Why do I “do” diversity and inclusion?

This week my job share in the role of Dean for Diversity and Inclusion,  Simon Chandler-Wilde,  and I have been doing the first of several discussion sessions for staff at University of Reading. We are presenting our initial plans for making our University more diverse and inclusive and asking for feedback on proposed actions to get towards the Diversity and Inclusion targets recently agreed by our University Executive Board (such as increase in women in professorial roles and better representation of women and BAME staff on strategic decision making committees).

One question we got asked was… “you obviously chose to apply for these roles, so what got you into it?”. Here is the answer I gave, the first parts of which I have said before, but the final part I only realised when answering the question!

One of my core values is enabling people to reach their full potential. I have always mentored formally and informally and I love teaching. As a Head of Department I was responsible for career and personal development of academic and research staff. The most joyful parts of my job have been hearing that people have got the degree, new job, promotion or publication that they really deserved. I have literally jumped up and down in my office on several occasions. So a role in promoting and driving diversity and inclusion is very closely aligned to my core values.

I also have a sort of history of challenging gender stereotypes albeit in a parochial way:

When I was 7 I asked my Dad why only boys were allowed to sing in the church choir (he was in it himself). He told me to ask the vicar, who didn’t have a defensible answer (arguments are sometimes made about the different tonal quality of boys voices compared to girls but this was not a high cathedral choir). So two of us joined and pretty soon the number of junior choristers soared now that they could access the talent of the girls.

When I was 12 my male physics teacher told me that girls didn’t do physics. When people tell me I can’t do something, that tends to motivate me to do exactly that (within the confines of socially acceptable behaviour and without breaking laws obviously). Later on, when I told the careers advisor that I wanted to do physics at university, he said “well I suppose you could be a teacher”. I AM a teacher of sorts but I don’t think this is what he had in  mind!

My first (and possibly only) bit of direct campaigning so far concerned the fact that at the boys school in our town they were allowed to study for 10 GCSEs whilst us girls were only allowed to do 8 subjects. To their credit, the school arranged for our Head mistress to teach a class of 6 of us French every morning before school so that we could do 9 subjects, which was a big commitment, but I was never given a satisfactory answer as to why we couldn’t do the same number in the first place.

I have told those stories before. But yesterday it also struck me that there has been another driver in recent years. Having children exposes you to all sorts of gender stereotypes about working parents, mothers versus fathers etc. However, it’s when my children started school, in a primary school that serves a catchment area with great diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, socio-economic background and relationship with education, that I really became aware of some of my own biases. Not only that, but I realised that many of my children’s friends will not have the opportunities that they should have because of various biases, be that relating to gender, race or socio-economic background. Of course at University we see the product of these biases in that students from different backgrounds face additional challenges in applying to, being accepted at and progressing through their courses.

So I took this job in the hope that I can do something, in a small way, to ensure that all my children’s classmates get the opportunities they deserve. The University is my home environment so I start here, but I am now starting to be able to use the learning from this role to challenge my own biases and the behaviour in the School too.




Getting engaged via a diverse curriculum

“The one thing we all want to do is to engage our students”.

So began the Teaching and Learning Showcase on Diversifying the Curriculum that I attended at Reading yesterday. If my experience of this showcase of 5 different curriculum development projects across campus is anything to go by, the speakers know a lot about engaging students. Personal experience tells us that we learn more when we are engaged, and we engage when we can identify with what we are seeing, hearing and reading. Thus the recognition that diversifying our curriculum in terms of race and ethnicity is a natural conclusion in the light of the much publicised BME attainment gap in HE  and the increasing diversity of the students in our global university.

Dr Rebecca Harris from the Institute of Education kicked off the session relating their personal experience teaching secondary school teachers to deliver a diverse syllabus in their schools.  The issues raised by trainee teachers such as fear of offending no doubt also ring true for many of us, but can lead to “colour-blind” curricula which merely avoid the issue – often not successfully. Dr Harris also considered the concept of a “balanced” syllabus. As a climate scientist, I am used to talking, or indeed ranting, about the importance of a balanced approach in dissemination, but as was pointed out yesterday, even balance is a relative term and depends on the individual.

Dr Nicola Abram and Dr Nicole King from the School of Literature and Languages also talked about the importance of starting with a key part 1 module, in their case “Research and Critical methods”, so that students learn to challenge the classical canons of English Literature from the very start of their university career. This was achieved by adding new texts, for example essays by Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. As this module involves around 200 students and therefore lots of staff, a happy by-product is that this redesign has also influenced other staff across the School.

Did you know that, as far as we are aware, Reading was the first UK University Department to hire a specialist lecturer in non-Western Philosophy? Nope, me neither. Dr Shalini Sinha now offers lectures and modules on Indian Buddhist and non-Buddhist Philosophy at a variety of levels, and crucially, includes 3 lectures on non-Western Philosophy in the first year module Human Nature. Western Philosophy has traditionally been very white male dominated and highly theoretical, but the non-Western view offers students the chance to consider the big questions such as who we are, how we should live, what it is to suffer, from very different perspectives. Again, the approach is to introduce a diversity of views early on in the programme, to contemporise the issues, link to students values and embed throughout lectures, seminars, essays and exams.

The sole STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) offering was from Mrs Cristina Duckett from Construction Management (note to self… talk to STEM schools!) who neatly demonstrated that even the (ahem) driest of subjects, building regulations, can be a vehicle for diversifying the curriculum. Design and construction of buildings with ostensibly similar functions in different societies will reflect differing history, values, religious practices, climate and customs. Asking students to compare, for example, two house designs or two buildings for worship in different countries can bring in many aspects of diversity.

The final project returned to the importance of diverse curricula for prompting students to question their own sense of identity and values. Dr Julia Waters from Modern Languages and European Studies runs a Part 3 module on French Caribbean Literature which attracts a high proportion of BME students, including overseas and visiting students. French Caribbean literature is a relatively young literature and students have to confront assumptions not only about identity, European supremacy, language politics, post-colonial theory and black consciousness movements. Dr Waters finished with some very valuable reflections on her experiences, including her honesty about her own discomfort teaching this subject as a “white, middle-class woman” and incorrect assumptions that Black and Caribbean students would have insider knowledge about slavery, colonisation and contemporary world politics.

From history and education, English and French Caribbean literature, philosophy and construction, the common thread yesterday was that diversifying the curricula we teach begins with reflecting on our own practice, experiences and values, and how these colour (word chosen deliberately) our teaching. Finding ways to engage students with this thought process for themselves needs to  be embedded throughout our programmes, not just in a “Diversity silo”, and to start in Part 1, so that it carries through the rest of a student’s learning experiences.  This is a prime example of exploiting the so called “habit discontinuity hypothesis” which  states that when a context change disrupts individuals’ habits, a window opens in which behavior is more likely to be deliberately considered. Going to University is a major context change – giving us an exciting opportunity for all our diversity and inclusion work.