Diversity Is Only the Beginning

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Why has the valuation of Microsoft increased a quarter-trillion dollars since 2013? The latest issue of Fast Company magazine offers an intriguing answer: It’s because people within the company are listening to and understanding each other better — and that’s helping them perform better.


The magazine’s cover profile of CEO Satya Nadella centers on the culture of empathy and inclusion he has cultivated since taking the reins of Microsoft three years ago. In the old days, the article says, employees were know-it-alls. Nadella is working to make them learn-it-alls, and that requires strengthening interpersonal competencies.


“You have to be able to say, ‘Where is this person coming from?’ Nadella says. ‘What makes them tick? Why are they excited or frustrated by something that’s happening?’”


It’s exactly that kind of thinking that’s at the heart of a remarkable new initiative taking shape within Georgia Tech’s Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory. Partnering with the Vice President for Institute Diversity’s Office at Georgia Tech, the initiative hopes to change the ways student’s think before they go on to their careers.


The department announced this summer it had been awarded a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to do something unheard of in engineering education: prepare students to shape and lead teams of people who have different backgrounds and perspectives.


The logic behind the initiative is simple. The big problems facing the world are so complex, they can only be solved by teams. A number of studies show the highest-performing teams not only have people of varied cultures and influences — these different members are able to connect with each other. Diversity is a start; harnessing diversity is the key.


By infusing such awareness among student teams in classrooms and labs, the thinking goes, the department will produce graduates so well equipped to collaborate, they’ll ultimately transform the engineering workplace.


“I like to think of it as creating situations in teams where people feel both respected and connected,” says Joe LeDoux, the department’s associate chair for undergraduate learning. “We all need to feel like we’re valued as individuals, for who we are. But just as important is feeling like we belong.”


The initiative is part cultural transformation and part scientific research. The grant comes from NSF’s “REvolutionizing engineering and computer science Departments” program, which supports “groundbreaking, scalable and sustainable changes in undergraduate education.”


An obvious question is, why the Coulter Department? The department itself is already a model of fusion: Since its founding 20 years ago, it’s been the nation’s only academic engineering enterprise comprised of both a public and private university (Georgia Tech and Emory). In 2013, the state Board of Regents recognized the department for its teaching innovation. And a “climate study” conducted last year revealed favorable perceptions from students on matters of diversity and acceptance.


“Yet, I hear anecdotally all the time that faculty at Georgia Tech witness interpersonal issues on teams of students,” says Wendy Newstetter, the College of Engineering’s assistant dean for educational innovation. “There are conflicts that go on in undergraduate teams. For example, female members are sometimes given writing tasks, rather than technical work. I don’t think it always means that boys on teams consciously say, ‘We’re going to give these jobs to the girls.’ But it happens.”


Julie Ancis, associate vice president for Institute Diversity, who has studied such attitudes and behaviors over a 30-year career, agrees. “Some biases affect our judgments, actions and decisions unconsciously,” says Ancis, Tech’s associate vice president for diversity. “These implicit biases differ from the more conscious biases that people may choose to conceal. They’re automatic reactions to people and events.


Ancis – who, along with Paul Benkeser, senior associate chair of the Coulter Department, holds faculty workshops on the issue – points to a number of examples in academe. Letters of recommendation written for female students and faculty tend to hedge on achievements, compared to the descriptors in letters written for men. Students of color often report feeling marginalized in classroom and lab work. “They may be perceived as less capable by others, which impacts how they are treated, or they may be picked last,” Ancis says. “Their input is not sought out, or they say they don’t feel included in a group or team.”


How the new Coulter Department and Institute Diversity initiative will peel back bias, interpersonal conflicts and other issues affecting team performance stems from a well-considered plan. The 15-page grant application to NSF presents organizational change theories and frameworks – the kind of social science exploration not typically seen around engineering departments.


The thrust of the approach is independence and collaboration. Faculty, staff and industry representatives, guided by learning specialists, will work in “incubator” teams to engineer strategies and tactics for student groups in classrooms and labs. Their approach is not prescriptive – each team develops its own interventions, which are tried, then refined. Outside of this effort are a host of other activities, such as the creation of a “Faculty Learning Community,” in which faculty collectively explore approaches that work.


By addressing student pairings, or dyads, as well as larger groups, the plan creates an architecture that ultimately will influence the culture of the department. Five years of this kind of activity is expected to produce knowledge that will then be shared across Georgia Tech and exported to other universities around the country.


“It’s essential that we create engineers in the workforce who understand what inclusion is and can help promote it,” Newstetter says. “We need to be graduating those people.”


“There is such a thing as an ‘inclusion dividend,’ and that’s really at the heart of what we’re doing,” says Le Doux. “The inclusion dividend is the positive impact that high-functioning teams make, not just because they’re diverse, but because they’re inclusive.”


To appreciate the distinction, he points to a 2015 talk from consultant Verna Myers. “She said, it’s the difference between being invited to a dance — and being asked to dance,” Le Doux says. “Who among us doesn’t want to be asked to dance?”




The Wallace H. Coulter Department ’s RED Grant

$2 million from the National Science Foundation

Five-year program to prepare students to shape and lead teams of people who have different backgrounds and perspectives

Three-part effort:

  1. Create “incubator” squads of faculty, students, industry reps and learning specialists to invent classroom and lab practices that equip students to shape and optimize diverse teams
  2. Hold ongoing dialogues to exchange ideas and share experiences on strengthening interpersonal competencies
  3. Take actions to apply what’s learned to transform department culture


For More Information:

Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory

Office of Institute Diversity

Implicit Bias Workshops


  • Workflow Status:Published
  • Created By:Walter Rich
  • Created:10/12/2017
  • Modified By:Kay Kinard
  • Modified:10/13/2017