During a September 17th webinar entitled “A Global Perspective on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion,” Kristyn Allred shared her findings of a year-long research project with members of the Raymond A. Mason School of Business community, and facilitated a discussion around historical conflict and its role in interpersonal dynamics. The topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion are close to Allred’s heart as she has spent the majority of her professional career focused on initiatives that support growth and greater understanding among different groups of people.
The webinar also served as the kick-off event for the Diversity & Inclusion Perspective Series 2020-2021 hosted by the Mason School’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee. Allred served on the committee while she worked at the Mason School as an Associate Director of Alumni Relations & Business Programs before embarking on her year-long research endeavor overseas.
“I have always been interested in diversity and inclusion, and became even more passionate about the topic while working at the Mason School,” Allred said. “It was natural when given the chance, I would do research on this topic and I was surprised that people really disagree about what D&I means and how you measure success.”
Early Influences Steer Towards Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI)
A Boston native, Allred’s first experience with DEI occurred when she entered the public-school system in the 1970s.
“We were in the throes of desegregation. I became friends with people who didn’t look like me and my family started having discussions around the dinner table about these differences,” she said.
Allred went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in political science and government from Brigham Young University. As an undergraduate student, she served a church mission in Argentina where she worked with a community of Laotian refugees. This inspired her to pursue a graduate degree in international relations and focus on refugee resettlement.
In 2015, she was invited by Professor Julie Agnew to join a group at the Mason School working to establish a new program called the Women’s Leadership Summit. Allred accepted and spent the next four years supporting women’s leadership and diversity initiatives throughout the business school.
“I participated in many D&I events and training sessions, and read everything I could get my hands on,” she explained. “I found myself really drawn to the work.”
A Sabbatical Gives Rise to Research
When Allred found out that her husband Brent, a professor at the Mason School, had received a fellowship at Cambridge University for the fall of 2019 and an invitation from Hebrew University to be a visiting scholar for the spring of 2020, she decided to seize the opportunity to do international research about a topic she had long been interested in.
She worked with Mason School faculty and other academics on the research design. They settled on five open-ended questions that would encourage participants to say what they wanted rather than fill in a multiple-choice survey or a Likert scale which lacks richness and depth in the responses.
The questions consisted of tell me your story; what does DEI mean to you; what works; what gets in the way; and how do you measure success?
Allred said the in-depth personal interviews and the international focus of the project are what set it apart from comparable work. She used three sampling methods: demographic diversity, snowball method, and targeting expertise and experience. Participants were demographically diverse by age, gender, race, occupation, economic class, and nationality.
Ultimately, Allred conducted 118 interviews with people from over 30 different countries during her year abroad.
“I loved doing the interviews and learned from every person I talked to both formally and informally,” she said.
Affecting Change with the Findings and Insights
Through her qualitative research, Allred identified consistent patterns in the feedback she received, specifically related to DEI best practices, barriers to creating equitable and inclusive organizations, and how to measure success.
“I heard the same words over and over again: culture, justice, voice, belonging, power, equity, and equality,” she said. “I learned we cannot assume or impose identity. Our ability to know ourselves and respect others will determine how healthy we are in relationships and in the workplace.”
Allred said the experience of traveling abroad made her realize that an individual’s values aren’t universally held and that people from different cultures vary in their feelings about trust, justice, rights, and the distribution of resources, to name a few examples.
“My eyes were opened to the power of identity and how important it is to let people self-identify and celebrate their community and origins. I also learned that values can become our blind spots preventing us from seeing and hearing others,” she said.
Why does this matter?
“The world has changed in 2020 and we are at a crossroads. If we choose well, we can transform our businesses and communities to be places where everyone has a seat at the table and every voice is heard,” she explained. “We started with diversity, then we added inclusion, then equity, and now we talk about belonging. We haven’t moved the needle because we treat DEI as an add-on, something separate that we do only when we have the money and time to do it. But this isn’t an add-on. It should be woven into the fabric of our families, communities, and nation.”
Allred will spend the remainder of 2020 analyzing the data and will share her report with the participants of her research along with William & Mary, the University of Cambridge, and Hebrew University. Each organization represented in the data, the employers of participants surveyed, will have access to the results as well.
Allred hopes the final report will impact change across organizations starting with a strategy that includes listening, providing incentives, making connections, and redesigning programs to create a more equitable and inclusive environment. She also hopes that results will help people set up a model for measuring success and implementing best practices for DEI work.
She advised the best way to measure success is two-fold; leaders must first look at the numbers, data, and metrics, and then measure perception which represents how people think and feel about their situation.
“Traditionally, there has been an emphasis on data driven change, and numbers matter, but the way people feel at work also matters. Their stories and experiences weigh heavily on their performance and must be heard if any lasting change is to be achieved,” she said.
She encouraged individuals within the Mason School to take initiative by widening their circle of friends and increasing their empathy by listening and educating themselves about the “isms.”
“Before you make a decision that impacts others in the Mason School add this question to the process: what would an inclusive business school do?” she said.
In addition to writing her report, Allred is concurrently working as an independent consultant helping universities, Fortune 500 companies, churches, and families to become more equitable and inclusive.
“I knew this would be interesting work, but I was blown away by the people I have talked to and the things I have learned. Without sounding too dramatic, this research project has changed my life and it has left me hopeful for the future. There are too many good people on this planet to fail. The human race has made it through many challenges, and we will get through this as well,” she concluded.