Read our COVID-19 research and news.

The Value of "Two-Way Assimilation" PART II

Ask 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!

This column is a follow-up from my last article, "Two-Way Assimilation: Part I," which appeared on the MiSciNet Web site on 19 September 2003. The question asked by a reader appears again below:


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:

I'm back with Part II of my answer to your question. I promised to point you in the direction of specific resources for you and your colleagues who are struggling to learn how to best integrate students of color and women into the traditionally nonminority, male-dominated laboratory environment. Hopefully, the tools and information in this column will enable you and your colleagues to develop a plan to incorporate "two-way assimilation" into the culture of your laboratory. Moreover, this information is universal and relevant to everyone. It is just as critical for interactions in workplaces outside of the laboratory, including industry, government, and nonlaboratory academic settings.

As I explained in my last column, "two-way assimilation" is critical if progress is to be made with regard to race and gender relations in America. Using white American culture and male paradigms as a baseline from which to judge everyone else is counterproductive and creates many problems. On the other hand, adopting "two-way assimilation" as a society would place equal importance on learning about other gender and cultural norms and would have a positive impact on our nation.

Although you may have already begun to think about the process of how to incorporate a culture of "two-way assimilation" into your laboratory environment, I believe it is critically important that you become well versed in the types of problems facing minorities and females as they try to pursue careers in science and engineering. This is the basis from which you will come to understand how to help.

Many resources are available to assist you in this endeavor, and one of the most comprehensive is the Building Engineering and Science Talent ( BEST) initiative. BEST was launched in September 2001 as a public-private partnership to follow through on the September 2000 recommendations of the Congressional Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering and Technology Development. The Commission published a report, Land of Plenty: Diversity as America's Competitive Edge in Science, Engineering and Technology, which served as a national call to action to readdress the demographic imbalance of the U.S. technical workforce.

In 1999, women, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and persons with disabilities made up two-thirds of the overall workforce but held only about a quarter of the technical jobs that drive innovation. This continued imbalance threatens the economic future of all Americans. The issue is detailed further in another BEST publication, The Quiet Crisis: Falling Short in Producing American Scientific and Technical Talent, written by Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. These are great resources for you to check out and refer your colleagues to as you seek to understand the problems facing minorities and women in science and engineering.

Once you understand the problems, you may use this information as a springboard to help you modify your own behavior accordingly. This is an individual process and will be different for everyone. What is important is that you are attempting to change things in an effort to make a positive impact on the lives of many people. To that end, you should read as much as you can about how to better relate to people in general. In my opinion, scientists and engineers simply do not learn adequate people skills and receive managerial training throughout their academic careers or on the job. This is a recipe for disaster, as it relates to being able to successfully deal with people who are different from you. Thus, your next task is to learn how to combine sound management and leadership principles with your knowledge of the importance of retaining minorities and women in science and engineering careers.

There are many resources available to help you improve your existing management style, but I would like to recommend one of my favorites: Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading, by Martin Linsky and Ronald A. Heifetz (Harvard Business School Press, 2002). This book is an excellent resource that will empower you to institute necessary types of adaptive changes in your laboratory work environment. The authors not only discuss what characteristics are essential to becoming a better leader (and manager), but they also describe many of the challenges faced by women and minorities in managerial situations where they may or may not be the subordinate.

I like this book because the authors are not afraid to take on topics such as the marginalization of women and minorities in the workplace or describe the way people of color and women are made to be "invisible" in a room full of people with varying opinions. I would also recommend that you get out and attend leadership and management workshops in your area. These may be offered through your university, a professional society of which you are a member, or some other local group. The main point is for you to get out of your comfort zone and learn what tools are necessary to relate to others in general.

Other fascinating resources that illustrate the dynamics between males and females in the workplace are Patricia Heim's books and presentations on gender differences. They are designed to foster understanding between men and women and to facilitate discussions that are beneficial both professionally and personally. In particular, her "GenderSpeak" workshop is excellent. You should consider sponsoring the workshop at your university or sponsoring another cultural diversity workshop within your department. Like Heim, I believe males and females are socialized differently, and many of the charged issues that result are simply miscommunication between the sexes. To solve this problem, you must understand that these contrasting workplace styles are actually strengths.

Once you have armed yourself with information about the plight of minorities and women in science and engineering and learned about sound leadership and management principles, you will be well on your way to creating a better workplace--one where you and others can all relate to each other personally and work in a more harmonious way. Certainly, more challenges lie ahead for you in this quest, but having the will to change is very important and will allow you to persevere when things get tough. I am certain that you will have success in this endeavor. Good luck!