Guest post by Santosh Sinha, MCE
Strong self-awareness, a desire to see and do things differently and a good sense of humour. These were my three takeaways from the session on promoting diversity in universities by Professor Tom Welton on Wednesday.
The session was part of the events planned during LGBT History Month on the campus.
Professor Welton is the Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Imperial College London and a very engaging public speaker. He didn’t come with a presentation, but was quite obviously prepared for the conversation he wanted to have – a conversation that involved sharing his own experience, encouraging others to share their experiences and making the point that each one of us can contribute to making the University more diverse and inclusive.
He thinks fairness is not a strong enough reason for people to take action on diversity. “I say this because since before anyone in this room was born, it has been clearly palpably unfair that some people have obstacles put in front of them that other people don’t have, and we haven’t taken action”.
In his view, the objectives that allow individuals to benefit along with the group and the institution are more likely to result in action. When he was appointed the Head of Chemistry at Imperial in 2007, the starting point was to create a department where the best and brightest chemists from Europe wanted to work, where the best and brightest chemists wanted to study and where research funders wanted to spend their money.
“Diversity wasn’t a part of this, but when we looked at how close we were to achieving our first objective – of attracting the best and brightest chemists – it was obvious that our staff profile did not reflect that. And so we had a reason to act.”
The changes that followed over the next five years resulted in Chemistry department at Imperial receiving a Gold Athena SWAN Award in 2013 – one of only four university departments in the United Kingdom to do so.
“The best part is that the changes were owned by the entire department. They knew that is what was required to attract the best and the brightest. So, it wasn’t a change imposed from the top.”
Professor Tom Welton’s key advice to those aiming to promote diversity and inclusivity is to do exactly that. “Make sure the idea for change is owned by the department. If everyone can benefit from these changes and it can lead to better outcomes for students and the institution, people are more likely to take action”.
And these actions don’t need to be big necessarily. He strongly believes in leadership being exercised by anyone at any level in an organisation, and demonstrated this by asking those attending the session for just one thing they could change to make their area more inclusive. I have to say there were quite a few good ideas that came about as a result.
So, is that it? All in favour. Job done. Award received. “No, the award is just a lump of plastic. Recognition is important, but the actions that you are taking to make your Department more diverse and inclusive is far more important”.