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Equality and Diversity in Academia: An Individual Responsibility of Care in the Face of Institutional Failure?

Marie Gilbert photo In a previous piece on this blog, I described what I felt where the many challenges to academic motherhood. I ended the piece by noting that many of the current institutional arrangements meant to improve equality and diversity in academia are ‘cosmetic add-ons’ and equality and diversity will only exist once academics accept that they need to rethink their relationship to work, acknowledge their power to resist and, in doing so, engage in a much needed politics of care in higher education. This is something I want to explore further here (note that as in my previous post, I will refer to the examples I know best, i.e. those relating to academic motherhood, but have no doubt that the general argument also applies to other academic minorities) (Part 2 of 2).

All British universities now have equality and diversity policies, with a specific professional team in charge of seeing to their implementation, which includes introducing new policies, dealing with the most serious cases of discrimination, but also overseeing the training of members of staff, starting with academics and human resources personnel. In addition, schemes have been put in place to recognise and reward academic institutions that are committed to fighting against discrimination at work, and have obtained significant, measurable results. The Athena SWAN scheme thus focuses specifically on gender equality – 136 British higher education institutions are members of the scheme, sharing between them 536 institutional or departmental awards. Of these 7 institutions have attained a silver award, while gold awards have only been awarded at departmental level. There is thus awareness, at institutional level, of the issues I described in my previous blog piece, and of the negative impact it can have on academia, notably in terms of image.

Sadly, however, I concur with an anonymous colleague who recently noted that when it comes to equality and diversity, many institutions only care about appearances. I would go even further and suggest that equality and diversity policies are essentially geared towards protecting institutions and their managers against potential accusations of discrimination, rather than about effectively ensuring greater equality and diversity and protecting minority groups.

In my long career as a job applicant, I have seen many departments highlight that they were especially keen to recruit female candidates and/or candidates from ethnic minorities in order to address existing imbalances. Claiming to want to address lack of diversity is one thing, however. Putting in place the institutional arrangements that will effectively ensure greater equality and diversity is quite another, and a price few institutions are willing to pay. In fact, many institutions are actually going back on a number of policies that ensured academic parents’ rights. Anglia Ruskin University is thus planning to close its nursery, while the students’ union at the London School of Economics has also recently expressed concern that the school’s nursery, which offers on-campus childcare (including in an emergency) to academics and students, may once again be at risk of closure – both would be following in this many other such facilities, within and without of academia. Likewise, some universities are reneging on their previously more generous maternity leave payment policies and contenting themselves with the legal minimum payments. This, along with other work pressures, is bound to have an effect not only on mothers but also on fathers and their readiness to take the statutory additional paternity leave to which they are now entitled. [Interestingly, information about maternity leave payment is very difficult to come by when one applies for a job – it is generally hidden on staff intranet websites, forcing applicants to specifically ask human resources departments for the relevant policy documents (and thus to potentially disclose their personal circumstances).]

It is also interesting to note the many contradictions – if not aberrations – that hide behind Athena SWAN awards. A year and a half ago, I considered applying for a lectureship at an institution that proudly advertised its Athena SWAN bronze award. The application package included the usual online form, a CV, as well as three separate supporting statements of several pages each that covered teaching, previous research and future research. As usual, of course, the job advertisement also warned applicants that due to the high number of applications, feedback could not be provided at the shortlisting stage. When I wrote to the head of department and designated human resources contact to note that they expected applicants to dedicate a considerable amount of time to their application, and that this made it particularly hard for parents, whose free time is limited, I received an extremely vague reply from HR, while the head of department noted that an increasing number of institutions were following the US example and requesting longer application packages from job applicants. So universities, flooded with job applications, are relying on hugely time consuming application processes to filter out applicants, no matter that recruitment panel members will most likely spend a maximum of 5 minutes on each application at the shortlisting stage, and could equally ask for a basic CV for a first sift. In doing so they have scant regard for the impact this may have on equality and diversity at the recruitment stage.

In another example at a different Athena SWAN bronze award institution, one of my friends was invited to take part in a mentoring scheme specifically targeted at early career female academics. At the first meeting, she expressed her surprise at the fact that all mentors were also female, noting that this was surely a matter of interest to all academics, male and female, and that it was regrettable that the mentoring burden thus fell once again, alongside a great number of other teaching and administrative tasks (see my previous post on this), primarily on female shoulders. My wonderfully lucid and outspoken friend subsequently saw her invitation to take part in the scheme rescinded.

That equality and diversity matters relevant to academic staff are left in the hands of human resources personnel should also be a matter of concern, both because they have often been given very little training in the matter and because their priority is first and foremost to check the institution’s, and managers’, liability. As a one-time member of a recruitment panel, I thus witnessed first-hand the superficiality of equality and diversity policies as understood by our human resources colleagues. In a desire to pay heed to these policies, HR invited us to consider especially carefully applications from candidates declaring a disability and, where relevant, to shortlist them – which we dutifully did. But, following the interviews, when discussing another candidate, I was not a little shocked to learn that the HR member of staff in charge of the recruitment had disclosed confidential information and expressed an opinion about the candidate’s collegiality to the head of the recruitment panel.

I am sure that others working in higher education will have had similar experiences of HR departments paying lip service to diversity policies while working hard to cover management from any potential fallout. So where might we go from there? It goes without saying that significant institutional reforms are called for, and should start with a sector-wide reflection on academics’ working conditions. We know that these are steadily worsening – from workload to pay to the balance between research, teaching and administration, to office space and access to research resources. This worsening is first affecting those academics most unlikely to be able to pay their way through with either additional time or money – early career, female, minority groups, parents, academics coming from poorer backgrounds – but they will have an effect on the entire academic community, and on its capacity to deliver high quality work. Institutions must become aware of this and address the issue head on. They also need to take equality and diversity much more seriously, staff adequately their equality and diversity teams and give them independence and powers, and put aside financial means to recruit, support and develop staff from under-represented groups (including two groups that are never mentioned under equality and diversity policies: academics from poorer backgrounds and academic parents).

While we wait for our grand institutions to instil a much needed but unlikely revolution, however, I suggest that we academics have a huge responsibility too and that some creative acts of resistance might make a significant difference, and launch a much needed politics of care in our academic institutions, as suggested by Belgian anthropologist David Berliner. In other words, we can and we should resist current reforms and pressure that are increasingly excluding the more vulnerable categories of academics – not on an individualistic, isolated and associable basis, as too many lists of ‘tricks to clock off at 5 pm’ suggest, but with a mind to curb pressure on our shoulders and on those of our colleagues at the same time. While human resources organise recruitment processes, academics sit on the panels and do the shortlisting, interviewing and selecting. This gives them every chance to curb the pressure towards ever more time-consuming application packages, to introduce a long-listing process where long-listed candidates will produce longer applications against a guarantee of feedback, to ensure that interviews are conducted in respect of the most basic rules of confidentiality and equality and diversity.

Departmental teams might also reflect on their division of labour and be wary of any temptation to leave the time-consuming and little-rewarding administrative and teaching tasks to their female members. These are often collegial decisions that can be discussed and thought-through. The way they are distributed, kept and rewarded often obeys informal rules that can be changed relatively easily so as to ensure greater fairness and a transparent turnover. This is also an individual responsibility we might carry out outside of our institutions, thus making sure that we avoid organising all-male panels at conferences (and why not sign a pledge to this effect?) or editing special issues with male authors only, and that we reflect critically on the gender balance in our bibliographies.

Increasing workloads are an obvious obstacle to equality and diversity and colleagues also need to reflect on their responsibility when they uncritically accept (or even trigger) out of hours work or incoherent timetables. These affect their own working conditions, of course, but also indirectly, and badly, those of their more vulnerable colleagues. Colleagues might thus be encouraged to question the necessity to cover five open Saturdays every year (and firmly reject the management/marketing blackmail suggesting that less open Saturdays will translate into fewer student recruitments and endanger academic jobs) and offer, instead, that groups of prospective students can be invited to attend lectures/seminars and stroll around campus on a normal day in order to get a real taste for campus life and limit additional work for academics. They might also ensure that departmental meetings, seminars, talks, conferences, etc. are organised, as much as possible, within the normal working hours of 9.00-17.00 and on weekdays (there is an #endweekendconferences campaign circulating on Twitter, and one can only salute PSA and BISA for both organising their annual conferences on week days). Heads of postgraduate courses might likewise suggest to the admissions teams that reference letters are not essential for students with good (2.1+) transcripts, thus reducing the number of references we must all produce each year.

Colleagues should also consider pushing back on pressure to accept incoherent timetables in the name of limited campus space and of the welfare of the student/customer, and insist that more coherent, staff-friendly timetables will increase their efficiency (and notably their capacity to do some research), as much as they will help accommodate the needs of academic parents tied to school/crèche times. They might also insist that timetables need to be published in good time so that all can make the necessary adjustments – at a previous institution, mine was never finalised before mid-September, making it effectively impossible to sign up my child for the relevant breakfast/afterschool clubs.

These are relatively easy acts of resistance that can make a significant difference to the academic quality of life. If all colleagues were to adopt these resolutions on an everyday basis, academic parents would cease to have to apologise for not being able to cover an open Saturday, attend a 6 pm book launch or give a weekly 5-6 pm lecture, thus systematically and painfully suggesting that their parental status is impeding them from carrying out their normal work (when the opposite is, of course, true – this is out of hour work that would not be expected in many other professional sectors).

Beyond this, we might also make a habit of asking ourselves whether, by accepting or creating a new layer of work, we are not overburdening ourselves and others. Does this report, reflecting on the departmental student recruitment strategy, really need to be written by an academic? Do I really need to ask colleagues to attend yet another meeting? Should I agree to cover a lecture/do some additional marking in the absence of compensation? Will I really have the time to edit this book, or is there a risk that the work will fall on the shoulders of my co-editors? Many academics routinely accept additional work, out of habit, in wanting to respect long-time rules of collegiality or because of the growing academic obsession with visibility. My experience, however, is that thoughtfully and politely refusing additional, meaningless layers of work, in concertation with colleagues, can have the positive effect of forcing management to seek out, and pay, for the additional support of early career colleagues, research assistants or administrative staff. We are all responsible, alongside academic institutions that all too often assume that our time is infinitely elastic, for rejecting a pressure that is detrimental to our well-being, to the quality of our work and to the diversity of our academic body, and for caring for ourselves and for colleagues.

Marie V. Gibert is currently an associate lecturer in the Department of Geography, Development and Environmental Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London.

1 thought on “Equality and Diversity in Academia: An Individual Responsibility of Care in the Face of Institutional Failure?”

  1. I love the idea of everyday acts of resistance, because I think it’s these informal and ‘under the radar’ acts that can be most effective at subtly changing norms and expectations. All the ‘volunteer’ conduct (Open days, covering random lectures) in my department somehow seem to land at the door of people who don’t say no or never seem to get asked (not surprisingly, senior men). This is a fairly explicit statement about whose time matters, and it’s pernicious because it’s very easy to start thinking of yourself as someone whose time doesn’t really matter (because no one else seems to).

    I’ve started copying the conduct of colleagues whose time seems to be valued (saying no without making an excuse; replying to emails at fixed times of the day; asking whether there will be other women or minorities on a panel). I don’t think anyone has consciously noticed, but they’ve stopped bugging me for all the ‘crap’ work.

    The HR-led diversity and equality positions are bizarre, but if they’re occupied by the right people or used in the right ways, can be very effective. It’s hard to know if using management-speak against management is the way to go (e.g. arguing that the reason we should have a gender and X course is because it looks good, or because it’s essential for understanding the discipline). But more solidarity, and self-policing, seems to be the only way to go if we want to keep great people in academia.

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