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.
Valerie Purdie Greenaway is the Director of the Laboratory of Intergroup Relations and the Social Mind. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University, core faculty for the Robert Wood Johnson Health & Society Scholars Program (RWJ Columbia-site), and research fellow at the Institute for Research on African-American Studies (IRAAS) at Columbia. Dr. Purdie-Vaughns has authored numerous publications that have appeared in journals such as Science, Psychological Science, and Journal of Personality & Social Psychology. She was been awarded grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Russell Sage Foundation, Spencer Foundation and William T. Grant Foundation. In 2013, Dr. Purdie-Vaughns was awarded the Columbia University RISE (Research Initiative in Science and Engineering) award for most innovative and cutting edge research proposal titled, “Cells to Society" approach to reducing racial achievement gaps: Neuro-physiologic pathways involved in stereotype threat and social psychological interventions. Previously, Dr. Purdie-Vaughns served on the faculty in the Psychology Department at Yale University. She completed her doctoral work in psychology at Stanford University in 2004 as a student of Dr. Claude Steele. She completed her undergraduate work at Columbia University and lettered in varsity basketball.
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.
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Scientists are using bioelectronic medicine to treat inflammatory diseases, an approach that capitalizes on the ancient "hardwiring" of the nervous system.
- Bioelectronic medicine is an emerging field that focuses on manipulating the nervous system to treat diseases.
- Clinical studies show that using electronic devices to stimulate the vagus nerve is effective at treating inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
- Although it's not yet approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, vagus nerve stimulation may also prove effective at treating other diseases like cancer, diabetes and depression.
The nervous system’s ancient reflexes<p>You accidentally place your hand on a hot stove. Almost instantaneously, your hand withdraws.</p><p>What triggered your hand to move? The answer is <em>not</em> that you consciously decided the stove was hot and you should move your hand. Rather, it was a reflex: Skin receptors on your hand sent nerve impulses to the spinal cord, which ultimately sent back motor neurons that caused your hand to move away. This all occurred before your "conscious brain" realized what happened.</p><p>Similarly, the nervous system has reflexes that protect individual cells in the body.</p><p>"The nervous system evolved because we need to respond to stimuli in the environment," said Dr. Tracey. "Neural signals don't come from the brain down first. Instead, when something happens in the environment, our peripheral nervous system senses it and sends a signal to the central nervous system, which comprises the brain and spinal cord. And then the nervous system responds to correct the problem."</p><p>So, what if scientists could "hack" into the nervous system, manipulating the electrical activity in the nervous system to control molecular processes and produce desirable outcomes? That's the chief goal of bioelectronic medicine.</p><p>"There are billions of neurons in the body that interact with almost every cell in the body, and at each of those nerve endings, molecular signals control molecular mechanisms that can be defined and mapped, and potentially put under control," Dr. Tracey said in a <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJH9KsMKi5M" target="_blank">TED Talk</a>.</p><p>"Many of these mechanisms are also involved in important diseases, like cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, hypertension and shock. It's very plausible that finding neural signals to control those mechanisms will hold promises for devices replacing some of today's medication for those diseases."</p><p>How can scientists hack the nervous system? For years, researchers in the field of bioelectronic medicine have zeroed in on the longest cranial nerve in the body: the vagus nerve.</p>
The vagus nerve<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTYyOTM5OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NTIwNzk0NX0.UCy-3UNpomb3DQZMhyOw_SQG4ThwACXW_rMnc9mLAe8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=700" id="09add" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f38dbfbbfe470ad85a3b023dd5083557" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
Electrical signals, seen here in a synapse, travel along the vagus nerve to trigger an inflammatory response.
Credit: Adobe Stock via solvod<p>The vagus nerve ("vagus" meaning "wandering" in Latin) comprises two nerve branches that stretch from the brainstem down to the chest and abdomen, where nerve fibers connect to organs. Electrical signals constantly travel up and down the vagus nerve, facilitating communication between the brain and other parts of the body.</p><p>One aspect of this back-and-forth communication is inflammation. When the immune system detects injury or attack, it automatically triggers an inflammatory response, which helps heal injuries and fend off invaders. But when not deployed properly, inflammation can become excessive, exacerbating the original problem and potentially contributing to diseases.</p><p>In 2002, Dr. Tracey and his colleagues discovered that the nervous system plays a key role in monitoring and modifying inflammation. This occurs through a process called the <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/nature01321" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammatory reflex</a>. In simple terms, it works like this: When the nervous system detects inflammatory stimuli, it reflexively (and subconsciously) deploys electrical signals through the vagus nerve that trigger anti-inflammatory molecular processes.</p><p>In rodent experiments, Dr. Tracey and his colleagues observed that electrical signals traveling through the vagus nerve control TNF, a protein that, in excess, causes inflammation. These electrical signals travel through the vagus nerve to the spleen. There, electrical signals are converted to chemical signals, triggering a molecular process that ultimately makes TNF, which exacerbates conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.</p><p>The incredible chain reaction of the inflammatory reflex was observed by Dr. Tracey and his colleagues in greater detail through rodent experiments. When inflammatory stimuli are detected, the nervous system sends electrical signals that travel through the vagus nerve to the spleen. There, the electrical signals are converted to chemical signals, which trigger the spleen to create a white blood cell called a T cell, which then creates a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. The acetylcholine interacts with macrophages, which are a specific type of white blood cell that creates TNF, a protein that, in excess, causes inflammation. At that point, the acetylcholine triggers the macrophages to stop overproducing TNF – or inflammation.</p><p>Experiments showed that when a specific part of the body is inflamed, specific fibers within the vagus nerve start firing. Dr. Tracey and his colleagues were able to map these relationships. More importantly, they were able to stimulate specific parts of the vagus nerve to "shut off" inflammation.</p><p>What's more, clinical trials show that vagus nerve stimulation not only "shuts off" inflammation, but also triggers the production of cells that promote healing.</p><p>"In animal experiments, we understand how this works," Dr. Tracey said. "And now we have clinical trials showing that the human response is what's predicted by the lab experiments. Many scientific thresholds have been crossed in the clinic and the lab. We're literally at the point of regulatory steps and stages, and then marketing and distribution before this idea takes off."<br></p>
The future of bioelectronic medicine<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTYxMDYxMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjQwOTExNH0.uBY1TnEs_kv9Dal7zmA_i9L7T0wnIuf9gGtdRXcNNxo/img.jpg?width=980" id="8b5b2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c005e615e5f23c2817483862354d2cc4" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="2000" data-height="1125" />
Vagus nerve stimulation can already treat Crohn's disease and other inflammatory diseases. In the future, it may also be used to treat cancer, diabetes, and depression.
Credit: Adobe Stock via Maridav<p>Vagus nerve stimulation is currently awaiting approval by the US Food and Drug Administration, but so far, it's proven safe and effective in clinical trials on humans. Dr. Tracey said vagus nerve stimulation could become a common treatment for a wide range of diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, hypertension, shock, depression and diabetes.</p><p>"To the extent that inflammation is the problem in the disease, then stopping inflammation or suppressing the inflammation with vagus nerve stimulation or bioelectronic approaches will be beneficial and therapeutic," he said.</p><p>Receiving vagus nerve stimulation would require having an electronic device, about the size of lima bean, surgically implanted in your neck during a 30-minute procedure. A couple of weeks later, you'd visit, say, your rheumatologist, who would activate the device and determine the right dosage. The stimulation would take a few minutes each day, and it'd likely be unnoticeable.</p><p>But the most revolutionary aspect of bioelectronic medicine, according to Dr. Tracey, is that approaches like vagus nerve stimulation wouldn't come with harmful and potentially deadly side effects, as many pharmaceutical drugs currently do.</p><p>"A device on a nerve is not going to have systemic side effects on the body like taking a steroid does," Dr. Tracey said. "It's a powerful concept that, frankly, scientists are quite accepting of—it's actually quite amazing. But the idea of adopting this into practice is going to take another 10 or 20 years, because it's hard for physicians, who've spent their lives writing prescriptions for pills or injections, that a computer chip can replace the drug."</p><p>But patients could also play a role in advancing bioelectronic medicine.</p><p>"There's a huge demand in this patient cohort for something better than they're taking now," Dr. Tracey said. "Patients don't want to take a drug with a black-box warning, costs $100,000 a year and works half the time."</p><p>Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health, elaborated:</p><p>"Why would patients pursue a drug regimen when they could opt for a few electronic pulses? Is it possible that treatments like this, pulses through electronic devices, could replace some drugs in the coming years as preferred treatments? Tracey believes it is, and that is perhaps why the pharmaceutical industry closely follows his work."</p><p>Over the long term, bioelectronic approaches are unlikely to completely replace pharmaceutical drugs, but they could replace many, or at least be used as supplemental treatments.</p><p>Dr. Tracey is optimistic about the future of the field.</p><p>"It's going to spawn a huge new industry that will rival the pharmaceutical industry in the next 50 years," he said. "This is no longer just a startup industry. [...] It's going to be very interesting to see the explosive growth that's going to occur."</p>
"The Expanse" is the best vision I've ever seen of a space-faring future that may be just a few generations away.
- Want three reasons why that headline is justified? Characters and acting, universe building, and science.
- For those who don't know, "The Expanse" is a series that's run on SyFy and Amazon Prime set about 200 years in the future in a mostly settled solar system with three waring factions: Earth, Mars, and Belters.
- No other show I know of manages to use real science so adeptly in the service of its story and its grand universe building.
Credit: "The Expanse" / Syfy<p>Now, I get it if you don't agree with me. I love "Star Trek" and I thought "Battlestar Galactica" (the new one) was amazing and I do adore "The Mandalorian". They are all fun and important and worth watching and thinking about. And maybe you love them more than anything else. But when you sum up the acting, the universe building, and the use of real science where it matters, I think nothing can beat "The Expanse". And with a <a href="https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/the_expanse" target="_blank">Rotten Tomato</a> average rating of 93%, I'm clearly not the only one who feels this way.</p><p>Best.</p><p>Show.</p><p>Ever. </p>
Contrary to what some might think, the brain is a very plastic organ.
As with many other physicians, recommending physical activity to patients was just a doctor chore for me – until a few years ago. That was because I myself was not very active.
The first rule of Vulture Club: stay out of Portugal.
So you're a vulture, riding the thermals that rise up over Iberia. Your way of life is ancient, ruled by needs and instincts that are way older than the human civilization that has overtaken the peninsula below, and the entire planet.
By 2050, there may be more plastic than fish in the sea.
- 2050 is predicted to be a bleak milestone for the oceans - but it's not too late to avert disaster.
- Here are 10 actions the world can take to strengthen and preserve our oceans for generations to come.