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Chris Hadfield
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Diversity, stereotyping, success: Why being different at work is risky business

Stereotyping isn't about "bad people doing bad things." It's about our subconscious biases, and how they sneak into organizational structures.

Jennifer Brown: There is a lot of interesting new technology that scrubs job descriptions for gendered words, because they are—literally the ways that companies are presenting opportunities is screening out—women are self-screening out, because they’re seeing words that they don’t relate to or resonate with. So technology is going to have to help us shortcut our biases because we are so, unfortunately, kind of hopeless when it comes to that. It's really hardwired into us to be biased against maybe ourselves and believing the stereotypes we hear, but then also particularly bias coming at us, of course, from folks who have not done the work around their own choices, right, putting us into boxes.

So I want to know from you about when you experienced, in your career, some stereotype threat, and how did you correct for it when you know that it may be being applied to you? How do you not get swamped by that? It’s like “the death by a thousand cuts,” you know, it does accumulate, and then it causes a lot of us, frankly, to leave organizations. We can’t even put a fine point on it, but we feel; we don’t feel valued and heard and welcomed. So how did you overcome that and claim your power and align that?

Valerie Purdie Greenaway: Yes, that’s a great question. So first, by way of background: as a professor at Columbia, I’m the first African American to ever be tenured in the sciences since Columbia started. So I think it’s an incredible achievement but it also says a lot about even where we are today.

People think I don’t struggle; I struggle every single day. I have perfectionistic “syndrome” where I work on an article for a year, and then I work on it for another year. And I know the literature that women are more likely to do that, that perfectionistic syndrome is linked to being worried about being stereotyped.

I make lots of decisions where I think very carefully about how I am perceived by others, and oftentimes I’ll be in, say, a faculty meeting or even when I’m talking to companies and senior leaders, and I’m like, “Well, how many comments should I make about race versus gender versus religion? Am I being seen as too this or too that?” So I worry about these things all the time. But a couple of things I know to be true: one is that when you take calculated risks and you put yourself a little bit out there, almost always something amazing happens. And so that is one thing that I’ve learned.

Two, I really believe that the whole diversity and inclusion architecture, people don’t understand the underlying science of it, and when they understand that it’s not about “people doing bad things” but about these structural differences, it sort of gives me hope and that helps me take these calculated risks. And I think the third thing is just me personally knowing, like, I will feel anxiety. Every time I sit down to write a paper, I go, “I’m the first African American tenured in the sciences, so this has got to be really good. This has to be, like, great. What do I do?!”

Whenever I think about that I understand that that’s coming partly from an environment where there’s lots of stereotypes. And just knowing that helps me kind of take a little bit off in terms of anxiety. But it’s something that I still work through every day, and it’s something that I work with senior leaders to help illuminate, that when you see underperformance—so in my field it’s how many articles are you writing a year, but in the corporate world it might be how many dollars are you bringing in or how many clients are you going to see or what your investment portfolio looks like—what I tell people is that underperformance doesn’t mean that you can’t do it. It might be something else, that maybe there's something about the structure. But you must have the same kinds of experiences. I’d love to hear, what do you do?

Jennifer Brown: I think that perfectionism is gendered. And if I were a person of color I’d have it even worse. Because I think when you’re the “only” there’s so much pressure on your shoulders. And this is the problem with the demographics as we see them in many companies and particularly at the senior level, when you are the “only,” there is just an undue amount of performance expectations. It feels riskier because it is! It’s real. You’re at that table like clinging to something that you’ve achieved and you are the first. So I think that it’s double work, as you said earlier, and triple work to not only be proficient and excellent but to be managing questions like: “Am I safe here, am I welcomed here, am I valued here? Am I a token?” All of those things that go through our heads.

That’s why I loved your comment about: who has supported you to help you believe that not only do you belong here, but that you’re a star and there are many stars behind you that you’re actually paving the way for.

I know in so much of my work with lower-level employees or early-in-career employees, seeing leaders like you who did make it—just the power of being able to see yourself reflected in someone who’s achieved and who is the first is one of those things that I think leaders don’t understand—that they’re role models: every single day, everything you do, and the fact that you matter a lot.

Valerie Purdie Greenaway: Thank you. I appreciate that. I remember early on in my career—and this is something that when I work with early-career employees I also talk to them about how I used to ask people for feedback constantly, and I would go find the person who I knew was going to be the most critical, and I would say, 'Tell me about my work,' even though I was really fearful.

So fast forward: I’ve done research over the past 15 years showing that people with some kind of outsider status are less likely to receive informal feedback.

So everyone receives formal feedback which is at the end of the year, or your mid-year review, but the "water cooler" feedback, which is what really matters, like, “Hey, I think that you should be doing this,” or, “Hey, have you thought about this,” or, “Hey, this new something-or-other came out and you should do this,” or, “Hey, you probably didn’t pull it together the way you should have, but come back the next day.” That informal feedback is really what pushes people in one direction or another. 

So there are all of these subtle—so the way I always think about it is, what is the structure of the company that either gives rise or facilitates stereotypes in really unconscious ways? Or, what is the company doing to mitigate those stereotypes? And that is all at a very unconscious level.

Psychologist Valerie Purdie Greenaway is the first African American to be tenured in the sciences at Columbia University, in its entire 263 year history. Despite her celebrated position—and, in fact, perhaps because of it—she still struggles with perception, subtle stereotyping, and the enormous stakes of being one of few women of color in a leadership role. Here, Valerie Purdie Greenaway speaks with diversity and inclusion expert Jennifer Brown about being "the only" in a workplace, whether that is along lines of gender, race, culture, or sexual orientation, and how organizations and individuals can do more to recognize and address their biases. That also means letting go of the idea that stereotyping is a malevolent case of "bad people doing bad things." What does discrimination really look like day to day? Most of it is subconscious, subtle, and is deeply embedded into the structure of organizations, which can have an impact on performance, mentorship, and staff turnover. Do you recognize any of your own behavior in this discussion? This live conversation was part of a recent New York panel on diversity, inclusion, and collaboration at work.

A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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How often do vaccine trials hit paydirt?

Vaccines find more success in development than any other kind of drug, but have been relatively neglected in recent decades.

Pedro Vilela/Getty Images
Surprising Science

Vaccines are more likely to get through clinical trials than any other type of drug — but have been given relatively little pharmaceutical industry support during the last two decades, according to a new study by MIT scholars.

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