Integrating equality, diversity and inclusion throughout education is a challenge we all share

Embedding inclusion takes strategic leadership. Pearson's chief diversity officer Florida Starks shares the challenges she's working to overcome.

Florida Starks is Chief Diversity Officer at Pearson

A positive trend in the UK university sector is the appointment of senior leaders, at Dean or pro vice chancellor level with responsibility for equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI).

Pearson has made a similar commitment in creating the role of Chief Diversity Officer, a role I’ve held since February 2021. Since joining the Pearson team, I’ve been inspired by the depth of commitment and passion for EDI.

People come to work at Pearson because they love education. As is true in many universities, lots of our staff are deeply committed to EDI and as a result we have many pockets of good practice and positive initiatives across the organisation.

But we want to build on these pockets and initiatives to build up to true inclusion. We don’t want to just be dependent on the goodwill and legwork of enthusiastic individuals, who may move on or burn out if they feel unsupported. We know that the success of our organisation is dependent on integrating inclusion across the entire organisation.

A consensus of employee sentiment captured during individual and group discussions reflects a desire for change based around:

  • Better alignment with company strategy. Embedding EDI into our company goals and importantly how we reward at Pearson will help us accelerate change.
  • More external engagement. There is a desire to be more visible externally in sharing our commitments and collaborating with educators and learners.
  • A more simplified approach. Currently business units across Pearson are trying to do everything at once rather than being guided by our strategy.

From speaking with other companies, universities and schools, I see many of the challenges around embedding EDI as universal ones, in which our collective learnings (both the breakthroughs and the mistakes) are more valuable if shared. So here are some of the challenges we are facing, and how we are working to overcome them.

If 80 per cent of your workforce believe that your organisation is already inclusive how can you make change happen?

Most people have experienced feelings of exclusion at some point, but many do not associate that feeling with the workplace and assume that others have had a similar experience to them. How do you take people on a journey when everyone has a different starting point, some think we’re near the end, and others believe we’re just beginning?

We are working towards a shared understanding of inclusion but still have a way to go. It has taken a lot of work, and bravery, on the part of our employee representative groups, to raise awareness of inequality in our workplace.

By ensuring that there are sponsors at a senior level, and there is buy-in from communications teams, we have been able to amplify the voices of minority groups so they can have wider impact. Giving groups a platform to share personal stories has been an effective way to reach people on an emotional level, away from the tick box exercises that many equate with EDI.

We encourage story sharing through our EDI training programmes. These are run as candid conversations, usually breaking attendees into small groups so there is opportunity to speak more freely. Nonetheless we still have a lot of employees who are nervous about offending someone with a wrong word or wrong association.

The message we are trying to land is that it is OK to get something wrong, and OK for someone else to call you out on it (politely) and in that process for us all to learn more about each other. It sounds simple, but it requires a culture of acceptance and the honesty to admit mistakes openly, which is far from simple to build.

Our employee representative groups are a valuable force for change in our organisation but overall responsibility for driving desired behaviours must sit with our leaders. A bottom up approach though powerful, is limited and it is accountability and commitment from the top down that will truly change the culture.

How do we diversify our workforce so it better reflects the learners we serve?

There’s often a standard response from managers across the workforce when faced with pressure to recruit more diverse employees: “the pool of applicants is not diverse enough so how am I supposed to broaden out my team?” We’ve found that it isn’t enough to emphasise our diversity commitment on our job adverts and hope people will come to us.

We have started going out to more diverse communities. We are six months into a global partnership with myGwork, a business community that connects LGBT+ professionals and graduates with inclusive employers. All of our new roles are shared on myGwork, as is other information about inclusivity at Pearson.

So far nearly 300 people have started working at Pearson who state myGwork as the place where they saw the job advertised. Similarly we’re working on a partnership with the Black Young Professional network, which we hope will increase the number of black applicants. Up until now, we’ve focused primarily on LinkedIn promotion in the UK, but this is limiting our reach.

To state the obvious, you can only measure progress where you have data. And this is easier to come by in some areas more than others. We know approximately one in five people throughout the world have a disability, be that sensory, physical or mental. We don’t think our Pearson employees reflect that statistic, but the truth is we don’t know, because we do not currently operate a voluntary global self declaration process.

Across all the FTSE100 companies (including Pearson), there are no executives or senior managers who have disclosed a disability. Current thinking is that, the more we develop an inclusive culture, and proactively support prospective applicants and existing colleagues with disabilities that we do know about, the more likely others will be open about what they need.

Linked to the challenge around diversifying our workforce, is diversifying our leadership teams. Last year we took more decisive action around this and launched a training programme called iLead, specifically aimed at building leadership skills in diverse talent. Colleagues on the programme are coached and mentored by members of the senior leadership team, which has the added benefit of strengthening relationships. In years to come, I hope there is no need for this type of programme, but for now, we have a responsibility to put things back on track.

Our goal is to continue to offer learning programs that build an inclusive workforce. Having this focus offers a foundation for individual and collective growth.

How do you create inclusive content without undermining cultural heritage?

This is one of the most difficult and controversial of challenges, both for us, and the universities we speak to. We launched our race and ethnicity guidelines earlier this year, and these are informing our broader global editorial policy that will be re-released later year with enhanced standards for content relating to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, social class, religion and disability.

The combined guidance will address the five challenges of underrepresentation, negative associations exaggerated, limited positive associations, missing stories and the “problem” frame which positions people who are part of a minority group as being helpless victims of their “own” disadvantage.

What has become clear to us as we write these guidelines is that there are no such things as truly “global” guidelines. Language is challenging, terminology is different around the world, as are cultural norms, practices and laws.

We are aligning our content teams to interpret and reflect cultural context across a spectrum of diverse dimensions when applying our guidelines, for example, our team in India addressing issues of colourism and caste when applying our guidelines on race and ethnicity. The protection of human rights remains paramount and that includes freedom from harm – we need to ensure whatever we present in a local context does not put learners or teachers at risk of physical or psychological harm.

Accessibility and disability are sometimes discussed together, but the considerations for each can be very different. It’s one thing to ensure the photos and examples in a digital textbook represent people with disabilities, it’s another to make sure that instructions are in plain English and there is ALT text behind the image of someone in a wheelchair so those who cannot see it still know what the photo shows.

We need to consider disability and accessibility from first principles when designing our products and services. If we do not, we run the risk of building unjustifiable access barriers at their core, regardless of how accessible, diverse and inclusive we make downstream collateral.

The balance between wanting to uphold human rights principles, and having the humility to know when to act and when to listen, is a hard thing to get right. We want learners using our resources or taking our online courses to feel included because otherwise we’re setting up barriers to full engagement with learning that members of the dominant group simply don’t see, or have to contend with. If we insinuate that the culture they belong to is somehow wrong, we will contradict what we set out to do. It’s about tempering the message so it’s still respectful to the people for whom that message is controversial.

How can we keep pace with the changes in EDI in the content and services we create?

In all honesty, I think it depends on the nature of the products and/or services. If we are working with a university partner to design an online course we can align our own framework with the EDI content guidelines within that institution and integrate that thinking as we develop the course.

If we find examples of bias in a printed textbook which isn’t due to be updated for another three years, should we pulp all the copies and reprint in order that we can remove offensive and biased language or examples? This is a tough decision and one that can’t be made using a blanket approach.

The growth of digital is helping with this issue as it’s certainly easier to update digital content quickly, even so we need to be more agile when it comes to dealing with flagged issues. To help us root out bias, we’ve launched a web portal where anyone can report examples of bias in our content and services. Building awareness of where there is bias in our content is one thing, prioritising what to update and when is another.

As we make changes to our content we want to understand what impact that is having for educators and learners. Has it been a catalyst for open conversations that challenge beliefs? How can we support educators and students to have those rich discussions in an inclusive way?

Our underlying assumption is that if learners see themselves reflected in their learning, it will increase their engagement with the content. This could have positive effects on both performance and retention rates. The next stage of the work is to develop ways to test these assumptions in collaboration with educators and learners. If we can identify and track desired progress and impact, it should also increase buy-in and motivation for the long haul.

This article is published in association with Pearson. 

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