International guest writer , Sarah Daren analyses the nuances of changing academic and workplace attitudes.
Inclusion efforts take place in varied ways and at varying speeds. In some institutions and spaces, they have taken deep root and characterize every aspect of the way things are done. In others, they are points of contention, supported only by factions, half-hearted, or ill-informed.
For many students who are graduating from their academic environments and entering the workforce, a first workplace experience that does not value or promote inclusion can be an unpleasant shock if they’ve grown accustomed to cultures on their college campuses that promote healthy and robust inclusion.
As academic spaces across the country work to foster more deep-set inclusion efforts, it’s important to extend that change to our professional environments as well.
The History of Inclusion in Higher-Education Academic Institutions
The definition and value of both diversity and inclusion has changed significantly within higher-ed spaces over the past century or more. From before the beginning of the 1900’s, the first versions of the colleges and universities we know today often operated with a completely different mindset towards diversity and inclusion.
Institutions were usually founded with a predetermined focus on a specific population. This occurred across a range of demographics including race, ethnicity, religion, and gender. From institutions that developed to serve a particular religious denomination to those that targeted specifically Scandinavians, or women, or that were segregated based on race or class, the predominant approach of most secondary education institutions was to serve a particular audience. Admissions processes curated this homogeneous aim.
It wasn’t until the pre-WWII years in the 1920’s and 1930’s that this reality began to shift. Desegregation efforts to make southern colleges and universities more racially diverse and grant African Americans more access to higher education began to plant an awareness of, and value for, diversity in higher education spaces.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s created further traction for the shift towards diversity and inclusion. Today, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts receive strong support and prioritization at many institutions.
Because academic institutions are spaces that can (on average) be infused with more individuals of higher average levels of education and diverse experiences than many other industries and settings, academic institutions in many parts of the country are often more inclusion-focused or aware than surrounding or similarly-sized organizations in corporate or similar sectors.
However, they still have plenty of room to grow. Current statistics and surveys still reveal a heavily skewed average towards white, male individuals in positions of leadership in colleges across the board. Similarly, the position types that employ the highest ranges of diverse or minority group individuals are still often those in service or maintenance-type positions at colleges. However, these realities are shifting and efforts are being made to promote inclusive and equal hiring and admissions practices across the country.
Diversity and Inclusion in Today’s Workforce – A Mixed Bag
Today’s mainstream awareness of the inclusion conversation is relatively strong. Inclusion efforts are often highlighted and discussed in media, politics, education, and the workplace.
However, though the topic has received more airtime in the last decade than perhaps ever before in history, the process of instituting inclusion in our systems and institutions has taken massive amounts of time and effort to reach the point it has today and will require much more. Real inclusion requires mindset shifts, and those shifts are necessary at every level of decision-making and within every sphere of society to create lasting change. This takes time.
The statistics clearly show the value of increasing inclusion and diversity in professional spaces. But even with clear evidence that diversity benefits not only people but the bottom line, some organizations and even entire industries remain slow or hesitant to prioritize inclusion.
This makes it impossible to fully anticipate the level of inclusion a new hire might experience at a given company or workplace. Especially for members of minority ethnic, racial, or gender groups who are graduating from college and looking for inclusive workplace environments, this remains a large concern.
Members of these minority groups have historically faced uncomfortable situations, hostile environments, job insecurity, and even personal danger or harm within the workplace because of their identities. Though legislation, awareness, and public support and pressure have all helped secure safer, more inviting working environments in countless spaces, some organisations still exist that actively stifle inclusion. And many more exist that simply aren’t aware of inadvertently disclosing habits and patterns they perpetuate within their ranks and workplaces.
This demonstrates the need for intentional awareness, education, and effort on the parts of leadership (and organizations as a whole) to transform more work environments into truly inclusive spaces.
How Things Are Changing
As time goes on, more and more decision makers in the professional and corporate realm are individuals who have grown up with or adopted much more inclusive attitudes and values than the average older executive who grew up in a less inclusive culture.
This natural change will add steam to inclusion efforts in their workplaces, many of which are still only beginning to investigate questions of inclusive practice, ethos, and policy. This is in part because of the trailblazing and thought leadership accomplished by many higher education institutions that have instilled their graduates with not only a value for inclusion but with the awareness and education needed to implement change.
Though this shift is taking place, it needs active support from inclusion advocates and allies to maintain traction and ensure that the process of creating more inclusive workspaces isn’t hampered by adversity, bigotry, or apathy.
This can be accomplished partly through those graduates of inclusive academic institutions that take their experiences and inclusivity awareness with them into the workforce. This support is an important way of propagating inclusivity organically via the value systems individuals bring with them into their roles and spheres of influence in corporate and professional environments.
Academic institutions that value inclusion can also play a larger role than they sometimes realize in shifting inclusion efforts within workplaces. The sphere of influence an academic institution can have often includes corporate organisations and professional workplaces – whether in their geographic area, in their areas of expertise or research, through partnerships and collaborations, and more. This creates profound opportunities for propelling workplace inclusion.
Whether by engaging in advocacy, offering training and curriculum or support to workplaces interested in increasing their inclusion efforts, or supporting public policy initiatives to better facilitate DEI prioritization, academic institutions can leverage their expertise and influence to further propel inclusion within workspaces throughout the country and around the world. The more advocates engage in this kind of work, the quicker workplace inclusion will advance.
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