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White Elephant #6: Achieving change: lessons for higher education from the Non-Profit sector

  • 25 September 2019
  • By Srabani Sen

This blog by Srabani Sen OBE, Chief Executive and Founder of Full Colour originally appeared in HEPI report 120 The white elephant in the room: ideas for reducing racial inequalities in higher education

There is a well-worn joke: ‘How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? One – but the light bulb’s really gotta want to change!’ Groans aside, as with all jokes the humour relies on the recognisable truth underpinning it.

In thinking about racial diversity, particularly in organisational leadership, it is starkly apparent how most leaders are white. HESA data show that of all managers, directors and senior officials in higher education, 93 per cent in academic roles and 90 per cent in non-academic roles are white. It is the same in the sector I know best: the charity sector. At three per cent, the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations calls the number of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) CEOs ‘shamefully small’, pointing out this has not changed in years.

Conference platforms resound with passionate people demanding ‘something must be done’. Well-meaning leaders say they agree. This has been the case for the 30 years or so since I started work. So why have things not changed?

Pauline Kayes in an article for the US based Education Resources Information Centre (ERIC) cites several factors for why change on diversity in higher education is so slow, including the ‘short-term fixes’ that organisations over-rely on.

NPC, a charity consultancy, issued a report Walking the Talk on Diversity which describes key obstacles to change on diversity and inclusion:

  • • ‘discomfort talking about diversity, in particular race;
  • attracting and retaining diverse talent;
  • a scarcity of diverse role models;
  • unconscious bias;
  • fears of diverse views increasing complexity in decision-making;
  • uncertainty about how to achieve the change; and
  • the reality of competing priorities’.

It’s a good list, but I would argue there is something deeper going on. To be clear, I firmly believe that most people generally want to do the right thing. But a nagging question remains: does the light bulb really want to change?

What is diversity and inclusion?

One of the challenges is that people aren’t precise or clear about what ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ mean, often using the terms interchangeably, even though they mean different things. Here are the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development definitions:

  • Diversity is about recognising difference, but not actively leveraging it to drive organisational success. It’s acknowledging the benefit of having a range of perspectives in decision-making and the workforce being representative of the organisation’s customers.
  • Inclusion is where difference is seen as a benefit, and where perspectives and differences are shared, leading to better decisions. An inclusive working environment is one in which everyone feels valued, that their contribution matters and they are able to perform to their full potential, no matter their background, identity or circumstances. An inclusive workplace enables a diverse range of people to work together effectively.

One of the basic prerequisites of achieving change is being able to describe it. If we do not have a shared understanding of what ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ mean, how can we hope to change, even if we want to?

Do you know where you are?

Improving diversity and inclusion in an organisation is, in essence, a change management programme. Two basic principles for success are:

  1. To have a clear picture of where you are starting from so you can plan a route map to your desired outcomes.
  2. To understand how the change management programme you are planning will enhance your organisation’s success

Higher education institutions will have data about the racial diversity of their staff teams. So far so great. But how many have clear data about the factors preventing racially diverse candidates progressing up the hierarchy for their specific organisation? No two organisations are the same, and without a clear understanding of barriers specific to your institution, change on diversity and inclusion is impossible to plan.

Also, a UK literature review from Advance HE showed a lack of data on the impact of poor staff diversity on outcomes for diverse students. While evidence does exist in the US, this is not always transferrable to a UK context. The poorer experience and outcomes of BAME students and those from under-represented backgrounds in higher education, has been a concern for a while now. Is it not time we looked at the link between these issues more closely?

The higher education sector is not necessarily worse than others on diversity and inclusion. Very few large corporate or charities develop concerted action in planned ways to achieve systemic change. There seems to be an underlying assumption that if the intention is there on diversity and inclusion, change will somehow happen. A kind of ‘build it and he will come’ approach, which is not the basis of any effective change management programme.

‘What is in it for me?’

In talking to a senior company executive who is an ardent advocate of gender equality, I asked why he was so passionate about the issue. ‘Because I have daughters’ was his simple but sincere reply. It mattered to him personally, at a visceral level. I know from my background as a campaigner that to achieve change in public policy or public attitudes, all the evidence in the world amounts to very little unless you can also win hearts and minds. One of the best ways of doing that is to make it personal.

Change happens because people take decisive, regular, significant action. But taking this kind of action can be exhausting. Change also takes time and unless people have something that keeps them going through all the ups and downs, they are likely to give up. The more personal that something can be, the more likely they are to keep moving forward.

The classic way organisations contrive to make things personal is through setting people targets, measuring their performance against these targets and rewarding success. This can provide a useful motivation for individuals and teams to get stuff done. But is it enough to change behaviour? Or are the drivers preventing change stronger?

Unconscious bias

In their Nobel Prize winning work on nudge theory, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein point out that knowing the right thing to do is not always enough. Our biases affect our decision making, often in ways we are unaware of.

According to the Equality Challenge Unit, unconscious bias is a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.

These unconscious biases permeate every choice and decision we make, in and out of the workplace. In Racism at Work Binna Kandola quotes Geoff Beattie’s research which tracked the eye movement of recruiters and showed that those with higher implicit bias towards white people spent more time looking for negative information about black candidates when reviewing applications, something of which they were unaware.

In thinking about higher education in the US, Pauline Kayes talks about the need for ‘white search committees … to determine (their) levels of intercultural sensitivity’. She refers to Bennett’s Model of Intercultural Sensitivity and how these stages affect things like recruitment decisions on panels. The six stages are:

  1. Denial of difference
  2. Defence against difference
  3. Minimisation of difference
  4. Acceptance of difference
  5. Adaptation to difference
  6. Integration of difference

Each of these stages come with attitudes, beliefs and stories we tell ourselves which warp the way we think. Kalwant Bhopal in the HEPI / Brightside Manifesto calls for mandatory unconscious bias training for HE staff. That is a good place to start. Large corporates have invested in raising awareness amongst their staff of unconscious bias. But as with any behaviour change, raising awareness is only the first step.

Achieving real change

Einstein is famously quoted as saying: ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ Whenever people ask what we can do to improve diversity and inclusion in our organisation, it does not take long for someone to answer: ‘improve recruitment practices’. There is some kind of implicit assumption that if we can get people into a pipeline, they will find their way to the top of the hierarchy given enough time. The trouble is the ‘recruitment answer’ is exactly the same one I used to hear 30 years ago when I first started work. I do not see a lot of evidence that the assumption that diversity will sort itself out with the right approach to recruitment is correct.

To achieve genuine change the most powerful people in an organisation – in other words our leaders – need to provide, well, leadership on this issue. But what exactly can leaders do? I would suggest five things:

1) Learn how to lead inclusively: From the market research I did in establishing Full Colour, it became apparent that there is a cohort of leaders who want to do the right thing, but do not know how. Leading inclusively is made up of practical competencies that people can learn and apply – so if you are a leader, learn and apply them, and get feedback on how you are doing so you can continually improve. Share your personal journey towards becoming an inclusive leader – the failures as well as the successes —and share what you have learned with the people you lead so they can learn too.

2) Create and communicate a vision for diversity and inclusion: What does it look like, feel like, taste like in your organisation. Describe it, enthuse about it, excite people about the possibilities, and do it often. Make it clear how it will help the organisation and individuals succeed.

3) Create a route map: Be clear about the milestones, and the resources you will deploy to ensure success. Make the journey fun and celebrate every success, however small.

4) Use unconscious bias training proactively: Do not just raise awareness, use unconscious bias training to map how these biases are playing out in your organisation so you can devise ways to overcome the obstacles they are creating.

5) Create the right context: Make the journey feel safe for everyone. Ask people what they need to engage in and succeed on the journey. Find ways to open up conversations so people who feel threatened by change can share their worries and people who are affected by the biases of others can share the impact this is having. Build the change journey into your business plans, talk about it at team meetings, report on it, keep the issues constantly alive and vibrant.

To achieve genuinely diverse leadership, we need to start with the leaders we have now and help them change. Not in a finger-wagging ‘you need to do better’ way, but by making it feel safe, energising and fun. Start with the leaders who crave change. Give them the practical skills to help them lead inclusively and drive inclusion through their organisations.

Leading inclusively is not as complicated or mysterious as some people seem to think. It is a skill like any other and can be learnt, though applying these skills does take courage. The rewards these leaders and their organisations will gain will shine a bright, glimmering light on what is possible with truly diverse and inclusive organisations. This is at the heart of how we get the lightbulb to want to change, however many psychiatrists are involved.

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