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The pitfalls of striving for progress

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Working for equality, diversity and inclusion brings tough choices, say Sapna Marwaha and her colleagues

As people with lived and learned experience of the issues, we have had many first-hand encounters with initiatives to improve equity, diversity and inclusion in the research and innovation sector. 

We know that responsibility to deliver change often falls disproportionately to staff belonging to marginalised groups. On one level, this makes sense—we have the experience and knowledge to know what needs to change, and the sense of purpose to make it happen. 

But there are risks to getting involved in such initiatives: institutions often expect people from marginalised groups to provide the representation needed to make EDI initiatives credible and effective, without providing the recognition, resources or compensation to make such efforts accessible or sustainable. Even with the best intentions, many end up perpetuating the inequalities they seek to eliminate.

Striving for progress

From experience and conversations with colleagues, though, we have come across common themes and lessons on how to navigate the pitfalls as a marginalised individual striving for progress.

The first is to invest your energy wisely. We have found that the more experience we have of the barriers we are trying to remove, the more exhausting it can be to get involved. Trying to convince those who are uninterested in seeing the need or striving for change is a recipe for burnout. Being tasked with gathering evidence, data and feedback, only to see it dismissed or ignored, is heartbreaking. Trying to make change with those who share your passion and commitment is a different story.

We certainly want to contribute, but we face tough choices about where to deploy our time and energy. We prioritise initiatives that seek to change outcomes as well as outlooks. And for projects to succeed, everyone needs to play their part in contributing to change. Most importantly, leaders must drive progress.  

It’s okay to pass on a project, for any reason. You might not have the time, energy or interest. Depending on the opportunity, you might pass the mic or pass it back. Setting and maintaining boundaries is an important skill to hone. Finding projects full of inspiration and impact can take time. We’ve learned to spot several red flags that a project isn’t going to do either. 

If a project insists on collecting data before making interventions that have already been proven to improve outcomes, then it’s offering distraction not disruption. If power to influence change isn’t passed to the groups most affected, then it’s offering saviourism not solutions. And if a strategy prioritises the comfort of majority groups over the safety of the most marginalised, then it’s seeking to change the parameters of inequality, not deliver equality.  

The second question is of values and vision. EDI issues are difficult to navigate, and there will always be different opinions on how best to achieve change. Different perspectives are vital to helping us figure out better solutions together. 

What we must share with the people and projects we engage with are values and vision; driving for a fairer, more representative and inclusive environment to deliver better and more equal outcomes.

The business case for EDI is irrefutable. It delivers greater community, sustainability, impact and innovation. But we mustn’t forget that it is also the right thing to do. 

To succeed, EDI initiatives need authenticity. For this, they need leaders with a passion for justice and the ability to connect with and inspire their colleagues. 

Third, build your network. Through working with affinity groups within our organisations, engaging in events and conferences, and taking on governance roles in professional organisations, we have connected with many like-minded individuals. It’s important to have a community around you; to collaborate, to provide help, and to provide the inspiration, support and respite we need to make a success of the initiatives we are driving.  

Finally, it’s vital to find the joy that balances out the tougher parts of EDI work, be it within the work itself—planning events, redesigning processes and engaging with new groups—or outside, in family, friends and interests.

Having purpose

People whose work is driven by purpose are often tempted and encouraged to sacrifice their personal time to these initiatives.

Self-care is not selfish, and change is a marathon not a sprint. We must remind ourselves that we are most effective in delivering when we are healthy and well-rested. Our success will contribute to a culture where more people thrive.

Sapna Marwaha is senior legal counsel at LifeArc. Annette Hay is senior research delivery support partner at Coventry University. Kieran Fenby-Hulse is a research fellow in the Centre for Culture and Creativity, Teesside University

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight and a version appeared in Research Europe