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Lessons Diversity and Inclusion Learned from a Virus

Women staring out of window with notebook in hand and laptop on table.

Life as we know it has changed drastically over the past weeks. Many of us have gone from challenging morning commutes, long days in the office, and plenty of social activities to working from home and having limited social gatherings, rarely with individuals beyond our immediate families. As many of us at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) embark upon our first week of mostly full-time telework, it has become clear this change in life will not necessarily be easy. Yet, as I sat at my computer working on my daily tasks, it occurred to me that there are some lessons on creating a more diverse and inclusive workforce that we can learn from the coronavirus pandemic.

Viruses change and adapt over time, our workplaces should too.

Some of the viruses of yesterday do not survive in today’s conditions because effective vaccines and treatments have been developed to suppress their negative impact (think polio and smallpox). The same is true with how we approach creating a diverse and inclusive workforce. What was done years ago worked well for that time period; the goals were good, the objectives were good, but we must be willing to grow, evolve, and adapt to an evolving work environment if we want to have a lasting impact.

This means our diversity and inclusion work must go beyond bringing diverse talent in the door and begin considering how diverse talent is represented across all aspects of our organization. In the past it was good enough to simply offer the job, but now we need to think more broadly about how talent grows and develops in our organizations. We should ask ourselves challenging questions that may evoke a degree of vulnerability like, "Do we see diverse representation in the upper levels of management changing over time? Do we see diverse talent well-represented in both administrative and scientific positions in our organization? Do we open our tables and boardrooms to the thoughts and opinions of all people, regardless of GS level, job title, age or years in government?"

As our society changes, our views on our workforce should be changing as well. If they are not, we could lose our ability to recruit and retain the best talent, and in turn, we could lose our ability to produce the best work as an organization.

Positive D&I attitudes can spread.

If there is one person on our team who is a champion of diversity and inclusion, their enthusiasm can rub off on others. During the coronavirus crisis, individuals experiencing cold and flu-like symptoms have been encouraged to remain home in an effort to reduce the spread of the virus. I am most appreciative of this action as this is very important for the health and well-being of others. But it also occurs to me that this same concept in reverse can have a powerful effect on the spread of positive thinking and behaviors related to diversity and inclusion in our work environment.

If one individual on our teams refuses to be silent about the importance of creating equitable, diverse, and inclusive workspaces, such an attitude can become viral in an office. If one person is willing to start a crucial conversation, it can open the door for others to be comfortable in doing the same. Rather than isolate the one person who is bold enough to face the difficult work of diversity and inclusion head-on, we should encourage these individuals. We should encourage them to keep talking about disparities in their organizations and we should encourage them to keep working on identifying and destroying barriers. By encouraging the one, we have the potential of creating a cadre of diversity and inclusion champions who can help us move the needle in cultivating a culture of inclusion where diverse talent is leveraged to advance health discovery. We can do this every day of the year. EDI 365.

Lastly, our combined behaviors can make an incredible difference.

Many have heard talk about the impact of social distancing on the spread of the coronavirus. In an article published by Newsweek, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, shared this when speaking of young adults and social distancing, "I think they should be practicing social distancing because even if — and I think it's still true that younger people are at much, much less risk of getting into trouble — that doesn't mean they aren't going to get infected and then they are going to infect the older people. So, everybody should be taking really good care to avoid infection."

I believe the concept of social distancing in response to the coronavirus offers one of the most meaningful lessons that can be translated to our work in diversity and inclusion. Here’s the lesson, together we can have the greatest impact on the outcome we are working towards. If one is a member of privileged population, that does not exclude one from being obligated to take a strong stand against discriminatory practices and policies that lead to disparities in our work environments. If we are privileged (and we all are in some way), we should be the allies and ambassadors who raise our voices for the marginalized and unheard at the tables where we are allowed to sit. All of us working together, standing up for the inclusion of all people at all levels, in all job series, in all of our office locations can snuff out the flame of discrimination and create an environment that is truly equitable, diverse, and inclusive.

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