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Equality as a driver for diversity: ‘Seek out contradiction and the unknown’

The freedom to be who you are – woman, man, homosexual, heterosexual, transgender, religious, atheist, and so on – is perhaps the Netherlands’ greatest attribute. The principle of equality and the right not to be discriminated against are in the very first article of our constitution. Yet there is a gap between the text of the law and the practical promotion of diversity, equality and inclusion. It is this gap that Ashley Terlouw, Professor of Sociology of Law at Radboud University, will address during the annual Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) symposium at Leiden University.

The D&I symposium is the annual moment when the university community looks back on the developments and milestones related to the past year’s D&I policy and finds inspiration to take steps as a community. And there are certainly steps to be taken, Terlouw says in preparation for her lecture on 13 January.

To get straight to the point: how are Dutch universities doing with diversity and inclusion? Are they doing enough?

‘I think quite a lot of attention is being paid to it; almost every university has a diversity officer these days. But more can always be done. For example, the male-female ratio in the academic world is still skewed, although the percentage of female professors is rising. But this isn't happening at the same rate for ethnic minorities in higher academic (administrative) positions. 

‘Curiosity is an important value for a university, and that includes curiosity about the unknown, about the other.’ - Ashley Terlouw

‘There’s also still a long way to go in terms of student culture. Perhaps there should be changes to the entire process of interviewing for a room in a student house. Often, the residents choose someone who looks like the people who already live in the house. It’s easy and fun to live with like-minded people. It takes more effort to get along with someone who thinks differently from you, but it’s also more interesting and it gives you something new. Curiosity is an important value for a university, and that includes curiosity about the unknown, about the other.’

During your lecture, you will focus on the impact of the right to diversity and inclusion. Can you give us a preview?

‘I’m going to start by talking about the principle of equality, as stated in Article 1 of the Constitution. Not everyone is the same but they are equal, and that dignity will be a central point in my lecture. It’s a foundation for diversity and inclusion, but the principle of equality can also lead to tensions, for example when other (fundamental) rights are invoked.

‘Take the example of someone who has religious reasons for not wanting to shake hands with members of the opposite sex. There, the principle of equality clashes with freedom of religion. This clash also occurs in organisations that work with a positive discrimination policy. A man may feel disadvantaged if a woman is hired based on that policy: “I am equal, but because I’m a man I’m suddenly no longer in the running”. The law chafes at these points, and that’s why interpretation is so important.’

Would you care to explain that?

‘I think we all have a responsibility to interpret the norms in our law. For example, freedom of speech should not be an argument for hurting others unnecessarily, or for shouting your opinion without listening to others. Don’t be led by self-interest in  interpreting these norms. The diversity you create then only leads to polarisation. You can see that in the debate on vaccinations, where many people are diametrically opposed to each other. A fair and inclusive interpretation of the norms in our law is much more important. That should carry a lot more weight.’

Three people sit at a table in front of a large screen. On the screen are symposium participants.
The D&I Symposium at the start of 2021 was mainly online because of the pandemic.

Can universities play a role in this interpretation?

‘Everyone can and should play a role in this. As a university, you can adopt the principle of equality and use equality as a guiding principle. Then, when you are faced with a clash between equality rights, you can use that guiding principle. “What are the underlying interests and sensitivities, and how can we weigh them or strike a balance?” At the same time, legal scholars can help explain the law in specific cases. The law is a living instrument that adapts to the prevailing social norms. You can see this in the Zwarte Piet discussion, for example. At first, the social norm was Zwarte Piet, seen as a tradition and not discrimination. But we have come to realise that it is indeed discriminatory.’

Finally, we all agree that diversity and inclusion are important issues. But how do you make sure it is more than just talk?

‘Yes, it’s difficult. I’m perhaps too much of a “theoriser”. At the same time, I’m working on a study for the Senate on what a legislator can do concretely to combat discrimination when it comes to the labour market, education, the police and social welfare. That requires me to think about concrete actions. In the case of the labour market, for instance, you could have a diverse selection committee and have each committee member individually assess the applicants with points before you consult with each other as a committee.

‘Everyone has their own fixed thought patterns, their own prejudices, but we must try to overcome them.’  - Ashley Terlouw

‘It remains difficult to become really concrete; you have to force yourself to do it. In any case, you have to be open to the unknown. Everyone has their own fixed thought patterns, their own prejudices, but we must try to overcome them. Actively seek out contradiction and the unknown.’

The D&I symposium on Thursday 13 January 2022 is a collaboration between Leiden University’s Diversity and Inclusion Expertise Office, our Faculty of Law and the national Council of Deans in Law. The aim of the symposium is to provide a space for issues at the intersection of diversity, inclusion and law. Register for the symposium here..

Text: Tim Senden

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