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Inclusion – a goal and a role for us all

Inclusion – a goal and a role for us all

28 April 21
 | 17 MINS

When we think of equality we think of fairness and ways to increase diversity, but stopping there is stopping short. As society strives for meaningful equality it is up to all of us to ensure that everyone feels included.

Organisations and educational bodies are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of creating an inclusive environment. In the context of NUI Galway, we see this ambition explicitly included in our Strategic Plan.

In discussions of inclusion, we often see concepts of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) discussed interchangeably. In reality however, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion are distinct, if interrelated, concepts.

Both equality and diversity have a role to play in achieving the overarching goal of inclusion. Equality measures drive diversity and participation in work or education. Diversity, in the sense of a diverse workforce or student body, will be the result of good equality measures. However, inclusion is something more – inclusion is the sense of belonging.

Take, for example, the work context. Equality measures, often based on legislation, drive the requirement for fair procedures. This should include fair advertising, short-listing and interview procedures.

The focus of such measures is to ensure the best candidate is hired and that the biases, conscious or unconscious, of those involved in the process, do not unfairly influence such decisions.

The result of such equality measures should therefore be a more diverse workforce. However, being selected for an employment role does not guarantee inclusion. You may be part of a system but not feel you belong, not feel or be valued, not feel or be welcome.

The same applies to students: access to education does not automatically lead to inclusion. Equality measures may therefore lead to increased diversity, but this alone is not enough: it is up to all of us to ensure that everyone feels included.

When NUI Galway drafted it current strategy Shared Vision: Shaped by Values, one value that emerged as a result of significant consultation with staff and students was that of respect. Respect and feeling respected could easily be regarded as a proxy for inclusion.

While inclusion is the goal, we cannot overlook the necessity of getting both the equality and diversity elements right.

A cursory look at any dictionary definition of respect refers to being admired for one’s abilities, qualities or achievements, or having regard for the feelings, wishes or rights of others.

Inclusion, in contrast, is described as a sense of belonging, that sense of being valued, valued for who you are and what you bring to the table.

It appears that these are two sides of the same coin – we want to ensure that we, as staff and students, are respected, that we have a sense of belonging, of being valued and included. The value of respect should support the goal of inclusion for all.

While inclusion is the goal, we cannot overlook the necessity of getting both the equality and diversity elements right.

Diversity, and what makes a diverse workforce or student body, is often dictated by or defined in law.

For example, in Irish equality law we prohibit discrimination on nine protected grounds: race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age, family status, civil status, religious belief, and membership of the Traveller community. The decision to protect certain groups is based in part on the fact that being member of those groups has resulted in exclusion, discrimination, segregation or worse.

We don’t have to look too far into our history to remember a time when consenting sexual relations between adult men were criminalised, where women were required to leave jobs on getting married. We don’t have to look to history at all to know that people with disabilities are still being institutionalised or denied educational opportunities, or to acknowledge the fact that members of the Traveller community have significantly lower life expectancy rates and education completion rates than the majority population.

These systemic wrongs are very specific examples of prejudice towards particular groups, but those biases and prejudice permeate all of society and impact our responses to members of those groups.

For example, research by Goldin and Rouse highlighted that when orchestras introduced gender blind auditions women’s chances of progressing through the auditions increased by 50%. The action in this example of asking all auditionees to audition behind a screen effectively helped remove the gender bias in the hiring process thereby ensuring a more diverse orchestra.

Addressing equality is complex. It is not always possible or desirable to just remove the particular characteristic from the equation, as in the case of the orchestra.

In the context of staff and students with disabilities, ignoring the fact of a disability may in fact reaffirm discrimination. In this context, staff or students with disabilities may require us to engage with the barrier to their participation and provide a reasonable accommodation, maybe in the form of requiring material in an alternative format or an amended work station – whatever adjustment is needed in the particular context.

We may also have to address broader, structural issues, such as accessibility in general, to ensure equal participation and inclusion.

A good example of this relates to the introduction of the Ally add-on to the Blackboard app last year. This enables students to download materials in different formats, depending on what is more accessible for them. To date we have had more than 60,000 student downloads of alternative formats, showing the importance of accessibility.

As one visually-impaired student commented in feedback, Ally “helps me to read so much more easily. I also appreciate that I can access the alternative text directly, without having to ask for assistance. It makes the whole process almost frictionless.”

So, in some contexts ensuring equality is achieved requires us to ignore irrelevant criteria like race, sexual orientation or gender, while in others it requires us to focus in on the barriers to participation in order to address those barriers.

Additionally, people don’t fit neatly into one group or the other: most of us will occupy several of the protected characteristics, for example we all have a gender, a race, a sexual orientation and an age, and it is often the interactions of those characteristics that can give rise to prejudice or disadvantage.

Rice refers, for example, to “The Motherhood Penalty” where the very fact of motherhood impacts negatively on mothers. A White Paper on the Position of Women in Science in Spain compared candidates with similar academic productivity and highlighted that men with children were four times more likely to become full professors than a woman with children. A Cornell report showed that mothers were judged as less competent and committed than women without children.

In these examples the negative impact relates to the intersection of two grounds, family status and gender. In other words, mothers are more disadvantaged than women generally, and also more disadvantaged than fathers.

It isn’t immediately apparent how best to address this – on the one hand, there should be a recognition of the impact of maternity leave on one’s career, on the other hand, perhaps blindness as to parental status may benefit mothers. The point is that systemic barriers are complex and require a multitude of responses.

We can measure the impact and success of equality measures by assessing the diversity of our staff and student bodies. But the fact of being in the workforce or student body as someone from a diverse background is no guarantee that you will feel or be valued or included for what you bring to the table.

We have to see people progress within the system, be it via the promotion system for workers, or through retention rates or qualification attainment for students.

The NESET Report (2013) highlighted that exclusionary practices in higher education impact on the student experience and importantly on both retention and completion rates of students.

While losing talent is in itself a failure of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, there are other risks for us as an institution.

It is, therefore, important that we move our thinking beyond the mere presence of a diverse staff or student body, to thinking about how we can ensure that everyone feels included and respected.

Failure to comply with the legal requirements can result in reputational damage and enforced equality actions. It is, therefore, important that we move our thinking beyond the mere presence of a diverse staff or student body, to thinking about how we can ensure that everyone feels included and respected.

In the College of Business, Public Policy and Law there is a huge amount of activity in this sphere. There are cultural immersion programmes for international students and intercultural training for staff and students. The Inclusive Learning Project, led from the School of Law, has gathered research on the experiences of students of inclusion and exclusion, identifying exclusionary practices such as some lecturers refusing to record lectures during the pandemic or failing to implement a LENS report and provide necessary (and legally required) reasonable accommodations.

But equally the students have indicated what made them feel included, and what is most striking about that is that little actions can often make a significant difference.

Students felt included because the lecturer used an example that contained a same sex couple, or used someone’s preferred pronouns, or provided (and implemented) an inclusion statement.

We know as staff that having our work recognised, or being thanked for our input, can go a long way. But when we ask what is the University doing, this is about all of us thinking – the Quad, students, staff – what can each of us do?

This is not to take from the necessity for systemic change, but equally if everyone took a small step towards inclusion the cumulative impact could be huge.


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