Diversity symposium 2021: small steps can increase inclusion

‘Culture change takes time,’ said Vice-Rector Hester Bijl at the closing panel of the University’s Diversity Symposium on 26 January. She talked about the road to a diverse and inclusive university. The symposium provided plenty of concrete examples of small steps that can already be taken.

The message that the University needs to become more diverse and inclusive seems to be hitting home: over 600 students and staff had registered for the ‘Diversity, equity and inclusion in the sciences and beyond’ symposium on 22 and 26 January. This was twice as many as last year. More than 500 people turned up on the day, not only students and researchers but also administrators and staff from the support departments. ‘The need to take steps in the field of diversity and inclusion is resonating with a wider audience,’ said Diversity Officer Aya Ezawa. ‘It’s fantastic to see such growing involvement.’

Two tracks

There are two tracks to greater diversity and inclusion: policy and culture change. That is the theory, but the reality is more complicated. ‘How you achieve this affects everything and everyone,’ said Bijl. ‘All staff, all students, our teaching, our curricula, our facilities, our job application procedures, our staff training, our recruitment, how we interact with one another…’

What is important an important aspect of an inclusive learning environment? Quite simply: belonging. Kerstin Perez, Associate Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology gave a simple example: ‘Imagine a lecturer makes a joke in class about a TV programme that everyone is assumed to have watched and you’re the only one who doesn’t know what it’s about and fails to understand the joke…’ If these kinds of thing constantly happen, you feel as though you don’t belong.


When it comes to policy, monitoring is the magic word. Keynote speaker Ijeoma Uchegbu is Professor of Pharmaceutical Nanoscience and Provost Envoy for Race Equality at University College London (UCL). She showed figures that are the result of monitoring: 22% of the students in the UK are from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background; at UCL this is 53%. Uchegbu also showed how 13% of academic staff in the UK are from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background, whereas only 8% of professors are, and only 0.2% of professors are Black and female. In contrast, the attainment level of white 10 to 11-year-olds is at the lower end of the scale, so something is going wrong along the way. Uchegbu’s figures also showed that science students from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background are less likely to be awarded a PhD grant. They make up 18% of the population but comprise only 9% of those who are awarded a grant. ‘If you want to redress this inequality, you have to be on top of it all the time,’ Uchegbu emphasised. Actively break the patterns is how she puts it.

One size fits all is not effective

The word ‘pipeline’ was not in short supply at the symposium. Simply hiring and retaining more students and staff from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background is not enough: inequality must be addressed through the entire pipeline, so all phases of study and career. And universities should look at their own pipeline, which is a dismal sight to behold. Although women are gradually gaining ground in academia, it’s still predominantly white men at the top in the Netherlands – despite more than half of students being female. One suggestion at the symposium related to Student Affairs. This tends to offer one-size-fits-all services, it was noted. Instead of looking at averages, why not recognise the different needs and then do what you can to meet these needs?

In hard science women are but tiny minority, hence the particular focus at the symposium on female STEM professors, and Michiel Kreutzer, Dean at the Faculty of Science, sitting on the closing panel. In her presentation Kerstin Perez explained how she has a mentor (‘an older white man’) to support her academic career. She said how important it was for her to have someone from academia to cheer her on at times. Why not, it was suggested, actively mentor people from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background with leadership talent, also in non-academic career tracks?

Culture change

Culture change is not easy because it relies on a different mindset. But small steps are easy to take. One way to attract and retain people is to show an interest in them. Michiel Kreutzer noted how important it is, particularly in these times of coronavirus, to take a sincere and personal interest in students and ask them how they are. This can make a difference, particularly for students who may already not feel 100% at home at our ‘white’ University.

Uchegbu added, taking herself as an example, that she realises it is difficult to remember and pronounce unusual names, and that people feel ashamed and avoid saying these names at all. ‘Don’t do that,’ she said. ‘Keep on asking about the right pronunciation, over and over again.’ She also called for key officers whose job it is to spread the new culture throughout the University. They make sure that interest in the topic doesn’t fade and that people keep talking about it. This can often be in passing.

Start young

Francio Guadeloupe, an anthropologist at the University of Amsterdam, gave a workshop on the Creolean Approach. This means focusing on relationships rather than on backgrounds. He used the metaphor of water as a unifying factor flowing between, over and under all the fixed elements – the different ethnicities. Together with colleagues and students, he developed Waterfeest, a celebration that makes primary schoolchildren aware of diversity, inclusion and sustainability. He hopes to make Waterfeest a new spring tradition at primary schools. It is about the story of three children with different experiences: of the 1953 North Sea Flood, of labour migration in the Mediterranean, and of trans-Atlantic slavery. The children become separated from their families, but with the help of one another, a dolphin and a turtle, they create a new, inclusive and sustainable existence, in the land half underwater.

In the closing panel, Miranda van Eck, Professor of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Therapeutics at Leiden Centre for Drug Research, summarised what we are aiming for: ‘We have to move away from being an elite white university.’

Click here to read the full news item at the website of Leiden University


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