That was the question tackled by Dr. Steve Robbins, cognitive neuroscience and inclusion specialist, when he addressed hundreds of diversity and inclusion leaders who recently gathered for the Atlanta Hawks MOSAIC (Model of Shaping Atlanta through Inclusive Conversations) event.
Dr. Robbins explained that, while our brains compose 2% of our body mass, they use 20% of our body’s energy. For the sake of self-preservation, our brains always seek to conserve energy. Since it takes lots of energy to consider a new idea, or anything outside our realm of experience, we are biologically predisposed to stick to old views instead of entertaining new possibilities. That’s why creating inclusive cultures is so challenging. But Dr. Robbins assured us that humans do have the ability to rise above our neurological predispositions – an ability which comes from our curiosity.
Curiosity is what enables us to consider new perspectives, entertain different possibilities, and create inclusive cultures.
As an ordained minister with no knowledge of trans people, I had lots of curiosity when I joined the staff of a church where 10% of our congregants were transgender. I have to confess, I also had some discomfort regarding my trans congregants. In his talk, Dr. Robbins said psychologists call the discomfort I felt cognitive dissonance, the uneasiness humans experience whenever we encounter something – or someone – who is different from all we have ever known. As I did some research, I learned what it was about trans people that had made me uncomfortable. The source of my cognitive dissonance was my enculturated belief that gender is determined by one’s anatomy. But what I learned is that, as human beings, all of us have a gender identity, an internal knowing of our gender. And for trans people, that internal knowing does not match their external anatomy.
As a cisgender person – that is, as someone whose gender identity does match my anatomy – I was surprised to learn two other important things. First, when it comes to determining gender, gender identity is actually a stronger determinant than external anatomy. Second, the American Psychological Association states that having a gender identity that does not match one’s anatomy is not a mental disorder, even though 21% of Americans mistakenly believe that it is.
As an inclusion trainer, I’ve had the joy of watching people’s comfortability with trans individuals grow when I share what I’ve learned about gender identity. And because training participants were willing to be curious, they were able to move beyond their unconscious bias around gender identity and learn to interact respectfully with trans people. And because organizations have been willing to engage in courageously curious conversations about trans inclusion, they have moved forward on the journey of becoming the inclusive cultures that are research-proven to improve the bottom line.
It was exciting to hear Dr. Robbins confirm what we have experienced at Transformation Journeys Worldwide: the challenge of creating inclusive cultures can be overcome – it can be overcome by curiosity and courageous conversations.