A different angle on diversity

I strongly believe everyone should have equality of opportunity in our society regardless of their gender, age, ethnicity, class, disability or sexual orientation. There is clear evidence that societies which have lower income inequality enjoy better mental and physical health, higher life expectancy, achieve more in education and their work lives and are generally happier, than those societies which, even though they may be wealthy, have a greater disparity between the richest and the poorest.

Discrimination – on any basis – is the antithesis of equality and we have to work hard to counter issues that foster unconscious bias. Being a middle-aged, white, heterosexual male from a pretty comfortable middle class, northern European background, it’s not often I feel that I am the subject of discrimination, but a couple of recent experiences have opened my eyes to some forms of bias that I believe need to be put on the table for discussion. I believe they were genuinely unconscious in nature but they reflect something that is deeply rooted in the world within which I work.

Diversity at work

I am a civil servant and an academic. I have two jobs, one in Defra as its Chief Scientific Adviser and another as a professor in biology at the University of St Andrews. Straddling the divide between these two cultures gives me a useful perspective on the extent to which these two cultures tackle inequality in the workplace. As a scientist, I like numbers and indicators and the proportion of women in the respective organisational structures I work for is a convenient indicator.

In Defra, 53% of the work force is made up of women, although at senior levels this drops to 37.9%. Universities, as many know, have a steeper hill to climb. Although 45% of the work force is composed of women, only 27% of academic staff are women and only 17% of professors are women.  At least both these sectors slightly better reflect our society than our Parliament where only 29% of MPs are women!

However statistics do not say much about underlying biases in behaviours. I have said in the past that government has a tough job. Commerce tends to tackle solvable problems that lead to profit. In academia, one can choose the problems one tries to solve; some academics will focus on those that are tractable while others might take a few more risks but in that case failure has few consequences.

In government, however, there is rarely a choice about the problems one chooses to tackle. Civil servants have to pick up the problems that often have no clear solution, that nobody else wants, and that are often ‘wicked’ in nature. The insolvability of many problems of this type requires the cultivation of a special form of intellect and capability.

An unfair view

The policy and evidence professionals in the civil service are excellent at what they do. Part of my job is to scrutinise the civil service and advise about how it can better generate the evidence it needs and how best to use it. I would be the first to say that the system of government is far from perfect, but I object to the view sometimes projected from academia that government is second class. I came across this attitude recently in two contexts, (I won’t give details to spare the blushes of those involved) and although I’m sure they had no idea of the implications of what they were doing or saying, nevertheless it betrayed a prejudice.

In essence they said that government could not possibly be excellent at its work. These guilty parties were so entrenched in a way of thinking that they could hardly even bring themselves to use the word ‘excellence’ in the general context of government. The Research Excellence Framework, one of those much-maligned civil service initiatives has both strengths and weaknesses but it has perhaps reinforced a false view within the academic community that academia has a majority on the word ‘excellence’. This is, of course, rubbish.

The thoughts and acts that fuel this kind of discriminatory attitude are rooted in the same behaviours that drive discrimination of all types. They concern self-interest from those of low self-confidence. They are a close cousin of schadenfreude but are about denigration for the purpose of self-aggrandisement. Civil servants, who often have skins of leather, tend to take this on the chin, but I see the constant, low level disparagement of the work of civil servants, whether policy officials or  scientists, as an issue that needs to be highlighted and resisted.

While this kind of pernicious bias persists, it is difficult for academia to improve its diversity record and get its own house in order. My point, of course, is not about eliminating criticism and challenge of the work of civil servants, but about making sure that it is founded on achieving the joint objective which is to make things better. Diminishing the credibility of others based on unfounded bias is as unfair and malevolent as any other form of prejudice.