‘One of the things I like most about my job is that I get to see and be involved in a wide range of EDI strategies and initiatives across different nations, sectors and types of institutions. I have been involved in many ambitious and successful programmes – as well as a few that haven’t delivered quite what we hoped for.
But when it comes to Ireland, what stands out for me is the success of its third level education sector in delivering outcomes to support EDI – particularly its focus on women in senior roles, including women Presidents across the sector.
Third level education in Ireland has delivered meaningful progress, working closely with the government, developing credible action plans and robust longitudinal delivery, working through the framework of the Athena Swan Charter.
What’s clear is that EDI priorities and expectations are now rightly starting to be broadened in Ireland to include race, disability, the Traveller community and other relevant equality grounds.
But the pressing question for EDI teams now is this: how will you evolve your approach to EDI so that you remain as successful and impactful as you’ve been so far?
We know from research and practice that lasting change in EDI needs institutional commitment as well as a broad and authentic sense of ownership across staff and students.
In Ireland, there are different types of institutions with different geographies, stakeholders and contexts. That means there can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach to EDI. Instead, institutions need to devise their own unique approach based on their individual contexts and circumstances.
A common dysfunction in different EDI regulatory regimes is the pressure for institutions to tackle every area - This is our disability action plan. This is our race action plan. This is our gender action plan. These are our priorities for trans inclusion, for sexual orientation, for the Traveller community.
But no institution can deliver on every front. If you have 10 EDI priorities, you actually have none because what you end up seeing is institutions doing the bare minimum in lots of areas and achieving very little.
The challenge then is for individual institutions to be clear-eyed in their own strategic vision and set defined priorities that can deliver impactful change. It is for EDI teams to work with their boards and senior managers to do their best to make sure this happens.
It is actually quite difficult to see sustained long-term progress. One of the main factors that seems to be common to successful, long-term initiatives is organisational commitment. Not government or sector commitment but organisational commitment.
And that means being intentional about what you do. And what you don’t do.
When I look across different sectors and see the success that Ireland has had in relation to gender, it’s clear that they have said ‘this is our focus’. And it’s worked.
Taking a holistic approach
In Canada, the UK, parts of the US and in Ireland too, I can see institutions embracing a more holistic approach to EDI.
This new approach is emerging directly in response to that challenge of ‘too many priorities’ - too little resource, not enough staff time, and a lack of practical alignment between different areas of focus.
A holistic approach enables institutions to take a step back and say, actually, this isn’t a zero sum game. We can see common ground and shared aims here. We’re often working with similar stakeholders, and that overlap between gender, race, socio-economic status and wellbeing, creates the potential for larger and more effectual coalitions - coalitions that can better and more efficiently support EDI activity.
Holistic approaches have been tried before. But the difference now is that we have much greater capacity around EDI and better understanding of intersectionality.
Taking an intersectional approach can be a way to develop more holistic organisational strategies and initiatives while ensuring your institution is consciously including and working with those who are most marginalised in your communities, whoever they may be.
When we built coalitions in the past, they were too easily dominated by majority groups – but, to connect this to our first conversation, we now have the tools to bring different people and perspectives into our conversations and decisions, and therefore to make different strategic choices, and potentially to deliver different outcomes because of it.
A related, but distinct innovation in EDI strategy is ‘shared leadership’ – organisations addressing inequality and underrepresentation together with the groups they are working with.
One of the aspects of EDI work that is both fascinating and challenging is how we create approaches that are meaningful for organisations as a whole and for the diverse groups with whom we collaborate. In this pursuit, the concept of ‘shared leadership’ emerges as a critical element. The development of PVC (Indigenous) roles in Australia, and parallel practices in, for example, New Zealand and Canada, are interesting examples here in how organisations address the historical marginalisation of specific groups from institutional decision making and prioritisation processes.
Shared leadership should not be limited to representation in leadership positions. Shared leadership is explicitly a collective responsibility that extends beyond representation to encompass meaningful engagement, expertise, experience and mutual accountability.
One of its benefits is that this provides another avenue for institutions to understand and address the challenge of having too many EDI priorities.
Instead of getting lost in an ever-growing list of priorities, institutions ask themselves, how they can work credibly, and meaningfully in partnership with a group? How can they share power and decision-making, how do organisational hierarchies evolve to create room for different perspectives and conversations?
You have only so many opportunities to develop shared leadership and for these sorts of changes in organisational processes. But your highest level organisational priorities could, or perhaps should, be paired with an explicit approach to shared leadership that helps you have difficult conversations about EDI and your strategic direction, make hard choices and set clearer, more focused institutional objectives.’
This is an extract of a speech David Bass made to EDI leaders at the SETU Equitas HE Conference 25-26 May 2023.
Pictured below is the Advance HE team that attended the Equitas Conference.