Culture matters when it comes to science. An uncomfortable and regrettable incident at Duke University in Janurary sent shock waves through the scientific community when a professor and program administrator suggested that her Chinese students “commit” to speaking English in professional settings. Although the administrator later apologized, the incident continues to reverberate.
Cultural misunderstandings like this are growing as campuses internationalize. In recent interviews with scientists at Harvard, M.I.T., Boston University and other institutions, I found that respondents embrace diversity in their workplaces but also raise concerns about puzzling behaviors of their international students. They say that cultural diversity in research settings is crucial but point out that some international students are “too obedient” or “hard working yet lacking in originality.” Without training in cultural sensitivity, they are often surprised and occasionally make errors of communication.
We scientists must learn to work together with our differences and appreciate that we are as culturally unique as any other cultural group. Indeed, most scientists are unaware of the intricate ways by which cultural elements enter their lab, for they do so in subliminal ways. Culture affects the way scientists perform and document their work in laboratories, respond to reviews, and talk with their students. Scientists, after all, are bearers of culture—just as their international students are. For an effective meeting of minds, we need to understand how cultures actually form them.
Something has shifted over the past few weeks and months. Not just since the recent US midterm elections or the climate deal in Katowice last week. There’s some real change in the air. In fact, it’s been there for a while. But we might not have noticed it…
…due to that other series of events. Brexit. Trump. Bolsonaro. Orban. Salvini. Erdogan. Duterte. The list goes on. It’s like standing in the boxing ring, encountering punches left and right. We’re still absorbing one blow as the next is already being launched. That’s how the past two-plus years have felt to me — and I assume to many. But now, as 2018 draws to a close, for the first time in a while I feel that we’re getting back on our feet; we’re beginning to shift our mode of operating from reactive to generative.
From Olympic competition to the corporate boardroom, diversity remains a highly relevant and emotionally charged topic.
Making waves recently was an NBC broadcaster at the Summer Olympics in Rio, who drew criticism after attributing the world record-breaking success of Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu to her husband. A Huffington Post columnist immediately took umbrage saying, “When women Olympians win medals, they deserve the credit.”
The need to recognize the contributions and personal drive or ambition of women athletes, regardless of who trains or coaches them, echoed a recent incident in the corporate world: Saatchi & Saatchi Executive Chairman Kevin Roberts was placed on a leave of absence after an interview in which he reportedly said he did not think the lack of women in leadership roles “is a problem.” Roberts was quoted as saying women’s “ambition is not a vertical ambition; it’s this intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy.”
When it comes to issues of race, gender, and diversity in organizations, researchers have revealed the problems in ever more detail. We have found a lot less to say about what does work — what organizations can do to create the conditions in which stigmatized groups can reach their potential and succeed. That’s why my collaborators — Nicole Stephens at the Kellogg School of Management and Ray Reagans at MIT Sloan — and I decided to study what organizations can do to increase traditionally stigmatized groups’ performance and persistence, and curb the disproportionately high rates at which they leave jobs. Read More »
MIT Sloan Assistant Professor of Organizational Studies Evan Apfelbaum discusses how diversity changes the way we behave.
Apfelbaum says the key to social friction is understanding how to use it.
He and his fellow researchers examined how questions of race impacted adults and children, using a game similar to Guess Who? to gauge why people are more hesitant to talk about race as they get older.