By Eilis Hannon, Research Fellow in Bioinformatics, in the Complex Disease Epigenetic Group at the University of Exeter.
This post summarises a discussion with Lawrence Hudson, Roberto Murcio, Penny Andrew and Robin Long as part of the Fellow Selection Day 2017.
The question of how to improve diversity is suitably broad and vague to initially induce silence in a group, but eventually, true to its name, it promotes a wide-ranging discussion. Sometimes the task is divided up to target particular under-represented groups, as it starts to become a bit of a minefield to develop a scheme that improves diversity in general. What opens the door to some parts of society can simultaneously close the doors to others. Hackathon events are a common and successful method of attracting young people to computer science; however, if they take place over the weekend and are marketed as providing beer and pizza for sustenance, you start to exclude anyone with caring responsibilities or discourage anyone who doesn’t drink.
Before we can think about trying to improve diversity, it is helpful to consider what exactly do we mean and what are the benefits. It is easy to see how a varied workforce can lead to a larger pool of ideas, skills, and experience, as well as a more harmonious environment where differences are embraced, minimising direct comparisons and competition between colleagues. It can also lead to a broader outreach, either exposing your product or brand, attracting new audiences, or inspiring the next generation. Diversity is often quantified in demographics (gender, age, religion, sexual orientation etc.); however, in a working environment it should also include background or previous experience. Your team may be culturally diverse but if you have all got the same degree qualification from the same institution trained in the same school of thought, where are the new ideas going to come from?
To improve diversity, it is important to recognise where the variety is lost. Was there a great selection of applicants from different backgrounds that got filtered out before the interview stage? If you can identify which factors caused the potentially diverse new team members to be excluded from consideration, this can be used to formulate more open criteria. For example in a university, ranking candidates on number of publications tends to favour men over women, focusing on quality over quantity may prevent this bias. With this in mind, developing a range of metrics of equal merit rather than focusing on a single criterion will also favour a broader range of applicants. This may mean moving away from the standard template for job descriptions which requires some time and effort on the part of the employer, but using a structure that allows potential employees to be creative with how they might meet the criteria creates opportunities for those with less traditional career paths.
Institutions can play their part by celebrating and promoting successes at all levels, as purely focusing on the achievements of the most senior employees often reinforces existing typecasts. In academia, there is a lot of truth in the stereotype of Professors as white, male and middle aged, so only covering the publications, media appearances and grant money brought in by these individuals may deter anyone who physiologically cannot aspire to this demographic. Alternatively publicising both work (software developed, new recruits, promotions) and personal achievements (charity events, sporting triumphs or bake sales) of all members of staff starts to showcase the variety underlying the workforce and may inspire a broader scope of applicants. Active involvement in the wider community raises the profile and generates positive feelings towards an organisation. Having a creative recruitment and outreach strategy with roles such as community managers, public engagement officers and more tailored positions such as artists in residence can promote a welcoming environment and reach previously untapped employment streams.
Employers need to be open and flexible to new ways of working in order to appeal to a more varied pool of applicants. While many employers recognise the value of diversity and would always embrace a broad range of applicants to choose from, when it comes to the final decision, it can take a brave individual to select a candidate that differs from their usual employee. Pressure to hit the ground running creates barriers for individuals with great potential but who require a little more training or time to adjust to a new environment.
With increasing variety in backgrounds, training opportunities and career paths, the diversity we know will benefit us is continually expanding in the working population. A more open, flexible recruitment strategy will provide the opportunities for those looking for a change, both for employers and employees. However, diversity cannot be enforced. For the benefits to be realised, it needs to be an organic experience where the individuals involved recognise its value.