This week marks my last week in the full time role of Pro-Vice Chancellor for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and People, before I move onto a new secondment with the Department for Transport. I wanted to use my final blog as PVC to reflect on what I have learned over the past three years, and to think about some of my hopes for the future.
As I started to write this, I looked back on the very first blog that I wrote, in October 2018. After highlighting the fact that around the university there were a number of excellent projects that were taking place, I noted that “However, it is clear that because there has not been an overarching EDI portfolio for staff and students, some of these activities have become "lost". We have not taken the opportunity to share good practice, or to ensure that these small group activities inform our practice across the university.”
This week, we held the Sphere Conference. The Sphere programme was established to build and connect new ideas, local activities and best practice across the university. More than 165 colleagues attended to discuss their work in EDI and be inspired by other examples of projects which have delivered change in EDI across the university and externally. The discussions were honest, humbling, exciting and energising. I hope that this, alongside other activities, such as the ‘Let’s be clear about EDI’ discussions, our Recognition Months and Diversity Festival, the local EDI Q&A events and the activities led by our Students’ Union and societies all form part of increasing the visibility and frequency of the uncomfortable conversations that are so important as we advance our understanding of EDI. It does feel like we are making good progress in joining up the communities of practice engaging in EDI, and in sharing and learning from the very best examples.
The philosophy we have adopted in delivering EDI within the university is built around enabling, empowering and embedding. This has been a deliberate strategy which allows diversity in approaches to EDI in different parts of our very large institution, reflecting the needs and challenges of different disciplines and teams, and asking each part of the university to set their own priorities. In a way, it is a balance between ‘push’ and ‘pull’. The ‘pull’ comes from the local initiatives, as well as the challenge and partnership work that we conduct with our student and staff communities.
But there are also actions and policies that we need to deliver across the whole university – the initiatives that set out our minimum expectations for all of our students and staff. This is the ‘push’ – the clear principles that we use to guide our expectations of everyone. Two core elements of the EDI Strategic Delivery Plan have been important to me in underpinning our work in this regard, and have also guided me personally in many of the conversations I have had with colleagues: firstly, working to ensure that all staff and students feel safe and that they feel that they have been treated fairly and equitably and secondly, encouraging and expecting inclusive and respectful behaviours from all.
It is important to recognise some of the progress that has been made over the past three years. As I started in role, I was very proud to announce a Silver Athena Swan award for the university, and to publish the Diversity in Recruitment work which had been recently completed. This has been followed by the development of support for disabled staff, following an institutional review, and revised support for and a model for engagement with our staff networks. We have seen a 4% reduction in the gender pay gap, and publication for the first time of data around our ethnicity pay gap. And in June 2021 we were delighted to be able to announce the award of the Bronze Race Equality Charter.
Some of the most creative and impactful work has been delivered in partnership with our student community. I had the honour of opening two of our Rainbow Crossings at our Nottingham campuses. The campus life team has worked with the Students’ Union to produce the powerful ‘Stronger Together’ videos which highlight the experiences of students from under-represented groups, in their own words, and we have recently published a guide for trans student inclusion.
But, despite this considerable progress, there is still much to do. We know that we need to make faster progress against our Access and Participation Plan targets around student access and the degree awarding gap. We know that there are still instances of bullying, and whilst we have improved our processes for reporting and supporting those who experience discrimination and harassment, one instance is one instance too many. Just this week we have published a statement highlighting the racism experienced by East and South-East Asian Staff and students. We also know that the impact of Covid-19 has disproportionately affected those from under-represented groups, and that we will need to work to redress these inequalities for many years to come.
Alongside our ‘business as usual’ EDI activity, we have agreed four priority areas of focus for next year in response to feedback we have received from university students and staff. These areas of focus are: Faith and Religion, Socio-economic inclusion, Neurodiversity and Care responsibilities. I look forward to my successor’s leadership in these areas, alongside the local teams which are already planning activities for the year ahead. Work will also be continuing to develop the local priorities for EDI activities at our China and Malaysia campuses.
I have also learned a lot about leadership, both generally, and in EDI. I have learned the importance of listening and learning; of recognising my own privilege, and using that recognition to lead change; of having the courage to try difficult things, to make mistakes, and to recover from those mistakes. I’ve learned that change takes time, and that there is a balance to be reached in taking people with you, but then pushing for change, even when people resist. I’ve learned how important clear governance, expert project management, and clear plans and goals are to help prioritise, and measure impact.
And most of all, I’ve learned how important it is to work in partnership. As a strategic leader, I very rarely personally deliver initiatives – most of the work is done by others. And of course, those with whom I work come from diverse backgrounds, and that diversity improves the quality of the work. We’ve certainly not got everything right, but I hope that we have made a difference, and I have confidence in the sustainability of the work, due to the incredible commitment and support that I’ve had from so many different teams around the university and beyond.
So I want to end by saying thank you. It has been an honour and a privilege to have the role of PVC for EDI and People for the past three years. I look forward to taking on a new perspective in supporting the university’s EDI work through my role as a Professor in the Faculty of Engineering, and send all those involved in leading our EDI activities my very best wishes. If every member of staff and every student in the university makes one small change towards improving inclusion, strengthening diversity, or ensuring equity, then together we will deliver tremendous impact. Many of you have made these changes already, and I hope we can all continue to make change, and see the impact of this collected effort for the future.
Professor Sarah Sharples
Pro-Vice Chancellor for Equality, Diversity & Inclusion and People
30 June 2021