5 Questions: Hannah Valantine discusses progress of diversity efforts at school

Hannah Valantine

Since 2005, Hannah Valantine, MD, has led efforts to foster diversity among faculty, staff and trainees at the School of Medicine, where she is senior associate dean for diversity and leadership and a professor of cardiovascular medicine.

In a recent interview with Paul Costello, chief communications officer at the school, Valantine described the progress that's been made in the past eight years and why diversity is key to innovation and success in academic medicine. Following is an edited transcript of the interview. [Hear the full interview]

Q. Has the word "diversity" changed its meaning for you in the time that you've been senior associate dean for diversity and leadership?

Valantine:  It has. If you look back about 10 years, diversity would usually be framed in the context of affirmative action. It would usually refer to race, ethnicity and gender. Now, we also think about it in terms of diversity around dimensions of gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion and many others. The reason for being so inclusive is the pressing need to draw from our entire intellectual capital in order to be successful as a nation that leads innovation in the 21st century.

Q:  Why is that so critical? Talk about why the mirror needs to be so complete.

Valantine: Because different diversity groups bring different perspectives to solving problems. When you have different perspectives solving complex problems, you are much more likely to come up with a novel and creative solution than when you have a homogeneous team of experts.

In fact, there's a brilliant experiment that was done by social scientist Scott Page. He took a bunch of experts in their field and had them solve a problem in a team. Then, another team was composed of a diverse group of people. The diverse teams beat out the homogeneous teams every time. That is because they bring a diversity of perspectives to solving problems.

If you don't have a diverse university, you are really not going to be at the cutting edge of innovation, research, new approaches to education — all of those missions. It's beyond the nice thing to do. It's beyond the equity argument. It's an imperative for success. We must respond to the changing demographic. Those who don't will be left behind, I'm afraid.

Q:  I've heard you exasperated when you hear someone say, "It's going to take time."

Valantine:  I don't think we have the luxury of time anymore. The changing demographics have defined it for us and clearly indicate that we must act now. We are almost too late in really ensuring that the demographic characteristics of our learning communities — of our medical schools, of our research enterprises — mirror the populations of our nation and our state.

Q:  What are you most proud of when you look back over the past eight years? What are the achievements, the big ones, that you say, "We really did move this"?

Valantine:  I'm very proud of the way we have increased considerably the representation of women at every rank — assistant, associate and full professor. We started off, in 2004, way behind national benchmarks and our peer institutions. Over this period of time, we've actually gotten to a point where our representation of women in each rank exceeds that of national figures and that of our peer institutions.

I'm also really proud of the increase in the number of underrepresented-in-medicine groups that we have accomplished. When I started this work in 2005, there were 34 of us underrepresented-in-medicine faculty. That means the sum total of African-American, Latino, Hispanic, and Native-American faculty. In fact, there were no Native-Americans at all. Now there are 96 of us here.  As far as our Native-American representation, we've gone from zero to five, so you can call that a 500 percent increase, but I won't go there. But it just shows you how much we have done. If you look at our peer institutions, we're now pretty much ahead of the pack in terms of racial-ethnic diversity amongst our faculty.

Q:  How have you achieved that?

Hannah:  Through recruitment strategies and retention strategies. We brief every search committee on best practices. We remind them about this imperative of diversity and why diversity is linked with excellence. We give them tools to search in the right place, and we also educate them about the real problem of an unconscious bias.
For example, take the problem of unconscious bias against women in science. Everybody in society more readily associates a man and being a scientist than they associate a woman and being a scientist.

You can just imagine when you're reading resumes and having to make fast decisions, you slip back to your unconscious or implicit attitudes. That leads you to more readily select a man as a scientist than to select a woman. We remind them of that.

In fact, if you go to kindergarten schools and ask the little kids to draw a scientist, 58 percent of them will draw a white male with glasses. If you go to middle school, that number, surprisingly, has gone up to 75 percent. Later on, it's even higher.

You can change these unconscious attitudes, and that will help you in making better decisions. That's just one of the interventions we do when we talk to search committees to help them to be cognizant of the importance of gender diversity.

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