Diversity work: Time to get our hands dirty
September 7, 2021
Written by Clare Matysova, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Manager at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Diversity work has been described as “messy, even dirty, work” involving “sweaty concepts, concepts that come out of the effort to transform institutions that are often not as behind that transformation as they appear to be” (Ahmed 2017: 94). Following extensive consultation over the last 18 months and the recent approval of LSHTM’s new Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) strategy, it feels like a good opportunity to reflect on this. Certainly, throughout the consultation, all kinds of questions were raised that reflect such messiness in EDI work, though not in a straightforward way. Some of the questions in this blog in essence focus on what we actually mean by diversity work, what (or who) the levers of change are within an organisation and how we can (all) contribute to transformation.
What do we mean by diversity work?
The logical starting point is what we mean by diversity work. Historically this may have been understood as the work of a few EDI practitioners focusing on institutional compliance, writing policies that may or may not be read, or developing initiatives that focus on individuals, often based on a deficit model. Thankfully, it is increasingly recognised that diversity work needs to go beyond this. That a compliance or neutral ‘equality of opportunities’ approach does not go far enough, as evidenced by outcome inequities – the degree-awarding gap and the scarcity of black female professors being two of the most frequently cited examples within the HE sector. The uneven representation of LMIC authors in global health research outputs is an example that is often discussed in the global health context. It is now generally acknowledged that diversity work needs to involve identifying structural and systemic inequities. This signals the importance of being proactive in closing inequitable outcome gaps through positive action, for example, anti-racist strategies, developed from a structural perspective. Within global health, a research-related example might be taking an equitable approach to developing research partnerships from the outset to ensure equitable input into decisions as well as outputs such as authorship. A structural approach involves identifying barriers relating to, for example, differential representation and looking at ways to jointly develop project guidelines and role expectations. The UKCDR & ESSENCE equitable partnerships resource hub provides resources to support researchers to embed equitable practices within design, delivery and dissemination of research.
How do we transform commitment into action?
What (or who) are the levers of change within an organisation? How do we transform commitment into action? Recognising structural inequalities raises important questions about agency and the possibility to disentangle from the very structures we are trying to break down. While not wanting to get bogged down in a ‘structure’ / ‘agency’ debate, it is essential to note that as well as identifying structural barriers, we also need to identify the levers of and ways to instigate change. It is also helpful to reflect on decolonisation movements within higher education, which has been described as an ongoing process that seeks to transform. With this in mind and, again reflecting on and responding to the consultation, we have centred ‘EDI pillars’ as underpinning LSHTM’s approach. This includes effective EDI structures – governance, policies and process – as well as clear lines of accountability.
When thinking about accountability and commitment to institutional transformation, the obvious answer is the senior leaders and clearly, they have a pivotal role in ensuring meaningful action. And, as Professor Paul Miller suggests in a recent podcast, moving beyond compliance requires courageous social justice leadership. Senior leaders acting as executive sponsors can have significant influence within decision-making processes. They are in a position to ensure adequate resources, positively driving change and acting as inclusive role models, and more.
EDI practitioners, or champions, within an organisation also play a key role. I am conscious of both the potential role of EDI teams and of the boundaries, frustrations and limitations. It can be an incredibly slow process and at times feel like a ‘brick wall’ (Ahmed, 2017: 96) of resistance. This ‘brick wall’ comes in many guises, ranging from a lack of awareness, disinterest and privilege to an unwillingness to engage or prioritise or, indeed, where diversity work ‘becomes embodied in the diversity worker’ (Ahmed, 2017: 94) themselves. Some questions I get asked reflect this embodiment in the form of a perceived ‘all-seeing and knowing’ ability to pick up on EDI issues across time and space. The EDI practitioner role has aptly been described as having ‘an oblique relation to the institution’ (Ahmed, 2017: 94), perhaps reflecting the critical nature of the role. We should provide subject matter expertise in terms of identifying barriers and possible solutions. However, subject matter expertise and lived experience expertise often get conflated. While there is overlap, diversity of views must be heard, which cannot be embodied in a few individuals or their lived experiences. We need lived experience and diversity of views embedded within decision-making.
How can we (all) contribute?
Not having specific lived experiences or subject matter expertise does not preclude people from having an active role. And this links to the third and final question focused on here: How we can (all) contribute to transformation? Often the focus has been on diversity training, especially unconscious bias training, but I think that is too passive. While there is limited space in this blog, I think the concept of ‘the single story’ (Abagond, 2009) highlights the need for a more active approach.
As Adiche in her TED talk explains so accessibly, single stories emerge because of (un)conscious or unchallenged biases that create and are created by stereotypes. Those in positions of power and privilege can control what stories are told, how and by whom. By recognising the single stories at an institution, we are able to deconstruct common or dominant narratives as well as raise marginalised voices. It becomes possible to identify and challenge these. We can all be story disrupters – by listening, giving space, boosting minoritized voices, and being active allies.
The structural nature of EDI work means that a nuanced and pervasive approach is required with responsibility and agency at all levels, management, team and individual. Perhaps the messiness reflected on at the start of this blog is in many ways part of the nature of the work?
Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life . Durham: Duke University Press, 2017
Margaret Kelaher, Lye Ng, Kieran Knight, Arie Rahadi, Equity in global health research in the new millennium: trends in first-authorship for randomized controlled trials among low- and middle-income country researchers 1990-2013, International Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 45, Issue 6, December 2016, Pages 2174–2183, https://doi.org/10.1093/ije/dyw313