Diversity: Does it Mix?

According to the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) 2002 Science and Engineering Indicators, the S&E workforce is becoming more diverse over time. More than half of all S&E-degreed workers are 40 years old or older; almost 30% of doctorate holders and 20% of master's degree holders in the S&E U.S. workforce are foreign-born; almost 30% of S&E-degreed workers are women. The percentage of women and other underrepresented groups will almost certainly continue to grow. The diversity of the S&E workforce will continue to increase. Can scientists--who are not, after all, widely trained for social skills--learn the skills they need to be successful in the workplace melting pot? Few schools require diversity training and, although many colleges and universities are diverse places, people tend to keep to themselves.

The skills you need to succeed in a diverse workplace cannot be taught in a single article. But I can share with you a model to help you determine how you perceive and approach diversity. This article will outline a model you can use to determine where you are on a continuum of diversity sensitivity. With this information you can determine what you need to do to become more effective in interacting with the increasingly diverse industrial science workforce.

The Same, But Not the Same

When discussing diversity, you must be careful not to think in terms of stereotypes. A stereotype is a pattern or model that we apply to a large group without acknowledging the differences of individuals within the group. For example, whereas an ethnic or racial group may have certain "average" traits--a shared faith, or certain cultural norms--the diversity within a group is usually larger than the differences between groups. Put another way, no matter how you categorize, there's always a lot of overlap between the different categories.

The point is this: Although it's inappropriate--and simply wrong--to assume that a member of a cultural, racial, or ethnic group possesses certain traits by virtue of their inclusion in that group, there's no doubt that the S&E workforce is growing more diverse. As the representation of less common groups increases, the cultural richness of the whole increases as well.

Stages of Diversity Awareness

Everyone has a different level of awareness, and everyone embraces differences in various ways. I recently came across a formulation based on Dr. Milton Bennett's Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity, which provides a framework to understand the way people deal with differences. Underlying Bennett's model is the assumption that as our "experience of cultural difference" grows more sophisticated, our competence in dealing with people who are different from us increases. Bennett's framework runs through six stages: denial, defense, minimization, acceptance, adaptation, and, finally, integration. Each stage requires a different intervention, but for the purposes of this column, which merely seeks to raise awareness, intervention really isn't the point. Although Bennett's model focuses on culture, it can be applied to race, gender, and other diversity types. I will briefly describe each stage.

Denial of differences is the stage at which people fail to recognize the legitimacy--indeed, the very existence--of cultural difference. There is a tendency to avoid people who are different from you. People at this stage tend to treat other people just as they would treat themselves and people like them, failing to recognize that people who are different from you might not share your social customs, and, hence, may not accurately receive the message you are sending.

The second stage, defense, is when you recognize differences and evaluate them negatively. There may be more than one culture, but there is only one good one. This is the "us" vs. "them" stage. "Recognition of the fact that differences do exist carries a threat," writes Bennett. Individuals at this stage often use stereotypes; they want people to conform to their narrow expectations of what people should do and think (e.g., expecting someone to speak English if they are from the United States), or they believe that their place and/or way of life is better than others. This is the stage at which charges of "reverse discrimination" are often heard.

The third state is minimization. This stage can be defined as recognizing and accepting superficial differences, such as physical appearances or language, while still insisting on a common set of values--yours. People at this stage implicitly assume that it's desirable to shed our differences and converge on a single, uniform culture. They look for similarities usually referencing themselves as the baseline.

Bennett calls the next three stages "ethnorelative," by which he means that people in these stages experience their own culture in the context of other cultures. The first of these three stages is acceptance; this is where differences are recognized and, to some extent, appreciated. All cultures are accepted as legitimate, viable alternatives, but that doesn't mean that all cultures are equally valid. Other cultures may still be judged negatively. People at this stage are respectful of cultural difference.

The fifth stage is adaptation. At this level you are developing skills that enable you to effectively perceive and behave appropriately to each individual, and to function effectively within other cultural groups, without insisting on adherence to a set of common values. This requires the construction of social constructs that can be called upon at will to facilitate interaction among people who are different. Behavioral signs include recognizing the need to gain the other individual's perspective, acknowledging the need to change your own approach, or working toward a consensus approach that recognizes the differences. The adaptation stage is a good place to be.

In the sixth state, integration, one is not necessarily more effective than in the adaptation stage at dealing with cultural difference. Internalization is where the very experience of self is affected by movement in and out of different cultures. According to Bennett, this is a stage often experienced by people from nondominant minority groups, expatriates, and what he calls "global nomads."

So what?

The value of this formulation to businesses is that it provides a framework within which cultural sensitivity can be measured in an organization and strategies for intercultural training established. The readers of Next Wave, however, don't need to measure organizations and develop training curricula. The goal of Next Wave--and of this column--is to help scientists develop the skills they need to do well in today's scientific workplace. Industrial science will continue to have an increasing representation of different people, therefore to be successful in the workplace you will need to improve your skills at understanding and dealing with differences. Becoming familiar with Bennett's indicators of cultural competence, and working to advance toward the adaptation phase, will give you the Insider's Edge in dealing with diversity in the scientific workplace.

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