Why diversity policy goals and effects need to be clearer

Monitoring the perception and effectiveness of diversity policies is difficult, while insight is essential. What are the pitfalls and how to get around them?

(Image: Jowan de Haan)

“If you don’t know what’s broke, you won’t know what to fix.” This is stated by Jojanneke van der Toorn, associate professor of Social and Organisational Psychology at Utrecht University and professor by special appointment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workplace inclusion at Leiden University. She is also a research leader for the Netherlands Inclusivity Monitor, which provides organisations with insight into their diversity policy and inclusivity.

“The starting point is to pinpoint what you hope to gain by fostering diversity and inclusion”, she says. “Are you looking to enhance performance, or is there more of a moral motive, such as ensuring equal opportunities for everyone within the demographic options? This will allow you to develop targeted activities and analyse whether what you’re doing is having the desired effect.”

Van der Toorn is seeing a lot of efforts in terms of diversity and inclusion in higher education: increasing diversity among staff and students, making education more inclusive, ensuring that international staff and students feel at home, providing guidance to first-generation students, facilitating staff and students with a disability, encouraging women’s career progression and stamping out prejudice of any kind. These are just some examples. These are all realistic goals, but Van der Toorn points out that many of these measures are not accompanied by clear indications as to what objective they serve or whether the objective is also being met. 

Taking objections into account
investigation at 21 research universities and universities of applied sciences by the higher education media revealed that current hot topics include racism (intentional or unintentional) and gender identity. The emphasis in the not too distant past was more on fostering the emancipation of women and ensuring that international staff and students feel at home. Van der Toorn has realised this as well. “There’s now more attention for ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity.”  Let that be precisely  the dimensions of diversity that are not being recorded within the organisation.

Take objections seriously’

Van der Toorn highlights the importance of analysing diversity and perceived inclusion within research universities and universities of applied science. This provides insight into what is going on within the organisation and has the capacity to reveal any inequality or differences between groups of staff and students. Only then taking targeted measures will be possible.

Additionally, it has to become clear if there is support among executive board members, management, staff and students. “That doesn’t mean that new policy is only necessary or possible with universal support, but taking opposition seriously will enable you to identify the source of any objections and take these into account.” 

Van der Toorn cites the introduction of all-gender toilets as an example. “A former student said that some of her female Muslim friends were against the idea of making all toilets all-gender. When she asked what exactly the problem was, the women stated that they were annoyed that they wouldn’t be able to take off their headscarves in an all-gender toilet. Installing mirrors in the toilet cubicles themselves would remedy that.”  

measuring diversity and inclusion is so important for new policy, why is it so difficult to achieve in practice? The diversity survey conducted by higher education media this autumn had to be discontinued after website GeenStijl sabotaged it. They deemed it to be an example of higher education institutions forcing diversity down people’s throats. 

Data on origins is a necessary evil’

Back in 2020, there were already issues with the Cultural Diversity Barometer arising from the National Diversity Plan of the then Minister for Culture, Education and Science Ingrid van Engelshoven. This project was to be carried out by Statistics Netherlands (CBS) and was geared towards providing insight into the cultural background of staff in higher education. Five universities had already issued their questionnaires to staff when the project was discontinued. There were doubts surrounding privacy and the way in which people were being pigeonholed in terms of their cultural background. Protests prompted the universities to pull the plug on the project.

Despite the failures, new attempts are being made to monitor diversity and inclusion policy. The Young Academy wrote a report in September that stated that amassing data on the origins of staff and students is a ‘necessary evil’ in combating discrimination and racism.

One example of this need lies in efforts to attract a greater number of students with a migrant background. This is something TU Delft also wants, partly to realise its growth plans. Rector Tim van der Hagen said of this in Delta in September: “We need to go to schools, neighbourhoods, and speak to first generation students.” But how many students from migrant backgrounds are already there and what growth is realistic given the population structure? It is not known. For now, TU Delft’s diversity dashboard only contains data on male-female ratios.

Legal and moral obligation
entire higher education system is struggling with this issue. That is why the barometer will be relaunched over the coming year. Statistics Netherlands says it has given proper consideration to specific criticisms. However, Erasmus University Rotterdam is so far the only institution committed to participating. Rector Magnificus of EUR Annelien Bredenoord said in Erasmus Magazine: “As an educational institution, it’s our legal and moral duty to actively work to eliminate discrimination. We’ll be able to do a better job of that if we have the right data at our disposal.” 

‘There’s a greater degree of flexibility in privacy legislation than people think’ 

In her own research, Jojanneke van der Toorn has noticed some reluctance on the part of board members and HR departments to amass diversity-related data. “They’re quick to point out that certain things aren’t allowed by the GDPR, by privacy legislation. However, there’s a greater degree of flexibility in that legislation than people think, assuming you’re meticulous and ensure you obtain consent. Many people are definitely willing to give their consent, especially if they’re convinced that their employer has their best interests at heart and if they have the sense that the institution will actually act on the insights gleaned to effect improvement within the organisation.” 

Van der Toorn also stresses the importance of the way questions are asked. In the case of the Cultural Barometer, for example, the division between western and non-western population groups was criticised. “You need to be alert to the fact that labels change over time. It would help to involve the people to which it pertains.” 

Apache helicopter
even cautious questioning can provoke resistance. It is becoming more customary to ask what gender people identify as rather than to ask what sex they are. This can provoke irritated responses, with some respondents stating that they identify as a ‘penguin’ or an ‘Apache attack helicopter’, for instance. Yet resistance to diversity policies is not high, Van der Toorn knows from research (in Dutch). It is about 7 per cent of employees, while 54 per cent are in favour and 40 per cent not so outspoken. 

‘You need to avoid diversity policy being something only of specific groups’ 

A lot could be achieved by providing the latter group with decent information, Van der Toorn thinks, although it remains important to listen to opposition. “Objections are often the product of fear, such as of no longer being able to get a job as a white male. Once you’re aware of these factors, you can engage with people on these issues and perhaps point out that they won’t be discriminated against and that it’s instead about rectifying an unfair advantage.” 

Van der Toorn adds that monitoring policy is not necessarily all about surveys and number crunching. Dialogue with staff and students can also be held through interviews and focus groups and is an inherent part of clear communication with various consultative bodies and participation bodies in higher education. Van der Toorn: “This has to involve the entire organisation. You need to avoid a situation where diversity policy is something that only diversity officers or specific groups of staff and students focus on. It’s about cultural change within the entire research university or university of applied sciences.”  

By Ries Agterberg / Additions on TU Delft by Saskia Bonger

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