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Collective Efforts to Increase Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Genetics Department Make Steady Progress

August 27, 2021
by Cathy Duong

Every two weeks, members of the Yale Genetics Diversity Advisory Committee (G-DAC) come together to discuss ways to address equity and inclusion across all underrepresented memberships within the department. These discussions are centered around four major areas: i) understanding the challenges that members of our community from underrepresented backgrounds face, ii) scrutinizing and formalizing a more equitable approach to all departmental practices, iii) educating members of the community at all career stages and job functions in how to eliminate current exclusionary practices, and iv) investing in the support and retention of underrepresented minorities within the department. The committee operates within a network of Yale-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts led by Deputy Dean and Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Darin Latimore together with Associate Dean of Diversity and Inclusion & Associate Chief Diversity Officer Rochelle Smith, both from the Yale School of Medicine’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

G-DAC was formed in October 2020 and is led by the Vice Chair of Diversity in the department, Dr. Valentina Greco. The overarching goal of G-DAC is to provide a lens through which to scrutinize and improve all departmental practices to embrace, enrich, and support a greater diversity within the departmental membership. The committee members partner closely with departmental members and leadership to achieve this. G-DAC members also act as representatives for other community members at their professional level — undergraduate, post-graduate, graduate students, post-doc, administrative staff and lab professionals, clinical staff, and junior and senior faculty — updating their peers on G-DAC efforts and bringing forth the concerns of their circles to the committee. Committee members communicate regularly with each other through a Slack platform, educating themselves and supporting each other in this critical work. The committee members are individuals with diverse backgrounds and different lived experiences who must be brave, vulnerable, and open with each other as they discuss the resistance within and outside the community to implement cultural change.

One of the areas where G-DAC is currently focusing its efforts on is the department’s hiring practices, closely collaborating with faculty members and departmental leadership to develop an approach that both attracts and enriches for diverse memberships. To this end, G-DAC has recently provided extensive review and feedback of departmental guidelines for the recruitment of new junior faculty. These guidelines span from the initial wording of the advertisement to procedures detailing best practices for scoring applications, conducting interviews, and advancing candidates at each stage of review. Once approved, the guidelines will help to ensure that diversity is embedded in every faculty search going forward as a core value of the department, and that proactive steps to promote diversity in faculty hiring are consistently taken, regardless of who is directing the search.

Just as important as diversifying the candidate pool is ensuring that the department can support and retain its diverse faculty members. On its own, recruiting diverse candidates will not fix problems of equity and inclusion in the department — this would only perpetuate such problems by creating a false sense that the culture has become more inclusive and supportive simply through diverse recruitment efforts, instead of addressing the underlying barriers that have traditionally excluded diverse members in the first place. To provide an authentically supportive environment for vulnerable memberships within the department, G-DAC is helping to implement an infrastructure for everyday processes, ranging from mentoring to promotion criteria, that continually scrutinizes and improves itself to be equitable for everyone.

G-DAC meetings create intentional spaces for scrutiny and to brainstorm solutions. However, it is also important to note that efforts to address inequity have been underway in the department even before the formation of G-DAC. In 2019, Dr. Caroline Hendry, Scientific Director and Advisor to the Chair of Genetics, spearheaded the Program to Support and Retain Women Faculty in Genetics, partnering with long-time advocate of gender equity Dr. Valentina Greco, as well as senior women faculty in the department Dr. Lynn Cooley, Dr. Valerie Reinke, and Dr. Hui Zhang. The program was designed in consultation with Dr. David Berg, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and an expert in organizational behavior and group and intergroup relations. The program takes a holistic approach to both support the professional advancement of women faculty in Genetics and to begin to break down the socio-cultural barriers that have impeded their advancement thus far. “The Program to Support and Retain Women Faculty in Genetics has equipped me with tools to develop my managerial skills on a more personalized basis,” says Dr. Kaelyn Sumigray, Assistant Professor of Genetics. She shares that the program “provided a much-needed support system for developing my research program at a critical time in my career.” The program spans four key areas: i) creating opportunities for women to become leaders, ii) scrutinizing and reassigning the distribution of burden and “invisible labor” in the department, iii) deconstructing gender stereotypes that limit career progression, and iv) establishing best practices for life-work integration. Importantly, the program includes men in the department insofar as they must be willing to take an active role in recognizing and addressing their privilege and role in perpetuating the structural, cultural and organizational barriers that have so far restricted women’s careers in science from advancing on par with their male colleagues. Many aspects of the program can and are applied to other groups that are currently underrepresented in the department — not just women — in order to support and retain all vulnerable memberships.

More recently, the committee has expanded its efforts in training and educating the department on topics primarily at the intersection of race and genetics and issues of discrimination. The Equity Journal Club (EJC) was established by the department’s trainees and staff in response to the social movement that came from the murder of George Floyd. It is another example of a diversity initiative that existed prior to G-DAC, and G-DACis now working to expand the initiative and incorporate it into the more routine “Research in Progress” forum in the department as part of the department’s ongoing educational mission. “It is a sign of our commitment to learn and improve as a collective group," says Maria Benitez, a Genetics student and G-DAC representative. The G-DAC and EJC are in the midst of planning speaker events open to the Yale community to expand the conversation around the intersection of racism, genetic research, and health equity. G-DAC members also have a vision of putting together a library, compiling literature on anti-racism and systemic discrimination that anyone can access to educate themselves.

Dismantling structural bias and discrimination against people of diverse racial and ethnic groups, persons with disabilities, the LGBTQ+ community, people from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and other vulnerable memberships is a long-term project. It cannot be solved by one individual leader, but requires peers to unite as followers of a movement that collectively desires and is willing to make the effort for change. Dr. Greco emphasizes the need for each member in the Yale Genetics community to bring “a dedicated and serious commitment to change ourselves in order to make space for others. The exceptionalism and individualism that academia is built on is antithetic to the notion that talent is widespread.” “Furthermore, consciously or unconsciously, we perpetuate with our actions the false belief that talent can only be found in the few memberships consistent with the appearances of those who currently hold the most power and privilege,” Greco continues. G-DAC believes that this ideological disconnect is the biggest resistance that the department faces in moving forward with DEI initiatives. Members of the department must realize that talent is present in groups that have historically and continue to be only tolerated, suppressed, or entirely excluded at various levels on the academic ladder.

Yale Genetics’ G-DAC and members of DEI committees across Yale continue to reflect on privilege and take action to make the department and the institution a more equitable place. Though there is still so much to be done, with the ongoing activism of G-DAC members and the collaboration of the entire department, Yale Genetics is determined to build a more inclusive environment for all.

Submitted by Neltja Brewster on August 27, 2021