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ACS Comment: Creating a culture of inclusion

by Katherine L. Lee, director, District I
April 23, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 14


Katherine L. Lee.
Credit: Professional Event Images
Katherine L. Lee

I remember what it felt like on the first day of junior high. I was nervous and had sweaty palms and a funny feeling in my stomach. Where was my homeroom? Would I like my teachers? Who would I sit with on the bus on the way home?

Now, decades later (ahem), I have gained more life experience and confidence, and I have found ways to overcome my shyness, having grown to become a successful leader at work and in my volunteer endeavors at the American Chemical Society. I strive to be impactful and to conduct myself in a way that demonstrates integrity and respect for people, informed by how I felt on that first day of junior high school. Given that most of what I do involves working in a team environment, I believe that success is not only about the technical aspects of what we do; the “how” and culture of the team are crucial. In this Comment, I share my reflections on creating a culture of inclusion.

Why should we do this? The ACS core value of diversity, equity, inclusion, and respect (DEIR) states: “We embrace and promote diversity in all its forms, not only to create a more inclusive environment for the practice of chemistry, but also to provide fair and just outcomes for all to achieve their full potential. Inclusion of and respect for people of all backgrounds, perspectives, experiences, and ideas will lead to superior solutions to world challenges and advance chemistry as a global, multidisciplinary science.”

In addition to the rationale captured above, I would like to make the case in a more personal way. Put yourself in the shoes of a first-time attendee of a conference, a new member of an ACS local section, or a scientist joining an established project team. How would you feel if someone said “Hi” and welcomed you? And if you were invited to share your thoughts? Might an organization or team be more productive and creative, and less prone to being narrow minded, if people with different experiences and perspectives contributed their insights?

I believe that success is not only about the technical aspects of what we do; the “how” and culture of the team are crucial.

Recently I had the honor of serving as a member of the organizing committee for an ACS Pharma Leaders meeting. As the members of the committee and I discussed potential topics for a breakout session, Guoxin Zhu, another committee member, suggested that we ask participants to brainstorm how to create a culture of inclusion. Here are some ideas that I took from the meeting, mingled with ideas of my own.

Set the tone from the outset. We are often asked to introduce ourselves, and we might say: “I am [name], [title] at [institution], where I have worked for X years in [discipline].” Leading with one’s title and years of experience might overemphasize one’s status or organizational hierarchy. A more inclusive introduction might be: “I am [name]. At [institution], I focus on [function], and my interests include X and Y.”

Words matter. Imagine standing at a podium welcoming people to an event. “Ladies and gentlemen . . . ” may be a common way to start. Or chatting with a group of people at lunch, one might say, “Hey guys, what do you think about the new Batman movie?” Try a gender-neutral approach instead: the ACS Inclusivity Style Guide is designed to help ACS members and staff consider diversity and inclusion in communication and includes examples of words to avoid and ones to use.

Help people feel valued. Several years ago, I was given the opportunity to join a leadership team, and was expected to contribute to projects beyond my own, receive and reflect on potentially sensitive information, and share my opinions. This was an empowering experience. At times you may be in a position to advocate for someone to literally be in the room. What will you do?

The art of managing meetings and the underlying culture of a team also play a role. Meeting moderators, how do you encourage people to actively participate and speak up? What do you do if someone interrupts another person? Leaders, do you intentionally wait until others have shared their thoughts before weighing in?

Rethink mentorship. The ACS Pharma Leaders discussion included people at different stages in their careers, and we agreed that building a culture of inclusivity has a higher probability of success if it includes both top-down and grassroots efforts. On a personal level, we might think of mentorship as a one-way relationship, in which someone with more experience imparts wisdom to someone with less. Encouraging and being truly receptive to mentorship as a two-way relationship can help us grow and perhaps address our unconscious biases and areas of unawareness. To learn about reverse mentoring, see Patrice Gordon’s video, “How Reverse Mentorship Can Help Create Better Leaders.”

Walk the talk. Goal 5 of the ACS Strategic Plan is a lofty, aspirational goal for DEIR. Across ACS, we are working toward this goal. As individuals, what actions will we commit to as we build a culture of inclusion?

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.


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