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Inside NASA's Ambitious, 60-Page DEI Plan


Dec 31, 2022

The government agency's roadmap for boosting diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility among its massive workforce serves as a guide for small-business owners.

NASA, the organization best known for the first landing on the moon with its Apollo 11 mission, has announced a goal far more down to earth than sending a human into outer space and back: elevating diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility to a core value among its workforce of 17,000 employees. The government space agency's new 60-page strategic plan offers a detailed framework of DEI best practices that any small-business owner can use.

The plan is drawing praise in the tech world, thanks to NASA's street-cred among an industry full of engineers and its comprehensive nature. "I was pretty impressed," says Diane Carrion, a tech-industry HR veteran and inclusion advocate who's worked for the likes of Time Warner, General Electric, and Nielsen. "From increasing accessibility for religious groups to the utilization of podcasts to engage a broader audience, the plan is comprehensive while detailing a strategic plan that is inclusive of all."

Carrion likes that the plan spreads the responsibility for implementing change across the entire organization, while holding top leadership accountable for the changes. "They are taking this model of 'it's everyone's responsibility.'" More typically, Carrion sees companies establish a diversity team within HR that is assigned the task of doing all the heavy lifting for DEI. That, she says, "already makes it less important if you don't have someone sitting at that top level." 

NASA administrator Bill Nelson signals the gravity of the initiative in his opening letter, putting DEI efforts on equal footing at the agency with the safety of its astronauts: "We each must embrace a culture inclusive of DEIA principles in the same way that we have successfully created a safety-conscious culture at NASA."

And while government agencies regularly release their key internal documents, it's significant that a DEI plan for such a large organization is out there in the public. "I have not seen a published roadmap within our government or private sector that is as well thought out as the NASA 2022 plan," says Carrion.

Many large corporations, such as Apple, Microsoft, and Netflix, do regularly publish their DEI statistics, and you can find less granular plans from some corporations, such as Coca Cola, but a detailed roadmap is something different. "Acknowledging the current state and talking about efforts being made to reach an ideal state within a company is a great first step" for any organization, says Soumya Nukala, a recruiter with experience in tech and media, and currently recruiting manager for diversity programs at Riverbed Technology.

NASA, of course, has a storied history with respect to the issue of discrimination, as told in the book and award-winning film Hidden Figures, about Black women mathematicians who brought success to early space exploration efforts despite having to fight racism. Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer described her own vision of diversity during the 2016 film's run: "And when I say diversity, I mean I want to see women of all shapes and sizes, people of all shapes and sizes, people with disabilities. It's about creating a landscape that demonstrates what our society is as a whole."

Founders looking to draw lessons from the report can refer to definitions of the terms within DEIA, and details of NASA's four strategic goals:

Workforce diversityWorkforce equity and inclusionAccessibility and accommodationDEIA integration into the NASA mission

Each strategic goal is broken down into performance goals, which are further broken down into measurements and actions. For example, within the strategic goal of workforce diversity, the plan spells out a performance goal of ensuring recruitment plans develop a diverse pool of candidates. Here NASA is addressing what many companies describe as a pipeline problem--not being able to find a diverse array of candidates who are fully credentialed--by growing that pipeline by creating STEM awards for diverse students as well as increasing diversity within their internship programs.

If there's one thing Carrion wishes she could see more of in the report, it's the baseline of where NASA is on these various goals today. "I'd love to know where they're at now [relative to] what their goals are and what they're trying to achieve," she says. Those numbers won't be available until after individual departments produce the reports they're required to create within 120 days of the plan. As government documents, those, too, should eventually be available for all to see.

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