Inspired by the Athena Swan Charter in the United Kingdom and Australia, Dimensions is an initiative supported by the three federal research granting bodies: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. It aims to mobilize universities and colleges to strive toward achieving diverse, fair and inclusive learning conditions. “We want students, employees and professors to thrive in an environment that does not limit them,” explained Lyne Bouchard, vice-president for equity, diversity and inclusion and human resources at Université Laval.
Because the initiative is larger than Athena Swan, and to ensure its long-term impact, a pilot project was launched to rethink the documentation, program and evaluation system. “Among other things, the pilot project will define the vision and the tools to be developed to support institutions,” said Dimitri Girier, a member of the experts committee responsible for designing the program and chief equity, diversity and inclusion advisor at Université de Montréal.
Co-developing with institutions
The pilot project makes it possible to build a program that is relevant for all. “Institutions and their needs are at the core of development,” said Nathalie Podeszfinski, manager of the Dimensions project at NSERC. Seventeen higher education institutions from across Canada were retained for the pilot. To enrich discussion, the participating institutions were at different points in implementing measures to foster equity, diversity and inclusion.
Since it was launched, the pilot project has already shaped some aspects of Dimensions. The certification program will consist of four levels of recognition, rather than three. “We decided to move toward a different, less competitive approach” rather than gold, silver and bronze, Ms. Podeszfinski said. “We are working to change the names and clarify the standards.”
All institutions will be able to apply to participate in fall 2022. Applications will be evaluated based on actions taken toward the five minority groups (women, visible minorities, Indigenous peoples, those with disabilities and LGBTQ2+ people). “Institutions shouldn’t focus on just one group,” she said. Pilot project participants are currently finalizing co-development of the program. The guide for institutions and application forms for the follow-up certification stage should be made public in the spring. The pilot project will end March 31, 2023 (although stakeholders are hopeful it will be renewed), and the results will be assessed by institutions as well as experts.
Responding to challenges
The pandemic set deadlines back slightly, but most universities and colleges have since ad just- ed. At Université Laval, the pandemic resulted in shifting and mobilizing resources to deal with the crisis but raising awareness and communications continued. The university plans to start collecting data soon, through a survey of personnel and students who self-identify as belonging to a minority group. This will make it possible to identify issues and understand the realities these groups face, and it will serve as the basis for the action plan. According to Dr. Bouchard, mobilizing communities to collect data will still pose challenges: “I think it will be tough to reach all client groups. It will take significant mobilization and awareness-building.” Before ensuring that a diverse range of people participate in work groups, organizations must overcome another obstacle. “One of the key challenges is to convince our institution that it takes human and financial resources to achieve the goals set,” said Mr. Girier.
Sharing in order to progress
Institutions taking part in the pilot project benefit from each other’s experiences. That will enable them to enhance their reflections and break down silos (within institutions, between provinces, between anglophones and francophones). “It leads to frank and constructive dialogue,” said Ms. Podeszfinski. “It’s interesting to see what is being done better elsewhere; it helps in adjusting certain practices,” added Mr. Girier. While strengths and perspectives differ between provinces, combining them is enriching. “Even if we are evolving in different contexts, we face similar challenges,” Dr. Bouchard said. The participating institutions have access to neutral tools, without each having to reinvent the wheel.
Furthermore, signing the charter of principles is not limited to universities, and interest remains high: so far 130 organizations have signed on. A week does not go by without a college, university, or university hospital asking for a Dimensions presentation. “People are curious,” said Ms. Podeszfinski, adding that they want to know how to get involved and apply. Besides the recognition program, there is a real need for basic tools such as a webinar on conscious and unconscious biases or an example of an action plan or gender-neutral posting. “Although we talk a lot about EDI, there are still very few tools, particularly for those who are starting from zero,” said Ms. Podeszfinski.
Experts are hoping the program will help move the cause forward. “Unfortunately, EDI issues are often managed like a checklist,” lamented Mr. Girier. Participating institutions are instead encouraged to establish short-, medium- and long-term goals. Setting only long-term objectives is discouraging and creates comfort in the status quo. “I am confident Dimensions will lead toward a multi-dimensional vision of EDI, beyond quotas,” concluded Ms. Podeszfin ski.