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Intentional inclusion: How to build a more inclusive and diverse workplace in AM

40%.

That is the estimated proportion of women and minorities who leave the STEM field after five years, according to Erika Jefferson, the founder of Black Women in Science and Engineering in Women in 3D Printing’s 2020 Diversity for Additive Manufacturing Report. With only around 11% of those working in additive manufacturing (AM) actually women, we really need to assess how we retain women and people of colour in our industry.

AM creates an object layer by layer. In much the same way, diversity, equity, and inclusion should also be layered into business practices to catalyse innovation. This can only be done by creating an environment that embraces differences, encourages employees to speak up, and empowers them to become more engaged.

By now, nearly all companies (should) know the benefits of a diverse workforce: enhanced creativity, innovation, and productivity, reduced employee turnover, and increased revenue just to name a few. Admittedly, attracting and hiring diverse candidates can be an important albeit necessary challenge that many companies still need to be overcome. Even those corporations able to succeed in recruiting diverse talent often neglect inclusion as a key part of the equation. In many cases, actually fostering a sense of belonging is almost an afterthought, if a thought at all.

Inclusion is where companies should be thinking about the ways in which they can dismantle systemic prejudices within their organisations. It’s when you start thinking about your employees as more than just cogs in a wheel, but as members of your company’s community. The purposeful and proactive practices to embrace differences, check unconscious biases, unlearn discrimination, and regularly ask “is this equitable?” is what makes the work of inclusion so powerful and, quite frankly, difficult. The other hurdle with inclusion is – how do you measure belonging?

When it comes to fostering an inclusive environment, managers are easily the most impactful group of employees who can ensure inclusion becomes and remains a priority. Managers at every level influence the type of experience their direct reports have in their workplace. This may be stating the obvious, but it is a point that needs to be explicitly said, remembered and repeated. There is an inherent level of responsibility that managers take on and they should be making sure that their employees feel valued, respected, and emboldened to be their truest selves.

So where do we start? Let’s take a look at some actions that managers can take to get the ball rolling.

Create a Safe Space for New Ideas

When people talk about a safe space, they typically mean a space that is free from bias and judgment. As managers, welcoming and acknowledging dissent is of the utmost importance. Neglecting to do so can discourage employees from speaking up or bringing new ideas to the table. Much like a brainstorming session where no idea is a bad idea, respectfully discussing opposing views can help to spark new ideas and different ways of thinking, the two key drivers of innovation.

Encourage Proactive Engagement

Not everyone is comfortable sharing their thoughts in a public forum, but that doesn’t make them any less integral to the team or company. There are many reasons why people might be hesitant to participate in public discussions at work, but the first step is understanding where the challenge lies.

Does one person, or more, typically dominate the meeting? Are ideas and different views encouraged or discouraged in meetings? Once you identify the problem areas, you can help your employees be more engaged in a way that shows them that their perspective is valued. This proactive engagement also promotes equity because you are giving those who might not raise their hand an opportunity for their voices to be heard.

Be Open to Honest Conversations

Something I have realised both in my professional and personal lives is that there is real beauty in having honest conversations. These conversations give you an opportunity to actively identify a problem and try to find a resolution. Honest and oftentimes difficult conversations can be a catalyst building relationships, trust, and communication. If someone on your team is underperforming, try to understand why. An unfettered space to talk honestly will help you both walk away from the conversation with a clear understanding, different set of expectations, less stress, and recalibrated priorities.

We are also mere mortals and needless to say, nobody is perfect. We all still have so much to learn about the language we use, our own unconscious microaggressions, and how they affect our daily lives. Microaggressions are particularly toxic as they often foster resentment that can build up over time and have a harmful effect on an employee’s mental and physical well-being. There are a few ways that people typically react to microaggressions: they either react immediately to the transgression, address it at a later time once they’ve had time to think it through, or ignore it altogether. As managers, we have a responsibility to identify when microaggressions happen, and be able to correct and prevent them from happening again. It can be difficult work, but we need to have these open and honest conversations to challenge our biases, take accountability for our mistakes, and learn from other people’s experiences.

Lead with Empathy

Empathy is the key to building a more diverse and inclusive organisation in a productive and meaningful way. Have open conversations about expectations, emphasise the impact of personal obstacles, strengths, and opportunities. Don’t forget that your employees are human – ask how they are doing both professionally and personally. As a manager, your job is to ensure their productivity but also to guide them along their career paths. These ongoing discussions will go a long way in building trust and shaping your relationship with your team, both of which are critical to an effective team.

Ongoing inclusion requires significant emotional capital, intention, and attention. When these practices are layered into a manager’s day-to-day management style, they promote an inclusive environment that empowers the team to be the very best version of themselves.

Never forget to be flexible, be adaptable, and regularly recommit yourself to active and engaging encouragement.


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