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‘An inclusive university begins with which books you choose’

Sociologist Aya Ezawa is the new Diversity Officer at Leiden University. What is the University doing well and what could it do better? ‘It’s taken much more for granted that universities should be a reflection of society. But this is also an area where we can still make progress.’

Why did you want to be the Diversity Officer?

‘Many of the topics that a diversity officer deals with, such as women’s careers or forms of exclusion, are within my field of expertise. I’m a sociologist and a University Lecturer at the Institute for Area Studies. My research focuses on social inequality, working mothers, racism and ethnic identity. This was one of the reasons why I was asked to join the University’s steering group on diversity in 2011. I helped write a position paper that led to the current Diversity and Inclusion Policy (D&I). In this paper, I suggested, among others, appointing a diversity officer who can help implement this policy. Most Dutch universities have one now, but the position didn’t exist here at the time.

‘In addition, I was already active at my own faculty, the Faculty of Humanities, organising, among others, workshops on diversity and special needs in education. I also have a lot of international experience. I grew up in Germany and have studied and worked in Japan, the UK and the US. This has allowed me to gain a comparative perspective on social issues and D&I policy.

Aya Ezawa: ‘Diversity doesn’t just happen.’

What has the University diversity policy achieved so far?

‘Five years’ ago, gender as a topic was not as taken for granted as it is now. The number of female professors has since increased. The Diversity Office has also supported the establishment of student and staff networks (see below). There is much more awareness at different levels of the organisation of the importance of diversity. Staff from the degree programmes now come to me of their own accord to ask how we can become more diverse. I want to build on this in the coming years.’

The Diversity Office fosters the establishment of University-wide networks such as the Sophia women’s network, the LGBT+ Network, the Afro Student Association and Safe Space to Talk About Race (STAR). Two new networks were launched this year: the Leiden University Diversity and Equality Network for staff, and the Middle East and North Africa Student Association.

What do you want to have achieved in a few years’ time?

‘I want the University to be more of a reflection of society and to become more diverse and inclusive. This means achieving a better balance between men and women, people from different backgrounds and of different orientations and not to forget students and staff with special needs. Research has shown that teams that are diverse perform better. Colleagues complement and keep one another on their toes because they don’t all have the same perspective. Diversity doesn’t just happen by itself, however. The number of female professors has increased, but much still needs to be done to ensure that women move up to higher positions as a matter of course. Our English-taught programmes attract a lot of international staff, but there aren’t many Dutch nationals with a migrant background. To put it crudely: how many professors of colour do we have? We don’t have any data on this. In 1938, we had a Rector Magnificus who was born in Suriname, Paul Christiaan Flu. If that was possible in 1938, why shouldn’t it be possible now?’

Why aren’t we that diverse yet?

‘Unconscious bias is an important area of focus. Women and Dutch nationals with a migrant background are often underestimated and their performance goes unseen. People sometimes don’t expect them to be researchers, lecturers or managers. I have experienced that myself. One day when I entered an exam room, the invigilators assumed I was a student. They tried to send me out of the room because they thought I was too early and calling out, ‘He’s not there yet!’ You have to make more of an effort to assert your authority and are subject to inappropriate remarks. Research has shown that women receive lots of comments on their clothing and are assessed more critically in student evaluations.’

How can that change?

‘Start by reflecting on your own biases. Think about how you can contribute to an inclusive university. We can add inclusive leadership as a skill to job vacancies. This is the ability to interact with people from different backgrounds and contribute to an inclusive work and learning environment. Universities in Europe have been male strongholds for centuries. This isn’t an accusation, but we still see the effects of deeply ingrained patterns. For instance, the standard of what makes a good scholar. That is the researcher who churns out one book after another, is internationally active and who works 70 hours or more a week. When that doesn’t necessarily say anything about quality. It’s a standard that’s easier to meet if you don’t have any caring responsibilities and have a partner who doesn’t work full-time. But does it promote the best research and equal opportunities?’

Should we too work with a quota, like Eindhoven University of Technology?

‘Diversity and inclusion can’t be forced. With a quota, you end up with a discussion about the quota itself, and that disrupts the process. What works best is if people are self-motivated and see the meaning and value of diversity. You don’t need to be an expert for that. It is more a question of putting it on the agenda and encouraging a conversation. An inclusive university already begins with which books you choose for your class. Are you assigning a series of books by male authors from the same part of the world? Or are you incorporating a range of perspectives? Because without diverse perspectives, students are presented with a view of the world and of academia that they do not necessarily feel part of. An inclusive approach is important if you want to give all students the opportunity to reach their potential.’ 

Photos: Monique Shaw
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Aya Ezawa studied Japan Studies at Sophia University in Japan and sociology at the University of London. She then did her PhD research at the University of Illinois in the United States.

Diversity conference

The (annual) diversity conference will be held at the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences on Wednesday 22 January 2020. More information will follow.

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