Cultural barometer gets a new shot

Monitoring is the only way to measure the success of diversity policies

diversiteit  Illustratie Jowan de Haan
Illustration: Jowan de Haan

“If you don’t know what’s broke, you won’t know what to fix”, says Jojanneke van der Toorn, Associate Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology at Utrecht University and a  Professor by special appointment of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Workplace Inclusion at Leiden University. She also serves as a Research Leader at the Netherlands Inclusivity Monitor, which provides organisations with insight into their diversity and inclusion policies.

“The starting point is to pinpoint what you hope to gain by fostering diversity and inclusion. Are you looking to enhance performance or is the reason more of a moral nature, such as ensuring equal opportunities for everyone considering all the demographic options? Both options are possible but if you want to formulate tangible targets, it’s important to reflect on what your motive is as this will allow you to come up with targeted activities and analyse whether what you’re doing is having the desired effect.”

Knowing what you want to achieve
Van der Toorn has been seeing a lot of efforts in terms of diversity and inclusion in the higher education sector but it is often unclear what results higher education institutions hope to achieve with certain measures, not to mention they’re usually not carefully monitoring the effects of these efforts. For example, institutions are striving to increase diversity among their staff and student body, make classes more inclusive, ensure that international staff and students feel at home, provide guidance to first-generation students, facilitate things for those with disabilities, encourage women’s career progression and stamp out prejudice of any kind, to name but a few examples. These are all realistic goals but Van der Toorn points out that many of these measures are not accompanied by clear indications as to what objective they serve or whether the objective is being met.

A study  of 21 research universities and universities of applied sciences, comissioned by the Association of Editors-in-Chief of Higher Education Media, shows that the main hot topics surrounding diversity and inclusion include racism (intentional or unintentional) and gender identity. In the not too distant past, the emphasis used to lie on the emancipation of women and ensuring that international staff and students feel welcome. Van der Toorn has noticed this shift as well. “Whereas diversity objectives used to be focused primarily on binary gender and, to a certain extent, nationality, the attention has shifted towards ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity. Incidentally, these dimensions of diversity are not being recorded within the organisations, which makes it harder to set targets and monitor the effectiveness of measures.”

jojannekevdtoorn, universiteit Utrecht

Jojanneke van der Toorn. Photo: Utrecht University

Cultural Diversity Barometer
Van der Toorn stresses the importance of analysing diversity and perceived inclusion at research universities and universities of applied science. Doing so provides insights into what is going on within the organisation and can also reveal any inequality or differences between groups of staff and students. Those engaged in monitoring the activities will be able to take more targeted measures, considering the organisation’s specific situation.

“It’s important to understand how much Executive Board members, managers, staff and students support the policies. That doesn’t mean that new policy is only necessary or possible if it gathers universal support but the institution should take the opposition seriously as that enables it to identify the source of any objections and take them into account.” Van der Toorn cites the introduction of all-gender toilets as an example. “A former student said that some of her female Muslim friends were against the idea of making all toilets all-gender. When she asked what exactly the problem was, the women stated that they were annoyed about not being able to take off their headscarves. Installing mirrors in the toilet cubicles themselves would be one way to solve that problem.”

If measuring diversity and inclusion is so important in the development of new policy, why is it so hard to do in practice? The diversity survey commissioned by several higher education media this autumn had to be discontinued after the satirical blog GeenStijl sabotaged it, claiming the survey was an example of higher education institutions forcing diversity down people’s throats.

Back in 2020, the Cultural Diversity Barometer came under fire. That was a project from the National Diversity Plan of the then Minister of Culture, Education and Science, Ingrid van Engelshoven. The project, which was to be carried out by Statistics Netherlands (CBS), was geared towards providing insight into the cultural background of higher education staff. Five universities had already presented their staff with questionnaires when the project was cancelled over critiques surrounding privacy and the way in which people were being pigeonholed in terms of their cultural background. Protests prompted the universities to pull the plug on the project altogether.

Legal and moral obligation
Despite the failures, new attempts are being made to monitor diversity and inclusion policy. In September, the Young Academy wrote a report stating that amassing data on the origins of staff and students is a “necessary evil” when combating discrimination and racism.

One example of where this data could come in handy are the efforts to attract more students with a migrant background, which will require knowing how many students with such background the university already has and what would be realistic to expect in terms of growth. However, it is also important to know how students with and without a migrant background feel about the atmosphere in their programmes and what kind of issues they tend to encounter. Lastly, the university needs to know what all students, teaching staff and managers think about this policy.

That’s why the barometer will be relaunched next year. Several research universities and universities of applied sciences, including Utrecht University, are considering taking part in the project again. Statistics Netherlands says it has given taken all the criticism into account.

Erasmus University Rotterdam has already committed to participating. Rector Annelien Bredenoord says in Erasmus Magazine: “We have a diverse society and everyone should have an opportunity to flourish and grow, regardless of sex, sexual orientation or cultural background. One way of assessing our inclusiveness would be to examine whether any groups feel they are being prevented from advancing within the organisation and, if so, what obstacles they are facing. As an educational institution, it’s our legal and moral duty to actively work to eliminate discrimination. We’ll be able to do a better job if we have the right data at our disposal.”

Privacy legislation
In her own research, Jojanneke van der Toorn has identified some reluctance on the part of Executive Board members and HR departments to amass diversity-related data. “They’re quick to point out that certain things aren’t allowed by European privacy legislation. However, there’s a greater degree of flexibility in that legislation than people think, assuming you’re meticulous and ensure you obtain people’s consent. Many people are definitely willing to give their consent to this, especially if they’re convinced that their employer has their best interests at heart and if they have the sense that the institution will actually act on the insights gleaned to effect improvement.”

Another criticism levelled at the Cultural Barometer pertained to a division of people into Western and non-Western, a categorisation deemed not logical or properly substantiated. Van der Toorn: “It’s important to properly reflect on the way in which we request information. It would help to engage the people to which it pertains. We also need to be alert to the fact that labels change over time, which sometimes hampers the comparison between current data and past data.”

Formulating questions is a complicated business
Formulating questions is a complicated business these days. For example, it is becoming more customary to ask what gender people identify with rather than asking what their sex is. This can provoke annoyed reactions, with some respondents stating that they identify as a “penguin” or an “Attack helicopter”.

Van der Toorn: “The circumspect formulation of questions on identity seems to generate some resistance. The Apache helicopter answer is a classic that often crops up in surveys like this. Yet, resistance to diversity policy isn’t widespread. Our survey on support (available in Dutch only, Ed.) suggests that only around 7 percent of staff are heavily opposed to diversity policy. Moreover, 54 percent of staff does support this policy, while 40 percent are on the fence. A lot could be achieved by providing that group with decent information. It’s also important to listen to the group that’s heavily opposed to it. Their objections are often the product of fear, such as no longer being able to get a job as a white man. Once you’re aware of these factors, you can talk to people about these issues and perhaps point out that they won’t be discriminated against. It’s about rectifying an unfair advantage.”

Cultural change
Van der Toorn adds that monitoring policy is not necessarily all about surveys and number crunching. Dialogue with staff and students can also be held through interviews and focus groups as it is an inherent part of clear communication with various consultative bodies and participation bodies in higher education. Van der Toorn: “These are things that you need to be bold enough to invest in as an organisation. And you have to involve the entire organisation. You need to avoid a situation where diversity policy is something that only diversity officers or specific groups of staff and students focus on. It’s about cultural change involving the entire institution.”

This investigation involved an analysis of 36 policy documents from 21 educational institutions: thirteen universities and eight universities of applied sciences. These documents relate to strategies, memoranda, action plans and position papers in which the educational institutions set out their plans. As part of this study, we also spoke with diversity officers from thirteen universities and seven universities of applied sciences about their work. Nearly all diversity officers say they must deal with negative reactions often, of whom three even received threats. As a result, some diversity officers were reluctant to participate. 

The independent media that participated in this study are affiliated with the Association of Editors-in-Chief of Higher Education Media. 

The study was conducted at the following institutions: Fontys University of Applied Sciences, University of Groningen, VU University Amsterdam, Utrecht University, University of Twente, Avans University of Applied Sciences, Eindhoven University of Technology, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences, Radboud University Nijmegen, Utrecht University of Applied Sciences, Delft University of Technology, Arnhem Nijmegen University of Applied Sciences, Maastricht University, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, Hanze University of Applied Sciences, Tilburg University, Saxion University of Applied Sciences, University of Amsterdam, Wageningen University, Leiden University.

This study was made possible in part through a contribution from the Dutch Journalism Fund.