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Diversity, equity and inclusion: Pushing back against pushback


RPN Live: How to champion anti-discriminatory policies in the face of resistance

As attendees at the Research Professional News Live webinar on the topic heard, in the last few years there has been genuine progress on diversity, equity and inclusion measures in research.

But there have not been nearly enough DEI-promoting measures taken. As Jakob Feldtfos Christensen, director of Diversiunity—a Denmark-based consultancy dedicated to making diversity work in research—said in the opening presentation: researchers are being put at risk by the ongoing lack of consideration for minoritised people.

This point was also made by Katherine Deane, a university access ambassador and associate professor in the school of health sciences at the University of East Anglia, who cited reports on institutions’ “unsafe and even unlawful” failure of provision for their disabled staff. “We are finding basically that the processes are so poor that we are placing people actively at risk,” she said.

In summary, there is still much work to be done. But what can those acting for positive change do in the face of pushback? This question brought forth some compelling replies from the webinar’s panellists.

Here are four pointers that emerged during that discussion.

1. Take opportunities where you see them

Dina Stroud, programme director at the US National Science Foundation and a leader of the Growing Research Access for Nationally Transformative Equity and Diversity (Granted) initiative at the National Science Foundation, said that one of the things she learned early on while working to further equity was getting to “know who to avoid”.

She expanded: “You learn to find the advocates and you work with those folks. You do what you can and recognise the limitations of the situation but keep moving. You just can’t let it stop you.”

Deane agreed, saying it makes sense to work with allies who are already onside rather than try to win over hardened holdouts. But she offered a caveat: don’t waste time with people who are only superficially allied.

She said: “I have stopped working with quite a number of allies who intend good things but once I start asking for more than the bare minimum, they start to say ‘Oh, that’s too much!’ At that point I tend to back away.”

2. Humanise the rhetoric around DEI

The first pointer should not be taken to mean that diversity advocates should stop trying to win people over, panellists agreed. Parveen Yaqoob, deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Reading and chair of the UK’s Athena Swan Governance Committee, spoke of negative reaction to a race equality review she led at her university. In response to criticism that this initiative would be “pushing left-wing ideology”, Yaqoob responded by recounting from personal experience what was at stake.

In those conversations, she brought up her “personal experience growing up in the 1970s and ’80s in a very racist area and some of the professional challenges that I’ve had with respect to racial equality”.

Such an approach “did break down some barriers”, Yaqoob said, even if it wasn’t a magic bullet against resistance.

Deane also talked of how she advocated for change by incorporating her personal history. She said: “I have to be very clear with people that I’m a disabled researcher and I have very specific needs because without these accommodations I cannot do my job…These are not special treatments, these are not extras, these are not advantages…Without these accommodations I wouldn’t be working now; we would have lost my voice; we would have lost the voice of a lot of disabled people.”

3. Recognise that some pushback is legitimate

Feldtfos Christensen focused on pushback from the communities that DEI initiatives are meant to serve. This can arise, he said, because institutions often seek to start a DEI drive by collecting data. Yet, after years of discrimination and exclusion, people within those communities often have little trust in those institutions. The logical response, Feldtfos Christensen said, becomes: “If I don’t trust you, I’m not going to tell you who I am.”

Deane summed up the grounds for this rational distrust well: “The disabled community and other minoritised communities have been promised many things over many years and very little has come of that.”

4. Put action first

Sapna Marwaha, deputy chair of the UK’s Association of Research Managers and Administrators and chair of that organisation’s DEI Advisory Group, said it was important to resist relentless calls for more data from people in power to justify the need for inclusive initiatives.

She said: “I don’t think we need to do anything more to prove [systemic discrimination]. The problem exists and the places where I’ve managed to make the biggest difference are the ones that already acknowledge that.”

Indeed, there seemed to be unity across the panel that many DEI initiatives were so well-evidenced that there was now no excuse for them not to be implemented—and only when they were would it be acceptable to ask those from minoritised communities to talk about themselves.

Feldtfos Christensen said: “The first step as an institution [should always be] to take action because you don’t have the trust from minorities from the get-go. You need to show minorities that they can actually trust you then you can start to ask them about data about themselves.”

Similarly, Deane said that only once her university had carried out renovations and modifications to make buildings accessible to disabled people could it show that “all those mission statements, all those good intents and good policies, actually had concrete outcomes. The trust [of disabled researchers] started to be built and at that point we could have deep discussions with people about disability access.”

For Marwaha, the question of building that trust fed into another discussion about creating a welcoming environment. She said: “I sometimes get asked [by institutional leaders], ‘How do we signal to people that we are safe?’ The reality is that when you [present] a really homogenous team it becomes clear that really you are not.”

Again, here, the answer lay in putting action first—in diversifying institutional leadership. Without this, Marwaha said “It’s very clear to somebody from a minoritised group that [yours] is not an environment that rewards people from different backgrounds.”