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From the admin chair

Exciting times for equity, diversity and inclusion

A new federal charter, with funds to match, will help institutions to identify systemic barriers.

BY SHEILA COTE-MEEK | JUN 24 2019

In 2015, in a historic move, the Prime Minister of Canada announced the formation of the country’s first gender-balanced cabinet. When asked why that was important to him, he said, “Because it’s 2015.” It is now 2019 and Kirsty Duncan, the federal minister of science and sport, unveiled in May a new made-in-Canada version of the Athena SWAN Charter, called Dimensions. For those of us who have been advocating for equity, this is an exciting and promising time.

I was particularly excited to see, as part of this initiative, the establishment of an equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) capacity-building fund. These grants are designed to help institutions to identify and eliminate, within the research enterprise, “systemic barriers that impede the career advancement, recruitment and retention of under-represented groups.” These groups include women, Indigenous peoples, members of racialized minorities, people with disabilities and LGBTQ2+ individuals. The importance of attaching funding to such a policy change is important for several reasons, including the fact that dedicated research funds provide opportunities for institutions to engage in the process and to develop specific EDI initiatives.

Building diversity

It is important that institutional leaders embrace this as an opportunity to build institutions that are reflective of the diversity that exists in society. While representation is important, it is also vital to think beyond this as simply an exercise in numbers. There are important benefits for institutions that embrace and value the principles of EDI. Here I focus on three specific reasons.

A range of ideas

First, research shows that diverse teams make better decisions. Think about it! Sitting around the table with groups of people who do not see the world like you do, or through the lens as you, can be rewarding. It is fascinating when you sit and listen to the range of creative and innovative ideas that can emerge.

I can recall when I was working on my doctorate, sitting in a room of about 30 very diverse thinkers. Each graduate student had a different research project. Our supervisor would bring us together for regular meetings where we would listen to each other’s research and offer insight and feedback.

At first, like many, I was a bit troubled by the approach, thinking that we would not really understand one another because we were so divergent. But, when I lowered my resistance and worked to listen to my peers and provide feedback, I was amazed at the results. I have to say it was one of the most creative learning environments that I had ever been exposed to.

Today, I can recognize that people bring a range of ideas, opinions and worldviews based on both their life and professional experiences. This adds a richness to understanding issues, confronting challenges and making decisions that can be otherwise very monolithic.

Second, along the same lines, I have worked with and for a number of leaders. The very best of those leaders are the ones who value diversity in all its forms including intellectual diversity. What I have also noticed is that these leaders interact with people in a way that encourages an openness and a conversation that supports active employee engagement.

Third, is the added value. It is time, in 2019, and the right thing to do in terms of fairness. Learning from others by expanding how we relate to and understand people is enriching at all levels. It is that old saying, “we don’t know what we don’t know.” In other words, increasing diversity also assists us with growing in our understanding about the realities across a range of people.

Targeted initiatives

There is no doubt that there will be times when targeted actions and programs are needed to assist with shifting our thinking about how we relate with one another and in society. Without these targeted initiatives, we tend to rely on past practices that keep us rooted in doing what has always worked. Circling back to the adoption of the Canadian version of Athena SWAN, I believe this is an opportunity to rethink, reformulate and re-inspire. It is the right time!

ABOUT SHEILA COTE-MEEK
Sheila Cote-Meek
Sheila Cote-Meek is associate vice-president, academic and Indigenous programs, at Laurentian University. Her column will appear in every second issue.
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