Dialogue about diversity reveals tensions

Speakers say education about meaning, benefits of inclusiveness will go a long way
Published on April 17, 2013
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Anonymous comments from 2011 veterinary faculty, staff, and administrators survey​

Illustration: Raised hand

Diversity is complex. Definitions of the word vary, and diversity incorporates factors well beyond the customary characteristics of ethnicity and race.

These were three of the take-home messages obtained from a 26-question climate survey sent in July 2011 to faculty, staff, and administrators at U.S. veterinary colleges and designed to elicit information on attitudes, opinions, behaviors, and experiences related to diversity.

The survey also found that the gender shift going on in the profession is a concern for both genders. Further, tensions were revealed with regard to the perceived need for diversity in general versus the necessity of having formal diversity initiatives in the workplace.

Dr. Green III
Dr. Henry Green III, associate professor of cardiology at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, discusses how faculty, staff, and administrators created and executed a strategy to increase diversity and inclusion within the veterinary college. (Photos courtesy of AAVMC)

The results and insights were discussed during the 19th Iverson Bell Symposium March 8-9 in Alexandria, Va., as part of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges Annual Conference (see article). Iverson Bell is the oldest and largest diversity-themed event in the profession. This year’s sessions touched on disability awareness, perceptions of diversity in the profession, and how to sustain diversity initiatives within organizations.

Taking a pulse

The climate survey was developed by Drs. Phillip D. Nelson and Suzie Kovacs, both of the Western University of Health Sciences College of Veterinary Medicine. It was conducted concurrently with a survey by the AAVMC that assessed the comfort levels of veterinary students from minority groups, including racial and ethnic minorities; those with impairments or disabilities; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students (see JAVMA, May 1, 2012).

The faculty and staff climate survey had 2,227 respondents, and received responses from all but one of the 28 U.S. veterinary colleges.

Among those who took the survey, 55 percent were staff and 36.5 percent were faculty. About 84 percent identified themselves as white, most were baby boomers or of Generation X, and 6.4 percent were not heterosexual.

Twenty percent of respondents said diversity is important but shouldn’t be included in workplace policies; however, most (70 percent) said it is important and should be included in workplace policies, while 8 percent disagreed on both counts. Some of the last group commented that “the best qualified should get the job,” “(diversity) shouldn’t be mandated,” “it lowers the perception of quality,” and “(diversity is) a poorly defined subjective concept.”

Thirty-nine percent of survey respondents agreed that there is a greater need for diversity in the profession, while 32 percent were neutral. Most of those who agreed that diversity was “of little concern when it comes to the sciences” skewed younger.

When asked how often they heard racist remarks in the workplace, around 10 percent said occasionally or frequently. Unsurprisingly, minorities in all categories (17 percent of all respondents) were more likely to report hearing racist remarks. The same held true for those who identified as nonheterosexual regarding homophobic remarks. Notably, males more than females had a greater likelihood to hear sexist remarks from students and staff.

“The definition of sexist became an issue, but also whether females felt comfortable to make sexist remarks to males and males’ acceptance of sexist remarks,” Dr. Nelson said.

Dr. Kovacs wonders whether the gender shift that is occurring in the profession is creating an environment where sexism—from either direction—might show up on people’s radar more often than before, and added that more research is needed to determine whether this is the case.

Almost 32 percent of respondents said they were negatively discriminated against because of their gender; of this group, 86 percent were female. Gender was given as the biggest reason for discrimination, followed by level of education, job ranking, marital status, and child status.

About 25 percent said that their veterinary college has been overly sensitive to or too accommodating of those underrepresented in veterinary medicine, while half said that wasn’t the case.

The disparity in perceptions of the role of diversity in veterinary education—and the profession in general—continued in the comments section of the survey. One respondent invoked the issue of climate.

“I trust this survey will reveal to the AVMA that all is not well when it comes to promoting diversity in the veterinary profession. Saying one thing with lip service does not necessarily translate into making persons from ‘different’ circumstances feel comfortable in the profession. While the environment has changed significantly, (those underrepresented in veterinary medicine) still face numerous challenges associated with stereotyping and indifference.”

Meanwhile, another commenter called the survey “a ridiculous, but politically correct waste of faculty/staff time and money. Time and money would be far better spent developing ways to capture more veterinarians into grad programs. This is what the CVM should be about, not wasting time on the latest test of political correctness and intolerance for diversity of opinion.”

Dr. Kovacs said this sentiment was expressed enough times to emerge as a theme from the qualitative data.

By April 1, all institutions were to receive their individual data. Drs. Kovacs and Nelson said they will continue their analysis, compare their results with results of the AAVMC student climate survey, publish aggregate data, and continue to monitor climate.

Defining excellence

During discussions of the results, Dr. Beth Sabin, AVMA associate director for international affairs and diversity initiatives, agreed that negative comments about diversity, such as “you can’t make us do it,” are far too common in veterinary medicine.

She said, “Educating people about the benefits of diversity and how it can make a profession grow is upon us, but at the same time, this push back makes it hard to move forward.”

Dr. Sabin continued, “What people seem to think is diversity means lowering standards. Plus, people want to have people who look like them around them. If we say, ‘Let’s think about providing opportunities,’ that gives them another way to think about it.”

Lisa Greenhill, AAVMC associate executive director for institutional research and diversity, pointed out that there’s a definition problem with quality and equity.

“We have to think broadly of what our quality will be. That’s an evolving definition. It’s not a static issue. ... We need different kinds of qualifications and learn to value different kinds of quality. What are we saying we need in an employee or student? That definition is broadening.”

Dr. Sabin’s and Greenhill’s comments were supported by a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research published in February. It found that there may be an economic payoff to attending a diverse college. The study compared individuals who answered questions in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health database, which collects data of interest to investigators from disciplines in the social and behavioral sciences. The analysis finds positive links between attending a college with greater diversity—in terms of race, sex, and ethnicity—and higher earnings and greater family income, but not with higher levels of education or the probability of voting.

Change from within

So how do institutions become more diverse and inclusive, and then maintain that?

This was the topic of conversation during a discussion by Mathew L. Ouellett, PhD, associate provost at Wayne State University, and Christine A. Stanley, PhD, vice president and associate provost and professor at Texas A&M University, during their talk, “Leading Change: Stronger Academic Programs Through Enhanced Diversity and Inclusion.”

They say change must occur on two levels—within the organization and within individuals.

For individuals, employees must adjust their values or interests, and as a result, their skills for the future are strengthened. Dr. Ouellett said often, this means confronting one’s stereotypes.

“It’s human nature to stereotype. People need to make immediate decisions on complex data, so there’s a reason for stereotypes, but you can’t rest there,” he said. “The first but significant step is learning to communicate and trust one another. So, one-day diversity seminars aren’t going to do it. It takes a sustained effort.”

On the organizational level, what must first change are basic underlying assumptions; then, espoused values, interests, or goals; followed by structure or composition of the organization; and finally, rules or procedures for the organization.

Dr. Kovacs presented at the symposium
Dr. Susie Kovacs (center), assistant professor of epidemiology at Western University of Health Sciences College of Veterinary Medicine, presented at the symposium findings from a climate survey sent to administrators, faculty, and staff at all U.S. veterinary colleges. Dr. Kovacs told JAVMA, “Research has shown that generational differences do exist in how people think about diversity issues, so we were curious to see if such differences also exist between generations in our sample. While we are still continuing to analyze the data, at this point we have yet to find significant differences that are meaningful. Our sample is lacking robust samples from the youngest and the oldest generations (Gen Y and Silent), which is a limitation to looking at generational differences in our study.”​

Drs. Ouellett and Stanley presented a multicultural organizational development stage model, which progresses from stage one “exclusionary organization” to stage six “multicultural organization.”

A truly multicultural organization, they said, does or has the following:

  • Values the contributions and interests of all employees.
  • Reflects diverse social and cultural groups in its employees throughout all levels of the organization.
  • Includes all members as full participants in decisions that shape the organization.
  • Follows through on broader social responsibilities.
  • Acts on the commitment to eliminate all forms of oppression within the organization, including racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, classism, ableism, and religious oppression.

To reach this point, an organization must take the following steps:

  • Gain leadership commitment and support.
  • Form an inclusion change team.
  • Clarify and communicate the vision and institutional benefits of an inclusive organization as well as create a sense of urgency and an expectation of shared responsibility.
  • Conduct a comprehensive cultural audit to assess the current dynamics and organizational readiness for systems change.
  • Develop a deep understanding of the dynamics of dominant and subordinated groups in the organization.
  • Map out and assess the current dynamics, climate, and structures, such as policies, practices, procedures, unwritten rules, and norms.
  • Identify the best practices used by other organizations.
  • Analyze data from the cultural audit and develop a strategic plan.
  • Implement strategic activities, including accountability structures.
  • Evaluate progress and revise strategic plan and activities as needed.

“This work—to be sustainable and institutionalized—has to rise above an individual person, no matter how charismatic or well-paid they are,” Dr. Ouellett said.

He continued, “This is a process, and we will be engaged in it the rest of our lives; it’s a forever-after process.”