Five top tips for advancing DEI in research environments

Academic experts share how they’re shifting the cultural dial in favor of diversity, equity and inclusion

There is now widespread acknowledgement that diversity strengthens research environments, creating a fairer, more equitable culture in which people from all backgrounds can thrive. But the growing attention paid to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI or EDI) has not yet translated into the scale or pace of change needed to unlock research careers for many people from groups under-represented in the sector.

How can we take action? Research Professional News, part of Clarivate, recently gathered leading experts and advocates in a webinar to discuss what’s working in DEI. Panelists included:

  • Katherine Deane, Associate Professor in the School of Health Sciences at the University of East Anglia and University Access Ambassador
  • Sapna Marwaha, Deputy Chair of the Association of Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA) and Chair of the EDI Advisory Group
  • Jacob Feldtfos Christensen, Director of DIVERSIunity
  • Parveen Yaqoob, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research and Innovation, University of Reading
  • Dina Stroud, Program Director, U.S. National Science Foundation.
  • Alejandro Palermo, Head of Global Inclusion, Royal Society of Chemistry

The wide-ranging discussion examined what can be done to speed the pace of change. We’ve gathered their advice and experiences into five key strategies for bolstering DEI initiatives in the research environment.

#1 Acknowledge the issues are real

It may seem obvious but accepting that DEI initiatives are solving real challenges is an important foundation. “This is not political correctness,” said Jacob Christensen. “[DEI] is a topic for everyone, not just minorities.”

Katherine Deane provided sobering facts about the very real challenges facing disabled researchers in lab settings. Her research identified that one third of research labs don’t have an accessible toilet in the same building as their disabled researchers. More alarming was that only 20% of disabled researchers had an emergency evacuation plan.

“This isn’t special treatment,” Deane said. “This is what we need to do our jobs.”

Acknowledging the issues and documenting challenges spurs action plans that are targeted and designed to improve experiences for all.

#2 Make DEI part of the research strategy from the beginning

As research has become more global in scope, researchers are collaborating across countries, continents and cultures. DEI becomes more complicated as cultural norms can vary widely.

When it comes to collaborative research projects. Christensen recommends establishing the DEI plan and policy at the beginning, making it part of the project culture. He underscores that it’s okay to start small and build on a foundation. This prevents researchers from feeling so overwhelmed that they never create a DEI plan.

Developing those plans can often include difficult conversations, making them easy to put off. He shared a story of a gay researcher working on a project in Saudi Arabia. The researcher chose to stay closeted but didn’t disclose this detail to his partners and was inadvertently outed at a dinner. “It literally put his life in jeopardy,” said Christensen.

Having a DEI plan from the beginning provides a guide for collaborators, enabling them to find a balance between the project culture and any possible conflicts with their national identity. Potential challenges can be addressed up front and provide researchers with a shared plan for how to deal with them.

Importantly, more and more funders are expecting a DEI statement as part of a grant application. Having it in place from the beginning avoids submitting a tacked on, rush job that may sound more like lip service than a sincere commitment.

#3 Build a fair recruitment and advancement process

“Women drop off at every level of advancement,” said Sapna Marwaha. In her work as chair of the EDI Advisory Group, Marwaha is leading change at ARMA to ensure all professionals have an equal opportunity in recruitment and advancement.

At ARMA, the applicant screening process is anonymized, and the entire hiring process considers a candidate’s skills only, eliminating any questions that aren’t directly relevant to what’s needed to succeed in the job. Among other things, they eliminate questions about career breaks or salary history, which might indicate caring responsibilities at home. According to Marwaha, people with or have had caring responsibilities meet consistent barriers to advancement.

At ARMA, an essential part of this process is screening questions that will be asked of candidates and coaching recruiters ahead of interviews. “You can broaden the candidate pool, but without that internal change you just delay the point at which people experience discrimination,” said Marwaha.

#4 Trial, refine, persevere

Building an effective DEI program can be a process of trial and error. Working with a DEI advisory group that includes broad representation can be source of new ideas and feedback on existing programs. Importantly, being deliberate about DEI requires a willingness to experiment.

For example, Parveen Yaqoob broke new ground at University of Reading when she job-shared a board-level position, enabling her to keep advancing her career without sacrificing time with her family. Importantly, her position added diversity to the board. While there were some initial hiccups, she and her job share partner solved them quickly through a commitment to communication and collaboration. The partnership lasted for five years and was a benefit to the university.

Just as Yaqoob and her partner relied on feedback to identify gaps and issues, refining DEI programs to make them more effective relies on effective data collection. “You can’t act, if you can’t measure,” said Marwaha. To build trust and ensure that individuals feel safe about disclosing inequalities and discrimination. ARMA ensures its values are highly visible. Discussing the work they’re doing provides a clear signal that the environment is safe for minorities to provide honest feedback.

#5 Work where you can make a difference

Building an organizational understanding that DEI initiatives should not be construed with political correctness or special treatment can be challenging. It means changing attitudes and behaviors. Yet, this internal change is key.

Panelists recommended finding advocates for the cause to help spread change. “Work where there’s energy,” said Christensen.

Marwaha added, “You’ve got to go find the co-conspirators, the people who are going to work with you. Go to the spaces where your energy is going to make a difference. We shift the dial by going to the places that want to change. Where we can demonstrate that there’s a better way… that it can work and it does work.”

Play the long game

While there’s a long way to go build a global research environment that’s fair for all, each of the panelists shared successes, enthusiasm and an overwhelmingly positive view of the future. The environment is beginning to change, but the panelists warn that progress doesn’t mean the job is over. Persistence is key.

Want more insight into what your institution can do to advance DEI programs and initiatives? Listen to the panel discussion.

Clarivate is committed to progressing towards UN SDG 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. To learn more about this, and how Clarivate supports DEI initiatives, read our sustainability report.