Podcast: What can companies and individuals do to encourage race and gender equity?

Bird Guess, president/CEO of The Racial Equity Group, and Dr. Rebecca Keiser, chief of research security strategy and policy at the National Science Foundation, provide context and concrete actions.


Here is a rush transcript of the June 30 Check 6 podcast.


Speaker 1:                  You're listening to the Check 6 Podcast brought to you by editors across the Aviation Week Network. Listeners now have access to special subscription offers, including a preferential rate for Aviation Week and Space Technology. Go to podcast.aviationweek.com to learn more.

Lee Ann Shay:            Welcome to the Check 6 Podcast. I'm Lee Ann Shay, Aviation Week's Executive Editor for MRO and Business Aviation. Today, we're going to be talking about how to make race and gender equity standard business practices in aviation. Joining me today are Bird Guess, who's the President and CEO of The Racial Equity Group, and Rebecca Keiser, who is the Chief of Research Security Strategy and Policy at the National Science Foundation. Bird and Rebecca, welcome, I'm thrilled to have you on this podcast.

Rebecca Keiser:         Thank you.

Bird Guess:                Thank you so much.

Lee Ann Shay:            Now, to get us started, Bird, you recently used the term escalators at the Women in Aviation Program on Race and Gender Equity. Would you please explain what that is and how it works?

Bird Guess:                 Absolutely. Our society is composed of social structures, and these social structures are like just the core components of our society that allow us to function. Family is a social structure, housing is a social structure, educational system. These are all social structures that really allow us to advance life, liberty, and the pursuit to happiness. Now, in a racialized society, how we are positioned in the social structures, unfortunately, is based on race. And a lot of that has to do with past discriminatory policies and practices, but even in today, a lot of present policies that still kind of maintain that, just not an openly acknowledged way where it seems like people are being racist or discriminatory. Let me give you one example. In our housing, social structure, which is very, very critical, let's think about how did people become positioned or situated in this social structure.

Bird Guess:                 I'll give you one. So, let's go to one example. White Americans today [inaudible 00:02:15] live in communities we know based on research that are about 70% White. Blacks live in community that are about 50% Black. Now, why is that? Well, some of that we know is personal preference, some of it is income, people just don't have the money to live in certain communities, but a lot of that has been discriminatory policies such as redlining, in the beginning of the 1930s. They significantly shaped and situated our cities and our communities all across the country along racial divides. Now, and so, redlining was a policy that was by the Federal Government, the Federal Housing Administration, along with the collaboration of banks, the National Realtors Association, where we decided, "Where are people going to live all over our country, different cities?" We said, "Whites are going to live in these neighborhoods, Blacks going to live in these neighborhoods. Whites will get resources, they will get mortgages, they'll get newly developed suburbs, other Blacks and other non-Whites won't."

Bird Guess:                 And that right there really started to create a gap in a lot of the outcomes that we see. Now, one important distinction to make is that the housing, social structure, they kind of act like escalators. Before, prior to COVID, I used to travel all across the country and I'd always get stuck somewhere like Atlanta Airport, right, huge airport, and they'd have these multi-level escalators. You ride one up, very steep, you get off that one, it takes you to another one. Well, the social structures in our society are kind of like these multi-level escalators. They can take you up or they can take you down depending on which escalator you have access to, right? So, this goes back to housing now. Because White Americans have access to high quality housing that's higher property values, lower crime, lower poverty, they're on these escalators that are going up, right, they're just riding these escalators up.

Bird Guess:                 Now, it doesn't mean they're not working hard, right, you could be working hard riding up an escalator. Now, how did they get access to these escalators? This goes back to the federal policy and practices that allow them to have mortgages in these communities, zero-down or a little money down mortgages in these communities. And what happened was that you allow a certain group of people to build home equity, build wealth and housing interacts with the education structure escalator. Just where I live can shape what type of school that I go to and the resources that my school has. If I live in a good neighborhood, I'm going to get a good education, and if I get a good education and live in a good neighborhood, I've got a social network that I'm developing that will allow me to get a good job, a good income, wealth, and health.

Bird Guess:                 So, you get off one escalator, you ride that one up, you get on another escalator. Now, there's an important distinction to make. If I'm a White American riding up these escalators, one thing I don't have to do is, I don't have to be racist. I don't have to discriminate, I don't have to deny or exclude anyone, I'm already on a structure that's positioning me to advance, okay? If I'm Black, I don't have access to the escalators that are going up, I have access to the escalators that are going down. I just have to run up the escalators that are going down whether if I'm Black or Brown. Now, why is that?

Bird Guess:                 Again, this goes back to those historical policies that segregated us in housing. Because in Black communities or Latino communities, property values are lower, that means their schools won't have the same resources as the White counterpart schools, because the housing structure escalator interacts with the education structure escalator. And so, if I'm running up the escalator going down, I get off that one and go to the education structure escalator. Again, I'm developing a social network, but my social network is probably not going to be as strong as my White counterpart social network who may know CEO vice presidents, while we may not know anyone who has that power and level of authority, okay? That's what those escalators, so they really position us to advance or decline based on how we're situated in these social structures.

Lee Ann Shay:            That makes a whole lot of sense. How is the Women in Aviation focusing on this as a priority?

Rebecca Keiser:         Well, Bird tells us that racialization is a structural issue, and it goes throughout our society. So, it's not the action of just one particular racist person, it's the structures that have been formed through time. But that doesn't mean we can't do anything. And as an organization that includes so many members from so many aerospace companies, we need to work together to focus on change. Let me give you an example of the types of changes that we are encouraging. I started in the government 22 years ago. That means that a baby who was born when I started in the government just graduated from college, hopefully. And so, you would hope that in that amount of time, that we would've seen a lot of change in our society. While I'm at the National Science Foundation, we love data, we collect data, we do the science and engineering statistics for the United States.

Rebecca Keiser:         The fact is, is that the numbers haven't changed in 2017 because there's a lag in the data. Only 5.6% of the science and engineering workforce in this country is Black, 5.6%. What's sad about that is it hasn't changed very much since 2003 when that baby who was born when I started was four years old, but the numbers aren't moving. To me, this shows that we need to work as an organization consciously on these issues. Let me give you one more set of numbers and then I'll move on. The percentage of Science and Engineering Bachelor's Degrees that were received by those who are Black in 2017, 9.0% of the Bachelor's Degrees in Science and Engineering were received by those who are Black, and only 7.7% of the Science and Engineering PhDs. What does this show? That shows that we can't just focus on one aspect, we can't just focus on when people enter into the workforce, we have to focus as well on the educational system itself.

Rebecca Keiser:         Something that Women in Aerospace is focusing on a lot is that we have to look not just at the pipeline, which is rigid, meaning that there's one way you can go from schooling into a science and engineering career and that's it, because you're surrounded by steel, but rather we have to look at different pathways to get there. We have to provide opportunities to students who are young, who might not have the opportunities to take that calculus class in college because they didn't take that prerequisite geometry class before that, because they didn't have the opportunity to do that, because there's one teacher for five different schools and they couldn't get in. So, why don't we look at the fact that we might not need that particular prerequisite in order to get into that particular course in college, and let's look at other ways we can do it?

Rebecca Keiser:         We work with our member companies to think about these different options where we can think about pathways rather than pipelines and work with the companies on mentoring opportunities of students, mentoring opportunities for early career folks, to keep them in the workforce, we collect best practices and we emphasize to our member companies that this can't just be a note in your diversity and equity plan as an organization, it has to be a conscious effort by your organization, and we need to make it as a conscious effort for Women in Aerospace as well. And that's what we're doing. We have been, I have to say, we get a lot of pushback saying, "How can you change a whole structure, a whole society?" Well, the fact is, is that we can set an example as WIA and the program that we had with Bird is only one example.

Lee Ann Shay:            So Bird, Rebecca's talking about pathways, you were talking about escalators. These are both kind of continuums. What do you think about what Rebecca said and how does this affect racialization? Are the programs and steps like this going to help combat that?

Bird Guess:                Yeah. When we look at the research, you have to really take a systems thinking approach to this structure. What we've seen over 20, 30 years is that many companies, public or private sector, have only taken what we call a cosmetic approach, not a systemic approach. And what that means is, they'll do things for public relations, it just looks good. Everybody's got a diversity equity program, let's just do it, otherwise, it could be bad for business. But what that means is they may hire a diversity officer but they don't give that diversity officer the authority, they don't give them resources to create transformational change inside of an organization which is what Rebecca is talking about.

Bird Guess:                 I mean, it has to be that systemic change. You have to recognize that you are in a racialized structure, and every time you're trying to change the system, you don't just optimize the individual parts, you have to really optimize the whole system in order for you to really see change take place. Those are the types of efforts that we really take. Mentoring, we know based on research, mentoring programs, as far as leading the promotions, we know that works, there's plenty of research on that. Having accountability structures in an organization really boils down to this, you have to measure racial equity, you have to monitor it and you have to manage it just like any other organizational priority.

Lee Ann Shay:            Based on your experience, how many companies are actually measuring it, how many people are measuring that whole accountability structure?

Bird Guess:                 Less than 20%, and maybe less than 15% based on the last recent data that I've looked at, and this is probably up till about maybe between 2000 and 2010 data.

Lee Ann Shay:            So, is that a step that the aviation aerospace industry should, and all business communities, frankly, should be really working on as a way to not only just create these pathways, but make sure that each step of the path is happening?

Bird Guess:                 Well, yeah. We know there's a moral case for this type of work. We even know there's a business case for it now when you have racially diverse organizations as far as productivity and performance. I just understand that the bias, the biases are so strong and so embedded in all of us. Now, this is not just any particular organization or particular race, but we all have inherited a racialized and a gender society where the status quo biases affect all of us in pervasive ways. And so, it's just going to really be an organization that knows the history, has that foundational knowledge, and then knows how to take a systems thinking approach and apply that to really create that change.

Bird Guess:                 But a lot of times they'll look at this as, "Oh, this is just a distraction, my real work is this." And so, really getting that buy-in to their mission, vision and values, not just as an institution or a company, but these are American values, freedom, justice, equal opportunity. And so, that's what we really have to go back to kind of, the words of our founding fathers, make this a more perfect union as much as possible.

Lee Ann Shay:            I'm glad you're taking it down to the individual person because sometimes I think most people can agree that racial and gender equity is a good thing, but it can seem like a big entity instead of something personal. Just to make this a reality, what tips do you have for people? What is the takeaway? What is one thing that they can do to make a difference?

Rebecca Keiser:         Great question. Great question. The number one thing I would say people can do, and this is the number one thing we noticed based on research and now my opinion as well, is we have to be able to facilitate intergroup contact. The reason why is because we know based on, this goes all the way back to, there's a book called The Nature of Prejudice that really started in the '50s, that began to look at how biases and stereotypes and all those things emerge at the consequences of a racialized and gendered society. So, racial stereotypes, gender stereotypes, all of those things, they persist in our society when we really separate and segregate those things. Let me give you one example of a consequence of that. My daughter when she was five years old, she's seven now, my daughter was five years old, she's in a racialized society.

Rebecca Keiser:         She was playing with her dolls one day and she says, "Daddy, I want to be peach." Now, kids, they don't understand race as far as White or Black, they use Crayola colors, right, they'll say peach or Brown. And I said, "Why do you want to be peach?" She says, "Well, because all the princesses are peach. Cinderella is peach." And so, that's the consequences of a racialized society through a medium such as the media and television, right? That bias begins to develop early on, even in children, whether we realize it or not. Now, I'm not teaching her these things, and no one else is teaching her this, she's absorbing it in a racialized society that is showing her who's a princess, who's not a princess, who's a leader, who's not a leader, right?

Rebecca Keiser:          Those are the type of things that we need to really do on an individual level. Expose yourself to different people even if you are living in what, now at an individual level or an institutional level. An institutional level have teams, have racially diverse project teams. If you're forming a team or committee, make sure that it's racially diverse. And I know for some people it's horrible because say, "Well, we don't want to focus on race, we want to be colorblind." But we can't be colorblind in a society that we know is racialized. We're just kind of in denial. So, at an individual level, intergroup contact, get out of your comfort zone, get out of a bubble that if you live in a bubble and expose yourself to racial diversity, as well as at an institutional level, that's what I would really recommend the number one thing that we do.

Lee Ann Shay:            That's a really great tip. Thank you.

Bird Guess:                Yeah, sure. There's other things that I have as well, but just to maximize the time, because it goes beyond just those individual actions. It really, really boils down to policies and practices inside of all of our institutions and social systems, because that's really what's created it.

Lee Ann Shay:            Okay. We are a little short on time, but I'd love to hear a couple more. Like we've got, making sure you get out of your bubble and mix it up, a couple of other quick tips?

Bird Guess:                 Know the true history of how we became a racialized society. There's a... Now, right now, it's a very touchy time because anytime you talk about America's racialized past, there's this, "Oh, that's critical race theory," or there's all this defensiveness towards learning history that we made in the past. Our founding fathers, right, many of them were slave owners. Well, here's the thing. It doesn't mean we canceled them and just get rid of them and tear them out of the history books, what it means is, we learn from that, we acknowledge it, and we ask ourselves, "How can we make sure we're not making the same mistakes of saying one thing but doing another like founding fathers did and like so many other people in our past did? How can we make sure that this is truly the country that we want to be?" So, it's acknowledging that history, learning that history, and then making sure that we don't repeat that history.

Lee Ann Shay:            That's a good tip. Rebecca, any tips from you?

Rebecca Keiser:         Yeah. Well, if I can just add, I've been thinking about this for Women in Aerospace and our companies are, they're competitors with one another, right, and that's what they do, they compete in business. Well, they should compete in being the best in racial equity and inclusion and diversity. To me, this should be part of their business structure, is how can they excel in this and be better than their competitors. So, I think we need to start getting that into the mindset that this is a competitive advantage for companies, and kind of put it out there. On the one hand through our organization, we want to share best practices and learn from each other, but let's use that competitive spirit to push us forward in the best policies and practices possible for racial equity.

Lee Ann Shay:            I think that's a great idea too. Well, you know what? I hate to do this, but we are running out of time. Rebecca and Bird, thank you so much for sharing your insights, really appreciate it. And I know that this is going to be very insightful to all of our listeners. That's a wrap for this Check 6 Podcast, now available for download on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, and Spotify. Bird, and Rebecca, thank you, thank you, thank you. Really appreciate your time.

Bird Guess:                 No, thank you as well. Thank you for continuing the conversation.

Lee Ann Shay:            Thank you, Lee Ann, my pleasure.

Bird Guess:                 Bye, bye.

Lee Ann Shay:             Bye.

Rebecca Keiser:          Bye.

Bird Guess:                  Bye, bye, Lee Ann.


Lee Ann Shay

As executive editor of MRO and business aviation, Lee Ann Shay directs Aviation Week's coverage of maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO), including Inside MRO, and business aviation, including BCA.