At Department of Medicine’s diversity and inclusion week, challenging conventional wisdom

Making inclusion work, particularly at the institutional level, is the challenge, speakers asserted.

- By Cassandra Myers

Hannah Valantine spoke Jan. 29 during the Department of Medicine's first diversity and inclusion week.
Steve Fisch

“Great minds think differently.” If there was a unifying idea expressed by speakers at the Department of Medicine’s first diversity and inclusion week, it was probably that.

 Hannah Valantine, MD, of the National Institutes of Health, said it first, when she opened the Jan. 29 sessions with her grand rounds presentation. Sonia Aranza, a global diversity and inclusion strategist, echoed these words when she spoke on multigenerational diversity later that day.

Both women, along with various other speakers, sought to challenge conventional wisdom about diversity, including the idea that representation and hiring diverse candidates is enough. Instead, they pushed the idea that, as Aranza put it, “diversity just is,” and the real challenge is making inclusion work, particularly at the institutional level. 

The week, which began with a meeting of faculty on Jan. 27 and continued through a meditation session on Jan. 30, was designed to provide both faculty and staff in the department with opportunities to discuss diversity and inclusion. The faculty meeting also introduced the inaugural Department of Medicine Chair Diversity Investigator Awards — four grants of $50,000 each that will go to instructors, clinical instructors, or assistant professors focused on research about diversity and disparity.

In her talk, Valantine, a former Stanford professor of cardiovascular medicine who now runs the NIH’s scientific workforce diversity initiative, said individual approaches to diversity and inclusion are not enough.

“Institutional transformation is crucial, and tools need to be developed for helping people.  Diversity needs to be linked to our institutional values and reward systems,” she said. She assured her audience that a diverse talent pool exists, and that they would find it if they looked, adding that diversity in leadership can promote diversity and representation at various institutional levels.  

One encouraging sign? The Stanford School of Medicine leads its peers in the representation of women among department chairs: In 2018, 37% of the school’s departments were led by women. 

Investing in diversity is worthwhile, she said. Among other things, it leads to greater innovation and a broadening scope of inquiry, particularly into things like health disparities.

But all is not rosy. Stereotypes continue to plague science, Valantine said. For example,  she cited a study in which more “feminine” looking women were assumed less likely to be scientists. 

Multigenerational workplaces

Following Valantine’s talk, Aranza gave a presentation on the multigenerational workplace, and Peter Poullos, MD, clinical associate professor of radiology, discussed disability.

Sonia Aranza discussed the multigenerational workplace at a session held Jan. 29.
Steve Fisch

Aranza described the historical and psychological contexts for all five generations currently in the American workforce, from the traditionalists born around or before 1945 to Boomers to Gen X, the millennials and Gen Z. 

The key to working effectively across generations, Aranza explained, is to understand the “compelling messages each generation grew up with and how it shaped their view of the world.” For example, millennials, raised with the values of “connection, achievement, and expression” are self-assured and comfortable with experimentation and exploration, she said. They value self-expression and collaboration. Aranza asked her audience to recognize that each generation grew up “marinating in a special sauce” of their history and circumstances, and that each generation must be understood in order to reach their full potential in the workforce.

Poullos related his own story about suffering a spinal cord injury. He noted that people with disabilities are the largest minority in America but are often excluded when it comes to images or mission statements about diversity. Poullos invited attendees at his talk to consider what he calls “creative inclusion.” For example, Poullos, who had trained as a gastroenterologist after medical school, wanted to retrain as a radiologist following his injury. Yet some raised concerns that his disability wouldn’t allow it. To Stanford’s credit, he said, the medical school came up with various solutions that allowed him to pursue this path. 

In his talk, Poullos also advocated for disability inclusion in medicine in general, describing the “upward spiral” that ensues when patients and others interact with medical students or professionals with disabilities: He said it can lead to increased awareness, more informed patient care, and reduced health care disparities. 

Resilience and diversity

That day’s final presenter, Tia Rich, PhD, combined the topic of diversity with that of resilience. Rich, who runs the Contemplation by Design Power of the Pause workshops at Stanford, explained how breathing techniques and mindfulness can help us disengage from bias or stereotypes.  

“Bias is universal,” Rich acknowledged.  “But bias can be revealed and modified.” Rich explained that bias is intensified by stress and struggles with mental health, but mindfulness and even the simple act of taking a breath have been shown to counteract some of the immediate reactions associated with bias.  

And as Rich pointed out, even with many sobering statistics, there’s still progress being made. “Resilience is the fuel of hope,” she concluded, putting a pin in a day dedicated to celebrating and broadening our concepts of what diversity and inclusion can mean.

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