We all need safe spaces: places where we can feel comfortable enough to fully express ourselves. We need them to be able to focus, engage, and participate. We need them to have vibrant workplaces and fulfilled lives. Workplaces that do not engender “safe spaces” may have employees who do not live up to their potential or who do not feel comfortable speaking up when something is wrong. Currently, many spaces aren’t safe for people to be who they are, and this is having an impact on performance and achievement. What would change if we all tried to make the spaces around us a little safer? How much happier and more productive would we be?
When people feel comfortable, they can more freely participate and express themselves in whatever they are doing. This can be a workplace environment, a classroom, a friendship, etc. As a professor and a nuclear engineer, I view having safe spaces as essential to a functioning research group, classroom, and community. I want everyone to feel:
- safe to ask questions or say “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand”;
- safe to express concern about a process / calculation / conclusion;
- safe to speak up if they are uncomfortable with another person’s behavior; and
- safe to express all the parts of their identity (sexual or otherwise) they are comfortable sharing.
From an employer/employee perspective, why do we care about this? Some of the impacts of not feeling safe are very clear: if a person is not comfortable pointing out an error in a calculation or underlying assumption for any reason (Manager X doesn’t listen to me because I’m purple; Person Y disregards my opinion because I’m a ballerina; Engineer Z doesn’t hear the things I say because I like bumble bees), there could be a real safety or product problem. There are also impacts that are less immediately concrete, but still very real. Stereotype threat  is a term used to describe the idea that members of any group about whom negative stereotypes exist may under-perform because the negative stereotypes raise inhibiting doubts and high-pressure anxieties. These doubts and anxieties cause the individual to perform at a level that is below their true potential. Thus, being in an environment that does not feel safe can cause general under-performance across the board.
Right now, many spaces are not safe at work, in social groups, or anywhere in between—and this is having a real impact. A mild but illustrative personal example is how I was affected by the process of writing this post. I had a hard time finding a topic because I was concerned about how to position what I wrote within the context of my sexual orientation. This caused me to continually miss the deadlines I set for myself and to spend a lot of time and energy worrying about it while making no progress. Why did that happen? I didn’t feel like the community who might read this is a safe space to discuss my sexual orientation. My ultimate conclusion was to write a story in which I don’t indicate which of the myriad of LGBTQIA [2, 3] letters I view as representing me. It would be amazing to be in a world where it doesn’t matter and I would always feel comfortable, but we’re not there yet.
The point of this post is that maybe we could get there–so let’s consider how to create safe spaces. It really comes down to respect. Ensure that everyone is clear that they will be respected because of the talents and contributions they bring to the situation that have bearing on the situation. That is, they will be “measured” by performance and nothing else. Further, let’s welcome diverse opinions and views without judging those opinions and views (excluding being malicious). Having the ability to express yourself can engender the idea that different opinions are welcome–if it’s okay to be different then it’s okay to think differently, to challenge, and to disagree. Encouraging the richness of self expression encourages diversity of thought.
As we work to help people feel respected, note that people are different and they respond differently to the same things. Just because a space feels safe for you does not mean that it feels safe for someone else. We cannot assume what someone else needs; we need to actively engage with them and check in. Listening to how people feel and acknowledging that their feelings are valid is a great first step. We do not have to agree with their interpretation; however, acknowledging that someone is actually feeling unsafe will help us understand how to help them feel safe.
Everyone has something to contribute and we need everyone contributing fully. Invite people to thrive by treating them like they can, no matter who they are. Create a community where everyone’s talents can be welcomed and valued and where everyone can feel supported in expressing who they are. By building a culture of respect we can engender safe spaces. The more widespread safe spaces become, the more we all can accomplish. This is a mountain without a top; let’s strive to keep on climbing.
 Stereotype Threat Widens Achievement Gap. American Psychological Association, July 15, 2006. Web. August 12, 2015. www.apa.org/research/action/stereotype.aspx.
 LGBTQIA Resource Center Glossary. UC Davis LGBTQIA Resource Center. Web. August 13, 2015. lgbtqia.ucdavis.edu/lgbt-education/lgbtqia-glossary.
 Moody’s LGBT Resource Group. The “A” in LGBTA, An Allies Guide. Web. August 13, 2015. www.moodys.com/sites/products/ProductAttachments/LGBT%20Allies%20Guide.pdf.
About the Author:
Rachel Slaybaugh is an Assistant Professor of Nuclear Engineering at UC Berkeley.