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Intercultural competence: An ACS force for change

by Christina Bodurow, director, District II
July 18, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 26


A headshot of Christina Bodurow.
Credit: Courtesy of Eli Lilly and Company
Christina Bodurow

What does it mean to members to develop and sustain an environment of diversity, equity, inclusion, and respect in the American Chemical Society?

Last year, the ACS Board of Directors put in place a new strategic goal to embrace and advance inclusion in chemistry. This goal encourages us to promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and respect; identify and dismantle barriers to success; and create a welcoming and supportive environment so that all ACS members, employees, and volunteers can thrive. It serves as a foundation for ACS employees, subunits, and members to develop objectives and plans. Also last year, the board updated the core value of diversity, inclusion, and respect to include equity, which is critical to ensuring that all members can access the services they need in the way they need them.

Yet more must be done to sustain the inclusive ACS culture that these strategic statements intend. One essential element to drive progress in this arena is the concept of intercultural competence. According to the Monash Intercultural Lab, this is “the ability to function effectively across cultures, to think and act appropriately, and to communicate and work with people from different cultural backgrounds—at home or abroad.”

Whereas diversity is the representation of multiple differences (gender, race, scientific discipline, educational level, etc.), and inclusion is the extent to which those diverse groups feel valued and engaged in an organization, intercultural competence comes into play at the point of integration of these two themes. This skill allows individuals to shift their cultural perspectives so they can successfully bridge both cultural differences and commonalities. It moves beyond representation to create an environment in which the mix of cultures unites for the mutual success of the organization.

To be as effective as possible, all ACS subunits must embrace a multicultural awareness that will lead to more enlightened knowledge sharing and decision-making.

How does this relate to the chemistry enterprise?

Today’s academic environment is a melting pot of people from different cultures, scientific disciplines, and academic backgrounds from all over the world. The ability to productively communicate and collaborate with people across the varied cultures of the academic world is an imperative to achieve innovation, as well as the highest-quality science research outcomes possible.

The industrial environment is in a similar position, as globalization is now the main driver of many businesses’ expansions. Understanding the cultures, respecting the societal norms, and adapting to the business environments in a variety of countries are key to an industry member’s success. An added dimension is that scientific and business educational norms differ from country to country, which can add new perspectives and insights to the global industrial R&D enterprise. According to a 2015 McKinsey article, “More diverse companies, we believe, are better able to win top talent and improve their customer orientation, employee satisfaction, and decision making, and all that leads to a virtuous cycle of increasing returns.” In this context, diversity can be represented not only by the traditional parameters but also by the ability to adapt and thrive in the different business cultures and geographies of the world.

Intercultural competence also applies to organizations such as ACS. As a global professional society, it consists of a staff of about 2,000 worldwide, as well as subunits, such as committees, divisions, and local sections (both US based and international), consisting of members with many different cultural backgrounds. In addition, ACS has ties with sister societies that represent scientific and cultural diversity. While we are united in our commitment to chemistry, how well we advance the science and ACS itself will depend on how well we as a global community, representing dozens of different cultures, can come together in a welcoming environment to generate that successful future. To be as effective as possible, all ACS subunits must embrace a multicultural awareness that will lead to more enlightened knowledge sharing and decision-making.

How can we improve our own intercultural competence? We can start with introspection about our approach to understanding and interacting with colleagues from different cultures or walks of life. The next step is to deepen our understanding of other cultures, backgrounds, and experiences. What are the beliefs and practices of others, whether working in a different branch of science, coming from a different educational level, or living and working in a different country? The ultimate intercultural capability is to be able to adapt across multiple cultures in real time, in a manner that results in a successful integration to achieve the desired outcomes of the relationship.

The ACS of the 21st century will most effectively advance the chemistry discipline by recognizing the benefits of our global, multicultural membership. We can start by committing to increase our intercultural competence so that the very best of each member will be understood and integrated for success.

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



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