Organizations can have the best intentions to focus on diversity and inclusion, but if that change isn’t exemplified and championed by leadership, it likely won’t change the culture. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Aikyna Finch talks to attorney and EEO diversity director Dr. Nicole S. Mason about her 30-year career in diversity, equity and inclusion, specifically in the STEM field. Learn steps that organizations should take to assess their diversity, evaluate policies and procedures for systematic discrimination, create committees that includes various levels of employees across an organization, and more.
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Dr. Aikyna Finch: Greetings everyone, and welcome to the podcast. I am Dr. Aikyna Finch, and today we will be discussing the importance of diversity in leadership of organizations with Dr. Nicole S. Mason.
Dr. Nicole S. Mason is a licensed attorney. She has worked in the area of equal employment opportunity, civil rights, and diversity and inclusion for the past 30 years. A staunch advocate for justice and champion for equality, equity in STEM, Dr. Nicole has served as an EEO diversity director for a STEM-focused organization for the past 14 years.
In her leadership position, she focuses on diversifying the workforce, changing the culture, and socializing diversity, equity and inclusion through the leadership channels of communications, policies and the organizational procedures. We would like to welcome Dr. Nicole S. Mason. How are you doing today?
Dr. Nicole Mason: I’m doing well. Thank you so much for the opportunity to be a part of this podcast.
Dr. Aikyna Finch: Oh, it is always a pleasure. Always a pleasure. And so, I would like to start out with why you chose equal employment opportunity as your focus.
Dr. Nicole Mason: So, that’s always a good question when I have the opportunity to share about my work. And I always like to say that EEO, Equal Employment Opportunity, diversity and inclusion found me.
And I say that because when I started working as a stay-in-school student, they had the stay-in-school-student program for the federal government many years ago. They call it something different now. But I always seemed to end up in the civil rights office. Well, when I started to connect the dots related to my life, I realized that my energy was putting out some kind of signal because my mom worked for the federal government. And unfortunately, she was forced to train many supervisors, Caucasian men, and she was never promoted.
And so, of course, being her child, I was hearing all of the things that were happening on the job, even the emotions associated with it. So, I just believed that the work found me because of what I witnessed and heard related to my mom, and just all of the different ways that it impacted her.
So, that’s how I ended up in this arena, I believe, because I never worked in any other kinds of offices, even as a student. I just always ended up in the civil rights offices of different organizations, different federal government agencies, but always the same work.
Dr. Aikyna Finch: Wonderful, wonderful. And I would love to hear about the leadership aspect of Equal Employment Opportunity. How have you seen this change in the recent years?
Dr. Nicole Mason: So, that’s a great question. And so, for me, as an African-American female, I had great mentors when I started in this arena. And, for the most part, most of the people that work in Equal Employment Opportunity are people of color for the most part. You do have some diversity in the offices, but for the most part, it’s people of color. And, of course, not just African-Americans, but different people of color.
And, what I’ve realized is that you have to have people on the leadership ranks, if you will, at the highest levels of any organization, if you really want to have change in that organization. And if you look at the demographics across industries and vocations, there is a lack of diversity in almost every vocation, every industry. Across the world, I would say, but certainly in this country.
And, for those companies and organizations that have taken a look at it, and, of course, we know that more organizations have taken a look at diversity and inclusion since George Floyd that caused all of the people to look in the same direction, if you will.
And so, you’ve seen now more people doing diversity and inclusion work, and really taking it more seriously. So, over the past two years, for example, in the federal government, the president signed an executive order. And one aspect of that executive order has called for every federal agency to have a chief diversity officer, which is the senior executive service ranking, which is very, very powerful.
So, for me, I’ve seen that there’s been more attention to it, but also, people are more sensitive to what’s going on inside of the workforce because of what’s going on outside of the workforce. And the reality of it is, whatever we see playing out outside of the workplace, it will eventually find itself inside of the workplace.
Dr. Aikyna Finch: Ooh, that was a powerful statement. That was a powerful statement. And how would you recommend companies who are coming up, they’re getting ready to get that diversity officer, they’re getting ready to do these changes, where would you recommend they start?
Dr. Nicole Mason: Well, first of all, a company has to have a culture of diversity and inclusion. And what I’ve found over the years doing this work, you can have the best intentions, but if your culture has been set up where diversity and inclusion is not at the forefront, it does not matter who is in charge. The culture becomes a living, breathing organism.
And Dr. Sam Chand, who is an expert in organizational health and organizational development, he talks about this, talks about the culture, and how our cultures in which we work, the culture has its own set of rules. And most of those are unwritten rules. And so, I would say for someone who is starting an organization, or an organization in its infancy, if you will, the culture of diversity and inclusion has to be baked in from the very beginning.
And what I mean by that is, the policies and the procedures must speak to diversity and inclusion. That’s number one. Then, most importantly, the people who are at the top levels of that organization must exemplify diversity and inclusion based on their background, in terms of race, gender, ethnicity.
And, of course, we know that there are what’s called primary characteristics of diversity that speaks to race, gender, et cetera. And then, of course, there’s secondary characteristics of diversity, and that speaks to whether you’re married or not, how you participate in different kinds of volunteer activities, where you live, your educational levels and status. So, all of those things are considered what they call secondary characteristics of diversity.
And all of that needs to be taken into consideration as you are building, not as an afterthought, which a lot of agencies and organizations are really backpedaling, although they know it’s important because there are laws that speak to this. But not every organization is following through with that kind of aspect of their organization unless they’re forced to.
And we have seen that play out in some of these big corporations, where a suit has been filed against them, and the EEOC brings a suit, for example. And then when they are charged with having to pay out a large amount of money, then they take a look at their policies and procedures. And so, it really is kind of backpedaling at that point.
But, people who are just starting their organizations, their agencies, what have you, they have an opportunity to start at the beginning, socializing what’s important to them as it relates to this area, and why it’s important. And studies have shown that agencies and corporations that have more diversity really make more money. They really get to the bottom line quicker because there’s diversity of thought around the table.
Dr. Aikyna Finch: Yeah, I love the fact that you mentioned the people that may be quote-unquote backpedaling. Let’s focus on them for a minute. Let’s say, “Okay, I have a business. I’m in this organization. It really wasn’t a thought when I made it, but I don’t want any lawsuits. I know it’s important. What should I be doing?”
Dr. Nicole Mason: I would say following the law, first of all, because there are laws that speak to any organization that has more than 15 employees and what they should be doing. You have to follow the law. But we all know that, then, there are some people who are renegades. And then, of course, again, it’s the culture. It’s the unwritten rules in a culture.
So, for people who want to do the right thing, and I believe that the majority of people who are in leadership positions, they want to do the right thing. And so, if you’ve been in an organization, you’re leading an organization, and you know that you don’t have the diversity that you should have, that you would like to have, then I would encourage people to begin to look at their policies and procedures, number one, to see if there are any systemic discriminatory practices that are going on systemically.
And sometimes, policies were created at a time when these conversations were not as prevalent as they are now. And so, again, those policies and procedures, they are discriminatory in nature. Not because people were malicious, but that’s just how it was at that time.
And so, really taking those policies and procedures, and taking a look at what the end result has been as it relates to those policies and procedures. And, for the most part, I think it’s very important for sometimes agencies to have an outside consultant to come in to look at what has been playing out. Because sometimes, when you’re in it, you cannot see it for what it really is.
So, an outside consultant can come in, take a look at your policies, procedures, and then, of course, all you have to do is look around. What do your demographics tell you about your organization? Does the demographics look like the American population or not?
And so, when you really start to take a really deep inventory of your organization, then that will begin to tell you which way to go. Do you need to be more intentional about your outreach and your recruitment? Do you need to focus on your internal culture and what that looks like?
Do you have a diversity and inclusion committee made up of different people from your organization who are at various levels, so it’s not just top heavy, but you have some people from your leadership, you have some people from your middle management, and you have people who are entry level coming together, brainstorming? Again, diversity of thought. Talking about what really is going on in the organization, because sometimes things are going on the leadership doesn’t know, because they don’t take the time to engage their employees.
They’re just in there just kind of working and not engaging their employees to figure out whether the workplace is inclusive, whether the workplace is welcoming, whether the workplace causes people to feel like they belong there or not.
So, that comes from the people that work there. Them telling you that we need more activities, for example. We need more time to engage with one another, whether it’s brown bag lunches, or chat and chews, or whatever. Just different kinds of activities that allow the employees to get to know each other and to begin to engage in the culture. So, that’s what I would say.
Dr. Aikyna Finch: Thank you so much for that. I love that. So, Dr. Mason, you have done many, many things in your 30-year career, and I know that we mentioned in the bio that you have been in a STEM organization for 14 years. Can you talk to us about the diversity piece in STEM?
Dr. Nicole Mason: Thank you so much. As I mentioned before we took the break, every industry is lacking diversity. And, of course, in STEM organizations, the STEM profession, there is a lack of diversity as it relates to racial diversity and as it relates to gender diversity.
And so, for me, it’s been very important to connect the organization that I work for with HBCUs, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, with Hispanic institutions, also with minority-serving institutions. And those are institutions that are majority, but they have a focus on, minorities. As well as Native American tribal colleges and universities.
So, that’s been very, very important because the lack of diversity is overwhelming as it relates to STEM. And so, again, I think that it is very important that we speak about these topics. And so, I applaud you for bringing this to the podcast and just talking about it.
And I would say this, too. It’s also important to acknowledge that these numbers exist in every aspect of STEM, from the American Geological Union to all of these different scientific organizations, who are really now looking at this aspect of it, and they are doing something about it, and I applaud them for it.
And so, it really is something that we have to tackle, and we have to start tackling it all the way back to K-12, all the way up through college. And so, we have a number of different programs looking at that aspect. Having partnerships with schools, elementary schools, junior high schools, so that children in underrepresented neighborhoods in schools, they have access to the fact that these particular jobs and aspects of STEM exist.
And I can speak for myself that, coming up, when we would have career fairs, we would have people, of course, who were police officers, firemen, firewomen, and at that point there were not a lot of firewomen even then. May have had one or two lawyers, maybe one or two doctors. But very rarely did we have a meteorologist, for example, or a physical scientist, a neurologist, very rarely a mathematician, an engineer.
So, we really have to expose children from underrepresented groups that these careers exist, and the people that come to those schools need to look like those children. And so, really making those connections are very, very important if we want to see change, substantive change, in the STEM fields in the years to come.
Dr. Aikyna Finch: That is powerful. And I know that you have won the organization’s highest award for many of your initiatives, including the first diversity and inclusion summit. So, tell us about how that went, the planning and the impact of that summit. I know that it was powerful.
Dr. Nicole Mason: Yeah. So, thank you so much for bringing that up. Yes. I, along with several of my colleagues in the EEO arena—EEO diversity and inclusion arena—we put together the very first summit in almost the organization’s 50-year history. That tells you the kind of impact it was.
And we invited several speakers in to talk about various aspects of diversity from the demographics, to LGBTQ, talking about the pronouns, talking about transgender policies, and making sure that each organization understands about how to help people when they’re transitioning, how we are to respect people who are expressing themselves as what we perceive as a different gender than what we know them to be, and respecting people’s choices, and how to do that effectively as an organization. And so, all of the different aspects of diversity, and just what that looks like in organizations.
Talking about the lack of women in the sciences, and how we can help to change that trajectory. Also, talking about field experience, and that’s one that’s critical. Because even right now, there is a young man, African-American, Daniel Robinson, a 25-year-old geologist, was last seen at his work site in Buckeye, Arizona. He went missing around the same time that Gabby [Petito] I can’t think of what her last name was. But she was missing as well at the same time.
And the news media gave so much air time to what was going on with her and very little to what was taking place with this young African-American geologist, whom they still have not found. But he was at work doing a field experiment in a remote location.
And so, just really talking about how to send people of color out in field experiments, and some of these areas across the country that are not welcoming to people of color and being very open and honest about these things. And during the last administration, we saw a lot of that kind of come forward. And not that it had not been going on, but certainly in a more prevalent kind of way, and being open about those kinds of ideologies and discussing them.
We also had word about two of our African-American scientists who were at a location, and people who were a part of different kind of, I don’t want to start calling names of organizations, but just the whole ideology that they are in control, et cetera, from the last administration. And the young men, how they had to call back to their superiors so that they could get help.
So, those things are very real, and those kinds of discussions at the summit. And it was very eye opening for a lot of the majority leaders in the organization, because sometimes we have things going on, and we aren’t aware of them because we have not had to deal with those kinds of situations. And I think it was very impactful just to begin to have those conversations.
And then, of course, shortly thereafter, then the George Floyd murder, and the social unrest, and all of those things kind of took shape and took form, really adding credence to what we were bringing to the organization. And so, as a result of that, the work was recognized by our top brass, if you will, in the organization. And since then, we’ve had two more each year since then. And so, it’s been going well.
Dr. Aikyna Finch: Yes, yes. Thank you for sharing that. And it speaks to your employee development work, as well. And I do know that you received the Employee of the Year for your employee development, so I definitely want to say kudos to you for that.
And so, as we get ready to close, I would love for you to speak to the leaders who are looking to enhance that employee development, enhance that diversity and inclusion. What would you say to them as they are going on their journey?
Dr. Nicole Mason: Thank you so much. And yeah, that Employee of the Year for Employee Development, that was certainly a treasure and a treat to receive that. And I’m happy to announce that one of the leaders in the organization, who I coached and mentored as it relates to diversity and inclusion, she was recognized by the president most recently with the Presidential Distinguished Career Award. So, whenever I see her, I know that my work has influenced her, her thinking about diversity and inclusion, and her work that she does internationally.
So, it’s very impactful when have someone in your organization whom you have hired to represent diversity and inclusion. And I would say, number one, for those leaders, it is important to have a diverse leadership team because of the diversity of thought that you get. And it helps you with your potential blind spots when you have someone who is of a different background, different gender, different ethnicity, different national origin, if you will, just different from you, people with disabilities, because it makes you more aware. It makes you more sensitive to the issues impacting people from those particular groups, people who are from the LGBTQ population.
So, it’s important to have a leadership team that really reflects the American people. And then, number one, it also allows you to have a different perspective on your policies, on your procedures. Sometimes you can look at a situation one way and somebody will look at it a different way.
For example, case in point, when we think about internships. And we know that people are vying for internships because it helps them to get a leg up in their career, it helps them to get exposure. But what has happened for some people, particularly in STEM organizations, you have some people who can take unpaid internships and everything works out for them. But when you have people who are coming from underserved populations, that’s not the case for those people.
And so, when you have someone such as myself sitting on a leadership team, I can raise my hand and say, “Well, no, you have to take this into consideration that people who are coming from this particular population cannot afford to come do an internship in Colorado without pay.” Right? Because I’m speaking for that particular group from experience, number one, and so I have a different perspective. And then, to hear the leadership say, “Oh, we never thought about that.”
That’s because they don’t have that kind of experience and orientation. And that’s why you have to have some people on your leadership team from diverse backgrounds. And then, of course, when those people are on your leadership team, they must be empowered to speak up about those sensitive matters. And the empowerment comes from, again, creating a culture where you are saying you want to move your organization to be a more diverse and inclusive workplace, and more diverse and inclusive organization.
Then people have to feel empowered that they can speak up against the policies and procedures that are in place, and sometimes that may mean them speaking up against you, the leader. And you have to be open so that people can share if you have blind spots, for example. People can share if things can be done a different way with different people who do not look like you, necessarily.
So, I would say these things are a great start. And again, bringing in a consultant to look at your policies and procedures. But more importantly, what’s most fundamental is to have a diverse leadership team for those diverse perspectives so that you can get a different outcome.
Dr. Aikyna Finch: Powerful, powerful words. And thank you so much, Dr. Nicole Mason, for being here today and for sharing your powerful and practical tips. It has been an honor.
Dr. Nicole Mason: Thank you so much for the opportunity, Dr. Aikyna. I appreciate the time, particularly as it relates to this area of work that is so near and dear to my heart. So, thank you so very much.
Dr. Aikyna Finch: My pleasure. And to the audience, thank you so much for listening to this podcast. Please take the tips that Dr. Mason has given us to heart, and go for that impact and that change. I am Dr. Aikyna Finch. Be safe and be well.