Houston, we have an inclusion problem: lessons from NASA’s spacesuit fail

Houston, we have an inclusion problem: lessons from NASA's spacesuit fail

Featured In

press logo hrdive

by Pamela DeLoatch

May 3, 2019

View original article

The debacle illustrated how employers can create problems when they don't couple diversity with inclusion, HR experts explained.

It's a story that, for some, was shocking; for others it was tired. In March, a historic all-female spacewalk at the International Space Station was canceled because NASA had only one of the medium-sized suits needed to fit the two female astronauts. Although NASA seemingly had good intentions in its bid for diversity, it apparently fell short on execution.

Missteps in inclusion are common

NASA is far from the only employer struggling to walk the talk, according Jenn Labin, chief talent and diversity officer at MentorcliQ. "There's a number of companies who are pointing their intentions in the right place but haven't yet found the right way to direct their investments to make it a reality," she said in an interview with HR Dive.

Examples of well-intentioned companies missing the inclusion mark can be found easily. Tammy Perkins, chief people officer at Pacific Market International, recalled a time at a different company when a leader spoke to a women's affinity group, talking at length about his good working relationship and personal friendship with another male leader — unintentionally emphasizing the pervasiveness of the "good old boys' network."

Labin described a leader who gave some of the women on his team the day off for International Women's Day. Had this been a reward given to all employees for success on a project, that would have made sense, Labin said, but as it was, this "reward" did not have the intended effect. "That's really great intention to recognize women, but it's actually the antithesis of the point of International Women's Day, which is to make sure women have a seat at the table," she said.

Even an employer like ThoughtWorks, which focuses on creating a culture of inclusion, can find itself unprepared for the details that make employees feel included, said Joanna Parke, the company's chief talent officer. ThoughtWorks was focused on hiring workers with disabilities and had recently hired several colleagues with hearing impairments; but in its collaborative culture where employees work in groups, stand-up meetings and video calls were commonplace, Parke said. "We had not anticipated how challenging this would be for someone who is hearing impaired," she told HR Dive. A hearing colleague noticed the challenge and brought the issue to management; in response, ThoughtWorks provided all employees on that team with an app that dictates and transcribes conversations so team members could be included.

Another time, the company hit a snag trying to develop insurance policies that addressed the needs of transgender employees. "In hindsight, we should have proactively engaged with the community and the employees that we had," she said. "We went into it making assumptions about the desire to have gender reassignment surgery and [later] found many transgender people aren't interested in that kind of thing at all, and there were more things that were cosmetic or hormonal that were a priority," she said.

The company took a step back and asked transgender employees what benefits they wanted most, and developed the policy from that input. "We can waste so much time and energy making assumptions of what the right thing to do is," Parke said. "Just the simple act of asking the question makes people feel heard."

Recognizing when you're not walking the talk

Research shows that workforce diversity can improve both innovation and revenue. But some companies aren't seeing those results because they are not fully invested; organizations need diversity markers and to hold themselves accountable, Labin said.

If, despite diversity and inclusion efforts, a company isn't seeing an appropriate number of promotions among qualified diverse employees or if those employees are leaving the company, that's a sign of a problem, she said. "That's an indication you need to do exit interviews and see where you're missing the mark, and that's where you focus," she added.

Some employers feel they need to reach a certain milestone, such as a revenue goal, before thinking about diversity. "I think that's a huge mistake," Labin said; "I think every company needs to tackle it now." Companies need to ask themselves whether they're really tapping into new talent pools and ensuring everyone has the opportunity to be seen. As a first step, organizations can consider what they need to do to make sure they are a good reflection of their clients.

Employers will need to develop a business case for diversity, but it needs to be part of the overall discussion, not just a report on metrics, Perkins said. "It's really thinking about how you can develop your team by understanding the strength of diversity and empowering the team, and that it is a critical component to attract talent and retain talent or else you're going to be a place that's a feeder pool for your competition."

Digging deeper

While employers are tackling practical inclusion issues, such as gender-neutral restrooms, this is low-hanging fruit, Labin said. "It's more than that. It's moving forward with the spirit of inclusion, honoring individuals where they are and where they come from."

Inclusion means just that: including people. Even affinity groups need to be cautious of excluding those who are curious or may become allies, Parke said.

It also means being willing to have uncomfortable conversations. These conversations, on topics like unconscious bias and pay gaps, allow employees to be vulnerable and open. And they'll bring a greater understanding, Parke said; "I feel like the next frontier is getting to the deep stuff; the hard stuff."

While employers can't anticipate every roadblock on the diversity and inclusion journey, there are steps they can take to minimize problems. By thoroughly considering the tasks ahead, seeking input and being willing to dig deeper into difficult conversations, experts say, companies can more effectively walk the diversity and inclusion talk.