Pick and mix! The power of working in diverse groups

01 November 2017 - By: Caroline Wood

Pick and mix! The power of working in diverse groups

Diversity Dinner
Åsa Nilsson Billme speaking at the SEB Gothenbug 2017 Diversity Dinner. Photo:Simon Callaghan

By Caroline Wood

Formerly the ‘Women in Science’ dinner until 2015, the ‘Diversity Dinner’ has already become a fixture at the SEB Annual Meeting. This year in Gothenburg, the event saw record numbers of men attending, highlighting the growing awareness of the need for more inclusive workforces. Our guest speaker, Åsa Nilsson Billme, director of Diversity and Inclusion Strategies at Lectia1, gave a stirring talk on the theme: “When the Why is clear, the How is easy.”

“Even when I was six years old and learnt about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, I asked my parents, “How can it be that people can be valued differently because of skin colour?” No one could give me an answer beyond “It’s complicated”, so I decided I needed to become Pippi Longstocking2 and change everything because the adults simply didn’t ‘get it’”. Unlike Åsa however, many of us lose our childhood indignation over unfairness and instead “contribute to the culture of exclusion, often unknowingly, by supporting structures that favour some over others”. But in the modern world, organisations cannot afford to remain mired in traditional practices and ways of thinking. “In the 20th century, homogenous thinking was rewarded, for instance in the unions and collectives, but now society and demographics are changing so fast that if you don’t diversify, you will be passed by those who do it better”, said Åsa.

Studies have already demonstrated “beyond reasonable doubt” the cost effectiveness of diversity policies, including greater creativity, increased employee retention, easier recruitment and improved client relations3. “Clearly, diversity is not just the right thing to do but the best thing to do, to improve societies and business in general”, Åsa summarised. However, simply putting policies in place only goes so far. “Cultures can ‘eat strategies for breakfast’ every day of the week, but the best tool to utilise diversity is inclusion, where everyone is respected and not just tolerated”, said Åsa. Ultimately, this is the key difference between simply understanding diversity, and truly ‘getting it’. As Åsa noted: “It’s the difference between counting the numbers and making the numbers count”.

But true inclusivity requires us all to make the effort to question the structures that hold others back. To show how “we are all victims of the norm”, Asa invited us all to draw a cat on a postcard. “How many of you drew the same cat you drew when you were eight years old?” she challenged. Most of the audience raised their hand. With this is mind, we were then tasked with brainstorming our ideas to promote inclusivity in our own workplaces. The suggestions touched on all areas of research life from breaking down meeting hierarchies, helping working mothers, making peer review more transparent and providing unconscious bias training for all. Even when the dinner formally drew to a close, the discussions continued… let’s hope the ideas born that evening are now bearing fruit in the workplace. As Åsa concluded, “rethinking our traditional cultures takes practice, but once we get started, we can move in the right direction”.

Delegate suggestions

• Unconscious bias training for all, including Undergraduates and Masters Students

• Seminar series should include speakers on diversity issues

• Travel grants for students and researchers for under-represented countries

• Double-blind peer review

• Commission articles for blogs and journals from a more diverse range of writers, and include profile photographs

• Offer financial support for a carer to travel with a researcher to look after babies and toddlers

• Have a poster prize for minority groups

• Avoid using ‘male descriptors’ in job adverts that could dissuade women from applying

• Have more mentor/buddy schemes to help younger researchers progress in their careers

• Send out meeting agendas to everyone before the event so people can prepare, and all can take part in the discussion. Then introverted people can email their questions to the chair

• Remove the concept of ‘speciality’: include non-academic people in scientific discussions

• Icebreaker sessions at conferences for researchers from different disciplines.

• We are not all alcoholics – replace the wine trail with a chocolate one!

1. http://www.lectia.se/
2. https://sweden.se/culture-traditions/pippi-longstockingrebel- role-model/
3. Methods and Indicators to Measure the Cost- Effectiveness of Diversity Policies in Enterprises, Final Report. October 2003, Centre for Strategy & Evaluation Services.


Category: SEB Gothenburg 2017
Caroline Wood-Author Profile

Caroline Wood

Caroline Wood was the SEB’s 2014 science communication intern. Since then, Caroline has been a regular contributor the SEB, reporting on events and writing insightful features for our members.
Caroline has an undergraduate degree from Durham University in Cell Biology and is currently a PHD student at Sheffield University studying parasitic Striga weeds that infect food crops. You can read her blog here.