Author : Amrita Narlikar

Originally Published 2023-01-12 18:22:25 Published on Jan 12, 2023
How not to do Equal opportunity, Diversity and Inclusion in academia: Ten Commandments

Despite the supposed open-mindedness of academia and its professed commitment to excellence, the tokenism and inadequacy of Equal opportunity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) efforts have been staring us in the face. In response to these challanges and following our publication in IA’s How not to guide for International relations, this guide provides ten commandments on how not to do EDI in academia.

1. Thou shalt not equate gender balance with equal opportunity, diversity and inclusion.

We are happy to note that recent years have seen major strides in the social sciences and humanities towards greater inclusion of women at all levels. By way of illustration, the Leibniz Association — an academic body that oversees 97 research institutions in Germany — includes 18 social sciences institutes. The Leibniz Association claims to prioritize EDI and internationalization. To its credit and that of its institutes, the top leadership of seven out of its 18 institutes is female. Look beyond gender, however, and the situation is much darker, or shall we say whiter.

Only one of these 18 institutes has a person of colour at the top-tier of leadership, and this same individual is from the Global South (and one of the authors of this piece); 17 of the 18 are from German-speaking Europe. When 95 per cent of the top-tier leadership of a research organization is drawn primarily from a national/regional market — in a context that claims to promote internationalization and inclusiveness — there is obviously something wrong.

Just how much decolonial and intersectional considerations are missing from current academic debates was evident in the palaver over a recent manel that was organized by the Italian Society of Political Science. Eventually, when the organizers apologized, the focus remained entirely on the missing female voices; not an eyebrow was raised over the missing diversity of expertise, backgrounds, training or beliefs. Even token outrage over these issues was — sadly — absent.

There is no dearth of seminars, meetings, training sessions and other resource-guzzling activities that are organized in the name of EDI. Rather the problem often derives from the assumption that the primary — even sole — inequality in European academia is gender imbalance; solve this, and utopia will be achieved. We see the problem as being far more invidious.

A focus on progress in gender politics alone may result in the marginalization of other equally worthy concerns.

2. Thou shalt not apply different standards of excellence to those who look or sound different.

Academia is all about competition. But labour-intensive evaluation and ranking exercises, bound up in endless red tape, can be creativity draining. At the very least, bureaucrats who run these exercises should ensure that the same standards apply to all players (note that we are not arguing for lighter standards for scholars from under-represented groups — just fair and equal standards). Even this ground-rule for competition, however, is not consistently observed in academia. For all the talk of EDI, minority groups in academia are often ‘scrutinized but not recognized’.

If we are serious about goals of excellence, then it is absolutely essential to recognize and reward achievement in academia, even if (!) it comes from people who look, sound or are different.

3. Thou shalt not equate family with two parents and 1.5 children.

Our most supportive policies have parents and children as beneficiaries. But a colleague looking after a sick friend, a co-worker with elderly dependents, an international researcher whose family unit includes grandparents, the single person living under lockdown with their pets — each and every one of these is part of a family that is dear to them. If we want to ensure access, we must take all these and other family configurations into account.

4. Thou shalt not demand returns to old or new ‘normal(s)’.

If we want to improve openness and participation, we have to accept that different ‘normals’ work for different people. This is especially true for the still in-pandemic world we are living in. On the one hand, people have different vulnerabilities and care responsibilities. On the other, the last two-plus years have opened up a vista of digital possibilities that allow people to perform their tasks remotely — often better than before. Except when jobs actually cannot be done without in-person presence (for instance, in a laboratory setting), hybrid options must be allowed. Gratuitous insistence that anyone turn up in person, even when their family situation or other individual circumstances speak against it, should be called out for what it is: bullying and an abuse of power.

To achieve both excellence and EDI, we have to accept and accommodate different life constraints and constellations.

5. Thou shalt not rely on the bureaucratization of academia to address EDI issues.

Ableism is not an issue disabled people should have to deal with alone; racism is not an issue that non-white people should have to deal with alone. If we do not acknowledge that EDI is everybody’s concern, we will make very little progress towards a more inclusive society, nor will we achieve the excellence we aspire to. Bureaucratization, for instance via mandatory training sessions, is not the answer. We worry that the #Diversity debate is going to become another meaningless hashtag, with lots of box-ticking and costly bureaucratic exercises but no underlying shift in academic perceptions and power dynamics.

Academia needs a fundamental shift in mindset, not bureaucratization.

6. Thou shalt not ignore the potential of alternative perspectives.

Diversity is creative, innovative, and also demanding. This means adopting a ‘global approach’ to scholarship. This does not mean token representation, but working with traditions, perspectives and theories from beyond western academia, and ensuring that feedback flows in all directions. This is not always easy to do amidst the know-it-all attitude that academia (ironically) encourages; it requires humility and flexibility, while maintaining a commitment to the highest standards of excellence.

We need to work with each other at an eye-to-eye level and stop preaching from above.

7. Thou shalt not ignore the unintended consequences of thy actions.

The detrimental effects of being categorized as different are well-known. We have to recognize that the effects of categorization are exacerbated by intersectionality. Some people get several whammies of this — both in terms of structural discrimination, and also at the hands of well-intentioned individuals who prioritize one of the categories at the expense of others.

We have to be alert to the danger that policy interventions in one category can skew the balance for others who are in a differently vulnerable position.

8. Thou shalt not diminish the experiences of others.

Appearances change perception. Often, people with similar or even higher qualifications face discrimination because they look or sound different. A Groundhog Day of re-proving their qualifications follows, and uniquely for such individuals rather than uniformly across academia. Too often, we have seen some accents being readily accepted as authoritative over others. This can be tiring, to say the least, if one is from Southern Europe, Western Africa, South Asia, for instance. And when such experiences of being ‘othered’ are diminished or disregarded, this is unfair to the person encountering the problem and minimizes the privilege that the mainstream enjoys. This is a double injustice, and a waste of valuable emotional and intellectual resources.

To overcome perception bias, we have to listen better.

9. Thou shalt not go down the rabbit hole of more categories.

The answer to the problems highlighted above is not the creation of more categories, which result in inevitable marginalization of those who remain outside them. Classifications also lead to (implicit or explicit) trade-offs. Privilege gender, marginalize race; facilitate access through conference travel, hurt the environment; privilege people with children, hurt the singletons and the elderly. Again, a mindset shift is required.

Irrespective of gender, race, disability, marital status, sexual orientation, age and any other factors, research institutions need to support, recognize and reward excellence.

10. Thou shalt not treat EDI as solely a goal in its own right.

EDI is not only an aesthetic goal as part of a box-ticking exercise. Better EDI conditions are indispensable for attracting, retaining and motivating excellence in our fields and research institutions.

Excellence transcends colour, age, orientation etc. But academia sadly still struggles to accept this simple fact. Every time we see attempts to make achievement invisible, let’s call it out!

This commentary originally appeared in International Affairs.

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Amrita Narlikar

Amrita Narlikar

Dr. Amrita Narlikar’s research expertise lies in the areas of international negotiation, World Trade Organization, multilateralism, and India’s foreign policy & strategic thought. Amrita is non-resident ...

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Cecilia Sottilotta

Cecilia Sottilotta

Cecilia Sottilotta is Assistant Professor of International Relations and Global Politics at the American University of Rome and Visiting Professor at the EU International Relations ...

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