Towards Diversity

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"Lady and Gentlemen…" The words resounded throughout the meeting room. It was one of Margaret-Ann Armour's first department meetings as a new faculty member, and yes, she was the only "lady" in the room - and the department.

More than thirty five years later, of course, Armour is no longer alone. Within two years of her 1979 arrival, she had helped to found WISEST (Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science and Technology) and had solidified her role as one of the academy's great proponents for diversity. Diversity - not just gender parity, but the representation and wellbeing of different cultures, ethnicities, and minority groups - has increasingly become a part of our university zeitgeist. We talk about it constantly. We have even named it a core value. If Margaret-Ann Armour's early encounter now feels antiquated, it might signal that we have made progress on diversity. But as the Faculty of Science's Associate Dean of Diversity, Armour knows that even today, "we still need encouragement - to be reminded how important diversity is."

From biases in course evaluations to potential discrimination in grant application approvals, diversity remains a goal within academia. Armour likes to point to a 2011 Yale study, in which an identical CV was distributed to 30 different universities under two names - one read John, the other Jennifer. When asked to rate the quality of the CV, the universities assigned John a 4 out of 7 on average. Jennifer received a 3.2. The takeaway: we all have subconscious biases that can impact our decision-making. As the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry's new Assistant Dean of Diversity, Dr. Helly Goez has joined Margaret-Ann Armour in the pursuit of diversity and the collective awareness of these subconscious biases.

Before seeking solutions, Dr. Goez suggests that we need to ask ourselves: "why is it this way?" Answering that question requires that we look well beyond the borders of our campuses. As she rightly points out, "we live in the world." We are a permeable community, embedded within larger cultural frameworks. Dr. Goez admits that global events in the last few months shook her perception of intercultural mobility and exchange. (Think of the U.S. travel ban, which made global headlines, and had an immediate impact on U of A campuses.) We need to be mindful of the wellbeing and success of all minority groups within our own community, Dr. Goez says.

Being part of a bigger problem doesn't discourage Dr. Goez. In fact, it might be driving people to think more about diversity on campus. Since Dr. Goez took up the office in January of this year, a surprising number of people have walked through her door to consult, ask questions, and share their thoughts on the matter of diversity. "This started almost right away after the office was announced," she explained. For her, the spontaneity of these interactions indicates a real appetite for diversity on campus. "People know that there is a door that they can knock on."

That door to knock on - both physical and metaphorical - may be an important factor for encouraging further diversity on campus. Among her observations of campus culture over the years, Armour has noticed that diversity itself seems to beget more diversity. "It's about getting started, and getting a friendly culture within the department - friendly to diversity," she said. "If we can get a department that is friendly towards diversity, and that is looking for diversity, then it's not just gender diversity that they're going to be interested in - it's also other forms of diversity."

Though their approaches differ, Margaret-Ann Armour and Dr. Goez both concentrate on the practices of seeking, interviewing, hiring, promoting, and maintaining staff and faculty at the university. These are sites where subconscious biases often creep into decision making - and where we can make real headway.

But the work is slow. In part, the gradual pace is structural, and somewhat particular to academia. "The rate of turnover at universities tends to be quite low," Armour explained. Fewer hires means slower change to overall representation. In part, however, these substantive shifts simply take time. Dr. Armour is frank about it: "what we're trying to do is change a culture."