Being and belonging

Earlier this week, I got into this Twitter-sation with my friend Arghavan Salles:

Belonging and academia
Belonging and academia

As you can tell, I moved the needle a bit in this discussion, doing so based both on data I have (I’m working on the manuscript, I promise!) and anecdotes from talking to surgeons who are struggling with career advancement.

When I talk to friends who are struggling in their career, be it in academic surgery or another profession, I consistently hear two integrally related ideas from them.  One is that they truly don’t feel like the belong where they are; they aren’t aligned with their company or institution for some reason, be it an issue of core values or goals. And as part of not belonging, I find that many of them try desperately to fit in and often feeling like a round peg in a square hole.  Those attempts at conformity are, if nothing, destructive to both their satisfaction and their achievement.

We see this sense of exclusion, of not fitting in around gender in male-dominated fields like engineering (full disclosure- my best friend is a woman engineer, and she may have more awful gender bias stories than I do, though she has also stuck it out and is incredibly successful). We see it in policing around organizational culture and institutional racism.  Ironically, we could use social accountability, in this instance playing on leader’s interests in fitting in, as a way to improve diversity and inclusion.

As leaders, we have to embrace that it’s not fair of us to try to fit round pegs into square holes; when we’re recruiting, we need to have the courage to tell someone that their interests or ethos may not be a good fit for our organization so that we don’t set them up for failure. As leaders, we also have a responsibility to create a culture that is inclusive and that can accept differences. I understand that resource limitations mean that every department cannot have expertise and resources in every area that might be relevant for a junior faculty member’s career development.  The time to think about that is during recruitment-do we have it or can we build it for them- rather than once the new faculty member shows up only to realize they won’t be able to do what they view as meaningful work.  They’ll be forced to try to fit in, rather than to belong, because they’re always going to have a sense that what they do doesn’t have value where they are.

I want to also be clear that I don’t expect every single academic department to be a cookie cutter of other departments.  That would be boring, and wouldn’t be good for our patients or our profession.  We should institutionally embrace our strengths and capitalize on those and recruit appropriately. If someone wants to be a public health researcher and trauma surgeon, we should support that person going to the best place to fulfill both of those professional goals. If someone wants to be a surgical educator and a vascular surgeon, we should do the same. What matters is that there is a “home” for everyone who wants to be here within the house of academic surgery (yes, we need to redefine what being an academic surgeon means!), and that we find them that place where they can thrive and belong.  It’s time to move past fitting in.  Our profession deserves that, and so do our junior colleagues who have plenty of amazing ideas.