The start of 2021 has been difficult for many of us, and has not provided the positive and optimistic feeling that a New Year can often present. After the announcement of a further lockdown in early January, I think many of us felt tired and frustrated that we were again going to need to deal with changes to our plans, absence of our support networks, and a lack of clarity about the timing of when we may be able to return to a life that feels something like normal.
I was extremely impressed with the positive and proactive response that students and staff made to the start of term. The communities of support, our learning how to cope, and how to support others and ourselves in difficult times came to the fore.
Of course, I recognise that this positive and proactive response comes at a price. Whether to do with our work, projects, or personal lives, the consequences of Covid have been that we have worked hard to maintain our focus on our overall goals, but we have also had to do things differently. For work, this may have meant changing from a face-to-face to an online format, changing the methodology of our research, extending the timescale to complete a project or system change, or reducing the scale of our ambitions. But the impacts have also been personal. Friends or family may have experienced the health impacts of Covid personally. We have seen GCSEs, A levels, and other school activities significantly disrupted or cancelled for many months. Key family or personal events or rites of passage have simply not happened.
At times like this, there is a danger that EDI could be seen as a distraction, an optional added extra. The recent publication of the latest release of HESA staff data on overall staff numbers, characteristics, and terms of employment reminds us that our progress is too slow. The UK had the same number of black professors and other senior academic staff (205) in 2019-20 as it did in 2018-19.
I’ve also spoken before about the differential effects on different parts of our community during Covid, but it is worth restating here. Covid has exaggerated and exacerbated inequalities that already exist. BAME staff have continued to deal with systemic racism, Sinophobic incidents which have increased since Covid, and the disproportionate impact of Covid on the BAME community. Disabled and LGBTQ+ students and staff have lost support networks and experienced isolation. And we continue to deal with significant care challenges presented by closure of schools and respite facilities.
I believe EDI has never been more important than now. But it must be a core part of our work at the University, not an added extra. Our EDI activities over the next few months have been designed in a way to aim to support our students and staff as much as possible, whilst being mindful of the pressures that everyone is under.
We have made significant progress on some important policies over the past few months. Key developments include the launch of the EDI Engagement programme ‘Let’s be clear about EDI’ which is stimulating conversations about EDI in all parts of the University. I am pleased that many schools and PS teams are supplementing this programme with specialist targeted activities that aim to lead discussions which are pertinent to that part of the University.
We have also released and updated several HR policies relating to EDI, including the toolkit for supporting disabled staff, guide to supporting staff during the menopause, and guidance in embedding EDI in our support for staff during the ongoing response to Covid. In addition, the EDI policy has been updated, providing an important underpinning framework for our wider strategic objectives. We are also now very close to completing the Race Equality Charter for submission in February 2021.
We are pleased that we are able to look forward to a series of events to support all in our understanding and awareness of EDI, and I encourage all students and staff to engage in the forthcoming celebration months and our Diversity Festival. Our LGBTQ+ network is part of a programme committee which has put together a strong programme of events for LGBT History month.
Plans are also well underway for a series of events for International Women’s Day, and we are very excited to be launching our first ever Diversity Festival during March. The aim of this festival is to have EDI as a focus across the University during March, and the team leading the festival have worked with colleagues to plan a strong range of events which will help us all in embedding EDI in our work. We know that one of the things that can make us nervous about discussing issues to do with EDI are a lack of understanding or awareness of the issues experienced by different people, and the ways that we can address these issues - the aim of the Diversity Festival - is to raise the profile of these issues, and provide the University community with the tools to develop their own skills.
All the events for our EDI programme will be online, and many of them are virtual and will be recorded; we understand that at the moment many staff are working flexible hours to manage child care responsibilities, and want to ensure that our events are as accessible to all as they can be.
I thought I would conclude this blog by sharing some thoughts about what we can do to support each other in this challenging time. I know that sometimes I’ve felt quite helpless when faced with the enormity of the Covid crisis that has been going on for so long now. So, what can we do?
As individuals, it is important that we take care of ourselves and those we have responsibility for. We need to look carefully at those work tasks that we can control, think about where we can take longer over tasks to reduce the pressure on ourselves, and be honest with ourselves about what we can realistically achieve when we are juggling many responsibilities and activities.
Something that I have found useful for myself, both in terms of my own work, my family, my friends and colleagues, is to think about how to deal with the sense of loss that I’m feeling. The last 10 months were not what anybody had planned. Depending on our circumstances, the impact of these plans dissolving has been different. This brings a sense of loss, and I have found it helpful to acknowledge and respond to my own sense of loss.
As colleagues, we can support each other. We can make time and provide a safe space to listen to others and hear their anxieties and frustrations. It is also nice to take the time for an informal chat at the beginning or end of a meeting, where we can discuss our newly found skills for baking, our attempts to improve our fitness during lockdown, or the progress being made in training our new puppy. But we do need to be conscious that some people do not feel comfortable sharing information about themselves, and cannot assume that what works for us works for others.
As managers and leaders, we must continually thank people and recognise that everyone continues to do a really good job. We can help guide difficult discussions around prioritisation of work tasks and help others to take a short term (what needs doing now?) and long term (how can I ensure my career is not adversely affected?) view. We also can make specific, safe, confidential time to listen and respond to concerns, allowing people to express when things are hard, and work together with students and staff to find innovative solutions for support.
2021 is already turning out to not quite be the year that we expected. But neither was 2020. Our strength, community and collegiality has proved essential in working through 2020, and will do the same for 2021.
Professor Sarah Sharples
Pro-Vice Chancellor for Equality, Diversity & Inclusion and People.
21 January 2021