How to Foster an Inclusive Climate in Microbiology

July 28, 2021

Fostering an inclusive culture in the field of microbiology is vital to moving the science forward, improving organizational and educational outcomes and empowering everyone to reach their full potential. An inclusive climate preserves individuals’ senses of belonging and uniqueness where all types of talents are embraced and celebrated. There are many benefits of inclusive culture for both individuals and organizations. To build and nurture inclusion, an organization can take a multi-tiered and systematic approach, and leaders at any level can champion these practices.

What Makes an Environment Inclusive?

An inclusive climate elevates and embraces diversity while also cultivates an individual's sense of belongingness and uniqueness. A diverse balance of microbial groups within the human microbiota is critical for maintaining optimal health and homeostasis. Just like these microbial interactions, humans have a fundamental need for forming and sustaining strong, stable interpersonal relationships within their communities (belongingness). These relationships are formed in an environment that values uniqueness and individual development process (individuation).

Researchers studying dynamics within working groups documented that belongingness and uniqueness form an inclusion framework (Figure 1). There are 4 hubs of the framework based on the importance an organization places on these human needs (from the lowest valued to highest valued): exclusion, differentiation, assimilation and inclusion. In both exclusion and differentiation, individuals are not perceived as part of insider groups that exist within the organization. Additionally, in differentiation, individuals’ characteristics are valued and recognized as desirable for group success. In assimilation, with high importance placed in belongingness and low rank of uniqueness, an insider status is granted if the individual follows the dominant culture norms. In inclusion, both belongingness and uniqueness are highly recognized and valued and people feel respected and appreciated. There are many benefits of an inclusive culture, such as, attracting a more diverse workforce, increasing an individual's wellness and satisfaction, higher retention and productivity.

A framework of inclusion based on the organizational value in uniqueness and belongingness.
Figure 1. A framework of inclusion constructed based on the organizational value in uniqueness and belongingness.

How Can Groups/Organizations Create an Inclusive Environment?

It is important to ensure that everyone is welcomed to participate, has a voice at the table and that their voice is heard. The first step in creating an inclusive environment is to build awareness about inclusion, for instance through education, reflection, implicit biases training and assessment of inclusive practices at all levels within an organization: leadership, supervisor(s), work groups and individuals. The assessment can include examining individual and group perceptions on inclusion and exclusion within the organization to reduce inequities that might exist in education and pedagogy, student admission and training, faculty promotion, selection of journal editorial staff, grant proposals review process and manuscript revisions and acceptance.

After raising awareness and collecting data from assessments, the next step is to reflect on additional barriers the organization experiences in creating an inclusive culture. For instance, are members of the organization resistant to receiving feedback or admitting mistakes? What focus groups need to be created to identify the missing opportunities? Are flexible arrangements for work/education desired, created and protected?

The next phase is to move from awareness of the status quo to dismantling obstacles by creating an inclusion strategic plan that supports and nurtures different identities and lenses.

Leveraging Leaders as Vehicles of Inclusion

Inclusive leadership is a prerequisite to enable and support the needs of belongingness and uniqueness. Leaders in microbiology can act as architects of inclusion at the individual and organizational levels by recognizing their own and other identities, reaching out and motivating followers/allies and incorporating inclusion principles into the mission, core values and practices of the organization. These are some elements of inclusive leadership:

  • Eliciting contributions and ideas from all team members (e.g., during lab meetings or faculty meetings).
  • Supporting productive collaboration between different team members.
  • Modeling openness to different lenses.
  • Building meaningful and authentic relationships.
  • Practicing mindfulness.
  • Rewarding team members who foster inclusion.
  • Requesting feedback about inclusion in the organization.

Furthermore, laboratory research teams and the plethora of microbiology courses in undergraduate and graduate curriculum have leaders who can facilitate inclusion. Though everybody can contribute to an inclusive environment, supervisors and instructors can be critical role models for best inclusion practices. The following are examples of this in action:

Cultivating a Growth Mindset:

Amanda is a student in the clinical microbiology class. After one of the lectures, she tells the professor that the use of an inappropriate racial term impacted the class. The professor responds by apologizing for using the term and thanking Amanda for being vulnerable in sharing the impact it had. The next day in class, the professor apologizes to the entire class and expresses that it is important to learn from mistakes and listen to feedback. The professor then invites the class to provide any additional feedback about inclusive language in the lectures.

Practicing Self-awareness & Openness:

Tri is a lab manager who recognizes that as a cisgender person, he does not face the same experiences as someone who is transgender does when needing to use a restroom. Tri attends an event by the local transgender advocacy group to learn more, and asks about how to advocate for gender-inclusive restrooms at his workplace.

Recognizing Humanness:

Luisa is an associate professor and principal investigator; she recognizes that imposter syndrome can impair the performance of her students and research team members, so she openly shares her own experiences as a first-generation college graduate and woman of color in academia. She serves as a mentor for students in her class and lab members, making time in meetings to get to know them and listen to their thoughts, experiences and ideas.

Addressing Conflict:

Jordan is a graduate student who wants to take a 3-week vacation to visit family and shares this with Rory, the principal investigator. Rory values Jordan's need to rest and be with family, while also recognizing that substantial deliverables need completing. Jordan and Rory collaborate and work together to create clear expectations and a reasonable timeline so that Jordan can go on vacation and still get the expected work done.

Valuing Assets:

Joy teaches a soil microbiology class. Joy recognizes that students enter her course with a wealth of knowledge and experience, and makes time for students to share relevant experiences and insights in class. Because Joy values other ways of knowing, she also invites local tribal members to speak to the class about their understanding of the soil in the area, and how their people have studied it to develop sustainable practices for working with the land.

Note that while these scenarios spotlight the potential of the leaders to enact change, other group members play a key role in these situations as well. Reflecting upon how to apply these concepts and scenarios into to a professional setting can play a pivotal role in making an organization’s climate more inclusive. These concepts and scenarios are to help begin creating an inclusive culture, but building and sustaining an inclusive environment is a journey. During this journey, it is important to remember that implementing change is challenging and requires dedication, patience and time, and with this sustainable and meaningful change is possible.

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