Diversity and Inclusion: small talk, big discussion

I originally wrote this blog before the pandemic, before the outbreak of COVID-19 caused me to reframe how I approach many aspects of my life.  It’s also given me the opportunity to yet again reconsider how I perceive medical professionals.  The healthcare workforce is made up of individuals of diverse ages, ethnicities, orientations, and ideologies.  When these individuals put on their PPE, they don’t lose their identity – in fact, for most people, experiences, and backgrounds are key influencers that shape their career paths.  Instead, when these professionals from all walks of life go to work, it doesn’t matter if they’re a Yankees fan or Red Sox fan.  It doesn’t matter if they’re into cross-fit, cross-stitch, or crosswords.  What matters most is what they know: how to save lives.

3 doctors stand with arms crossedFor the last couple of weeks, the Raleigh office has been on high alert for the arrival of our coworker Brad’s baby, Jack. The other day, we were sharing ways we’d heard of to help induce labor: dancing, spicy food, someone even suggested scaring the mother…as if baby Jack were hiccups or something? Brad told us that he values our wisdom, but the doctor said none of these tricks were based on any good science. I replied, “Oh he’s just a doctor, what does he know?”

As it turns out, the doctor isn’t male! Duh. I know better. I’m not sexist. I’m in the Employee Resource Group, after all—a fact Brad was quick to point out when he corrected me. And I’m glad he corrected me, not with any punitive malice, but as a teasing reminder to check my prejudices. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from small, seemingly inconsequential experiences like this.

The Employee Resource Group introduced me to the Harvard Implicit Bias Test, a cool tool that reveals subconscious links our brains make to unrelated traits (looks like I need to revisit the “Gender-Career” test). I usually consider myself an open-minded person, but after taking a handful of these tests, I started feeling a little bad about myself. And I think that’s a lesson to learn, too. Yes, it’s a good thing I feel embarrassed by sexism, but that doesn’t mean that I am a bad person, or that I should feel guilty, or that I should get defensive and try to pretend it’s not there.

By assuming the doctor is a male, I’m not guilty of some grave offense warranting a phone call from HR. I AM guilty of a microaggression warranting some gentle teasing by my coworkers—something they love to do—and some self-reflection on the situation. This small mistake has two issues: first, it reveals my own prejudices. I have at least a slight bias toward assuming doctors are male. And secondly, it perpetuates the prejudice for anyone who hears it. Words matter. Hearing me make that assumption reinforces that stereotype for anyone else not lucky enough to have Brad in the room to correct them.

When I make a decision between healthcare providers, or really any decision for that matter, my subconscious brain is tying together a lifetime of experiences in the blink of an eye to help make that decision. If I associate males as being better doctors, it’s not because I’m some terrible human being. Instead, it’s because my lifetime of experiences—doctors in my life or represented to me in the media—have caused me to associate males with doctors. Of course, this doesn’t mean men are actually better doctors; there’s no evidence backing that claim.

As humans, we’re never going to completely get rid of our natural biases. The second toolkit we’re putting together will explore implicit bias—what it is, how it can be harmful, and how we can all be better about recognizing it. We’ll even explore how it can be beneficial. By becoming more aware of our biases and how they affect our decision making, we can make better informed decisions—so I can make sure I’m not choosing a healthcare provider based on the fact that the cast of Scrubs was mostly male.

The Employee Resource Group is not the thought police; we all have biases. We don’t point out our missteps to embarrass each other, but instead to raise awareness of how biases can lead to less than rational decision making and perpetuate inequities. Admitting my bias doesn’t make me an awful person. It does reveal an area for improvement. Even though it’s not our fault that we hold biases, it is our responsibility to recognize and work through them. I’m hoping that sharing this experience will shine light on this subject and help you see it from a different perspective.

Travis Cook

About the Author

Travis Cook is a civil engineer serving the Transportation sector out of our Raleigh, NC office. He excels in providing efficient, effective, innovative roadway solutions to tough project challenges. Outside of work, Travis enjoys soccer, biking, camping, cooking, board games, and horticulture.

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