Be a true ally: Tips for leaders in health care — and elsewhere — who want to be inclusive

As the first woman and person of color to rise to executive vice president at RWJBarnabas Health, one of the largest health care systems in the state, I can personally attest to both the possibility and the difficulty of working to shatter health care glass ceilings for women and people of color. I have learned that getting there is only half the journey. Institutions rightfully focus on hiring and career advancement, but well-intentioned leaders — including those who aim to create inclusive workplaces — are often unaware of what true inclusion looks like.

Many who believe they are an ally may not know how to be one in practice. I have witnessed many missed opportunities to be more inclusive. My viewpoint comes from being a member of demographic subgroups that have historically been excluded. Rather than blaming people for not being more aware, I want to help each of us realize what being an ally might require in order to translate “good people’s” desire to help into concrete actions.

1. Instead of viewing inclusion as a matter of checking a box, appreciate how representation of women and people of color in leadership positions can enrich decision-making by increasing diversity of thought.

2. Understand that since most women serve as the “chief medical officer” for their families and others, they are ideally equipped to take on similar roles within health care.

3. Value the indispensable factor of experience. Include not just women, but women and men of color in every candidate pool, promotional slate and succession plan. I was once on a call when a colleague responded to the maternal mortality disparity of black women dying at a rate five times that of their white counterparts in our state as “being no better nor worse on average than any other state.” Developing a strategic response to such a public health crisis should have been the action.

4. At a meeting where everyone looks the same, stop and ask: Whom might we be able to add? Often, uniformity of people in a meeting is symptomatic of a deeper issue: Leaders within your institution may be majority male or mainstream. Think about whether you have made achieving equity a strategic priority. I once participated in a recruiting process and, when asked why past searches had not produced diverse candidates, the search firm’s response was that the organization had never mentioned that diversity was a priority.

5. Use your voice/platform/position to advance an equity agenda. An ally is the person who speaks up and asks questions about inclusivity so that the few minorities or women in the room do not have the burden of doing so every time. An ally has a greater chance of not being labeled as confrontational or emotional.

6. Appreciate that microaggressions occur daily and strive to avoid committing them. Does the statement I am about to say assume a stereotype? Am I about to insert a euphemism based on what I assume about the race or ethnic background of the person to whom I am speaking? Would I say this statement if this person were of another ethnicity? Since trust is earned, has my interaction with this person earned the trust that permits me to be familiar?

7. Look for ways to be inclusive. I have a white male colleague who goes out of his way to bring others to the table. He walks into the room and walks back out in order to bring in those whose work portfolios naturally intersect with the topic being discussed, but who were perhaps inadvertently left out.

As we continue to examine health care disparities and understand that they needlessly persist because of the ways in which our industry and historical systems have contributed to them, we must begin to acknowledge that those closest to the pain should be helping to solve the problem.

Michellene Davis is executive vice president and chief corporate affairs officer of RWJBarnabas Health as well as immediate past president of Executive Women of New Jersey.

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