Black History Month talks to Ben Browne, Chief Operating Officer at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) about Diversity in Education and what our universities are doing to improve these numbers.
Do you think the HE sector has a problem when it comes to equality and diversity?
Yes, I think there has certainly been a delay in recognising and reflecting the changing demographics of British society across a wide variety of professions, and this includes HE.
Although our students come from a wide variety of backgrounds, this is still not properly reflected in the make-up of the academic body or those in professional services in the sector. It is certainly improving, but there is still more we can do to ensure our talented BME staff can develop their potential and encourage talented students to aspire to a career in academia.
One in five of DMU’s professional services staff is from a BME background, which is far higher than the sector average of 9.9%. Some 14.4% of the university’s academics are BME compared to 12.2% in the HE sector, which is encouraging but we know there is room for improvement.
Why do you think there are so few black academics, professors and lecturers within the HE sector?
Partly, this gap is created by the timescale of career progression as it takes time to work your way up the ranks of academia. This means that there is a lack of role models and wrongly gives aspiring, talented students from BME communities the perception that a university career is not for them.
Unconscious bias – which says that we tend to prefer people similar to us – also plays a role. My career has always been in human resources, developing and managing people. I believe the more diverse a workforce is, the more diverse it will continue to become as people from different social backgrounds, faiths, ethnicities and so on are empowered to make hiring and career development decisions.
We are aiming to tackle the unconscious bias challenge by providing Positive Action training for future leaders, helping to build more representative interview panels and by developing academic mentoring networks.
What difference has the emphasis on equality and diversity within HE with schemes like the Race Equality Charter and Athena SWAN Charter made?
Great strides have been made in equality and diversity and these schemes have contributed to this by focusing attention of universities on their performance and working culture.
They provide a framework for genuine reflection on our progress and make us ask tough questions of ourselves. By measuring and interrogating the data we now know, for example, that we have slightly fewer job applicants from BME backgrounds so now we need to discover why that is and how we can change that. We know there are fewer women in senior roles, particularly in the sciences, and research can help inform how we attract and develop opportunities for them to reach their full potential.
We are extremely proud of our Bronze award from Athena SWAN and inclusion within the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index Top 100 Employers. DMU was delighted to be one of just eight UK universities to be awarded a Bronze Race Equality Charter mark.
Achieving this benchmark also sends a signal to potential applicants that we are an organisation which is serious about equality and diversity, and determined to create equality of opportunity for all. We let people know that we want to develop and progress their careers.
Could you tell us a bit about DMU’s REC journey which culminated in the Bronze award?
The application process was challenging and exacting. We formed a steering group with representatives from each faculty, the students’ union, cultural and religious societies, DMU’s Black and Ethnic Minority Staff Group, plus colleagues from HR, student welfare and strategic planning to ensure we had as many viewpoints as possible.
We analysed data on the ethnic diversity of our staff and how it mapped across the roles, as well as student retention and achievement. Based on the data and research in the area, we came up with a four-year strategy to tackle under-representation and I’ve personally pledged to take action at all levels to ensure that we meet our commitments.
What else do you think needs to be done?
I think society has a very long way to go before equality and diversity becomes business as usual. Everyone needs to realise that their business or sector ought to properly reflect the make-up of society – although I will say that everything I have read about the latest research and reports in the sector media leads me to believe that this collective recognition is happening within higher education.
Aside from the numerous other reasons for promoting equality and diversity, the business case for championing it within any organisation is undeniable and that should drive improvements.
Who has been the most inspirational figure in your life so far?
My father. He has been an inspiration in his own career as a senior officer in local government. Throughout his life he championed equality and diversity in the community and even after retirement continues to work tirelessly to break down barriers, particularly in respect of race equality.
Do you have any advice for anybody looking to get into HE?
I would encourage anyone wanting to work in higher education to acquire as much knowledge of the sector as they possibly can – talk to people who work in professional services about their roles, and read the trade press to get an idea of the issues you will face. I think it is the best sector to work in. The payback is immense in terms of the opportunities you have to engage with so many talented people and the joy and pride in seeing students progress. It is a challenge but a very rewarding one.
Do you have any advice for anybody with aspirations to progress in leadership?
Learn from what you observe. See the best and worst in leaders and take forward the best practices. Know your own strengths and weaknesses and play to your strengths, but challenge yourself to improve in areas where you perform less well.
While I think you can learn from others, your leadership style should be authentic; it should represent who you are as an individual and reflect your beliefs.
Who would be your Black History Month hero for 2016?
Usain Bolt, for carrying the torch not only for the Olympics movement but also successfully carrying the hopes and aims of black people across the world.