Why this matters at Imperial
Imperial College London is a world-leading university that has a declared mission “to achieve enduring excellence in research and education in science, engineering, medicine and business for the benefit of society.” This mission expresses the pride that we take as a university in our civic role as a repository for knowledge and culture, as an institution that fosters independent and critical reflection, and as an agent of positive societal change.
As a university, we are defined by our community of staff and students. Therefore we will only succeed in our mission by cultivating an environment that respects, supports and celebrates all the people who come to Imperial, enabling them to enrich the world and their own lives through work and study.
Our community of undergraduate and postgraduate students, of academics and researchers, of administrators and technicians, of service and support staff, is tremendously diverse, even if it is not yet fully representative of society at large.
We are people from all ages and backgrounds; people from the UK and from overseas; people of majority and minority ethnicities; people of different religious and philosophical beliefs; people from a range of socio-economic circumstances; people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or who identify elsewhere under the umbrella of LGBTQ+; people who live with visible and invisible disabilities or enduring health conditions; and people who are single, married, in civil partnerships or in informal partnerships, with or without children.
We are all influenced by our backgrounds and identities, as they combine and intersect; none of us can be defined by a single trait or characteristic.
Our institutional culture is shaped by our community. It is sustained and expressed day-to-day in our behaviour and in the relationships between us: formal connections of line management, professional interactions among colleagues, peers and classmates, teacher-student exchanges, and informal contacts and friendships. It is also transmitted in our outreach and widening participation work with pre-entry applicants.
Our culture is also shaped by our institutional history and by society. The very name Imperial is a reminder of a historical legacy that is rooted in colonial power and inequality. We choose not to deny that history but not to be defined by it either. Nor do we shy away from the fact that we are embedded within a society that, despite progressive legal and cultural changes in recent decades, is still disfigured by inequality and discrimination. Racism, sexism, disablism, and other prejudices and abuses of power harm the daily experiences of too many of our staff and students inside and outside the institution.
Although in theory the equal rights of individuals are protected by law, reality too often falls short. In part this is because the ideas of equality, diversity and inclusion are still sometimes seen as matters that are secondary to the core institutional and organisational goals. At Imperial we reject that view. We wish to be clear-sighted about what these ideas mean and the value they bring to everything that we are aiming to achieve.
What do these terms mean for the College?
Equality is about recognising that everyone should have the opportunity to fulfil their potential. The Equality Act (2010) defines nine protected characteristics that historically have been the focus of discrimination. These are: age, disability, gender assignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion and belief, sex, and sexual orientation.
Though such definitions are useful, it is problematic to think simply in terms of a list of characteristics. In part this is because they are often invisible and assumed to be absent. But we also need to be aware they intersect in different ways in different people; for example the lived experience of a British black woman is likely to be different from that of a white European woman, or a Chinese student who is a lesbian.
We need to focus on the person. We also need to recognise that the protected characteristics raise issues that can impact us all, which is why a holistic approach to achieving equality requires us also to define what we mean by diversity and inclusion.
Diversity is about being aware of and valuing difference as openly and as broadly as possible. It involves building a culture that respects and embraces difference for everyone’s benefit.
Inclusion refers to the experiences of the individual within the organisation. We are inclusive to the extent that people feel they are valued, listened to and belong at Imperial – and feel free to be fully themselves.
Why embracing equality, diversity and inclusion matters
Embracing equality, diversity and inclusion is not simply a matter of complying with the law, though clearly we are bound by its provisions. Nor is it simply a matter of social justice, though as a public institution it is absolutely right that we should strive to be representative of the society we serve. Nor is it an alternative to traditional notions of excellence.
Rather, our commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion recognises the fact that excellence comes in forms that are changing as fast as changes in society. If Imperial is to thrive in a world that has never been more diverse and inter-dependent, and to play its full part in advancing social progress and mobility through research, teaching, clinical practice, entrepreneurship, outreach and public engagement, we must become more cognizant of the benefits that will flow from moving equality, diversity and inclusion to the heart of our institution.
The benefits of this approach
Many of these benefits are readily identifiable, even if they might be challenging to realise in practice. There are a number of different ways in which a commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion will make us a smarter, healthier, friendlier and more productive organisation. It is important to realise that this commitment benefits everyone at Imperial, either directly or indirectly, because it places a particular emphasis on valuing people, their experience and their contributions.
For example, if we want to recruit, nurture and retain the best students and staff, we need to search in the whole pool of talent available to us. To do this effectively, we need to make sure that our culture is inclusive of diversity, so that everyone sees Imperial as a place where they will be treated with respect and given every opportunity to flourish, personally and professionally.
A culture that successfully recruits and retains diverse staff and students will inevitably also increase levels of personal satisfaction, and deepen people’s commitment and sense of belonging to the organisation. It will also make us more productive: inequalities degrade the experiences of staff and students, and prevent us from doing our best work. Just as importantly, a culture that values all staff and students should also reduce the incidence of bullying and harassment, and the severe personal and organisational costs of dealing with inappropriate conduct.
A commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion is also supportive of good mental health. Minority and other marginalised groups are known to be more at risk of suffering poor mental health because of societal exclusion. Moreover, because of the stigma that still attaches to mental ill-health, all sufferers are more likely to feel excluded from ‘mainstream’ society, which will only exacerbate their difficulties. A culture that is aware of and sensitive to the needs of different people will be more effective at tackling the burden of mental ill-health.
There is ample evidence from business and industry that diverse teams make better decisions and diverse companies are more profitable. Research shows that the value of diversity lies in the broader ranges of experiences and perspectives that it brings to team-work and problem-solving. Creativity is enhanced in organisations where there is readiness to engage with new ideas and viewpoints that challenge groupthink.
As a world-leading research university, Imperial already benefits from the varied talents of our international staff and students, and also through collaborations and partnerships all over the world. While there are still relatively few studies on the particular impacts of diversity on research and education: universities can still learn from business and industry. The evidence that is emerging already suggests that more diverse research teams produce research that is more highly cited.
Inclusion leads to further diversity
We also desire to be more inclusive because it will further diversify our research and teaching. This will enrich the breadth and relevance of the research questions that we ask. We need to be as diverse as the world we seek to serve if we are to connect with it fully and be relevant to people’s lives. This not only aligns with our global mission but has the potential for creating a virtuous circle by making our research activities more attractive to more diverse pools of talented staff and student recruits.