Leading with EDI: The role of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in the future university
Equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) have been a major focus in policy initiatives for the last several decades. As a result of policy interventions like affirmative action, quotas and flexible working arrangements, women, ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities have seen greater participation in higher education than ever before[i]. However, this progress is not reflected in the diversity of university leadership positions, where most executives and top management are white and male. Though the proportion of female university rectors has increased by 73% since 2014[ii], reports from the European Commission show that women make up less than 25% of HEI heads[iii]. In this article, we examine the pressing concerns of exclusion, inequity and lack of diversity in today’s universities and why they must accelerate their efforts to address them.
Greater than the gender imbalance
The issue of lack of diversity in university leadership is Europe-wide; in the case of gender balance, women hold less than 24% of senior positions in EU27[iv].
To date, this gender imbalance has been the focus of policy, but these gaps become even more prominent when considering the intersection of other characteristics such as socio-economic background, ethnicity, or (dis)ability.
In 2021 it was reported that fewer than 1% of the professors employed at universities in the UK are black, and few UK universities employ more than one or two black professors[v]. Similarly, a 2019 study of public health universities in the USA indicated that the intersecting identities of gender and ethnicity produced a “magnified absence of female academics from ethnic minorities[vi]”.
The concept of intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, describes how different individual characteristics such as race, class, and gender “intersect” and compound to create overlapping discrimination. People from these marginalised groups are at a disadvantage when pursuing more senior positions due to specific national cultural contexts and welfare systems, as well as different social, legal, and institutional constraints. These include a lack of appropriate role models and networking opportunities, gendered perceptions of leadership styles, a lower success rate in funding applications, and pressures for women to fulfil domestic care work alongside paid employment Even with the opportunity to be recruited or promoted into these executive positions and hold qualifications like that of their white, male counterparts, they are routinely undervalued despite these credentials having been attained with far greater obstacles[viii].
The concept of intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, describes how different individual characteristics such as race, class, and gender “intersect” and compound to create overlapping discrimination.
Going beyond diversity
The acronym “EDI” deliberately begins with “equity” to highlight the importance of addressing inequities at a structural level, and not having diversity as the sole aim. Though important, when the priority is diversity, rather than equity, demographics can be presented in a manner to fashion an outward image of diversity and progressiveness, without reflecting real systemic change[ix]. This is often a criticism of universities, where diversity in decision-making positions lags in comparison to all other markers of progress in the diversity of the student population.
Why should universities concern themselves with EDI?
This problem of lack of diversity among university leadership does not exist in a vacuum but also contributes to radial and future compounding inequalities. These include fewer role models and mentors for those in the academic pipeline, and an under-representation of other identities in decision-making at executive level. Universities today are tasked with tackling a host of complex societal challenges relating to security, health, technology, and climate change. If these institutions want to make a meaningful contribution to addressing these challenges, offer the most relevant education to students and take their research beyond academia, they require a diversity of perspectives, skills and experiences at their leadership tables.
If these institutions want to make a meaningful contribution […] they require a diversity of perspectives, skills and experiences at their leadership tables.
This effort does not end with inclusive hiring practices. Other approaches such as the transformation of curricula, development of policies, investment in student support services and accessible facilities all work to drive systemic change. By challenging the power dynamics that stifle university leadership structures and with leaders that are more representative of universities’ increasingly diverse learners, we can allow the flourishing of more rigorous and liberatory provision of knowledge[x].
Current university leadership will not be able to effectively mitigate their own biases in their leadership and decision-making without appropriate training and support.
Equitable, Diverse, and Inclusive University Leadership Programme
Current university leadership will not be able to effectively mitigate their own biases in their leadership and decision-making without appropriate training and support. UIIN will be tackling this important topic further in a forthcoming project which will develop training programmes for both current university leaders and aspiring leaders from underrepresented groups. The dual design speaks to the evidence that leadership buy-in and the involvement of target group(s) are both crucial in furthering EDI progress in HEIs and leading change. By championing equity, diversity, and inclusion in all aspects of university life, we can create institutions that can reshape the future of academia for the better.
[i] European University Association (2019) Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in European Higher Education Institutions: Results from the INVITED Project. www.eua.eu/downloads/publications/web_diversity%20equity%20and%20inclusion%20in%20european%20higher%20education%20institutions.pdf
[ii] European University Association (2022) Women in University Leadership – some progress but more to do. https://www.eua.eu/news/841:women-in-university-leadership-%E2%80%93-some-progress-but-more-to-do.html
[iii] European Commission (2022) Commission Communication on a European strategy for universities. https://education.ec.europa.eu/document/commission-communication-on-a-european-strategy-for-universities
[iv] European Commission, Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, She figures 2021: gender in research and innovation: statistics and indicators, Publications Office, 2021, https://data.europa.eu/doi/10.2777/06090
[v] Higher Education Statistics Agency (2021) Who’s working in HE? www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/staff/working-in-he
[vi] Khan, M. S., Lakha, F., Tan, M. M. J., Singh, S. R., Quek, R. Y. C., Han, E., … & Legido-Quigley, H. (2019). More talk than action: gender and ethnic diversity in leading public health universities. The Lancet, 393(10171), 594-600.
[vii] OECD (2020) Policies and Practices to Promote Women in Leadership Roles in the Private Sector. G20 Empower Alliance. www.oecd.org/corporate/OECD-G20-EMPOWER-Women-Leadership.pdf
[viii] Harris, L. C., & Narayan, U. (1998). Affirmative Action as Equalizing Opportunity: Challenging the Myth of Preferential Treatment. Nat’l Black LJ, 16(27). [ix] Arkins, M. C., & French, B. E. (2023). Demolition, Division and Displacement: Examining the Preservation of Whiteness in Rotterdam Municipal Housing Policy. Critical Sociology, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/08969205231176837
[x] Kessi, S., Marks, Z., & Ramugondo, E. (2021). Decolonizing knowledge within and beyond the classroom. Critical African Studies, 13(1), 1-9.
Ready for more?
If you enjoyed this article, you might also like our podcast episode Towards a More Diverse, Equitable and Inclusive University. Our Pathway to Impact program is designed for ambitious academics across all disciplines at every career stage to boost both the scientific and societal impact of their academic work through external engagement and partnering, SDGs as well as effective communication and personal branding. The next addition of the program will run from March 2024.
Madeline Arkins (author) is a Project Officer at UIIN. In her work she focuses on topics relating to social impact and innovation in regional ecosystems.