Annual diversity summit seeks to spread awareness of biases
Student involvement is crucial to improving MIT’s diversity and equality, says Edmund Bertschinger, the Institute Community and Equity Officer and former physics department head. The 2015 Institute Diversity Summit, titled “Advancing a Respectful and Caring Community,” featured a series of workshops advancing this message.
The annual diversity summit focuses on promoting demographic diversity, including diversity of race, gender, and ethnicity. It aims to gather ideas from community members about steps individuals and MIT as a whole can take to promote cultural understanding. This year’s summit occurred on Jan. 29 and Feb. 12, with three films about social injustices showcased in between. Like previous summits, it included keynote speeches and workshops.
Bertschinger released a report with the same title on Feb. 12 concerning both these demographic subcultures and subcultures specific to MIT or academia, such as those of undergraduates, faculty, and staff.
Bertschinger said that this year’s summit did not focus much on academic cultures, but they are something to emphasize in future years. He hopes that the “equity committees” recommended in his report will advance the summit’s ideals in every major reporting line at MIT and include representatives of all communities they may interact with, including students.
Beyond social justice, the Institute Community and Equity Office sees the diversity summit as promoting a more efficient Institute. Joshua Gonzalez, Simmons Hall’s area director, said that to study the world, as we aim to do at MIT, we have to understand it. By encouraging more perspectives, problems can be solved more effectively.
“Social scientists at MIT show that teams perform better when diverse, [and] the same has been seen in companies,” said Bertschinger. He noted that in the 1990s, there were very few female faculty at MIT, and there were significantly fewer women in engineering-focused departments. Those who were employed at MIT were underpaid and undervalued.
Now, MIT’s gender payment gap is far smaller, and in 2011 at MIT’s 150th anniversary celebration, a symposium celebrating MIT’s gender equality history featured a panel of women in STEM that, according to Bertschinger, featured a “who’s who of scientists and engineers.”
Bertschinger’s colleagues said that all of MIT stands to gain from paying attention to social justice and collectivism. Bertschinger considers the idea of meritocracy to be an ideal that “we’ll always be striving toward,” and cited a study by Sloan professor Emilio Castilla that showed that when an organization considers itself a meritocracy, it is less aware of its biases.
Castilla found that in such organizations, managers inadvertently make biased assumptions and “typically favor men over women.” Because they believe they are part of a meritocracy, these managers may forget to be cognizant of those biases.
According to Bertschinger, emphasis on diversity both of demographics and of MIT-specific cultures can promote true meritocracy. Quoting Claremont Graduate University professor Peter Drucker, he said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”: though plans can be made assuming that people will treat each other equally, their cultural differences will ensure that every decision is made with some kind of partiality.
According to Office Program Director Julian S. Green, this is why student involvement is so important: everyone has to pay attention to diversity for change to take place.
This year’s diversity summit was held both at the end of IAP and in the spring semester to encourage student participation, Green said. Still, workshops were attended primarily by staff; fewer faculty and students showed. Many staff members noted that this was typical.
A particularly productive workshop called “Reimagining Our Culture” encouraged attendees to write down concrete ideas for bettering MIT. The workshop was led by students, and many ideas focused on how to get students and faculty to care more about overcoming prejudices. Throughout the workshop, the same idea kept rising to the surface: for diversity to spread, people in every sphere have to work towards that goal.
In the past, diversity summits have sparked discussions on challenging topics, Bertschinger said. The 2012 summit led to a series of Tech guest opinion columns on affirmative action.