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Diversity: all in this together?

Sheila Gupta is Queen Mary’s new champion for diversity – here she tells us why institutional cultures must be fair, inclusive and built on trust

I am enthused, excited and inspired by Queen Mary’s commitment to become the most inclusive research-intensive university in the world by 2030. That is why I was attracted by the newly created role of vice-principal of people, culture and inclusion.

Who you are, or where you are from, should never be a barrier to learning, working, realising your ambitions and fulfilling your potential.

Inclusivity and diversity are issues in the higher education sector which hold more importance than ever before. For me, there is an important link between the discourse on diversity and the role of universities in modern society.

We need to think carefully about language and, in particular, how the term ‘black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME)’, does not resonate with members of our staff and student communities

My own view is that generally universities aspire to advance the frontiers of learning and knowledge through excellent research, education and innovation. Our role in enhancing economic growth, improving social cohesion and delivering health and environmental benefits can be better achieved by helping to create a more inclusive society.

However, the 21st-century world is highly complex and we require diversity across all levels of our workforce if we are to be able to genuinely fulfil this aspiration to understand the complexity of these challenges and then explore how to respond to them.

By being inclusive and diverse across our student and staff communities, bringing together different perspectives and offering new insights through our interdisciplinary and foundation work, we can better understand how to respond to the complex needs of society.

Fostering a culture in which all our staff and students can thrive, and which is enriched through positively engaging with our alumni, is key to realising our ambitious vision of achieving true inclusivity.

My key goals derive from the university’s 2030 Strategy to embed inclusion into everything that we do. I want to truly understand the culture; learn about the aspirations of all our staff and students; explore their experiences of what it is like to work and learn here; and ascertain the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for us all. My early conversations have already provided me with valuable and, at times, unexpected insights, of which I shall say more later.

I have been particularly impressed by how our university community has risen to the challenges presented by Covid-19 through working on the front line in the NHS, or involvement in this new and evolving area of research; by buddying up and providing invaluable support for those who are struggling: students, staff and people within their local communities; and by transforming how we deliver our learning to our now distributed student population in these extraordinary times.

It has also taught me that we need to reconceive our original ideas about diversity and inclusion in a way that may need to endure for the longer-term future.

Bringing fresh thinking to introducing very many different patterns of working from home; creating new networks such as those for parents and carers; redefining how we ensure the wellbeing and mental health of our students and staff, particularly those who are in vulnerable groups.

We do not know what the new normal will be, however, by building on the experiences of our staff and students, we have started to reframe our policies to align to the needs of a very different world.

In my early discussions with members of the university community, both staff and students, certain themes have come up a number of times in terms of how to create and sustain a values-based culture. These are all still just ideas at this time, but worth sharing in the context of this piece, as examples of issues that have resonance across the Queen Mary community.

The importance of introducing a leadership development framework that will promote a model of inclusive leadership at all levels; facilitate fair and equitable succession planning; and improve diversity across our different levels of leadership.

Where leaders will be expected to exemplify the university’s values through their behaviours and how they are embedding these expectations within their teams.

Similarly, our values can be embedded in academic, professional and technical career paths through the concept of citizenship, where career development, promotion and rewards are inextricably linked to behaviours and how staff work, not just what they deliver.

These models would be created in partnership with the constituencies for whom they are intended to embed a genuine sense of ownership and engagement.

In recent conversations, I noted with interest that both UK and international colleagues feel no connection with this terminology and often do not self-identify as BAME

We also need to think carefully about language and, in particular, how the use of the term ‘black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME)’, does not resonate with members of our staff and student communities.

In recent conversations, I noted with interest that both UK and international colleagues feel no connection with this terminology and often do not self-identify as BAME.

Given the importance of language to achieving a sense of inclusivity, this will be a vital conversation to have to identify phraseology that does resonate with our diverse community.

For a number of years now there has been a lot of important work done across the sector to improve gender equality, but progress on accessibility and equality for disabled people has been much slower.

Not many people are self-identifying as disabled and we need to understand the reasons why. A major concern is that there is a fear of being stigmatised, or that people do not believe that much will change.

Dealing effectively with disability is complex because of the wide range of physical and mental conditions that exist, and we realise that we may not have expertise across all areas, however, there are organisations which specialise in working with employers and education providers alike, who can help the university enhance its work in this important area of diversity and inclusion.

Cultural, social and technological improvements can significantly enhance the experience of our staff and students as members of the university community.

People from underrepresented communities, particularly staff with disabilities and people of colour, can feel that they do not have an effective voice and do not feel part of an inclusive community.

At Queen Mary, we have a thriving LGBTQ+ network and we are about to launch a disability network. Now is the perfect opportunity to explore whether other communities who are underrepresented would also welcome their own network. These can provide a valuable channel through which staff express their views, aspirations and needs. Providing both an invaluable channel during these times of lockdown and also with a view to building established networks for the longer term beyond the current crisis.

We need to build trust and, as we work towards being the most inclusive university of its kind, we recognise that this is a challenge and also an opportunity to be innovative and bold. We can draw on models of international good practice such as initiatives from Harvard and Caltech, who have trialed new ways of improving diversity within their workforce.

There is so much more to do and I am also conscious that, to become and remain a sector leader in inclusivity, we can always strive for more.

We need to create institutional cultures that are truly inclusive in which every individual member feels welcomed, accepted and able to flourish as they contribute to the success of their university.

At Queen Mary, we now have an opportunity to set an example in the sector to show that anyone can realise their potential when learning and working with us, regardless of who you are or where you are from.


Sheila Gupta MBE is vice-principal for people, culture and inclusion at Queen Mary University of London. Prior to this she served as director of human resources at several higher education institutes including Cambridge University and the University of Sussex

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