Research spotlights diversity and inclusion issues in universities

Looking at the experiences of Asian academics in Australian universities, Professor Nana Oishi  has found that most saw their ethnic and cultural background as a disadvantage in their workplace. During her research into a new report on workforce diversity in higher education one Asian-Australian academic spoke to Professor Oishi of being treated link a second-class citizen

She also found that instances of racism, ethnic stereotyping and/or marginalisation were common.

“Senior academics should be encouraged to take the initiative in creating a more inclusive and welcoming workplace,” Oishi wrote in her report. “Nurturing an inclusive community…(helps) build a stronger and more cohesive institution.”

The project was funded by a grant from Mr Jason Yeap OAM, a member of the University of Melbourne’s campaign board. Yeap also helps fund the Asian Australian Public Policy project, which investigates the representation and engagement of Asian-Australian populations in public spheres.

Looking at universities, Oishi found that while Asian Australians were very well represented in student populations and in junior positions, they held fewer positions higher up the academic food chain.

“This is not a pipeline problem,” she says. Something more complex is going on.

Asian-born academics make up 15.4% of teaching and research staff in Australian universities, but only 3.4% of Deputy Vice-Chancellors are Asian-born. And there is currently no Asian-born Vice-Chancellor in Australia.

Oishi hopes that her research will help address the problem by establishing a baseline: how seriously minorities are underrepresented in university positions, and “how people feel about the situation”.

One factor explaining the relative lack of Asian academics in leadership positions is unconscious bias.

“Research shows that people who hold very senior positions have a very high tendency to recruit people who are very similar to their characteristics,” Oishi explains. “It’s widely recognised in organisational behaviour and management literature.”

But it’s not the full story. She says that more than one factor contributes to the problem, and that not everybody feels the weight of discrimination equally.

“Asian women felt that their background is a disadvantage in the workplace, much more so than Asian male academics,” she notes. Some 68 per cent of Asian women agreed that it was a disadvantage, compared with 53 per cent of Asian men. The result reflects the compounding, intersectional nature of discrimination.

Oishi says that diversifying recruitment and promotion committees would be one way to help start addressing the problem.

“Research shows that if you want to recruit people from diverse backgrounds, then the recruitment panels have to be diverse as well.”

It also helps if you keep tabs on how many minorities are employed. You can’t improve things if you don’t know what you’re trying to improve.

“The world’s top universities all have specific websites for diversity and inclusion. They have either targets or plans to promote inclusion.”

While this particular project focuses on Asian academics, Oishi says that its findings are applicable to many minority groups.

“My point is to promote diversity and inclusion policies…how many people are there in our community, and are they being represented in our universities?”

So far, Oishi has found a receptive audience for her findings.

“I’ve been impressed with how willing the University of Melbourne leadership has been to help address this issue, now that they’re aware of it,” she says. “Cultural change takes time. But I’m optimistic.”