inclusion. While I’m a first-generation American, I’m highly privileged by my family’s economic status. While I’m of an ethnic minority, I’m privileged by the positive perceptions of my ethnic group by white people, though such perceptions are highly problematic.

Examining these and other ways in which I’m privileged has helped me see the ways in which I can take action to foster diversity and inclusion. A couple of examples:

Mentorship is a personal passion of mine, because I myself have benefited enormously from the guidance of caring mentors. It’s not a stretch to say that without my mentors, I wouldn’t be where I am today - I wouldn’t have had such great, formative learning opportunities from high school through undergraduate programs, internships, and now graduate school. While at BuroHappold, I decided to try my hand at formal mentorship through Spark, a national nonprofit network that coordinates and tailors apprenticeships for underserved middle- and high-school students.

Engaging in supportive, constructive discussions with fellow women in STEM has also broadened my perspective on what my responsibilities as a woman in STEM are. I’ve come to believe that actively identifying with and engaging with this community is in fact a responsibility for me, not just a preference. My experience as a woman in STEM is not the same as every other woman’s experience, and it’s on me to broaden my perspective and learn what my peers are facing, and to support them when I can.

Since big change starts at the grassroots level, spurred by members of affected communities, this week I’ll be reading and thinking about the SE3 project. The project is an initiative of the Structural Engineering Engagement and Equity (SE3) Committee, part of the Structural Engineers Association of Northern California (SEAONC). The committee took a nationwide survey of structural engineers, collecting over 2,100 responses to questions on career satisfaction and gender equity. As a member of this community, I’m curious about its current state, and how I can participate in improving it.

In that sense, I think my group’s statement on the relationship between inclusion and innovation was spot on (go team!). By identifying as a member of the structural engineering community, and being included by other, more established members, I feel empowered to involve myself in changing and improving the community. 

Feeling included empowers people to innovate. Both inclusion and innovation are iterative, changing as people evolve.

Our statement also addresses the fact that understanding and practicing inclusion is dynamic - so I'll consider this just the start of my process.