In search of cultural competency

By: Brittany Danishevsky, Staff Contributor

Automatic soap dispensers that don’t recognize darker skin complexions. Photo retouching apps with tools designed to make skin lighter — and the user ‘hotter.’ Tagging algorithms that improperly tag non-Caucasian faces.

This list of technological advancements that have baked-in cultural oversights could go on and on. But the creators of these innovations aren’t small organizations lacking diversity in their ranks; the likes of Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and even Google have seen their technologies suffer from a lack of cultural competency.   

Cultural competency is defined as the ability to deliver to and effectively communicate with the many cultures that exist within a given population. This includes not only race and birthplace, but all elements of diversity that may affect an interaction.

As evidenced by the aforementioned examples, cultural competency is imperative in technology, engineering, and business. It’s also essential in the areas of healthcare and education, where professionals have some of the most influential human interactions. In these fields, a lack of cultural competency can have a significant impact (as reviewed in greater depth here and here).

As communities become increasingly diverse and professional interactions with diverse populations become commonplace, cultural competency is necessary. It allows professionals to provide the best possible service to the entirety of the population, resulting in better outcomes for both the recipient and the service provider.

Understanding this, many academic programs have made it a priority to train and develop culturally competent graduates. This commonly begins with recruiting and admitting a diverse applicant pool. With the availability of many tools and training programs that allow for unbiased admission processes, building more diverse classes is easier than ever. An example of such a technology is Casper, which blinds its test-raters to any demographic information in order to help provide fair impressions of applicant responses (see Casper’s impact on diversity here).  

Ensuring that an admissions process does not disadvantage any applicant based on demographic information is incredibly important. But cultural competence doesn’t end at diverse cohorts. For instance, though women on average have higher grade point averages than men, and gender makeup of enrolled students is often quite even, women are still disproportionately outnumbered when it comes to leadership in the field of medicine. This is not due to a lack of education or ability, but rather the active social barriers that many women have faced when looking for promotions (Burgess et al., 2012).

These social barriers, which include negative concepts of women, fewer female role models, and policies which are geared towards the general lifestyles of men, are all examples of the effect of a lack of cultural competency. Understanding this, it’s not wishful thinking to believe that a more culturally competent student cohort will mature into a pool of culturally competent leaders that will build leadership teams reflective of the population within which they work. Not only will this be socially beneficial, but financially beneficial as well (Vivian Hunt at MicKinsey&Company, 2015).

In-program training can be helpful, but these skills are required of students from the very beginning; they’re imperative to how students treat their peers and their professors. Applicants must demonstrate the ability to successfully work within diverse populations, which is especially crucial with intentionally diverse student cohorts. Stories of sexist signage during university move-in days and racial discrimination towards ethnic minority students are not uncommon. Barriers to application are intentionally being removed, but cohorts of students which lack cultural competency will quickly reestablish those barriers.

Through assessment of characteristics like empathy, equity, and collaboration, and test scenarios which require cultural competency to navigate, Casper provides institutions with insight into an applicant’s own level of cultural competency. It can help institutions find cultural competency amongst applicants, in turn helping develop professionals who will continue to break down barriers, and build workplaces that are truly diverse and inclusive; all the way down to the soap dispensers.

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