Case study: The University of Edinburgh's diversity agenda

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​Lack of diversity continues to dominate business headlines, and this is no different in the higher education sector

“Historically, white middle-aged men have dominated the key positions and highest-paid roles in universities, such as professorship and management,” says James Saville, the University of Edinburgh’s director of HR. “If we want to pull in people from around the world – both employees and students – then we need role models that people feel they can look up to and that reflect them. Academics from around the world won’t want to work here if they just see old-fashioned values and white faces.”

The HR team at Edinburgh university has begun focusing efforts on this, first turning its attention to IT.

“IT was an area that most lacked diversity,” Saville reports. “So we created the Play First Steps Initiative, which is about having fair play at work and calling out bias to get behind the barriers.” This initiative included unconscious bias training, mythbusting, and a working group made up of academics from different areas of the university, HR and IT.

The results speak for themselves, with a 300% increase in women at directorship level within IT. Saville explains that it was important to focus on one area first and then “take learnings and what’s applicable elsewhere”.

The challenge, explains Saville, is what he refers to as “abundance thinking”. “When there are multiple priorities it’s a challenge,” he says. “How do we accelerate evolution and force the diversity curve without changing the norms of a 500-year-old institution with heritage and prestige?”

Further reading

Putting the HR in higher education

Lessons from higher education HR for other sectors

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