A common criticism of the genetic counseling profession is lack of diversity. In fact, I would guess that many NSGC members have looked around at an AEC plenary session and noticed that most of us look the same. I myself many years ago told another genetic counselor, when making plans to meet her for the first time, “You shouldn’t have any problem finding me. I look like every other genetic counselor.” How do we as an organization increase our diversity? Like any change, the first step is identifying the fundamental issue. Most people think about ethnic differences when they hear the word “diversity”, but true diversity in an organization goes well beyond the inclusion of people with different skin color. Creating a culturally competent organization doesn’t begin with recruiting more people of different ethnicities into the field; chances are, if we did interest them, many might ultimately reject the profession for fear of isolation or a lack of understanding from their potential peers.
True diversity begins by changing how we approach differences of all kinds – diversity of thought, religious background, work environment, and yes, even political affiliations. Pursuing and accepting diversity includes seeking the opinions of those whose backgrounds and beliefs may differ from the majority and actually encouraging their contributions to discussions and explorations of major issues facing the genetic counseling profession. It doesn’t mean that minority opinions have to prevail -- but rejecting them without serious consideration sends a clear message that differences are not welcome here.
In recent years, our profession has begun to expand and branch into new areas of health care. With that expansion comes a “shock” to a culture rooted in a strong, shared history. My conjecture is that extending the open-minded, nonjudgmental approach we use with our patients to discussions with our own colleagues is not only required to increase diversity overall but is actually much more difficult than it sounds. However, the patients we want to serve vary in their own beliefs, political affiliations, and ethnic backgrounds. If we want patients to feel comfortable seeking genetic counseling, they need us to publicly reflect the openness we demonstrate in the patient consultation room in all of our external communications, too.
I look to the past for confidence that we can succeed. I remember the controversy years ago about offering cystic fibrosis carrier screening despite the less than 100% detection rates. There were many who argued it should not be offered while others pushed to accept the less than perfect screening and recognize the important role the genetic counselor could play in educating patients and doctors about the testing limitations. We adapted our practice to accommodate those changes and generally accept that screening is available today. I see no reason why we can’t resolve or accept other differences as well.
The NSGC Board Culture Statement, developed several years ago as part of our organization’s governance changes, reads: “the Board recognizes that diversity exists in many forms, and seeks to maintain a Board that encourages respect for and inclusion of diversity at all levels of the Society.” A 2009 NSGC Task Force on Organizational Cultural Competency developed a plan to create a more welcoming environment, and the Membership Committee will begin implementing this year. Creating cultural competency requires extending the Board’s commitment to diversity to a partnership between the leadership and the membership. We’re ready. Are you?