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From common barriers to cultural competence: the New York Race in STEM roundtable

The latest Race in STEM roundtable took place in our New York office on Wednesday 13th March. Founder and community director Steven Fuller was joined by a panel of Bu Reinen, Zahir Carrington, Netra Macon, Smadar Dabush, Tamara Grow and Shetal Vyas, who discussed the common barriers faced by people from minority ethnic backgrounds pursuing STEM careers, and how organisations can promote cultural competence among staff and leadership.


The need for greater diversity in STEM careers

 As an organisation, how do you create a diverse environment that provides equal opportunities for growth and development for everyone, regardless of their identity or background? Employee resource groups (ERGs) can be important for this because they provide a safe space for people with shared characteristics or life experiences to support each other, enhance career development and influence organisational policy. At the same time, people need continued support to grow beyond these shared experiences and maintain personal success and fulfilment within their careers.

Tamara Grow, who’s been working in medical communications for 20 years, has met only a few people of colour within her niche during her transition beyond academia and throughout her career as a senior lead in scientific services. That lack of representation isn’t just concerning at an industry level. It can be disparaging at a personal level, and it raises questions about how to enhance diversity within organisations who seek STEM graduates and how to support their continued growth and success.


The business case for diversity

You can’t build a diverse team as an afterthought – your efforts need to be woven into the fabric of everything you’re trying to do as an organisation. “It’s not a case of saying you want a diverse culture – it needs to be built correctly through inclusivity,” said Shetal Vyas, a general manager in the pharmaceuticals industry.

If an organisation is looking to open a new manufacturing site, for example, it shouldn’t wait until the facility’s been built before thinking about how to attract diverse talent. Conversations about talent attraction need to happen during the planning stage, so that you can build your team at the same time as the facility itself.

People of different ethnicities can go through various programmes in a bid to develop themselves, but what happens after those programmes? Tamara raised the very valid concern that women of colour need sponsors in the professional environment, especially in senior positions, who encourage their growth and cultivate an environment of inclusivity. “Having the support of senior leaders who value your potential is important to help you envision what’s possible, and the organisation is successful when you thrive,” she said.


Behaviour is key

The things that can make us feel uncomfortable at work are many and varied. The panel discussed the differences between microaggressions, biases and flat out discrimination. Although we might sometimes experience an immediate fight or flight reaction, having patience and understanding, and identifying how to move forward, are key to overcoming these obstacles.

As much as we might want to, and as much as it might seem necessary, we can’t just change the world. Sometimes we need to regulate our behaviour within that world in order to get our message across. Smadar Dabush, a global clinical trial manager, spoke eloquently about the importance of being patient and sometimes accepting the imperfections of our environment. “It’s not a step backwards,” she said. “It’s a step to the side to find another way forward.”


Common barriers within STEM

There’s an assumption that people of colour are the only ones encountering cultural barriers in their STEM careers, but are they really? There was a feeling among the panellists that the hiring process, by its very nature, can be a significant barrier to entry for many groups.

Transferrable skills are so important when it comes to getting into a new, and quite niche field. If you work in quality assurance in pharma, you could also work in quality assurance in food and beverages. Although you’ll need to learn new things in order to make the move, you have the platform and the skills to build that knowledge. Tamara felt that there’s great value in taking someone with a PhD in another space and training them to help transition their transferrable skills into medcomms. This puts the onus on organisations to think outside the box when looking for new talent.


Where allyship gives way to competition

Do people from underrepresented groups help each other in their STEM careers? In reality, people often find themselves in competition. If there’s one spot at the top, for example, only one person can have that spot while everyone else can only aspire to it. Instead of looking to outdo or replace that person, we need to showcase, support and advocate for them, showing other people from underrepresented groups that they can achieve their aspirations. By channelling the inclusive energy of an ERG, we can create a positive and supportive environment where allyship doesn’t have to take second place to competition.


Cultural competence

We need to work hard to understand and respect differing values, attitudes and beliefs, and respond appropriately to those differences, in order to communicate effectively with people of other cultures. At the same time, external perceptions are critical to our credibility and our ability to attract talent. Having equal numbers of people of different ethnicities going for the same job might look great externally – “We can’t be out of sync with the optics,” said Steven Fuller – but are some leaders more concerned about being seen to be committed to diversity, than genuinely understanding the value of an inclusive environment?

Do we see colour? It’s a complex question with many angles of approach. If we get too obsessed with colour, we lose sight of a person’s value as a professional and a human being, and start to define them by their ethnicity. And if we don’t see colour, we run the risk of overlooking a person’s challenges and failing to provide the equitable environment they need. That’s where employers need to be tuned in to their people’s needs, understand their everyday challenges and introduce policies and processes that give everyone the chance to thrive.

Many thanks to our attendees for a fantastic discussion. Race in STEM is a community for underrepresented multicultural voices in STEM. If you’d like to find out more about Race in STEM or to talk to us about improving equality and diversity in your organisation, please get in touch now.