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Social inclusion will unlock our potential – but how do we achieve it?

Inclusion is the foundation of success

There is no refuting that the most successful organisations are innovative, excellent at decision making, and able to recruit and retain talented staff. Evidence shows that the secret to unlocking success is diversity and inclusion at all levels of an organisation. Yet higher education providers (HEPS) continue to struggle to make real progress in this area. In this blog I explore why social inclusion is essential for successful HEPs and offer some practical steps you can take to make a difference.

As a sector, we value innovation and critical thinking deeply, we strive to protect the time and freedom to be able to explore the world through different perspectives. Research now shows that when a team consists of people from different races, genders, sexualities, abilities, identities and ages, and work in a culture that values and supports difference, it leads to a 20% increase in innovation, and improved problem solving and decision making (Deloitte 2021).

How to solve a wicked problem

However, our structures and inherited cultures are unconducive to individuals being able to bring their different lived experiences to the fore. There are systemic and cultural barriers to entry into higher education for perspective students, staff and governors. There is also implicit pressure to assimilate to particular world views and behaviours which leads to individuals keeping much of themselves hidden, and HEPs losing out on valuable insights.

Having spoken to many sector leaders I am going to make an educated guess that you are nodding in agreement at this point. The moral and business arguments for social inclusion are difficult to refute.

Yet, progress on building diverse and inclusive organisations has been slow, perhaps in part because we have urgent competing priorities in the context of a cost-of-living crisis, Brexit, recovery from a pandemic and a volatile political landscape which impact directly on our funding and regulation, that demand our attention.

But inclusivity might just be the key to solving these challenges.  In the face of major challenges, we need to enhance our problem-solving skills, we need to reappraise our business models, our external environment and what makes us competitive. Investing in diversity and inclusion puts organisations in a stronger position in this regard. By bringing more perspectives to bear on a problem we increase the odds of generating more creative solutions. By offering inclusive cultures, individuals feel empowered to fully engage. Diverse groups have been shown to offer higher levels of scrutiny, challenging assumptions, keeping focused and increasing accountability.

If we are serious about this. If we want to take big, sustainable strides rather than tinkering around the edges we need to revolutionise our approach and put inclusion at our core, permeating our culture and reaching all students, academics and staff.

Time for a revolution

How do we do this? First we need to get really clear on what it is we are trying to achieve. Not just what our KPIs will be, but building a picture of how our organisations will look and feel when we are successful. We need to open our eyes to not just the positives, but the difficulties that inclusion brings. Inclusive spaces are not warm and fluffy, they bring grit, challenge, and disagreement. Inclusive cultures need to be able to create community without always achieving consensus. Inclusive cultures need to take decisions and acknowledge where decisions haven’t met everybody’s needs or wants. Inclusive cultures ask us to look beyond roles, engage with identities and see humans. Inclusion is a courageous act.

When we understand where we want to get to, and where we are starting from, we can start to develop effective strategies to deliver and evaluate revolutionary change.

Increasing representation across an organisation can be brought about relatively quickly by putting in place the right set of initiatives (there are many tried and tested solutions out there). However, representation is not inclusion. Embedding inclusion takes longer, and often requires outside support. But it’s worth it. When done well we can create institutions with a strong ethos that resonates with students, staff and stakeholders.

I hope you are itching to get going right now. Below I have outlined five actions that will make an immediate difference and support robust governance and management.

1. Be proactive about diverse representation

An essential driver of inclusion is increasing diverse representation. Focusing on diversifying talented senior management and board membership. This should be achieved on the basis of a robust business case for social inclusion, and consideration of which multivariate diversity should be prioritised.

2. Strengthen leadership accountability and capabilities

We must place our core-business leaders at the heart of this work — social inclusion is not just about HR or APPs. We need to strengthen inclusive-leadership capabilities, and hold leaders to account for progress.

3. Promote openness and tackle microaggressions

We need to establish norms for open, welcoming, behaviour, leading by example and being explicit about why we are asking people to behave in this way.

We need to foster cultures where individuals feel able to raise and discuss experiences of microaggressions.

We need effective, transparent and well understood zero-tolerance policies and processes to address discrimination, bullying and harassment.

4. Build cultures of belonging

We must build cultures where all employees and students feel they can show up with their whole selves. This means governors and senior leaders need to communicate and visibly embrace their commitment to multivariate forms of diversity, building a connection to a wide range of people and supporting employee resource groups to foster a sense of community and belonging.

5. Connect with others

Find ways to connect with others who are on the same journey as you, or those who have already succeeded. For me this is so essential I am building a virtual community where we can share challenges and collaborate to find solutions. You are very welcome to join us.

About the author: Rae Tooth is known for her thought leadership in higher education and the third sector. She is the founder and CEO of Inclusion Revolution, offering transformative approaches to social inclusion through consultancy and training. You can find out more about Rae and Inclusion Revolution here

This article has been kindly repurposed from Advance HE and you can read the original here: Social inclusion will unlock our potential – but how do we achieve it?