Creating Inclusive Spaces: A How-to for Change Makers and Allies

October 4, 2019


While language is ever present, inclusive language may be more elusive. As it has seen a rapid rise in popularity, it also has lost much of its meaning along the way, making it effectively a buzzword. Talking about inclusivity helps raise awareness, but the much more important work is implementing it.

Turning support into a verb

Language matters. It can be one of many behavioral markers that identify a space as welcoming or unwelcoming to a diversity of people. Take for instance the 2019 AWIS Membership Leadership Survey. AWIS research found 84 percent of white women and 73 percent of women of color had their judgment questioned in their area of expertise. The trend holds for being assumed more junior (even though they weren’t) and having their accomplishments credited to someone else. These instances aren’t unrelated as over 70 percent of AWIS women members also reported providing more evidence of competence than their peers. Language informs and reinforces cultural norms. So, many of these instances are written off as minor offenses, never get addressed and only later snowball into tangible forces that finally push out marginalized people – with many leaders oblivious to the cause of their departure. If you are a member or partner of AWIS it is likely you already support inclusivity as a concept. However many of our members and partners occupy dominant identity categories and/or positions of leadership and privilege. The onus is on you to create spaces where marginalized voices will be heard and elevated and dominant voices informed and coached. This is the fine line between being a well-intentioned (but complicit) bystander – and an active ally. While learning and updating the correct language to properly identify your colleagues is important, it is only the beginning of work necessary for creating equitable spaces built on fairness and respect.

Fixating on not knowing what to say or how to say it

It is important to pull the focus away from learning about inclusive language as if it were a lesson on vocabulary. If we zoom in on what we are “allowed” and “not allowed” to say, we end up missing the point. Often, frustration with not knowing what or how to say something gets in the way of creating a space for conversation and collaboration with those from marginalized groups: our own personal frustration with words blocks real people from resources and relationships. And that’s the opposite of what we set out to accomplish.

Written by Aspen Russell, AWIS Research Assistant, this article is originally published in the AWIS Magazine, an exclusive AWIS Membership benefit. Become an AWIS Member to get more content like this.


Getting started

First, do your due diligence.

Begin by identifying resources to keep current on social, cultural and regional language use. It is important to note that this job falls on you or a paid facilitator and not on the token marginalized person in your place of work. Behavioral change takes time, so steadily add new language into your social interactions. This will more accurately and properly identify those around you and send a signal that this space is welcoming to a broader set of people. This can have a direct effect on hiring and retention initiatives.

The ideal outcome of this work is to develop a meta-level awareness that will question your autopilot responses to processes and systems. A few places rife with bias are resumé reviews, publication and peer review, and letters of recommendation. When engaging in these meaningful discussions and selections, do a double-take to stop and ask big picture questions about intention and outcomes.

Second, prioritize people over personal discomfort. 

The work of creating inclusive spaces is never done, so you may never feel “ready” to be identified as a change maker in your community. To answer the question of “where to begin,” start with those who know the issues best at your institution: the people facing them. Begin with belief in these people’s experiences. It is never easy to come forward, and we know that many scientists and academics have to wait until they have the protection of tenure to bring cases of harassment and sexual assault to their institution out of fear of retaliation.

Being the person in a position of leadership to validate, and potentially bring visibility to, an experience is a great first step in identifying and addressing the broader issues where you work.

Third, be open to feedback (and implement it).

Sustaining these behaviors is the most difficult aspect of change. From AWIS’ work with 18 other professional scientific societies, we know that implementing just one intervention will not change culture. The NSF-funded AWARDS project instituted policies to broaden selection pools and reduce bias in faculty award selection processes. The year after the training, women’s representation and selection in awards increased, but without yearly intervention rates reverted back.

Addressing the needs of marginalized groups, a critical element necessary to sustain inclusion efforts, can be accomplished by listening, elevating and creating space for voices to be heard by those with the ability to make change.

Sustainable change takes hold when the culture and values of the workplace align with inclusivity. This is reflected in behavior and in policy. Both must be present to successfully create an inclusive environment, and both can be quickly lost without continued intervention. A common occurrence that impacts the institutionalization and effectiveness of inclusive hiring and retention policies is the loss of leadership or budget cuts. Be aware when creating equity and inclusion policy to require continued intervention, protect policy from leadership turnover and integrate inclusive policy into existing, longstanding programs and processes. If you are able to accomplish these tasks, then your policy will survive over time and greatly increase the odds of impacting culture change.

Fourth, refresh and renew your energy. 

As a change maker, you must take steps and time for self-care. Advocating for inclusive spaces is intellectually and emotionally intensive, and it is vital to not burn out. Allies are an invaluable resource for change, and it is unsustainable to “be on” at all times.

None of the observations and advice listed in this article is hard and fast rules. They serve as suggestions to guide your energy to make change. The key takeaway is to make changes within yourself that will inform and empower you to make changes in your communities.

About the Author

Aspen Russell is research assistant at the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) where they study STEM equity in the workplace and academe. Aspen’s research is founded on an intersectional framework and aims to bridge the gap between academics, practitioners, and change makers. They have an undergraduate degree in computer science and a minor in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies from American University.

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