How nurses can help promote diversity in the industry

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When you work as a nurse, it’s all too easy to think prioritizing diversity is your employer’s job, not yours. Whether you have a position in a hospital, tiny private practice or any of the many industries where nurses contribute, you may have left balancing the workforce up to management.

But any nurse, with any job description or at any pay level, can help expand diversity in the profession. Why would you want to? The reasons run the range from moral to practical.

Easing the projected nursing shortage in coming decades demands diversity, for example. “It’s easier to recruit workers into a profession that rewards its members for their hard work, education, and performance,” Walden RN and oncology certified nurse Pamela Walden wrote in an editorial for the journal Nursing Made Incredibly Easy. “An environment of respect, inclusion, and acceptance is a key component in establishing and maintaining a diverse workforce.”

Patient populations would undoubtedly benefit, too, with a diverse workforce translating into more open acceptance of diverse patient populations, Walden added.

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Kelly Hancock, a registered nurse, doctor of nursing practice and executive chief nursing officer of the Cleveland Clinic Health System, said more diversity would help the nursing workforce “provide more customized, culturally-sensitive and safer care” and “better assess, accommodate and cater to the healthcare needs of different minority groups.”

And then there is the positive impact on the nursing profession itself. Including a range of nurses from different backgrounds draws in new experiences and new best practices. “Collegiality, cooperation, and innovative ideas from different people add to our wealth of information and experience,” Walden said.

The challenge extends far beyond getting students from diverse backgrounds into schools or hiring more nurses from minority populations, Walden emphasized. “To increase our cultural diversity, we not only need to encourage diversity in our nursing student population, but we also need to create an accepting environment for our coworkers. Studies have shown that even when minority nurses enter the workforce, they have a higher than normal rate of leaving nursing in the first few years of practice.”

That’s where individual nurses can really help.

Want to do your part? Here are some suggestions from nurse leaders and diversity experts:

Broaden your definition of diversity. Along with drawing in people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, establishing an inclusive workforce also means encompassing LGBTQ nurses and individuals with disabilities.

In addition to making sure you’re including all parties in your definition, it’s important not to tag an individual as being diverse. “When we refer to a person as ‘diverse,’ we reinforce dominant identities as ‘normal’ or ‘accepted,’ and we implicitly position other non-dominant identities as abnormal or insignificant,” explained Culture Amp co-founder Sarah Saska.

Instead, think of your colleagues from different backgrounds as those who “bring a diverse range of experiences--from appearance to thought, likes or dislikes, and identity,” Saska added. “Diversity of identity may relate to socialized and visible race, gender identity, religion, nationality, body shape or size, age, or sexual orientation, to name a few.”

Make new friends. Overt or subtle racism at a workplace can thwart any efforts at establishing diversity. One way to combat that? Get to know more people of color, at work and other places, advised Dana Brownlee, a senior contributor to Forbes. “Fear is often the root of bigotry and one of the best antidotes for erasing fear is knowledge and familiarity,” she said. “The saying is, ‘Know me, like me, trust me’ and that trust-building process starts with simply knowing people better. It’s so much easier to fall victim to bigoted thinking and stereotypes when you don’t personally know people from that community and are completely ignorant of their culture, so get to know more people of color.”

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Join the diversity committee at your workplace or in your community. “If there isn’t one, start one,” Brownlee added. “If you’re struggling to step outside your comfort zone, this is an easy way to take action. It doesn’t take much effort to join a diversity committee at your workplace, but it does send a signal to those around you that you have some level of empathy and interest.” This participation will also give you a chance to get to know new people and “begin to see issues from a different perspective,” Brownlee said.

Be the diversity watchdog during colleague interactions. According to gender, diversity and technology expert Catherine Ashcraft, the diversity destroyer known as unconscious bias easily slips “into team meetings and informal interactions. For example, most people have been in meetings where one or two team members dominate the conversation or someone gets credit for an idea voiced earlier by someone else,” Ashcraft, a senior research scientist at the National Center for Women & Information Technology, wrote in Fast Company. “These dynamics are exacerbated when one is a minority in a particular environment.”

Shifting these toxic interactions simply and directly is a matter of “soliciting the opinions of quieter members, making sure that a variety of voices are heard, and ensuring that individuals get credit for their ideas and their work,” Ashcraft added. “As an added bonus, these strategies are relatively inexpensive to implement.”

Start a conversation with your kids about race. This benefits diversity now and down the road, Brownlee said. “One of my friends said that she grew up in a white neighborhood with one black family, and race was not really discussed in her household. She said she didn’t even find out about the Holocaust until they taught it in school when she was 16 and then was so traumatized learning of the injustices that she ended up missing several days of school and ultimately skipping the class altogether. She recalls it as a real trauma in her childhood particularly because she didn’t have adults around her to help her process it. Indeed, too many white (and Black) kids grow up in their own little bubble with little understanding of the complexities of the outside world.”

Make sure you’re not omitting this aspect of your children’s upbringing. “It’s critically important that kids begin to learn about issues of race and equity early, in an age appropriate manner, so they can begin to develop their own awareness of injustice,” she added. “When their brains begin to think that way when they’re young, they’ll tend to make similar values based life decisions as they mature.”

Be open to feedback. Ilsa Govan, co-founder of the coaching company Cultures Connecting, focuses her advice on combating racism, but it also applies to working with colleagues who bring other different experiences to the nursing workforce. “One aspect of white culture is to look for the measurable outcome,” she explained. “We want to focus more on what we do than who we are. Yet reducing our own microaggressions makes a huge difference in the everyday lives of people of color. Instead of trying not to make any mistakes, we can get better at staying open to feedback and using it as an opportunity to learn, rather than shutting down.”

When someone with a background different than your own protests a “microaggression” from you, be that a remark or an incident, it’s important to monitor your response, Govan urged. The minute you respond with “That’s not what I meant,” or “It was just a joke,” you begin to cut yourself off from others who might give you useful feedback in your quest to support diversity in nursing. “This becomes a self-reinforcing cycle, where we may not believe there are any problems with race in the workplace because we haven’t demonstrated openness to receiving how we contribute to these problems,” Govan added.

Strive for inclusion. Registered nurse Eileen P. Williamson describes inclusion on Nurse.com as “an important and somewhat newer aspect of diversity. Simply put, inclusion is not just being present, but being part of things.”

This is different from mere representation, said Williamson, who holds a master’s of nursing and was formerly chief nurse executive at OnCourse Learning. “When we include someone, we’re saying we value that person and his or her contributions. Inclusion celebrates each person’s uniqueness and value. It’s not something we give to or do for individuals of diverse groups; it’s what we do to push the nursing profession forward and improve patient care.”

Understand that diversity benefits everybody. Adds Williamson: “It’s not enough to focus on what organizations can do for diverse employees; organizations must understand and appreciate what diverse employees can do for them. Making diversity and inclusion priorities has created new opportunities for professionals from diverse groups; it has increased access to care for diverse populations; it has improved care quality for many patients and it is changing the face of our healthcare system.”

Inclusion is the best outcome of diversity efforts. “Inclusion underscores that when we hire someone from a diverse group we do so because we want what he or she offers, not because we have a certain employee mix to meet,” Williamson added. “Inclusion means we want to make them part of us because we will be better off when they are.”