Creating an inclusive environment

Development Monthly | #2 October 2021 | Creating an inclusive environment

Helen Curtis 

School Manager, University of Bristol

I recently attended a conference entitled ‘Living the Dream’ discussing how to think about equality and diversity more strategically and build an inclusive environment. A question I have been asking myself is how do we as leaders, managers, and members of the HE community work towards inclusion? To this end I have been conducting a review in the Bristol Medical School to understand what inclusion is and what does it mean to our staff, an important question we need to answer if we are planning on working towards creating an inclusive environment.  

While equality and diversity are quite tangible, inclusion is far more implicit, it is the way we feel, a sense of value or belonging that is unique to every individual. Some parties argue that growing diversity within the field of HE, rather than producing a more inclusive higher education, has resulted in a segregation and increasingly polarised system (Reay, 2017). This is something I have been contemplating as I work towards a more diverse workforce, it is easy to be inclusive when we have similar backgrounds, experiences, beliefs, and ways of working. It can also be easy to assume that because we feel included, those around us do as well, but I have found that as I begin to ask the question what inclusion means to you, that staff experience is varied. 

From my work supporting EDI in the Bristol Medical School, which has recently included interviewing staff on their thoughts and experiences of inclusion in the School I have been struck by the importance of three themes: educating yourself; creating space for open conversation; and how to make staff feel valued as an individual. 

I attended a conference on Tackling Racism in HE in 2020, shortly after the murder of George Floyd, I listened to Black colleagues from around the country talk about the personal impact that this tragic event had on them, and what they were trying to do to tackle racism. A comment that one of the speakers made resonated with me “it’s not my job to end your racism”, given in the context of the labour involved in EDI work, which often falls on those from marginalised groups. Too often, when comments like this are made, we shy away as it makes us feel uncomfortable, but something I have learnt from working in this arena is that I need to get comfortable feeling uncomfortable. This simple challenge has led me to start to read more about racism, to understand the experiences of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Colleagues, which has in turn made me consider the other lived experiences I have limited understanding on, such as LGBTQIA and those with disabilities. I am grateful to those who have taken time to write on these topics and share their lived experiences, which often comes at personal cost. 

I now realise the importance of creating space with colleagues to have open conversations about the issues that matter to them. Colleagues identified how having space to speak about world events such as the deaths of George Floyd and Sarah Everard, or the suffering and loss we have seen recently in India due to Covid, are important. It is striking to see how included those that were part of teams who had space to discuss these events, and how alone and isolated staff felt who had not. I have also better understood how social media abuse following Pride weighs heavily on LGBTQ+ colleagues. As we look for lessons to learn from the pandemic, I hope that one lesson will be the better understanding we gained of how these events can disproportionately impact on different demographics, including highlighting the disproportionate impact on women due to caring responsibilities. 

Another theme that came through the interviews and has come up in other work undertaken in the School on culture, is the notion of being valued. All of us I think, no matter our demographics, share this common desire to be appreciated for the unique individual that we are. How we achieve this, unfortunately I don’t yet have the answer.  However, I think, if we each consider how we could better understand the lived experiences of those around us, whether through increasing our understanding or creating space for these conversations, that would be a good place to start.  

Imogen Debbonaire and I will be at the Autumn Conference to start the conversation of how we create an inclusive environment and would appreciate your thoughts and experiences. We extend the invitation to all members of our AUA community and look forward to seeing you there. 

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