The 10 steps towards inclusivity in universities

Far more needs to be done to improve equity, diversity and inclusion within universities, writes Tetyana Krupiy as she lists 10 steps that can create more inclusive, supportive workplaces for all staff

Tetyana (Tanya) Krupiy's avatar
Newcastle University
8 Dec 2022
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It’s our duty to teach more inclusively − online, in person or hybrid
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As I write, the University and College Union is organising another round of strikes. Together with fair pay, equitable workloads and respectful treatment are both on the agenda for change. I feel sadness as I write this post, knowing these are perennial problems where little seems to change.

This past year I encountered a PhD student with autism who was asking for help on Linkedin due to not completing their degree. This student felt that had the university offered better support, they would not have been asking for help on social media. I met a female postdoctoral fellow who was at a highly ranked UK university but left academia because she was tired of the sexist environment. I met a woman of colour who is currently doing a postdoctoral fellowship at a leading UK university. She plans to leave academia because of discrimination, exploitation, low pay and feeling undervalued.

However, I also feel hope for the future. Taking the University of Cambridge as an example, in September 2022 it acknowledged that it gained significantly from the transatlantic slave trade, and announced the allocation of scholarships for students from Africa and the Caribbean. Cambridge plans to change its recruitment policy to be more inclusive. This is an example of good practice by universities – we cannot improve equity, inclusion and diversity if we do not acknowledge problems and take steps to improve the situation.

There are examples of good initiatives to improve equity, diversity, and inclusion at many UK institutions, such as B-MEntor Academic Mentoring Schemes. Such schemes pair junior scholars from minority ethnic groups with more senior colleagues to support them in their professional development. 

In this blog post, I would like to share my thoughts on 10 steps that universities can take to foster inclusion and a positive work environment for everyone. 

1. Universities can embed a growth mentality in the university strategy. Bailey Sousa and Alexander Clark have written about the importance for scholars of cultivating a growth mindset, which focuses on the process of continuous learning to improve.  In contrast, a fixed mentality is when someone associates success or failure with innate, fixed characteristics, such as talent.

In the organisational context, adopting a growth mentality means that administrators continuously evaluate how a university can become more inclusive. University officials treat information about existing problems and complaints as an opportunity to develop rather than as something negative or destructive. Employees reflect regularly on what they are doing well, what they could be doing better, and what steps they can take to improve. Universities reward individuals for acknowledging their mistakes, identifying a pathway for improvement, and for taking remedial action. A fixed mentality entails universities adopting strategies to minimise the complaints, rewarding only successes or penalising those who complain to protect the university’s brand.

2. Managers can set expectations about how employees should treat one another, which goes beyond obvious discrimination. Irina Dumitrescu has written for Times Higher Education about how some university employees engage in toxic behaviours to undermine one another. While such behaviours affect everyone, members of under-represented minorities can experience problematic behaviour to a greater extent. Managers can create incentives for employees to cooperate and treat one another with respect. They can make it clear that undermining colleagues, creating drama, and treating one another with disrespect will not be tolerated. Such expectations should extend beyond face-to-face interactions to how employees talk about colleagues in their absence.

3. Universities can provide training to managers on team-building. To foster teamwork, managers can create an environment where colleagues feel psychological safety and trust one another. There is psychological safety when individuals feel comfortable speaking about their feelings and making mistakes.

4. Managers can take proactive steps to support employees from under-represented groups. This should be underpinned by training for managers and staff to inform them about the barriers which individuals from under-represented groups face and the role of empathy in understanding different experiences and perspectives. They should understand the unique challenges associated with different protected characteristics and ensure they create a workplace culture that is welcoming, inclusive and supportive of all individuals.

This should include training in antidiscrimination laws for all employees. For instance, employees should be aware that autism relates to neurodiversity and that it is problematic to describe individuals with autism as deviating from a norm. Managers should show appreciation for their employees and treat them with kindness. They can ask about employees’ long-term objectives and put support in place to enable individuals to achieve their goals, such as mentoring and access to training.

5. Individuals from under-represented groups have to navigate more complex work environments than their peers and so need to have access to personal empowerment tools. A “significant proportion” of LGBTQI+ individuals who work in the field of physical sciences report that they “experienced or observed exclusionary behaviour.” In her book Complaint!, Sara Ahmed documented that university staff and students who complain about discrimination can “pay a high price.” In such environments it takes skill to be an effective colleague who can draw attention to the concerns in a manner that is not counterproductive. Institutions can allocate funding to enable employees from under-represented groups to engage in professional development such as executive coaching and leadership training. Employees should be able to select a training programme of their choice outside their organisation.

6. Managers can be proactive in asking individuals whether they are experiencing disadvantage in any area of work and offer support. They should be aware that barriers to making a disclosure exist. Managers can intervene to mitigate harm in a manner that does not expose the person who is disclosing information to a backlash or other negative impacts. Universities should appoint independent bodies to review concerns, offer appropriate interventions and put support in place.

7. Universities can ensure that they offer good pay, benefits, pension and healthy working conditions to all employees.  As can be seen from the strikes in the UK and Australia, not all universities are fulfilling this condition.

8. Managers should ensure compliance with privacy and other legislation where an employee discloses the possession of a protected characteristic. An exception is when the employee explicitly asks the manager to make a disclosure or personally makes a disclosure. There should not be a gap between the university regulations and actual practices.

9. The university can ensure that employees do not face barriers in accessing financial, well-being, and other support services. Employees should be able to select their service provider rather than being tied to service providers with which the university has a contract. Tailored support should be available for different life circumstances, for instance, where individuals are affected by an armed conflict.

10. Universities can monitor how many doctoral students, postdoctoral fellows, lecturers and individuals at more senior career stages either leave academia or do not progress. They can put in place mentoring and support for candidates who are on the verge of leaving.

Real change has to come from the inside. Everyone has an important contribution to make. Therefore, finding ways to engage staff members in bringing about positive change is crucial. Please share in the comments what initiatives you have implemented, what interventions have been successful, and what you have learned from the experience.

Tetyana (Tanya) Krupiy is a lecturer in digital law, policy and society at Newcastle University.

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