You Can’t Be What You Can’t See

Every year, International Women’s Day is celebrated across the globe to recognize women’s rights and gender equality. This year’s observance encouraged all people to #BreakTheBias and envision a world that values and celebrates diversity.

Bias results from the complex interplay of experience, cognition, learning, and stigmatization. It shapes the way people make decisions and influences one’s appraisal of what constitutes good and bad. Bias can sometimes be helpful as it provides a quick way to motivate social discourse. However, bias often leads to unfair or discriminatory treatment. The most insidious aspect of bias is that it frequently happens outside of one’s conscious awareness. The only effective way to disrupt the dangerous influence of bias is to persistently raise awareness, challenge assumptions, and enrich the visual cues around the world that highlight the unique and powerful differences between people. Placing oneself in groups and teams with others who are different from ourselves is one starting point.

I’ve been inspired by a phrase I’ve heard several times recently: You can’t be what you can’t see. This phrase is often used to identify the multiplicative impact of creating a diverse workforce. This is pretty inspirational to me! I have often experienced efforts to bring women into leadership positions or to open scientific opportunities to people of color as a strategy that served the individual person — which in itself has many benefits. For the individual, expanded career opportunities provide meaningful work and the opportunity, not only to use one’s talents to advance an enterprise mission, but also gain financial rewards. The teams surrounding these individuals benefits too. Making sure that leadership teams are comprised of people of different genders and who have different life experiences improves our collective thought and creativity. It is important to recognize that these benefits do not arise solely because teams are made up of people who look different or sound different from each other but requires the intentional application of managerial actions that celebrate differences and help individuals build bridges between ways of knowing.

The Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Lonnie G. Bunch III, attributed this quote to Sally Ride in an article he wrote about the opening of the Sally Ride exhibit for a Smithsonian Magazine article titled How the Smithsonian Is Honoring Remarkable American Women. In his words, the presence of women in the space force not only benefited Dr. Ride and her crew but also served as a visible symbol to everyone, particularly girls and young women, that there were people who looked like them enjoying fulfilling careers in space.

True appreciation of the diversity of people requires that we look beyond their physical characteristics to see their real uniqueness. One’s culture, family customs, language, and upbringing imbue individuals with mannerisms, mental models, and motivations, few of which have any physical manifestation. So, if we want to enrich our work groups with colleagues with differences in the cadence of speech or adherence to traditions, we will have to find a way to make those aspects visible, and in turn, engaging for all.

Jeff Reznick and Ken Koyle, respectively the Chief and Deputy Chief of NLM’s History of Medicine Division, published a free visual history of NLM and its beautiful buildings. In a brief video featuring some of the pictures from their book, you can take a tour of NLM’s nearly 200-year history. What’s important to pay attention to as you view these amazing images is the early and persistent commitment to creating a diverse workforce evidenced though the pictures of people present throughout the modern history of NLM.

As NLM prepares its plan to join with the rest of the NIH to dismantle structural racism and make the NIH a welcoming workplace for people of all racial identities and ethnic heritages, looking back helps us understand that what we could see in our history allowed us to be in our future — may we continue to grow as a welcoming workplace serving scientists and society.

Patricia Flatley Brennan, RN, PhD

Director, National Library of Medicine

Dr. Brennan is the Director of the NIH National Library of Medicine, a leader in biomedical informatics and computational health data science research and the world’s largest biomedical library. Under her leadership, NLM has grown its intramural and extramural research enterprise, extended stakeholders’ access to credible and reliable health information, and acquired and preserved biomedical literature using cutting-edge digital research and outreach. Read more about Dr. Brennan.

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