How Funders Can Diversify the Healthcare Workforce [HRA Members Meeting, Spring 2018]

Evidence has shown that a diverse healthcare workforce not only improves patient care outcomes, it also allows organizations to be more productive, creative and innovative. Still, minorities face slower promotion rates and are significantly less represented in leadership and academic career positions.

At the Spring 2018 Health Research Alliance Members Meeting in New York, a session devoted to discussing strategies for increasing diversity in the workforce raised several key factors about the challenges and opportunities of diversity.

Ensuring future competitiveness of U.S. science and technology

According to Anne Kaatz, Director of Computational Sciences at the Center for Women’s Health Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “advancing women and racial/ethnic minorities in science, technology, engineering, and math is critical for ensuring the future competitiveness. She emphasized the National Academy of Sciences’ conclusion that stereotypes about gender and race operate to influence self-perception, personal interactions and evaluative processes that subtly but systematically impede women’s and minorities career advancement. To address these stereotype-based biases, Kaatz suggests a multilevel intervention, including questioning your own objectivity (become ‘bias literate’), actively replacing stereotypes with factual information, and increasing opportunities to get in touch with counter-stereotypic individuals.

Shifting cultural norms within institutions

After trying to overcome inequality for more than four decades, Shirley Malcom, Director of the Education and Human Resources Programs at the American Association for the Advancement in Science (AAAS), said she was “tired of interventions programs.” She argued that despite strong efforts there has been little change to advance minorities’ careers and that research and practice agendas won’t change unless minorities are included in the decision-making process. Malcom suggested a drastic change to promote diversity and inclusion by implementing SEA Change, a system designed to support institutional transformation in higher education and to encourage cultural change.

Malcom hoped that this will shift cultural norms by raising awareness and understanding, and to promote action and reflection on implemented behaviors. It will also help funders identify institutions that are willing to guide efforts towards environments that are more conducive to true equity, diversity and inclusion, and help foster “healthy, productive and equitable” faculty, staff, students and post-docs.

Asking the right questions to broaden the pipeline

Sindy Escobar Alvarez, Senior Program Officer for Medical Research at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF), argued that an in-depth look at success rates by gender is needed to identify issues and solutions, and that funders can adopt actions to help raise awareness about gender inequities in women’s career advancement. DDCF changed their application and guideline language to avoid peer review bias by replacing words that are highly masculine with neutral words, which resulted in a significant increase of female applicants as well as their success rate for being awarded. Escobar Alvarez said that application material can be used as a lever to encourage institutions to consider gender equity by asking the mentor and department chair questions about the number of minorities in mentoring efforts and salary distribution curves. She recommended funders adopt strategies take a close look at possible gender inequities. For example, asking institutions for data as it relates to salaries; requesting that proposals and reviews use non-gender language; and to avoid references to personal circumstances that are irrelevant to the award.

Funders have opportunities to increase diversity in the workforce

In conclusion, funders have several opportunities to shape the environment and culture to be more conducive to the advancement of women and racial/ethnic minorities at research institutes.  These include:

  • changing masculine language to neutral language in grant advertisements, reviewer guidelines and evaluations.
  • asking for specific information on the distribution of minorities in faculty positions as well as the distribution of salaries, mentoring availability and resources will be essential, a strategy that the SEA Change program proposed by AAAS is utilizing.
  • being aware of this implicit bias and actively (i.e. consciously) replacing it with counter-stereotyped imagery will help to increase diversity in the workforce.