I stopped counting some time ago: the number of days and weeks since we were required to transition the university into remote operation – so it is salutary to be reminded that we are now entering the seventh month of what is, in effect, an extended incident response. There are competing pressures every day, with rapidly shifting immediate priorities. Today’s news of the move to tier three, whilst not unexpected, demonstrates how quickly things are changing at the moment.
One of the characteristics of responding to major incidents is that the incident has to be an institution’s overwhelming concern. Everything else has to be put on hold while leaders and teams respond to the urgent and immediate. But as summer becomes Autumn, and this becomes at least a temporary normal, it’s neither possible nor desirable for everything else to be put on the back burner. We have to find ways to reassert our principles as well as our priorities. And nowhere is that more true than in our equality, diversity and inclusion agenda. It’s become ever clearer – in this and other organisations – that the pandemic needs to accelerate commitments to putting equalities, diversity and inclusion front and centre of our decision making.
This matters because we know that an institution with strong inclusive values will be more successful – will have a more engaged workforce, an improved sense of belonging, more attractive to and supportive of all students and staff, and better positioned to lead change. As Emily Maitlis reminded viewers in a striking introduction to a Newsnight programme, Covid is not “a great leveller”: it has expanded inequality. Over the past six months, racial discrimination has been brought to the fore through the Black Lives Matter campaign, in particular the events surrounding the murder of George Floyd, in the United States. The fact that people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are significantly over-represented among the sickest Covid patients, and are more likely to die as a result, is an alarming illustration of how much there is to do to address the racial inequality in the UK. At the same time, there is evidence of an increasingly toxic debate around transgender rights, that the covid-19 lockdown provoked a mental health crisis among the LGBT+ community, with young LGBT+ people unable to access support of LGBT+ allies or peers. The pandemic has also highlighted the vulnerable position of disabled citizens. The data suggests that disabled people twice as likely as able bodied people to die from Covid, and many have experienced psychological distress, social isolation, and a lack of social care support. The pandemic has seen depressingly predictable increases in hate crime and domestic violence: referrals to Victim Support from victims of racial and homophobic hate crime rose by 62% over the summer, and there has been a sharp increase in domestic violence around the globe.
If there is any good to come out of all of this, and with the latest news today, I know that is hard to see, it is that the current external context is highlighting and driving change in views about inequality and fairness, not least driven by the younger generation – our current and future students. The task group on equality, diversity and inclusion which undertook work as part of the university’s summer strategy review highlighted how much future students, staff and partners will judge the organisations they study at, work for and do business with, on their values and actions relating to inclusion and fairness. They rightly observed that the profile of the university will help to determine its future success. As we already know, there is strong evidence which supports a narrative that better organisational decision making and hence success is predicated upon a more diverse workforce at all levels. Universities must ensure that equality and transparency are at the heart of how we do business, particularly in the context of its ambitions around being a Civic University and the opportunity to become a role model within the city region.
All this means that it’s not possible nor desirable – operationally or morally – to step back from our concerns with equality and diversity, from creating an inclusive environment in which to learn and work, where students and staff can achieve their maximum potential, irrespective of their age, gender, race, identity, sexuality, disability or socio-economic background.
There is already a range of activity, co-ordinated by Dr Sally Jackson as Chief People Officer – one of the few Chief People Officers in the UK university sector. The activity is represented in the excellent new inclusion pages on our intranet, including a culture and inclusion calendar. You’ll find there a list of events led by Hallam Students Union for Black History Month around this year’s theme ‘Beyond Being Visible’. In addition, the Inclusive Hallam Series of events launches on 4 November. This series of speakers will hopefully clearly signal the University’s commitment to raise awareness of equality, diversity and inclusion issues, and to promoting a culture of action, both individually and corporately. The series will address a broad range of EDI themes, with intersectionality as a key theme and will also draw on the University’s own academic expertise in this field. The inaugural event features Carol Bernard, Director of HR at the Cabinet Office (you can register for the event here) and a Sheffield Hallam alumna of afro-Caribbean descent: she and I had a fascinating meeting a few weeks before lockdown, and Carol’s is a compelling story of overcoming the barriers faced by many in our society to forge out a highly successful career.
One of the next dates to come up on the cultural calendar is in fact today: International Pronouns Day. This provides an opportunity to think about the importance of pronouns, importance of highlighting why having a culture of challenging binary assumptions about gender is important for being inclusive, and supporting people using pronouns if they want to. In light of the recent government response to the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act, and recent court ruling that non-binary genders are protected under the “gender reassignment” aspect of the Equality Act, it is an occasion for us all to reflect on our thinking.
These are difficult times, and it’s always tempting in times of challenge to look inwards. The experiences of the last few months are a reminder that if we do that, it becomes more, not less difficult to challenge injustices, and that has real-world consequences for our fellow citizens. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Covid ‘incident’ will not have a clear ending – there will be no Covid-19 ‘VE day’. This is the world we have, and the world in which we need to live and shape our values.