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White Elephant #5: Practitioner Reflections: making diversity work a success in your institution

  • 24 September 2019
  • By Sanchia Alasia

This blog by Sanchia Alasia, Equality and Diversity Manager at Brunel University, originally appeared in HEPI report 120 The white elephant in the room: ideas for reducing racial inequalities in higher education

The position of diversity professionals within an organisation is one of the first challenges of managing diversity successfully. Where the role of a diversity manager is aligned alongside the corporate structures of an organisation, the employees are more likely to recognise diversity as an important feature of the organisation’s mission and values.

Diversity practitioners can be placed within various directorates within an organisation, each placement will have its benefits. Working within a Human Resource department gives the diversity officer a clear focus on workforce issues and influences policy matters to do with recruitment, maternity and flexible working to name a few. However, if based within the senior management section of the organisation, vital links can be developed by building equality into the strategic aims and objectives of an organisation. Some organisations choose to put resources into establishing an equality directorate that has a pivotal position across all sections of an organisation and where practitioners can have success in mainstreaming diversity. Wherever the diversity officer is placed, it is vital that there are linkages made throughout the organisation.

In order for the diversity manager to be successful, the senior management teams or the people at the top of the organisation must support the diversity agenda. When the people who are at the top of an organisation are on board, the difference is clearly noticeable especially when they are prepared to go beyond the minimum level of legal compliance. Top-level support is crucial for example when as a diversity manager, you wish to pilot positive action programmes for under-represented groups of staff. Their support is also essential for embedding diversity throughout the organisation. Their commitment filters down to their senior management teams, through to middle managers and junior staff. Where those at the top of the organisation also accept that others at their level should be diverse and support programmes to achieve this, it demonstrates to the employees their commitment to the equality agenda. Where those at the top of the organisation are not on board or do not see the need to engage with the equality agenda, then this presents great challenges to the diversity manager, because only a limited amount of success can be achieved.

Usually any policy or programme being developed to take forward the diversity agenda in an organisation requires senior management agreement. Improving diversity within an organisation that has management resistance is challenging and can be de-motivating. If diversity practitioners have a strong sense of character and an interest in social justice issues, this can provide the momentum to continue in their roles. Similarly, the diversity practitioners’ role is challenged, if staff at the lower levels of the organisation are not engaged with the equality and diversity agenda. Staff within the organisation have a role in highlighting the inequality and discrimination that occurs, so that action plans and programmes can then be built around the actual needs of the organisation, rather than the perceived effects of discrimination.

Designing and delivering diversity training provides the next challenge. It is difficult to design a diversity course that will meet all the needs of those who will receive the training. Some will need general awareness, whereas others – especially managers – will need more in-depth information about equality law and how to manage diverse groups of staff. However, frequently it is not practical to come up with a multitude of courses, so practitioners are often faced with designing, delivering or commissioning a course with a one-size-fits-all approach. Leading organisations will provide these courses for their staff as a matter of course and make them mandatory.

Equality and diversity staff networks consisting of employees from diverse groups can have some success in advancing the diversity agenda. These groups are quite frequent within the public sector and in higher education. Usually a separate group is organized for each protected equality group. There are usually networks for women, black, Asian and minority ethnic staff, disability, religion and belief, age and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered staff.

Two important factors increase these groups’ chances of success.

  1. Support from the organisation in terms of resources for the group. If the organisation can aid in establishing staff network groups, suggesting terms of reference and setting up regular meetings, then this can give such groups the solid foundation that they need to last. The groups should not only have a remit to organise events such as Black History Month, but be given a strategic role within their organisations, such as getting involved in setting the equality and diversity strategies and policies.
  2. Momentum from staff themselves to get engaged within the networks. There should be commitment from staff to give up time, for example in their lunch hour to attend meetings, put forward their views and assist in carrying out actions that support the groups aims. If staff within the organisation do not feel the need for a network group to support them within the workplace place, the sustainability of the group is limited.

A high-level diversity champion that supports staff network groups and diversity within organisations can be extremely useful. In supporting network groups, they can have a role in speaking at network meetings, which in turn can attract further membership to the groups and give them credibility. KPMG’s Islamic society has helped to address the needs of their growing Muslim staff and client base and have introduced the use of Islamic business models to gain new business worth in excess of £500k in fees. Imperial as one, which is a race equality group within Imperial College, has the support of the College’s Rector and Management Board who actively undertake the role of equality champions.

The role of a diversity champion can be important, in spearheading the diversity agenda and making the diversity practitioner role easier to fulfil. In the public sector, where the appointment of diversity champions is a common feature, their role has two main functions. The first is to be a role model and signal positive images of diversity to employees within the organisation. The second is to give reassurance to the relevant diverse groups within the workforce, that there is someone senior within the organisation that is willing to speak up on issues that affect them. Diversity champions can also have success in gleaning from the various protected equality groups, what their particular concerns are that they may not have necessarily have found out otherwise. They can set examples by attending equality training in lieu of their busy schedules and briefing their senior management teams on the importance of engaging with the diversity agenda.

There is a moral argument for treating people equitably within the workplace, however practitioners over the last decade have more frequently outlined the benefits for their organisation to gain further buy in. Practitioners may use the business case for diversity as a leverage to overcome the difficulties of mainstreaming equality within organisations. The practitioner’s role here is to encourage people to engage. This can be done by outlining how establishing diversity networks within their companies and placing diversity at the heart of the business can contribute to an increase in profits and expansion of the customer base.

The success of any diversity manager’s role can be enhanced by networking externally. Being a member of several different network groups comprising of diversity professionals within higher education and the public, private and voluntary sectors, can help diversity practitioners overcome some of the challenges of tackling new and complex areas of diversity. These networks can prove invaluable in sharing knowledge and the provision of advice and guidance about setting up diversity initiatives or tackling complex issues. These networks can provide support in quite a lonely field and reassurance that some of the issues the practitioner is expected to provide guidance on have been faced by others elsewhere.

The diversity practitioner needs to be able to keep up to date with legislation and articulate its meaning and implications to those at all levels within organisations. This is a pivotal role especially as the legislation is constantly being updated and interpreted by the tribunals. On the job learning is the method by which many diversity practitioners gain this legal knowledge. There is no one course or legal seminar that can teach a practitioner about all aspects of equality law, as well as the nuances and difficulties that come with trying to apply this in any specific workplace setting. Being from an under-represented group can help, however the practitioner best attains this knowledge through journals, magazines, legal updates and networking with other practitioners.

Diversity practitioners deal with issues of competing rights and responsibilities, particularly in the areas of sexual orientation and religion and belief. When two protected groups want opposing outcomes, this requires skill and tact to resolve. The higher education sector has usually promoted freedom of speech, thought and expression. Equality law does limit this, if this will cause others to be deeply offended. Universities can find it difficult to grapple with this concept, which goes against the principles they set out to achieve. The diversity practitioner should have the skill to carefully balance their roles and responsibilities, particularly when it comes to providing advice and guidance. Often when advising people on issues that arise with individuals or groups that are protected by the legislation, one needs to have tact and sensitivity as well as persuasion and diplomatic skills to find an amicable solution.

Equality legislation has provided diversity practitioners with a powerful tool to convince those within organisations that it is within their best interests to fulfil its various requirements. Although most organisations have a diversity strap-line or equality policy, equality strategies and objectives help promote equality between different groups of people, which has helped to move the diversity agenda forward. These strategies usually have accompanying action plans, which prompt the organisation to put in place programmes and initiatives that can begin to effectively tackle institutional discrimination.

1 comment

  1. John bird says:

    The problem for BAME students in HE is the fact of huge gaps in performance throughout schooling, much of it exemplifying structural racism. This makes a university-focused set of policies to narrow the gap – more BAME staff, decolonising the curriculum and so on – of limited use.

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