The benefits of a diverse workforce (including those with visible or non-visible markers of diversity) and a diverse society are widely accepted. Some argue that diversity in UK organisations and society have been strengthened to a degree through recognition of difference, acknowledgement of protected characteristics under equality legislation and increases in representation of ethnic minorities in political and public positions. Others maintain that organisations are working assiduously to create more inclusive ecosystems reflective of the rich tapestry of diversity within their societies. Nevertheless, the work to promote equity, diversity and inclusion, often led through the efforts of people who have an affiliation to a diversity characteristic (or intersectional combination of characteristics), still has a long journey ahead of it.
Research shows that exclusion, which promotes ‘a sensation in the brain akin to physical pain’, continues through the architecture and infrastructure of institutions and environments in many walks of life. So, how will we know when inclusion has been achieved? To what extent is belonging integral to inclusion? Who needs to do the work and what resources and support do the ‘workers’ need?
Diversity or promoting belonging – the conundrum
The concept of belonging offers a more inclusive solution to manifestations of inequality. Belongingness has been found to mediate the relationship between inclusion and the negative impact of exclusion. In higher education research ‘belongingness’ is said to be achieved when a person or group of people experience a sense of personal involvement in a social system or environment so that they feel themselves to be an integral part of that system or environment (Anant 1966; Haggarty et al 1992; Strayhorn 2019). Diverse university campuses are not always themselves enough to increase student engagement because sense of belonging can be impeded by cultural and institutional barriers
It has been argued that sense of belonging is important for psychological and physical wellbeing which are key components of mental health (Haggarty et al 1992). Sense of belonging is a fundamental human need (Maslow 1954), the thwarting of which has powerful psychological consequences.
Sense of belonging is intrinsically associated to related experiences such as: being counted or acknowledged, identification, feeling valued, feeling accepted and social connection. It is a vital component of identity (Kestenberg and Kestenberg 1998) and is essential in promoting feelings of relatedness (Markus and Kitman 1991). Belonging has also been shown to reduce stereotype threat. Stereotype threat relates to the psychological phenomena where an individual or group feels at risk of confirming a negative individual or group stereotype (Steele and Aronson 1995).
Belonging has been found to be a predictor of positive academic outcomes. Educational research has shown that students who have a greater sense of belonging tend to have higher interest, which benefits sustained engagement in learning and achievement. Sense of not belonging is not just about relationships. It is also operating in a culture of exclusion that engenders feelings of being ‘different’ to others, lacking relatability as well as a person feeling that they are not adding value. This can have a significant impact on one’s sense of self in promoting an imposter phenomenon.
Increasing sense of connectedness and belonging have become a top priority in increasingly diverse societies where non-traditional ways and modes of working and learning have become commonplace. Therefore, I propose five considerations in order to build and sustain more inclusive environments that promote belonging:
1. Increase accountability
If we don’t intentionally include, we are very likely to exclude. Belonging is a by-product of inclusion. Creating organisational cultures with inclusive values at its core, where everyone can bring their whole, authentic selves (if they so desire) could prove effective in promoting and sustaining inclusive environments. This requires collective action, honesty, compassion, empathy, creativity and courage. Everyone has to be invested in the endeavour and actively play their part.
2. Acknowledge that healing requires recognition
Intersecting identities can result in multiple modes of exclusion and unbelonging. One way to mitigate this might be to support leaders, managers and educators as they work to redress barriers to belonging and promote inclusion, by helping them to recognise and understand modes of exclusion and unbelonging.
Recognising the advantages (earned or unearned) afforded to members of majority groups and using those advantages to challenge systems and processes that promote and sustain inequality is often thought of as allyship. Allyship is more than about speaking out against inequalities. It involves acting with intent. In terms of promoting belonging, ‘allies’ should work collectively with and in support of, marginalised and affected groups in order to highlight, agree and sustain actions to address structural inequalities
4. Recognising standpoint
Our social positions and experiences gives us unique perspectives. Organisations should value the intersectional experiences of all stakeholders (particularly those that traditionally may have been marginalised). Ensuring that those experiences and perspectives feature in decision-making and the creation of equity-based activities may be effective in building and sustaining more inclusive cultures and environments.
Listening is key in order to promote and sustain equity, inclusion and belonging. Listen to understand. Listen impartially without interruption. Listen with discernment. Let all stakeholders feel affirmed, seen and heard. Then develop transparent processes to show the steps that have been taken in response.
Dr Dave S.P. Thomas is an Associate Professor at Solent University, Southampton. He is also a Senior Fellow with over two decades of experience in leadership, management, teaching and research in the educational sector as well as private and public sector organisations globally. Find out more about Dave here
Anant, S.S. (1966). The need to belong. Canada’s Mental Health, 14, 21-21.
Hagerty, B.M.K., Lynch-Sauer, J., Patusky, K.L., Bouwsema, M., and Collier, P. (1992). Sense of Belonging: A Vital Mental Health Concept, Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, VI. 3, pp. 172-177
Kestenberg, M., and Kestenberg, J.S. (1988). The sense of belonging and altruism in children who survived the Holocaust. Psychoanalytic Review, 75(4), 533-560.
Markus, H.R., and Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion and motivation. Psychological Review, 98(2), 224-253.
Maslow, A. (1954). Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper
Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of Black Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797-811.
Strayhorn, T. L. (2019). College students' sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
Building Belonging Collaborative Project
Belonging is a key part of the student experience, contributing to student retention, attainment and wellbeing. Belonging is a multi-faceted concept, encompassing inclusion and diversity, community, academic confidence and feeling that you matter and are valued. This collaborative project offers an opportunity for teams at school or programme levels to develop an understanding of what belonging might mean in their context and new approaches to proactively foster belonging from induction onwards. Find out more about the project here.