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There’s a scientific reason rules alone won’t end discrimination. Here’s what will

A cognitive scientist’s research on the relationship between emotional regulation and performance shows just how big a role feelings of belonging and togetherness play when it comes to reversing trends of inequity.

There’s a scientific reason rules alone won’t end discrimination. Here’s what will
[Photo: asmin Merdan/Getty Images]

After several stop-starts since the pandemic’s onset, it seems the time has finally come for employees to call their workers back into the office. And while sentiments about this return differ vastly depending on who you ask, companies should pay special attention to those most likely to resist going back to the status quo: Black workers.  

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A recent poll showed 52% of Black employees strongly prefer remote work, and 63% reported feeling more ambitious working from home compared to their white and male colleagues. This data is of little surprise when you consider that, in the past month alone, several of the county’s largest employers—including the NFL, Tesla, and Google—have come under fire for their facilitation of toxic, racist, and misogynistic work environments. Aside from fresh lawsuits, these companies have something else in common: public commitments to hire more people of color that have barely moved the needle.  

Unfortunately, this is more of a trend than a fleeting phenomenon. More than a year after the nation’s 50 highest valued companies that pledged support for Black lives in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Black talent in corporate leadership has remained stagnant and Black executives make up only 8% of the C-suite. There are actually 20% fewer Black employees among tech companies that pledged, compared to those that didn’t make a public show of support.  

Higher education, which should be a launchpad for increased opportunity and financial stability, has also struggled to deliver equal advancement across racial lines. As of 2020, only 40% of Black Americans held an associate’s degree or higher, and among degree holders, wide disparities in salary after graduation have been found between Black and white or Asian graduates.  In 2021, against the backdrop of a still raging pandemic, it was reported that college enrollment among Black students declined by 12% nationally.  

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Policies designed decades ago to push the consideration of certain groups for jobs and acceptance were important first steps in our march toward equality. But simply interviewing Black candidates for the role or considering race in admissions isn’t enough, and in many ways, was never enough. We need to address not just how to get diverse candidates in the door, but how to create cultures in companies and across campuses that actively combat stereotypes and where all identities can flourish.  

Though examples of this are hard to find in corporate America, we know it’s possible. Last month, a two-decade old NFL policy aimed at increasing diversity among its top ranks made headlines after Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores filed discrimination charges after being fired. In stark contrast to the NFL, where only one Black coach remains after Flores and David Culley, who was head coach of the Houston Texans, were let go in January, 43% of the NBA’s coaches identify as Black. Scott Brooks, the director of research at the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University told NPR that the NBA’s culture has managed a cultural shift by being “beyond numbers,” and “thinking about the relationships with the athletes. How this makes the athletes feel.” 

Brooks is on to something. My research on the relationship between emotional regulation and performance shows just how big a role feelings of belonging and togetherness play when it comes to reversing trends of inequity. When studying students of color and students from low-income backgrounds who tend to experience greater testing anxiety in STEM fields than their higher-income peers, we saw their performance significantly improve when they had space to offload worries and fear of rejection, freeing up resources to focus on their work, importantly in a field with high earning potential and job opportunities.  

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Feelings and experiences of rejection can make it more difficult for people to keep negative emotions that throw off performance at bay. Whether someone’s a coach of color who keeps being passed over for leadership roles, the only female scientist in the lab, or a low-income scholar at an elite institution, these feelings of rejection are compounded by awareness of negative stereotypes and the cognitive load that results from having to constantly remind oneself that these stereotypes don’t define one’s identity. 

Creating environments that actively dismantle stereotypes is possible, as we’ve learned at Barnard College, where I am president. In fact this year, the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges, including Barnard, are breaking records for Black student enrollment. Forty-four percent of Barnard’s incoming 2021 class identifies as women of color, and Black student enrollment increased by 57.3% from the year before, topping national averages 

Of course, like almost every institution or corporation in the country, Barnard still has work to do on the diversity front. Nonetheless, one thing is clear: There is strength in numbers. On our campus, mentorship and allyship cohorts between prospective students and current students, faculty, alumnae and administrators of color signal to every student that Barnard values the diversity of thought and perspective that comes from different lived experiences. When students connect with folks that took some of the same paths, they can embrace their full and diverse identities and know they aren’t alone.  

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We have also used cohorts to address another historically challenging barrier: the under-representation of diverse women in STEM, which today is made up of just 20% women and 2% Black women. Launched in 2016, the Science Pathways Scholars Program (SP), is already delivering notable gains. This four-year bridge program that’s open to first-generation and underrepresented minority students sees them from high school, to college graduation, and into their careers to ensure that along the way women have access to a cohort of supportive peers and mentors. Among recent (SP) cohorts, 86% have declared a major in STEM as compared to less than 20% nationally.   

Cohorts have long been a successful mechanism for helping people overcome heightened stress caused by feeling different from everyone else in the room. Call Me MISTER, a cohort-based leadership development program for Black male educators is graduating hundreds of talented teachers to join a mostly white, female teaching force in South Carolina. Just one year into their program, Black Women on Boards‘ cohort-based accelerator program has placed 16 participants on private, public, and advisory boards, where Black women currently occupy only 4% of seats.  

We know well the cost of failing diversity initiatives. It’s an expense none of us can afford as we collectively recover from a pandemic that’s thrown past equity gains into a tailspin by hitting low-income communities and communities of color the hardest. It’s time to live up to the pledges we’ve made by taking honest stock of what stereotypes still plague our workplaces, and destroying them.  

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Sian Beilock is a cognitive scientist and the president of Barnard College. 


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