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Growing Diverse and Inclusive University Marketing Teams

  • 12 January 2022
  • By Ellie Highwood, Alison Elton, and Joel Arber

This blog was contributed by Ellie Highwood, Associate Consultant, SUMS, Joel Arber, Group Managing Director, SUMS Group, and Alison Elton, Higher Education Senior Consultant, GatenbySanderson. 

University marketing teams play an essential role in portraying their institution and the HE sector to the outside world. Brand communication, reputation-building and student recruitment target diverse audiences in the UK and across the globe. But how diverse are the marketing teams themselves? How well equipped are HE marketers to reflect, understand and connect with these diverse audience groups? This blog explores the results of research undertaken by GatenbySanderson and SUMS Consulting with HE marketing and comms professionals, and makes suggestions for how to ensure HE marketing teams are prepared to play their role in building inclusive universities.

Awareness of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and its role in higher education is at an all-time high. Most universities now have EDI strategies and action plans, as well as staff networks and staff with EDI responsibilities – most usually in HR teams. However, EDI understanding, motivation and action needs to be embedded throughout the university in order to drive a true change towards a more inclusive culture. EDI is everyone’s responsibility, and everyone can take some action.

Marketing teams perhaps have some of the most obvious opportunities to play a role in embracing EDI and infusing it across brand, reputation and recruitment activities. So, it was disappointing that in summer 2021, only 46% of HE marketing teams responding to a SUMS Consulting and GatenbySanderson survey thought that the HE sector does a good job of delivering marketing and communication activities that authentically encourage EDI – you can read the full report here.

What’s Going On?

HE marketing directors talked about the importance of 4 things:

  • Seeing the value of EDI rather than focussing on compliance and legislation
  • Recognising the importance of role-modelling diverse representation in order to ensure broad perspectives and authenticity when speaking to diverse audiences
  • Leaning into a robust EDI strategy for recruiting and retaining staff with diversity of thought, experience and identities
  • Putting your money where your mouth is – resourcing and supporting staff networks through internal comms.

Looking at that role-modelling issue in more detail, HE marcomms teams themselves tend to be less diverse than staff or students. Diversity of thought, experience and identity matters when you need to talk to diverse audiences. Our survey showed an over-representation of women (over 80%) and a lack of ethnic diversity, with minoritized (or global majority) ethnicities under-represented, particularly in leadership roles. Things may be changing – the proportion of applications from under-represented ethnic groups has increased from 19% to 27% in just two years – mainly from men. However, attracting a range of applications is just the first step. We need those applications to translate into successful appointments, and then retain diversity of thought and experience across our teams.

Forty-one percent of respondents stated that their institutions could do more to provide training and experience to continually refresh their knowledge and understanding of EDI developments. As society grapples with inequalities and discrimination on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, disability and more, everything evolves, including best practice around the use of language and imagery that can be at the heart of HE marketing. It is often the fear of “saying the wrong thing” that leads individuals and organisations to hold back from embracing the change in mindset that is needed to change cultures.

Fit For the Future?

Based on the insights from our survey, how can HE marketing teams seize the opportunity to embrace and drive EDI change?

1. Increase diversity of thought, experience and identities amongst HE marketing teams by:

  • Explaining the roles in different ways, bearing in mind HE may be an unfamiliar environment to talent who have not been exposed to HE before. Videos of the team’s activities, campus and an explanation of the role could all be useful here.
  • Checking that the language in job descriptions and adverts is inclusive – challenge the use of “cultural fit” and move to “cultural add”
  • Demystifying the application process – this might include examining and changing the application materials themselves as CVs can be quite bias-provoking
  • Reducing the number of essential criteria, and removing desirable criteria (some members of under-represented groups will self-select out of the process if they don’t meet ALL of the criteria)
  • Offering hybrid and flexible working by default with the aim of opening up roles to those with different needs and lives
  • Nurture and nourish your team members in order to retain the diversity of talent that you manage to bring in

2. Improve EDI expertise and confidence within HE marcomms teams by:

  • Providing regular and frequent opportunities for the team to refresh and update their understanding of EDI key issues and how this relates to their roles, specifically. For example, over the past 18 months this might have included work on Black Lives Matter and anti-racism, as well as transgender rights and violence against women.
  • Look for ways to support the team to develop their own skills and confidence e.g. by working with HR specialists, participating in staff networks (including as allies) and engaging with EDI committees and governance.
  • Role-model continuous learning and perspective-broadening by learning from student recruitment campaigns, student’s unions and other organisations.

The next few years bring a fantastic opportunity for HE marketing teams to step up and demonstrate how embedding EDI agendas and inclusive practices can work for the benefit of individuals, teams and the organisation. What will your marketing team do?

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