Ware: Encouraging first steps for diversity education

Kendra Ware

There was a time when all of my friends looked and acted a lot like me. I thought this was perfectly normal because, growing up, I was not exposed to many people who were racially or culturally diverse.

In 2011, after adopting my foster child whose biological parents were from Guatemala, I joined the diversity and inclusion movement at my workplace. In 2014, I was elected chairwoman of the TVA Corporate Women in Nuclear, which advocates for women and men in nuclear fields and educates the public about the benefits of nuclear power. From that success, in 2015 I was invited to join a focus group that collaborates on hiring and retaining women in the workforce. Then I began to realize how my friends all had the same religious thoughts, preference for significant others, cultural background and lifestyles.

Even though I hadn't consciously surrounded myself with friends so much like me, to be an advocate for diversity at home and in the workplace I needed to practice that diversity in all areas of my life.

I began to seek out people of different backgrounds. I became sensitive to those in my personal and professional circles who had different opinions, lifestyles or cultures. I worked to embrace the differences among us by attending events such as the Diwali Festival, Salsa Night and the Chinese New Year hosted by employee resource groups to learn more about the cultures and backgrounds of the people I work with every day.

Yeah, there were a few embarrassing moments, but I learned from those experiences. An example was unknowingly expressing my dislike of a new, more ethnic hair style. That caused some hurt feelings. After that mistake, I endeavored to learn more about the ethnic styles of the culture. When people realized that my blunders were not rooted in meanness or malice, but in a desire to get to know them, we often became friends.

Life is so much richer because my experiences have many perspectives thanks to the wide range of friendships I have developed. I am finally becoming the human being I want my child to be.

What if we embraced the same approach to diversity in our workplace? What if we looked at the people we hired as the best, most qualified ones for the job? What if we chose coworkers based, not the fact that they think, look and act like us?

Yes, the work relationships would seem easier without the differences, but would it bring out the best in you, your group or your company? Now that I've walked this path personally, I am not so sure.

By truly embracing diversity, we are not leaving one person or group behind. We're giving everyone - no matter their religious preference, gender or lifestyle - a voice at the table. We're basing hiring decisions on whether someone is the best candidate for the job.

Companies that embrace diversity have fresher ideas and perspectives than those with a more homogenous approach to hiring, according to numerous business articles, including those by authors Rose Johnson, Glen Llopis and David Ingram.

Insightful managers can use varied approaches to improve their products, increase productivity and target products for a larger, more diverse audience.

I am proud to be an engineer in the nuclear industry, which historically has been male-dominated. This is slowly changing by the pioneering women who have chosen STEM careers and taken risks that allow them to operate, design and maintain our country's nuclear fleet to the highest safety standards - side by side with men.

There is an initiative across the nuclear industry to cut the excess without compromising safety. Teams of professionals from various utilities work together to look at best practices and technology solutions, getting rid of the outdated processes to improve operations and reduce cost which is leading to a smaller workforce and offering the same level of safety. The industry needs the fresh new ideas that a more diverse workforce provides for that continuous improvement.

This will happen only with cultural changes in hiring; recruiting more women and minorities to STEM careers; and ensuring there is an inclusive environment. Employees should be able to give 100 percent at work because they are not worried about being rejected because they are different. Being a woman in a STEM career - often the only women on a team - has led to times where I felt devalued as an employee and did not perform my best because I was not heard, but certainly not to the extent of the stories of the women who have blazed the trail for diversity before me.

No matter the industry, companies are looking for ways to be more productive without comprising their mission. We need the new and diverse perspectives of people from all races, cultures, religions and lifestyles to face the future. Let the best and brightest employees lead the way - whoever they are and wherever they are from.

Kendra Ware is an engineer at Tennessee Valley Authority. Contact her at kware5646@gmail.com.