The Value of 'Two-Way Assimilation,' Part I

A sk Dr. Clemmons is a monthly advice column for scientists and engineers who are seeking top-notch academic, career, and personal development advice. Please read the introductory article and my most recent article to see what the column is all about, and then send me a question of your own!


Dear Dr. Clemmons: I have been a professor at a major research I institution for more than 20 years and have trained many graduate students in my laboratory. Although I have mentored graduate students of many different nationalities over the years, for some reason I have had problems with relating to the minority graduate students (including women) who have worked in my lab. I would like to do better when working with these students and be able make a positive difference in their careers. I am just not sure how to go about doing this? Could you please provide some direction and advice that will allow me to better relate to women and students of color? --Wanting to make a difference

Dear Wanting to make a difference:

Thank you for your question. I wish there were more people out there like you! I know that it took a lot of courage to admit that you have had trouble in this area and I believe that it is noteworthy that you even care. Most professors are so caught up in the hustle and bustle of getting grants, teaching, and getting tenure that they don?t have time to really devote to personal development issues such as this one. However, having people like you who are willing to deal with issues pertaining to diversity in science is critical, if true progress towards increasing diversity in science and engineering careers is ever to be made.

Because you did not relate the specifics of any of your past experiences in your question, I will just give you a general guide on how to start dealing with these kinds of issues in Part I of my answer. In Part II of my answer, to be published in my next column, I will point you towards more specific resources that may be of help to you and your colleagues who also may be struggling with similar problems. Please keep in mind that some of the advice given here may or may not pertain to your specific situation. Feel free to email me with the details of your situation if you would like a more tailored response to a specific dilemma.

Establish a common bond

First, I?d urge you to consider establishing a common bond with all of your students the minute they walk into your laboratory. Regardless of whether the student is male, female, African American, Native American, Hispanic, or any other nationality, I believe that it is possible to establish common ground as a basis for an ongoing relationship. A simple conversation often reveals similarities such as sharing a love for biking or a particular kind of movie. Also, it?s possible to know some of the same people especially if the person has been in the field for some time. Just by mentioning a few names, you may be surprised to find out that the world "is indeed a small place."

Sadly enough, mechanisms of creating common ground are often overlooked. This explains why people usually end up only establishing bonds with people who are exactly like themselves in some way. The creation of homogeneous populations in education and the workforce due to this phenomenon is the crux of the problem today as it relates to limited opportunities for women and people of color. As you have recognized, it is essential for you to go outside of your comfort zone and reach out to people who hold different values and ideals than yourself. Again, deep down, the human population has more similarities than differences. It shouldn?t take too much effort to uncover these. Once you do, you both begin to break down barriers and look at each other in a different light.

Once the ice is broken you must continue the connection by knowing a little something about their culture and how gender roles could possibly affect the relationship. I am a firm believer in something I call ?two-way assimilation." That is, learning all about other people and their cultures so that it is not just a one-way street.

For example, as an African-American female engineer and scientist, I have had to make it my business to specialize in understanding the ins and outs of white male culture and, to a lesser extent, white female culture. This means that I constantly live in duality as I navigate within the greater American society. However, I do not believe that this kind of dual reality is the case for most whites, irrespective of their economic status. I believe the basic tenants of American culture are built upon the premise that white culture is the standard for everyone else. This false assumption does not allow for the fact that other people have had to change themselves to live within the ideals that have been set forth by the majority population.

This standard of "one-way assimilation" does a great disservice to every American. What about giving equal validity to all of the other cultures that help make up American society? Americans love to talk about the great ?melting pot," but then resort to establishing Caucasian-based cultural norms for setting up policies and practices which, in turn, affect all members of society. Adopting ?two-way assimilation" as a value in American society would place equal importance on learning about other cultural norms and would have a positive impact on our nation.

Getting the learning process started

How would you begin this learning process? Well, just like eating at a buffet, try a little bit of everything. In addition to reading or viewing a cultural video, why not attend a Pow Wow, worship at a predominantly black church, attend a Cinco de Mayo celebration, or just have coffee with a member of a minority group. You may feel like a fish out of water, but the others will welcome your enthusiasm and willingness to learn.

As an illustration of my point, I want you to think about the last time you may have had to consider going to an event that was all female if you are male, or all black if you are white, or a bilingual event for Latinos if you only speak English? Did you feel uncomfortable on some level? Did you wish that everyone could just be the same as yourself? Were you even resentful? Furthermore, have you ever been to an event where you saw one lone black person or woman standing around? How did you feel about that person? Did you reach out to that individual?

Unfortunately, these types of uncomfortable situations are common for women and people of color, but to become successful, they have had to master this process of ?one-way" assimilation. If you show each student that you have respect for who they are as individuals, it will go a long way toward helping you relate to them. This approach has nothing to do with science, but it will make all the difference in getting the maximum productivity out of your students because they will begin to view you as a friend and ally and not just a laboratory boss who cares nothing for them as individuals. Happy and well-adjusted people who feel respected tend to be more productive too, which is a much-welcomed side effect.

It works with women as well

My "two-way assimilation" theory also holds true for the socialization of males and females. More often than not, females have had to alter the way they think or act in order to fit into male power structures. This undue burden experienced by women often creates misunderstandings and resentment amongst the sexes. To better relate to your female students, I suggest that you go out of your way to understand the issues facing female scientists and show sensitivity in these areas.

For instance, being supportive of a female scientist who has great ambitions may mean that you have to be able to support her while she is on maternity leave and encourage her to continue her work at the same level when she returns from maternity leave. More often than not, women complain that their bosses see them taking maternity leave and the subsequent commitment that child rearing brings as a hindrance to their careers. As a result, they lose the support and encouragement of their boss, which makes it an uphill struggle to get back on track from there.

What if you were able to fight this trend and continue to support your female students much in the same way you would a male student who has just had a child? In fact, he has the same child-rearing responsibilities that she has! As is the trend in most states, he will mostly likely be entitled to paternity leave for several months anyhow and he should be encouraged to use it. Indeed, the cultural norms as it relates to having children are changing.

Another way that you could support the minority and female students in your laboratory is to make sure they are involved in organizations that are geared toward their interests and to make sure that you are involved yourself. Some examples of these groups are the Association for Women in Science, the National Black Graduate Student Association, and the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science.

Too many times, professors simply tolerate their students? involvement in such organizations without becoming involved themselves. This practice is counter-productive in a laboratory environment because it is perceived that you as a professor will allocate time toward those activities that are most important to you. What type of message are you sending if you are not involved and it is quite clear that you are not interested in becoming involved in these important organizations? No, you may not be granted tenure for becoming involved in gender- or cultural-specific organizations, but gaining the respect of your students in this way will most likely pay other intangible benefits to you over the years.

The bottom line is that you must put your time and energy into this effort if it is to be successful. Make it a lifestyle change, if you will. Also, you should try and convince your colleagues that developing better relationships with their minority and female students is well worth the time and effort and will pay huge dividends in the long run. In my next column, I will address some more specific ways that you might achieve this goal and give you more concrete tools for you to work with. Until then, try to develop a plan to incorporate ?two-way assimilation" into the culture of your laboratory.

--Dr. Clemmons

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