In the discussion of decolonising institutions and becoming more inclusive, one of crucial elements is the importance of having diversity within senior management. The approach makes for stronger and more innovative decision making which ultimately, makes institutions stronger. Equality and diversity work is often concentrated on other areas of the University, very rarely is a critical eye cast on senior management, their own practices and what change needs to be undertaken to change their composition. It is often put to aside due to the long- term nature of undertaking the change or in other words, “it is a pipeline problem” and therefore cannot be acted on. But there are ways which change can still be undertaken.
Begin by listening to staff members and trade unions about what their perception is of the barriers present in the institution. In what way can universities be flexible in the working arrangements it offers its staff? Covid has presented a window of opportunity where support for flexible working hours and arrangements could alleviate many barriers around childcare and disability to name a few. How much are universities permitting their staff to move away from the traditional model of working to allow for them to flourish?
Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement have brought to light the woeful safety measures for minorities in academia. Despite ambitious statements, numerous sector reports on approaches and standards, institutions are still grappling with appropriate interpretation, adequate funding and sufficient handling of cases. Robust complaints and disciplinary systems for staff members which are transparent is essential and have to iterative improvement built into it is essential. It will be difficult no matter how much funding is at stake but making courageous decisions makes people more comfortable to stay on and contribute if they know the institution has their back.
Offering management programs for staff members as they progress is an approach that presents plenty of opportunity for the institutions. Firstly, it clearly demonstrates an interest in senior management from the individual which is not diluted by people politics or the old boys club. Secondly, the development of these skills can be applied in addressing systemic issues of the institutions. This in turn, sets up the person to have learned and practiced on a number of major projects before becoming a part of senior management, building confidence, networks to draw on, and an understanding of the institution. All of this, continually helps to improve the institution.
Why not shake things up and look outside of the sector when making new appointments? Other sectors are further along in the conversation on diversity and could have some skills that would be useful to institutions. Higher Education is notoriously inflexible and traditional. This could offer new energy and perspectives to challenges and move away from the image that senior management is inextricably linked to academia and research, instead a team that draws on diverse experiences and skill bases to create innovative change on campuses.
Crucially, once the appointments are made – make space for them. Getting minorities into the room is only the beginning of the task. Adjustments might need to be made - How is your office laid out? When are you holding your regular meetings? What support and induction is being offered once they are there? Small things like this matter. Anything less than accommodation from the whole team sets them up to fail. The other occurrence that tends to happen is the glass cliff phenomenon. The glass cliff phenomenon is where minorities and women are likely to achieve senior position at a point of crisis where their chance of failure is the highest. Sometimes this is also coupled with the lack of appropriate support. They become the example of why, in the future, others are not promoted.
As a senior member who is interested in engaging with this agenda, this work is challenging and long- term. Cultural change in organisations is slow but can be sped up by leaders who are fully engaged, honest with their shortcomings, and continually listening to what more can be done. The endless difficult conversations can be arduous but the benefits will pay off for your institutions and crucially students in the long- term.
About the Author
Alisha Lobo was the former Community Officer at The SU Bath, she is currently the student engagement coordinator at MDXSU. She also does freelance consulting.