Building Inclusivity - What can we learn from the USA?

01 October 2018      Martin Higgs, Communications Officer


Earlier this year, Universities Human Resources (UHR) awarded the prestigious UHR-CUPA bursary 2018 to Rashmi Patel, Head of HR Operations at Nottingham Trent University. CUPA is the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA) in the USA. As the winner of the bursary Rashmi wins a place at the CUPA-HR conference in Indianapolis from 6 – 10 of October, as well as a number of study visits across the American mid-west. She will be exploring more about diversity and inclusion and HR best practice from our US counterparts. Here she talks about the focus of her study visit as she prepares to head out on the trip.

As my trip to the US fast approaches, my study theme of ‘Building Inclusivity’ appears to have picked up great momentum here in the UK over the last year in a variety of ways and mediums. You only need to read the latest published reports and articles (CIPD, Advance HE, Hefce, HESA, UCEA, Hepi to name but a few), along with recent league table rankings (Sunday Times, Good University Guide 2019) to see that diversity and social inclusion are high on the agenda and hitting the headlines on a daily basis.  

It is no surprise then, that as we head further into the 21st Century the evidence base still shows that under representation in Black, Asian and Minority, Ethnic (BAME) progression is still very real for so many UK HEIs. My study theme is not only a personal ambition, it should be a priority for all institutions and HR professionals as we strive to ensure our organisations are truly representative of the world in which we live and work: today, tomorrow and beyond.

Despite equality legislation and a recognition by many organisations that diversity and inclusion is important, we know that inequality still exists in the workplace (Diversity and Inclusion Report, ‘Facing up to the Business Case’, CIPD June 2018). The gender pay gap reporting has highlighted the barriers to female progression in organisations, with notable progress on gender, albeit only over the last seven years (CIPD report December 2017). However, research shows that we are still not seeing the same pace of change in racial equality at work. While one in eight of the working-age population is from a BAME background, this group still only holds one in sixteen of the top management positions (CIPD June 2018). Clearly, we are still failing to make a meaningful and lasting impact with diversity and inclusion still rising up the agenda despite government and business focus. We all have a role to play to build on the successes of campaigns that have increased female representation at the top of organisations (albeit slowly), to make strides with ethnic diversity and inclusion as the evidence for the lack of diversity in our workplaces at all levels is self-evident.

We are already seeing a changing population in demographics in terms of ethnicity, age and other personal characteristics; around 14% of the UK working age population come from a BAME background and, by 2030 expectation is that the proportion will be closer to 20%. Without action to develop inclusive workplace cultures, where people with a diverse range of identities and backgrounds feel able to perform at their best and progress in organisations, we face an underutilisation of talent through not enabling everyone to achieve their potential. 

Our challenge, for greater diversity and inclusion and BAME progression is similar to the one Sophie Harris (last year’s bursary winner) explored in her study visit where she found that the primary cause of the gender pay gap wasn’t the underpayment of women for like work, but the relative scarcity of women in the most senior roles within the workforce. This is something particularly prevalent in academia where research shows that female academics are less likely to be promoted than their male counterparts and promotion takes longer. (See Sophie’s blog - ‘Exploring Gender Imbalance in Academic Progression: What Can We Learn from the USA?’). The same is true of BAME staff.

My bursary will take me to the CUPA conference where I have selected a number of the ‘Diversity & Inclusion’ seminars and workshops. In addition, I will be visiting the universities below (a range of public and private, research versus teaching intensive, varying size, scale and demographics), where I will meet with a range of Provosts and Associate Provosts for Diversity and Inclusion and a number of Vice- Presidents of Human Resources and Chief HR Officers. My itinerary is full of one-to-one and group meetings, round table discussions and campus visits with senior leadership and their teams, both academic and professional, as well as talks with student communities to help build as deep an understanding as possible from all parts of the university community. At the same time, providing the opportunity for me to share my own vast experiences and knowledge through reciprocal presentations, talks and discussion forums on areas of common HR priorities and practice.    

  • University of Chicago
  • Northwestern University
  • Indiana University
  • Purdue University
  • Wayne State University
  • University of Michigan
  • City University of New York
  • Columbia University
  • New York University

All of which will provide the time and space to openly engage with our global counterparts in sharing thoughts, ideas and insight to learn first-hand how they have been progressing this agenda and why. I am curious to examine if this is driven by requirement (affirmative action) or a genuine desire to embrace greater diversity and inclusion. Naturally, I hope the latter. Each study visit will focus on how to embrace diversity and promote difference and inclusivity in our workplaces. I will examine how far these institutions have travelled in building more inclusive BAME staff and student communities, in attraction, retention, attainment and progression. Each university is in a different stage of their endeavour here and I hope to more fully recognise what factors influence this; culture, leadership, commitment, demography, geography, values, beliefs?

From a HR perspective alone I have so many questions, the first of which is: as change agents, how do we help transform and influence the step change required? How do we work together (UHR colleagues) to help raise awareness, focus effort and take action to remove barriers to equality and ensure far greater inclusion for all our staff and students? 

My study visits will explore how these institutions:

  • create greater access to education and employment opportunities for those from underrepresented BAME groups
  • actively support attraction, retention and utilisation of currently under represented BAME groups in higher education at all levels?
  • build workforces increasingly more representative of their student bodies.

I will also be seeking to learn more about:

  • approaches taken to tackle these equality disparities
  • lessons and challenges to securing greater inclusion
  • leadership commitment to support and sustain this
  • resources required, deployed and invested to enable this change
  • diversity programs, training, support and networks utilised and how effective these are in fostering inclusivity at all levels
  • if unconscious bias is acknowledged and addressed.

All of which is connected of course to the broader challenges facing higher education more generally such as supporting greater social mobility, inclusion and access to education for all. Diversity and Inclusion is important not just because it makes good business and social sense but because morally it is the right way to prosper. We all stand to benefit if we embrace and value the diversity of thoughts, ideas and ways of working that people from different backgrounds, experiences and identities bring to our universities.

Excited by the opportunity to meet with esteemed colleagues in the US, I have been touched with how they have embraced my visits with keen interest and at how open and welcoming they have been to sharing knowledge and experiences in our joint passion for ‘Building Inclusivity’.

This is a unique opportunity and invaluable development, both personally and professionally, a chance to develop a greater sense of the world beyond NTU and UK higher education with a chance to learn from institutions, academics and professionals who are doing some great work in this field. Of course, like Sophie, I too am not approaching this trip thinking that the USA has found a magic answer. Through my research and interactions to date, I know this simply is not the case. However, as well as building a global HEI network, this trip will provide the scope to openly discuss and share thinking from others who are committed to achieving greater diversity and inclusion in our world. I am hoping that their experiences and findings will provide some ‘food for thought’ for us all and that I can raise the profile of common global interests to genuinely make a difference, however small, to increasing diversity and inclusion in the UK where workplaces are increasingly built on the fundamental principles of trust, equality, fairness and inclusion for all.

Feeling very privileged, my sincerest gratitude to UHR for the bursary award, NTU for your support and shared aspiration to promote and embrace diversity, especially as we prepare for #NTU2025, and my family for your unwavering support and encouragement in making this trip possible. (Just remember I’ll be watching you boys, big and small. I am becoming very ‘tech savvy’ in preparation for my trip!).

I am filled with excitement and trepidation all in one! It will be an adventure of ‘look, listen and learn’, and I look forward to sharing key learnings and insights through future blogs and events. In the meantime, you can follow my CUPA/USA journey on Twitter via @RushPatel40.  #workwithUHR and #NTU2025.

For more details about CUPA-HR and its conference, visit their website.  

Author: Rashmi Patel, Head of HR Operations - Nottingham Trent University

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