This resource examines five interrelated concepts that underpin equal opportunity policies and practices in higher education and research industries: intersectionality, equity, diversity, inclusion and access.

You are on Chapter 3 of 5: Diversity

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction and intersectionality
  2. Equity
  3. Diversity (current page)
    1. Workplace culture and bullying
      • Text Box 8: How to create a culture that welcomes diversity
    2. Exploitation of precariously employed workers
      • Text Box 9: Eliminate the exploitation of precarious workers
    3. Support for early-to-mid-career scholars
  4. Inclusion
  5. Access
  6. Notes

3. Diversity

Diversity is, at its core, a concept that explains the differences, divisions and categorisations of any given phenomena, including the very people who carry out research, policy and other work about diversity.

Diversity is a common organising principle within and across all scientific disciplines. Diversity studies refers to the categorisation and theoretical interpretations of variety, balance and disparities across the natural, physical and social sciences. The study of diversity is not simply about acknowledging differences. It is also the critical reflection of how we come to understand and value these differences

In a workplace context, diversity emcompasses older notions of Equal Employment Opportunity, though it is now more explicitly about protecting and supporting difference, including gender, age, language, disability, ethnicity, culture, sexuality, religious beliefs and other characteristics that need special protections, such as marital status and caring responsibilities (AHRC 2014).

More specifically in higher education workplaces, the concept of diversity allows the systematic exploration of how differences challenge existing modes of knowledge and what we take for granted, as well as how knowledge is in turn responded to, resisted and transformed through understandings of difference.

Diversity impacts the choices educators make in the classroom about what to teach, and what to leave out of their lessons (Sonia Netto and Patty Bode 2011). Training on diversity will affect the images, examples and types of knowledge presented to students. A critical understanding of diversity makes the difference between an educator discussing how the history of racism shapes learning, to ignoring the power of racism in the classroom.

Feminist research has shown that having a critical understanding of diversity will positively impact on how we teach, train and carry out research methods (Shulamit Reinharz 1992). Diversity knowledge impacts how we approach scientific problems in a study; the types of questions we ask; and those we ignore. A deep understanding of diversity shapes our writing about science and its “subjects,” and it helps us develop a more profound understanding of how people are impacted by research conclusions. In particular, a feminist understanding of diversity in research means having the ability to see that the people we study and those who are impacted by research are not homogeneous.

3.1 Workplace culture and bullying

Workplace bullying costs the Australian workforce $6 billion annually in missed work and health impacts (Anne O’Rourke and Sarah Kathryn Antioch 2016). Research shows that the adversarial culture within academia affects people of different backgrounds in different ways. The percentage of people who have experienced bullying within academic settings is twice as high as national averages (Sam Farley and Christine Sprigg 2014). Harassment and bullying is highest for Aboriginal employees (DCA 2017; Skinner et. al. 2015), other women of colour (Clancy et. al. 2017) and LGBTQIA+ people,* especially bisexual and transgender women (Atherton et. al. 2016; Davidson 2016; Pride in Diversity 2016). Disabled people also disproportionately experience workplace bullying, with the additional strain of being pathologised as a problem to be managed by the institution when coming forward (Duncan Lewis, Ria Deakin and Frances-Louise McGregor 2018).

Furthermore, while the academy promotes values of collegiality, the competitive nature of funding and other aspects of academia can create a “toxic environment” where negative stress becomes the norm.

More academics, especially at minority people and men at junior levels, are speaking up about bullying and other unhealthy dynamics of academia, and supporting the benefits of gender equity for all genders.

Sociologist Dr Eric Anthony Grollman (2014) writes about how being a Black, queer man, academia had forced him to work even harder to prove his place, and that this pattern of working long hours and feeling competitive about boosting his CV had a negative impact on his health, leading to increased anxiety. He made the decision to move away from a research-intensive university, even though his peers effectively saw that his choice was a sign of weakness:

“Beyond my health, the lure of academic stardom detracts from what is most important to me: making a difference in the world… When I die, I do not want one of my regrets to be that I worked too hard, or did not live authentically, or did not prioritize my health and happiness as much as I did my job.”

Grollman and an increasing number of academics want to be able to work in an environment that nurtures their love of research and teaching, without detracting from their health and family lives.

Text Box 8: How to create a culture that welcomes diversity

Prevent harassment and bullying.

  • Build-in anti-harassment and anti-bullying training in core subjects across campus and for all managers and fieldwork supervisors.
  • Provide outreach to researchers doing off site training to monitor their safety. Provide online mechanisms to register complaints.
  • Establish an online portal for faculty, staff and students to provide confidential feedback. Implement an information escrow for harassment complaints.
  • Publicise a fair and swift process for investigating cases.

Review and address gender equity in key decision-making committees and leadership roles.

So-called “50/50 gender balance” usually means White cisgender able-bodied people. Ensure representation reflects intersectionality.

  • Chairs should be trained in ensuring diversity of views are heard during meetings, including bringing in junior minority staff to have an opportunity to contribute on equity policies.
  • Rotate roles at least every two years to create new opportunities for minority staff.
  • Minutes from equity and diversity committees and related policies should ideally be made accessible on intranet.

Beware of class exclusion.

Working-class background learners, rural and remote researchers, or first-generation scholars may find the academy alienating.

  • Ensure there’s visibility of networks and role models with whom they can connect.
  • A leadership ‘shadowing’ program should be made available to help support these scholars, including for navigating professional and social events, as well as applications, and build up their leadership capacity.
  • Vary the location of important events, so that these are held on regional campuses. Always include live streaming of large staff meetings and speeches, with live captioning and AUSLAN interpreters. Provide mechanisms for online viewers to submit questions and participate fully from remote regions,

3.2 Exploitation of precariously employed workers

Work/life balance is negatively impacted by quality of employment and job insecurity. Abuse of short-term contracts, such as an over-reliance on casual labour and other precarious work arrangements, have made academia untenable for many graduates. This exploitation of labour especially impacts the opportunities for early-to-mid-career workers.

Around half of Australia’s academic workforce is classified as ‘contingent labour’ (49% of academics and 54% of teaching and research staff) (Kristin Natalier et al. 2016). This is twice the rate of the rest of the Australian labour market (24%). They must ‘fish’ around from one contract to the next; their pay is sometimes delayed; they are often ineligible for grants, funding and other benefits; they miss out on opportunities to contribute to campus life as they rarely have decision-making roles; and many do not have sick leave and other benefits. Job uncertainty impacts family planning, securing a mortgage, savings, and the ability to plan holidays.

This is a gender equity issue as, ‘Women are more likely to be sequestered in precarious employment’ (Veronica Sheen 2017). Academia has changed so rapidly that positive reversal of current trends may seem insurmountable. It isn’t! Start by pledging to change at least one thing to improve the work/life balance of precarious workers (CASA 2014).

Text Box 9: Eliminate the exploitation of precarious workers

Kathleen Butler (2006) notes that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are disproportionately employed on casual contracts, even in fields that are tied to social justice, such as sociology. She notes that they are treated as contingent labour, often roped in to deliver one-off lectures on Aboriginal issues; work that is often disconnected from the rest of the curriculum.

To redress discrimination and exclusion:

  • Audit contracts, including hours and work expectations: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and staff should be working across all departments, with a clear plan to increase secure funding and long-term senior appointments in every discipline.
  • Improve working conditions: funding requirements often hamper the ability for First Nations people to work across disciplines. Publicly invest in technology, infrastructure and cultural competencies to reduce isolation and support community-engaged scholarship and career-building opportunities for Aboriginal researchers (for a model, see Roxanne Bainbridge, et. al. 2016).

Kristin Natalier and colleagues (2016) suggest other ways in which ‘equitable and efficient processes’ might be achieved for precariously employed staff. Institutions can provide:

  • information on their rights and responsibilities,
  • access to a union,
  • processes to raise HR issues, access to supportive supervision,
  • links to academic colleagues and campus networks (including co-location of office space),
  • resources and grants,
  • clarification of work expectations,
  • professional development,
  • recognition through awards
  • bridging funds and application support for staff nearing the end of a contract.

3.3 Support for early-to-mid-career scholars

The so-called “leaky pipeline” is a phrase that implies we lose talent through the education and recruitment process. The solution to date has been to blame the market, as if by producing more graduates and employing them in junior roles will assure the “leak” is plugged up. This is not the case. We have multiple cultural issues that inhibit retention of hardworking early-to-mid-career staff.

Reflecting on the “leaky pipeline” of academia, Professor Mason and colleagues say:

At its core, this is a values issue. We should support all the talent in our academic pipeline through allowing them to enjoy both satisfying academic careers and family lives.

Text Box 10: Retaining early-to-mid career workers

Short-term and casual contracts should not be the key way to deliver teaching and administration support. Trapping early-to-mid-career researchers in endless precarious work is both an unethical and untenable model if we are to retain a diverse workforce.

Support early career researchers.

  • Proactively engage postgraduate students in career planning discussions and entice them to stay on with fulfilling work options.
  • Explicitly allocate work time for postdocs to engage in career-building opportunities, such as independent research and publishing.
  • Provide fellowships for postdocs to transition into permanent roles.
  • If an early career researcher makes a decision to leave, survey them to see why they left and where they end up to monitor and redress dissatisfaction and make changes accordingly.

Rebuild the “leaky pipeline,” by creating meaningful career pathways for minorities and White women.

  • Develop leadership skills through fellowships, mentoring and sponsorship.
  • Regularly survey and act on staff career satisfaction, such as by asking if they are thinking of leaving in the next 12 months, and implement avenues to address concerns.
  • Consistently carry out exit surveys with staff to capture and then target issues to prevent future losses

Provide professional development for all staff at all levels.

  • Provide online mentoring options. Take into consideration physical isolation of staff at rural and remote campuses.
  • Fund secondment opportunities to broaden professional training, with options for part-time staff and people with caring responsibilities.
  • Broaden workplace adjustments to include career building. Recognise and redress the ways in which disabled scholars are disadvantaged from up-skilling. To access career programs, candidates often have to compete against candidates who haven’t had the same institutional barriers. Create opportunities for research work and publishing, so disabled students can build up their resume. Positions should be paid or otherwise recognised for course credit.
  • Targeted roles across all departments. Correct intergenerational disadvantage faced by Indigenous students. Having actively been kept out of education for around 200 years, Aboriginal scholars need targeted support to flourish. Identified positions should include research assistants and other career opportunities in junior roles, across disciplines, throughout the organisation, not just for specialist projects targeting Aboriginal communities.
  • Conduct an audit of policies and correct disadvantage. Remove any exclusionary or ambiguous language from funding, leadership and scholarship opportunities that excludes part-time or disabled students and staff. HR systems sometimes discount marginalised people from funding and other opportunities. Review and redress program intake using intersectionality.
  • Promote caring leaders. Successful mentors who receive favourable feedback from mentees should be considered for promotions, especially along measures of cultural safety, transgender inclusion, and accessibility.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction and intersectionality
  2. Equity
  3. Diversity
  4. Inclusion
  5. Access


To cite this article:

Zevallos, Z. (2020) ‘Equity, Diversity, Intersectionality, Inclusion and Access,’ The Other Sociologist, 16 February. Online resource: