MIT’s third annual Diversity Summit, held Wednesday at Kresge Auditorium, reflected the growing importance of inclusion at the Institute: From 70 attendees at the 2011 summit, the event has now grown to include about 700 members of the MIT community, said the event’s co-chair, professor of physics Edmund Bertschinger.
But despite MIT’s clear, strong policies supporting equality and inclusion, speakers emphasized that there is still much work to be done. Good intentions, and even good policies, are not enough, they said: Research has shown that even in organizations that explicitly embrace meritocracy, the actual outcomes of those policies can sometimes be counterintuitive.
For example, research by Emilio Castilla, an associate professor of management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, has found that diversity policies can sometimes undermine their own intent. In one study, committees evaluating employees for salary increases at organizations with specific merit-based policies actually awarded significantly lower increases to women than to men with equivalent performance evaluations. Yet similar committees at organizations without such policies did the reverse, awarding higher increases to the women.
“Could it be that some of these practices,” Castilla asked, while intended to foster diversity and merit-based decisions in organizations, “are actually introducing bias into the workplace?” This provides a “cautionary lesson,” he said, “to encourage organizations to better design practices to ensure that they accomplish what they hope to accomplish.”
Denise Lewin Loyd, an associate professor of management at MIT Sloan, added that her own research shows another example of such unintended bias: When a member of an underrepresented minority group is that group’s sole representative on a selection committee, that person may overcompensate by being tougher on a candidate who “looks like them.” For example, Loyd said, the sole woman on a hiring committee might actually score a female applicant lower than an equally qualified man.
“When you’re evaluating someone similar to you, that comes with a lot of baggage,” she said. Loyd calls this effect the “favoritism threat,” and said that one way to counteract it is to grow the diversity of the organization so that a member of an underrepresented minority group “doesn’t stand out as much.”
Unlike past Diversity Summits, this year’s agenda explicitly defined diversity to include people with disabilities, along with the categories of race, gender, religion and sexual orientation. A panel of students and recent alumni with disabilities discussed their experiences at MIT, and praised President L. Rafael Reif for having made a point of including them in his inaugural address.
Ian Smith, a 2010 MIT alumnus who uses a wheelchair and works for a startup company in San Francisco, said that although he was not present at last September’s inauguration, “I heard about it 2,500 miles away” when Reif mentioned disabilities among the factors that need to be addressed as part of the Institute’s efforts to foster inclusion and acceptance. “That doesn’t happen a lot,” Smith said. “It sends the message to other marginalized groups that this is an institution that cares about its people.”
Other panelists reinforced that message of the accepting and helpful atmosphere they had experienced at MIT. David Hayden, a graduate student in computer science who is legally blind, said that after experiencing problems with class notes, he was encouraged to focus on research to develop improved note-taking systems for students with visual impairments. He has now started a company to further develop the system he devised.
MIT sophomore Joshua Frisch recalled, “When I was 4, doctors informed my parents that I would never be able to read.” But contrary to that early prognosis, not only does Frisch enjoy reading, but “I’m good at literary analysis,” he said. Though diagnosed at a young age with autism — a condition that often makes it hard for people to develop close social relationships — “when I came here [to MIT] I ended up being really, really social,” Frisch said. “Social skills are skills that can be learned.”
People have “huge stereotypes” about what it means to be autistic, Frisch said: “In high school, I interacted with people fine. It was not obvious to people that I was autistic, rather than just a nerd.”
Though the panelists said they found acceptance at MIT, one thing they said is still lacking is faculty mentors with disabilities — or who publicly acknowledge disabilities that are not obvious. “It’s a significant problem in higher education,” Smith said. People with disabilities, he said, “lack role models, visible people like you. I’d like to see more professors with disabilities, visible or invisible.”
Smith said that different physical abilities “affect your thought patterns in profound ways,” and that teams are stronger when they include people with different ways of thinking. Benjamin Jones, a senior diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, echoed that thought: “I believe we learn the most from the struggles in our lives,” he said. Teams that include people with disabilities are “greater creative teams, to solve the world’s problems.”
“MIT is a place that prides itself on solving problems,” Reif said in introducing the Diversity Summit. He added that he found surprising acceptance when he arrived at MIT as a young faculty member in 1980, with limited English skills and a disadvantaged background.
“I still believe this Institute is remarkably good, but I have listened to and heard from those with different experiences,” Reif said. “I hope that through doing this kind of work together we can put MIT on a path to transformative change. The commitment is there.”