Nobody engages in equality and diversity issues to win badges, says Kate Williams, but the University of Leicester’s deputy pro-vice chancellor for equality and diversity has been part of a team whose commitment has been recognised with awards and charter marks. She tells Efficiency Exchange about her role and what works when leading culture change.
What is the scope of your role and what plans do you have in mind for it?
My role is to provide strategic leadership in our approach to and understanding of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) at the University of Leicester. I promote our university’s reputation for innovative and effective work in the area of EDI, encourage staff and student engagement in these issues and lead all members of our university community in identifying and making the best contribution they can in the advancement of equality and the recognition and valuing of diversity and inclusion.
I work across all parts of our university—including colleges, departments, professional divisions and the student body—raising the profile of equality and diversity and really trying to embed it into everything we do.
Whilst this involves chairing university committees and administrative work, much of the role focuses on contributing an EDI perspective to a range of institutional change projects, developing events and communications strategies that showcase key issues, achievements and challenges, and supporting colleagues and students across the institution who are contributing to work in this area. Examples are International Women’s Day, diversifying our visual landscape, working on HeForShe initiatives around gender based harm, leading on aspects of Athena SWAN activity.
I lead on embedding our approach and commitments to EDI in our student recruitment, widening participation, regional engagement and corporate social responsibility activities and ensuring that Leicester a visible presence, regionally, nationally and internationally, for its focus on equality and diversity.
Your background is in medicine, how does that link to your current post?
I trained as a nurse before I went to university and my PhD is in health services research. Much of my work has focused on women’s health and long term conditions. I am passionate about equality and hugely aware of the effects of inequalities in health.
I came into this position through work I did with colleagues around the Athena SWAN initiative – a charter mark that recognises the advancement of gender equality, ensuring representation and progression for all but with a focus on women. I led the first successful departmental Silver Athena SWAN application in the university and went on to support other departments in their awards as gender equality lead in the College of Medicine, Biological Sciences and Psychology, which is how I came to my current position, I am passionate about equality and wanted to be involved in the organisational change process around equality, diversity and inclusion.
What advice would you give to someone considering an academic career now?
Obviously, because my career spanned 30 years, it’s a bit different from when I started to embark on an academic career. I would suggest talking to people at different points in their academic career. So sometimes, when you are thinking of an academic career you talk to a post doc, but actually what’s really useful is talking to people at all levels. Talk to a lecturer, talk to a senior lecturer and people at professorial level to get a fuller idea of a career path fully understand the requirements for progression in academia.
You also need to think about what things you enjoy doing and how you like to work. Increasingly we work now in interdisciplinary teams which is great for team players. Academia is a highly competitive place to work, but If you are absolutely passionate about what you do, then go for it, the working life of an academic can be very rewarding..
What is the best aspect of working at Leicester?
I genuinely think that there is real commitment to EDI, that’s what’s really brilliant about working at Leicester. There is support for EDI in all aspects of our work. While we have many and varied challenges, there is support from the top of the organisation as well as from colleagues across it for finding workable solutions.
A lot of what I like about my role is the variety – I have a lot of inspirational colleagues. All our relationships are built on the foundation of dignity and respect. We are a really good team of people at Leicester, so I think that is the best part of working here.
Who would you say is a good advocate for diversity and why?
The person who springs to mind for me is Barack Obama – even though I feel that I should be suggesting a woman!
I felt really inspired when Barack Obama became president of the United States eight years ago. It felt like a real turning point, it’s a huge shame it doesn’t feel like that now. He offered a new way of thinking about healthcare reform, LBGT rights, gender equality recognising the double standards imposed upon women and girls. He always behaved with great dignity and respect and was an inspirational leader. I think he was a fantastic advocate for diversity
Can you give us some examples of what doesn’t work when an organisation is trying equalise opportunities?
Chasing ‘badges’ and expecting a ‘quick fix’ doesn’t work, and just leads to dissatisfaction. Transforming organisational culture is what is needed and this takes time and commitment and can be a slow process.
I think in order to bring about real change you need to engage with people at every level of an organisation and that takes a lot of time. Sometimes there is an impatience and I understand that people can think “we can equalise opportunity, how hard can that be?”, when actually transforming organisation culture is hugely challenging and it can take a lot of time to get it right. You really have to be in it for the long haul and recognise that interventions take time to develop and to become ‘business as usual’.
What do you most enjoy about your role.
What’s really great about it is the huge amount of variety. I come from the College of Medicine, Biological Sciences and Psychology. We are sited geographically in a certain area, but with this role you work with the whole of the university and I think that is really exciting and rewarding and also hugely educational.
You can know part of the organisation without knowing the whole of the organisation – with this role you get a perspective across the entire university. You get the opportunity to work with academic and professional services colleagues, undergraduate and postgraduate students. We have a number of staff fora and supporting them to develop really engaging programmes of events for international women’s day, LGBT+ history month is hugely enjoyable. We are looking forward to developing more events over the coming months for all of the protected characteristics. Events are really important to bring people together with the common aim of being a more equal, diverse and inclusive place to work and study.