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The Course for Diversity

Heather Caruso’s class focuses on leadership in equity, diversity and inclusion

UCLA Anderson assistant dean for equity, diversity and inclusion Heather Caruso

  • Assistant Dean Heather Caruso broadens the business case for diversity
  • Her course on equity, diversity and inclusion draws on the latest research and practical experience
  • Effective communication is crucial to overcoming misperceptions

Assistant Dean Heather Caruso’s passion for facilitating collaborative success runs deep in her life and work. “My formal interests in organizational and social psychology developed when I was an undergraduate at Stanford doing cross-cultural negotiation research with Jared Curhan and Lee Ross,” she says.

Since assuming her post as UCLA Anderson’s assistant dean for equity, diversity and inclusion in 2018, Heather Caruso has been the school’s point person for these essential issues, serving as a key advisor to Dean Tony Bernardo on social justice strategies, coordinating educational programs and speaker series, and developing curriculum for the classroom. She created her course Leading for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion — at first in a five-week iteration and, going forward, as a full four-unit course.

Q: Can you orient readers to the topic and start by making the case for diversity?

I think people understand the value of diversity too narrowly.

The moral case, which focuses attention on ensuring equal opportunity, is where equity really shines as a critical concept. We have established in this country a set of protected identities, and it’s clear that we have a moral commitment to ensure that everybody with those identities has equal access to opportunity. Because of historical injustices and related biases, many groups have not been afforded that equal opportunity. So, equity in organizations is about providing the supports necessary to avoid perpetuating those disparities, seeing to it that all groups gain full access to organizational opportunity and advancement.

A lot of the work on the business case for diversity basically says there are also really practical gains. Under the right conditions, interaction between different groups fosters creativity and provides organizations with a broader set of inputs to solve problems more wisely and efficiently.

But there’s also a third piece. The notion that the moral case and the business case are really where to move the needle forgets that there are also conditions under which we just enjoy interacting with people who are different from us. The thing that I want people to really understand is that there’s also a benefit of just getting to see other ways of being, other ways of thinking. Diversity can simply be interesting, and enjoyable, for its own sake.

The example I often give to people is, think about recreational travel. Just about everywhere you go you will find people leaving where they live to go somewhere else, at least occasionally. Not for business, just because they want to see what’s out there. That, I think, is a really important human instinct to acknowledge. There’s some innate desire that we have to broaden our horizons. Organizations of the future need to recognize that, harness that, and think about how you create the environments where people encounter the differences between themselves and others. They can encounter it with the same hunger, the same interest, the same humility that we do when we decide, “I’m going to venture out of my home and go there.”

Q: How do you bring this third, essential, element to the class?

One of the assignments from the course last year was to pick someone that you might want to get to know better, and introduce yourself to them through an experience. Send them a movie to watch that means a lot to you, then talk to them about it afterward. Some students sent playlists that they put together. Discovery is not only about physically moving to some other space. It’s about recognizing that when we have these discovery motives, we simply want to learn about something. Sometimes we go out looking for it and sometimes someone else creates the opportunity. I think if we harness that, and offer more opportunities for people to learn about who we are, and we can sort of seize our own motivations to do that more, then I think we will help people to learn that diverse organizations are also just more fun.

Q: Before entering academia, you worked at a Silicon Valley startup, which gave you a glimpse of what our students might face when they graduate into private-sector jobs. How did that experience inform the class?

One of my most salient learning and career-building experiences came when I was an undergrad at Stanford trying to figure out how to pay for it. I took a job in Silicon Valley, and worked for this little startup company that happened to be run by a Japanese president and CEO, while the VP and COO were from the Midwest, and they created around themselves an interesting little multicultural company.

At no time did I hear that was an intentional act. It was intended to be multinational in a sense, intended to help connect the Japanese consumer to American goods. We had a customer service staff in Japan and American technical staff, and everyone was very excited about the launch of the internet — one of the many companies trying to figure out how to make use of this amazing new technology to see what the internet could do. The talent there was incredible.

I started to notice little things that became big barriers. There were little misunderstandings between our Japanese customer service staff and our American warehousing staff, or little misunderstandings between more senior members of the firm and newer or younger members of the firm. Part of me thinks I noticed these things because I grew up in a multicultural family; my own experience was highly diverse, so I had grown up having to notice when people were expressing themselves differently and when they weren’t communicating effectively. At the firm, the disagreements themselves were actually rarely extreme, but they felt really big. And people would get really anxious, and there would be hours, days, even weeks of delays caused by the fact that people didn’t know how to communicate. So I would start to offer help, to advise, suggest ways to clarify, because I had learned that those strategies were really useful when I was growing up.

Q: Your spring course focused on effective communication. What did class discussions cover?

The discussion would be about relevant behavioral science, cases and other readings. It would be about some interpersonal dynamics that probably the students had seen before or thought that they could anticipate.

I think one of the things that often goes wrong early in diverse contexts is that people miscommunicate, they misperceive one another. Either they misperceive one another’s identities, or they misperceive things that people say or do in the context of those identities. So we talk about misunderstanding. Say you think about a woman who makes it a point to shop an idea around her entire organization before launching it — before taking action —for her, that’s kind of a fearless due diligence. She’s thinking, “I’m not afraid of whatever I find in these conversations. Check-in with everybody will help us inform this and implement it more efficiently, so this is a really good, useful thing to do.” In some contexts, however, perceivers influenced by traditional female stereotypes might look at her and interpret her behavior as overly hesitant, as unwilling to just take action and push forward in a way that they [expect of] a male leader in that kind of context.

So, we talk about stereotypes and implicit biases, and where they show up in perceptions and communication like that. We talk about the models of diversity that people have popularized, the business case for diversity, the moral cases for diversity.

The business case for diversity is basically that there are instrumental gains to be made by diversifying your organization. I think a lot of people have concerns about that, not because the instrumental gains are not there, but because the instrumental gains are only a fraction of what a diverse workplace really brings.

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