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The University of Southampton
Doctoral College

Towards More Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Academia


By University of Southampton doctoral researchers, Helen Currie and Salma Sabour

On Thursday 10 September 2020, a diverse audience of approximately 120 PGRs and staff members from across all disciplines and faculties at the University of Southampton, attended a virtual seminar on diversity, inclusion, and equity (EDI) in academia.  The event was organised by the PGR-EDI representatives of the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences’ School of Engineering (Helen Currie and Salma Sabour) and the Doctoral College and was funded by the Activities Fund for the Festival of Doctoral Research (Dr Heather Mackenzie and Catherine Howe).

The virtual event welcomed three very exciting keynote speakers: Dr. Sheila Kanani (Royal Astronomical Society - RAS - @SaturnSheila), Dr. Alexis Stokes (Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences - @DrAJStokes), and Dr. Jess Wade (Imperial College London’s Department of Chemistry - @JessWade).

The first speaker of the day, Dr Sheila Kanani, explored the history and progress made within the RAS: moving from a gentleman’s only organisation to officially accepting membership from women, with the 2016 centenary event involving a celebration of women in astronomy. She presented the use of baseline data to evolve, improve and encourage diversity, and explained how the RAS act as a support network for Fellows on diversity matters. The measurable improvement of the RAS over the last 6 years lead by example, highlighting practices that can be implemented in academic environments. For instance, implementing support systems at conferences to mitigate issues of harassment or bullying. Dr Kanani concluded her talk with an apt and profound quote: “Astronomy is for everyone; the sky is for everyone.”

“Are we treating diversity, equity, inclusion as an add on … or are we treating it as the foundation or infrastructure which we build on?” With forthright questions, Dr Alexis Stokes captured the attention of the audience. Dr Stokes investigated key facts and concepts in relation to diversity: from the importance of leadership statements in creating language shift - calling out white privilege in academia - to the importance of diversity as the foundation and infrastructure of a university, rather than merely an add-on. She presented tools to restore equity at the interpersonal (words, actions, behaviours and beliefs), institutional (policies, practices, rules, and curriculum) and cultural (dominant values and stories) levels. Dr Stokes concluded her talk with a quote from James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Dr Jess Wade discussed some of the figures in relation to diversity in the UK, and how disparities are being further highlighted in the light of the ongoing pandemic. Dr Wade supplied many key resources and emphasized the real need for representation within science to inspire future generations from a diverse range of backgrounds. Her powerful talk proved the importance of public engagement and outreach in STEM as fundamental drivers for addressing diversity and inclusion and tackling class and background biases, noting that “community and sense of belonging is so crucial”.

This seminar was a reminder that we all have a responsibility to enact positive change, from interpersonal and institutional levels to the cultural level. As an academic community, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves and to keep demanding change in our working environments by having the difficult conversations, drawing on the experience of others and working with diversity experts. The speakers illustrate the personal and professional range of important EDI issues and advocate having conversations about race, class, and minority groups alongside recognising one's privilege and biases.

All three speakers provided resources for further research that will be shared in the next Doctoral College Digest. The talks have been recorded and will be accessible as a future learning resource.

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