Joanne Kamens Creates Culture of Diversity & Inclusion at Addgene

Feb 05, 2018

We spoke with Joanne Kamens, Executive Director at Addgene, who founded the Massachusetts chapter of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) and is Director of Mentoring for the Boston chapter of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA), about her efforts to ensure diversity and inclusion at Addgene. 

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced as your career advanced and how did you overcome them?

Everyone has challenges. It’s all part of the process. I’ve been laid off, bored, overlooked for promotion, treated with bias, wrestled with skills weaknesses, cried in the office, and made some bad decisions. Almost everyone I know has been through the same. In all cases I reached out for help from my network to gain learning, perspectives, advice and valuable access to new opportunities. Everything I overcame, I did it with help from valuable friends, allies, mentors and connections. I still face challenges all the time and don’t expect that to stop.

What is your advice to women looking to take on greater leadership roles?

There are currently two prevailing lines of messaging. First perspective is that the system is broken for women’s advancement. The second perspective is women must change themselves to combat the things that limit advancement.

What can or should women do? We shouldn’t be changing ourselves but we should choose or create places to work that embrace difference and diversity in all its forms. I am delighted to see more women entrepreneurs. Perhaps if we can’t find the fair workplaces we want, we should create them. If you can help it, don’t work for jerks.  Finally, find a community of support with mentoring advice and opportunities. Use this network as a stepping stone to leadership opportunities and roles.

As far as the system: Women and men must start speaking up and involving themselves in preventing the negative effects of bias and harassment in the workplace. We’re finally seeing the shocking levels of workplace harassment towards women and, whether you have been involved in harassment directly, it leads to a caustic atmosphere of bias for all women.

Some years ago I was at an immunology association conference. There was a host both in the display hall to advertise the next conference which was going to take place in Hawaii. I was appalled to discover that every ½ hour 4 scantily clad women were dancing the hula near this booth. As if science doesn’t have enough issues for women, we had to have “booth babes” in the display hall? When I complained I was told that “there were men hula dancers too, but they were sick in the hotel”. Not believing this, I pushed the issue with association staff and was told I had to stay away from the dancers or be ejected. I wrote to the (female) head of the association and received no response. 60% of women scientists report having experienced harassment at a scientific meeting. If you don’t get why hula dancers in a science hall creates a bad atmosphere for women in science, you need to do some reading. The time for silence is past.  

As I wrote in a recent blog, you should read the MassBio report. It’s long, very long. Even if you flip to the end for the summary there are 50 recommendations addressing 7 recommended areas for action. This seems quite imposing. As with any big task, all we can do is take the first step. I’m told the reason for the 50 different recommendations is so that any one person or organization can pick a few to address and make an impact. I like this way of looking at it, but there is one overriding action that has to happen first – Organizational leaders have to take the first step. There’s a Yiddush phrase I am fond of that roughly translates to “The fish stinks from the head”. As more delicately put in the report: Leaders need to take full responsibility, and to communicate clearly the specific diversity goals and targets throughout the company. Leadership teams must set an example to the rest of the organization, as well as the wider community.

How are you ensuring diversity and inclusion at Addgene? 

Addgene is actively engaged in at least half of the recommendations from the MassBio report. I review pay across the company 2-3 times a year with HR and Finance to ensure no pay inequities. We routinely give employees unasked for raises and adjustments. When I say routinely I mean this occurs in every round of pay changes and promotions which happen in January and July and when needed if a job role changes.

Addgene provides 8 weeks paid parental leave for both birth parents and non-birth parents. We also provide free health insurance with no premiums and mostly no co-pays. We have very transparent interview and hiring practices. The same group of people interview all candidates. This group has a public debrief focused on the the job requirements and candidate qualities to meet the job requirements. HR is present to ensure that no decisions are made based on “gut feelings” that someone “fits better”.  “Gut feelings” are usually bias creeping into the discussion. All of our employees have participated in a workshop on “unbiasing” to become aware of the impacts of bias and learn tactics for counteracting prejudiced decision making.

We have a diverse organization on many fronts, but we continue to struggle with racial diversity especially for scientists roles. We have been working on recruiting from organizations like Just a Start and local community colleges which have diverse pools of candidates. By focusing on it, we are making some headway especially in our lab.

Addgene has made MA’s Top Places to Work list for a few years now – what do you credit to this success?

I credit this success to our founders who started us out with excellent hiring practices. Also to the Addgenies who are amazing and very good at adding equally amazing people to our staff. I have no doubt that our focus on diversity, inclusion and fair work practices has helped make us a great place to work. People tell me “I can’t worry about diversity because I have to hire the best candidates”. To my mind, if you don’t worry about diversity you will not hire the best candidates, you will miss them.

Another factor in our success has been that all managers at Addgene get training and support on our management philosophy and accepted practices. Employees that don’t like or aren’t great at managing people can always stay in a different role (and many do), but they won’t manage others. Not everyone is cut out to be a manager and consistent, good management practices can make a great place to work. We like to play to people’s strengths and move them into roles that capitalize on those strengths but give them room to learn and develop too. We treat employees like people…with that elusive “ubuntu” you hear about. We don’t manage for “butts in seats”, we manage for the work getting done well. Addgenies have flexibility, encouragement and peace of mind to take care of themselves and their families.

One other thing to our advantage is that Addgene is a very successful organization. When you have a compelling nonprofit mission and are making a substantial impact on international science, it can be great for morale.

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