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Read an in-depth interview with Sharron Gatling, STScI’s first diversity officer, and learn about her upcoming initiatives to support our staff.

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Sharron Gatling
Sharron Gatling, STScI's Diversity Officer

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are buzzwords at many organizations. Words that, at times, lack formal initiatives to educate and support employees. Decades of research has proven over and over that diverse teams propose better solutions to complex problems faster and more often. Why? It's due to their diversity of thought, and their diverse backgrounds and experiences. And when staff members are ensured equity and are included in every facet of an organization, they feel a strong sense of belonging. "More importantly, it's the right thing to do," says Sharron Gatling, STScI's new diversity officer. "Diverse teams will be part of our futures. We need to build a foundation that supports the future demographics of the workforce." Here, Ms. Gatling shares her expertise in the field of diversity, equity, and inclusion and how she is putting plans in place to support every colleague at the institute.

How do you define diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Every person has a wide range of identities, experiences, and backgrounds that informs who they are. This includes, but is not limited to, age, ethnicity, race, gender, gender identity, gender expression, religion, and physical and mental abilities. And every characteristic should be protected in the workplace.

We need to ensure equity is a part of the infrastructure at the institute. For example, ensuring there is equity in our award programs allows everyone the opportunity to be recognized. It's also as basic as ensuring equity in the access of information. Equal access to information benefits individuals and teams at all levels, and gives us all opportunities to grow.

Inclusion means collectively creating a culture that ensures all feel a sense of acceptance and belonging. Inclusion is empowering. It helps individuals flourish. When individuals feel like a central part of an organization, they will be more creative and become more involved. We all benefit.

How long have diversity, equity, and inclusion been at the forefront of your career?

It's always been part of my life. It blossomed when I worked in the K–12 environment. We were taught about diversity and how to meet the needs of each student. That continued when I joined the School of Education at William & Mary in 2001. We were leading the conversation about diversity, because we were helping teachers develop as practitioners.

In 2009, I became the university's assistant director of equal opportunity, and helped revamp our policies regarding recruitment and retention. Our candidate pools versus the staff we hired did not match the diversity in Virginia's population. I led a major push that year. We revamped the entire recruitment process and focused on recruiting underrepresented individuals. I met with every search committee to ensure they had a concrete plan. This covered the creation of position announcements to strategic outreach, including recruiting in unconventional places to increase diversity in their applicant pools. When I left William & Mary, representation among faculty and staff was evenly split along gender lines and there were major gains in racial diversity. It took a long time to get there, and that was only the first goal, but we were able to make that progress because we continued to work that plan.

How have you created opportunities to discuss issues like race in professional settings?

It's much easier to talk about gender, age, or even broad topics like diversity, equity and inclusion. It is very difficult to talk concretely about issues of race in the workplace. People get uncomfortable. At William & Mary, I helped change the culture so everyone knew that it is okay to have conversations about race. Race intersects with who we are. I worked with an affinity group to plan the first concrete conversation about race for a division of the university.

I asked staff to submit questions in advance, not only to ensure anonymity, but also to allow leadership time to consider their responses. The floodgates opened and people started asking questions or sharing their perspectives, while maintaining respect for each other. It ended up being one of the most valued conversations that we had in years and helped to dismantle stereotypes. Research shows that the more you are around a group that is not naturally in your circle of influence, the more you will understand that there are stereotypes and that those stereotypes are not accurate.

We continued to host town halls and conversations about the topic of race. It was especially important after the violence in Charlottesville in 2017. People at every level in the university attended another standing-room-only public forum. Our staff realized we all need to use whatever privilege we have as individuals to give power to marginalized groups for the good of our community.

Earlier this year, you accepted the role as STScI's diversity officer on our leadership team. What are your initial goals? How have you started digging in?

I am still writing the initial narrative. I started by building a full picture of the institute. Although there are many programs I could implement quickly, I do not want to negatively impact any of our existing efforts. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are like a three-legged stool: If one leg is missing, the whole program falls apart. I started with a listening tour. I met and continue to meet with people at all levels of the organization, including our employee resource groups and any individual who reaches out to talk. These conversations have given me a broader perspective of what's really happening. It's critical that I develop a diversity, equity, and inclusion program that meets the needs of all of our staff.

Following this listening tour, I began revising our diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. I will assess them annually with mid-year check-ins. There are core elements that will always remain, but we will need to shift our focus each year to meet the needs of particular groups. I aimed to formalize meaningful goals that are not only strategic, but also measurable. We need to assess our progress.

What do you want people to know about your role as STScI's diversity officer?

I will help bring accountability to the institute. We need to continue to make progress. In the short term, I also want to create a common understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I want it to be an ongoing conversation, a narrative, among all of our staff. This programming should support everyone at the institute. That's critical. I also want to infuse equity in our processes, which will impact awards, bonuses, recruitment, and retention. My long-term vision is for the institute to be the employer of choice as a direct result of our inclusive culture. An inclusive culture creates environments of acceptance, belonging and empowerment, and allows all employees to flourish.