Department conversations

Initiating conversations within your department
Depending on your department, pursuing an open discussion about internal culture might seem like a small first step or a completely revolutionary act.

We believed that having an open conversation was a critical first step towards defining challenges and creating awareness about the diverse experiences and attitudes of everyone in our department. We also acknowledged that by listening and taking into account all perspectives, we would have the best chance to succeed as a group pushing for change and as a department.

We thought carefully about how to create the right space for everyone to hear and be heard. It’s a delicate situation: trainees with the least power sit in the same room as those with the most power and everyone discusses what they have noticed about how people may be abusing their power.

We determined that a conversation among faculty, staff, post-docs, and students, led by an experienced facilitator who had no prior connection to our department, would best suit our goal of creating a safe environment that encouraged the sharing of diverse perspectives. Chief among our goals for this conversation was to define and discuss problems within our culture, before jumping to solutions.

On the following pages you will find:

  • the initial goals we sent our facilitator and his response
  • our email invitation to the discussions, addressed to members of our department
  • a summary of the results of our conversations

These were the initial goals we sent to our facilitator:

  • The main purpose of the meeting is to (a) have people from across the department be able to speak to what has come up for them since the NYT article about sexual harassment in our department, and (b) to be heard by each other.
  • Your role as a facilitator is key to this goal.
  • It’s important to us to do what we can to allow people to work through their own thoughts, and consider these ideas themselves.  We feel that discussion is most impactful when people come to ideas on their own.
  • We thought a moment to discuss/establish ground rules of discussion would be helpful.
  • One main question to begin with could be: “Is there a problem?  If so, what is it?”  This can allow people to come to a shared understanding of what “the problem” is, rather than someone telling them what it is.
  • Some people might keep veering into results-driven discussion, asking “What are we going to DO?”  Do we then talk about the action ideas that the SSC has already come up with?  This is an open question.
  • We can all help steer the discussion back to “What is the problem” rather than jumping too quickly to solutions.
  • We would like to let attendees know that we (the SSC) will send out a report-back summarizing all three meetings

In response our facilitator proposed the following:

“I like your focus on “Is there a problem?  If so, what is it?”. Hearing everybody out on that looks wise and strategic. I wonder if it might help to modify the topic ever so slightly to something like “Is there a problem? If so, what is it? What have you noticed about it?”. Some participants might not feel ready to define the problem but might find themselves ready to contribute something they have noticed about it.”

The three questions he posed became the refrain and central focus of the facilitated conversations:

  1. Is there a problem?
  2. If so, what is it?
  3. What have you notice about it?

In our experience this was an effective format for a productive, respectful conversation.


Inviting members of your department to be a part of the conversation

Email invite to department-wide discussions


Sharing the results of the department-wide conversations

Email introducing the summary from the department-wide discussions

Summary of department-wide conversations


Develop and prioritize a list of action items

Our committee met after our departmentwide conversations and developed a list of “action items” or, concrete things we wanted to do, that would address some of the major themes that came out of the discussions.

Those themes included:

  • Autonomy of labs leading to isolation and lack of community/support system for trainees
  • A lack of knowledge about what steps should be taken when abuses of power are observed
  • A desire on both the part of faculty and students for better mentorship training
  • A desire for better mentorship accountability
  • Concern that information about potential abuse was known or suspected but not reported

Our action items

To move some of our action items forward, group members chose what to work on based on personal interest in a particular issue. We either wrote proposals based on these items to submit to the faculty-student working group, or we determined that our group could act on an item independently.

Note: To date, we still haven’t even started on many of these items, but we have made progress on the ones we decided to move forward. We wanted to share them all here in case some of the ones we didn’t end up prioritizing appealed to other groups.


Creating a statement of common values

We are still working as a department to establish a statement of common values. We are pursuing this goal by first having scenario based workshops where we hope to identify areas of need.

Proposal to faculty – statement of common values