By Andrew Cohen
The study of diversity and inclusion yields no easy answers, but plenty of hard work. Berkeley Law’s Culture, Diversity, & Intergroup Relations Lab is a leader in this endeavor, providing valuable insights for schools, legal institutions, nonprofits, and private companies.
Directed by Professor Victoria Plaut, the lab fosters research that confronts people’s understandings and approaches to diversity and inclusion. Its latest project targets the technology industry—which has made dubious headlines lately for gender discrimination—and why minorities are woefully underrepresented in Silicon Valley.
“We’re examining the current double bind in computer science, where women and girls of color are barely represented,” Plaut said. “Our lab is assisting a broad high school STEM program to increase this participation. We’re also partnering with Startup@BerkeleyLaw to train entrepreneurs from underrepresented groups, and we’re bolstering programs that provide venture capital firms with better research-based training on diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
Launched in 2010, the lab explores the challenges and opportunities of working, living, and learning in diverse environments. Through solicited trainings and community workshops, Plaut highlights the implications of incorporating diversity and inclusion in businesses, law schools, and other educational environments.
The lab’s interdisciplinary group of graduate students from various campus departments collectively have worked on the high school STEM initiative and launched numerous other projects. Those include the study of free speech on college campuses, pro-diversity practices that actually serve to maintain existing social hierarchies, identity and resistance to diversity, and the role of race and sexuality in social judgments.
Lab members also work individually on projects, ranging from how police conceptualize ‘suspicious behavior’ to bias against gay parents to stereotypical perceptions of human trafficking survivors and immigrants.
Making an impact
“The most rewarding part of this experience is being exposed to the numerous contexts in which our research is relevant,” said Celina Romano of Berkeley Law’s Jurisprudence and Social Policy (JSP) Program. She works in the lab with fellow JSP student Kyneshawau Hurd.
To study how people respond to racial identity and their attitudes toward diversity, lab students help conduct field and online experiments, surveys, and other research. Those efforts are coordinated by lab manager Lyndsey Wallace, an expert in gender stereotypes.
Importantly, the lab works to understand how its own research can be applied by organizations to enhance equity and inclusion. Plaut has encountered “growing demand for our work, even if sometimes there are points of resistance.” She believes that reflects a surging interest in understanding equity and inclusion and incorporating them into the cultures of courts, law firms, businesses, and schools.
“Institutions are increasingly focused on attracting a diverse workforce,” Plaut said. “But they are also struggling with how to go about it, how to live up to their ideals of inclusion, as well as how to manage the very different life perspectives present in their organizations.”
The lab’s findings, however, caution against using a one-size-fits-all model. While its research shows that national culture shapes Americans’ reaction to diversity and inclusion, regional and local cultures also play a prominent role.
A focus on tech
Romano and Hurd are both on a lab team that specifically examines equity and inclusion in the technology space and startups. Although the lab has developed some general best practices for how organizations can enhance a culture of inclusivity, “there’s very little that tells us what would be successful in startups,” Plaut said. “We’re eager to explore that.”
She views the team as ideally situated to tackle this challenge, given its complexity. “A great part of having Celina [Romano] and Kyneshawau [Hurd] is that the JSP Program emphasizes interdisciplinary training,” Plaut explained. “They’re able to take on different angles—psychology, sociology, economics, law, history and a critical perspective—to help move things forward.”
Hurd appreciates the real-world, applied approach the lab takes to research. “Diversity and inclusion are not mere concepts, phenomena, or objects of study, but realities,” she said. “In fact, the words often belie the realities and experiences of marginalized people. Historically, the legal system and legal organizations have sought to render these realities illegible, and subsequently insignificant.”
Lab researchers recently worked with underrepresented high school students of color who took part in a five-week, three-summer residential STEM and computer science program. Funded by an external grant, the research team is examining why girls of color in the program are not pursuing majors in college or careers in STEM or computer science at the same rate as their male counterparts.
In a society where technology is the driving force of progress, Romano calls it “essential” for underrepresented groups to become more integrated.
“Not only because they have brilliant potential and innovative ideas, but because—as in every sector—diversifying is an integral way to start chipping away at the pervasive injustice that underrepresented groups face,” Romano said. “As researchers, our role is to test ways to foster diversity and promote inclusion so that they mean far more than a recruiting goal. We want them to be a value that promotes spaces which are welcoming and just.”