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University diversity policy is alive and kicking: ‘We need to acknowledge each other’s experiences’

Leiden University has had a diversity policy since 2014. The aim is to create a diverse and inclusive learning and working environment for all students and staff. Diversity Officer Aya Ezawa updates us on the process and the results. It’s now 2022, what has already changed?

It is important to begin by drawing the boundaries. What are we talking about when we talk about diversity and inclusion (D&I)? ‘We recognise that we are together with people from different backgrounds. The University is growing rapidly and 40% of the staff are international. For us, inclusion is about the question of how we ensure that everyone can feel at home here. How should we engage with each other and how do we bridge the gap in perspectives and experiences?’ Ezawa explains.

She thinks this is something everyone benefits from. As an institution, Leiden University focuses on connection, trust and innovation. Ideally, these values mean we live in a community where there is the freedom to be different and where we are respectful of that freedom.

Raising awareness and offering solutions

Ezawa and her colleagues Jessy Wong and Corijanne Slappendel use different resources and events to raise awareness about the importance of being an inclusive community. This year the D&I Expertise Office organised a meeting about Leiden’s slavery past and there was an event on International Women’s Day, where Hester Bijl and Annetje Ottow spoke to staff about leadership. Besides pursuing her policy, Ezawa is also involved in the practical side of things.

‘People come to us with questions to which I can offer specific solutions. At the moment it’s difficult to fill vacancies at all. And lots of departments want to attract people with different backgrounds. But how do you reach them? We are developing tools, such as a toolkit for inclusive recruitment: “How do you recruit people in a professional but inclusive way?” By using more inclusive language and images that show a variety of backgrounds, you can already appeal to very different people.’

The main thing in this learning process is to unlearn the belief that something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  Ezawa’s policy is quite deliberately not about being right but about giving each other space. ‘Bringing about change takes time. You can’t force inclusion and respectful interaction. When we engage with one another, we learn together what is needed.’ This can be uncomfortable and emotional at times, she says. ‘But when we as a community recognise that we are in a process where there is something to learn, the message really sinks in. Then we can start taking steps together.’

Annetje Ottow, Dewi Sofia Laurente (LUC Diversity and Inclusion Student Committee), Andrew Shield (chair of Leiden’s LGBT+ Network) and the D&I Expertise Office team on Purple Friday

Ezawa gives a few examples of how such a process works.

Students and consent

Consent is a hot topic for students. We have been working on this at D&I for three years. The Amnesty Report (in Dutch) was a revelation: at least 11% of female students in the Netherlands reported having been raped while at university. This also happened to 1% of male students.

‘We wondered whether we could share information about this with first-years during the introduction days already. We’ve started doing that now. Students are now given a flyer about consent during the El Cid introduction week. We also offer free workshops on consent to student and study associations,’ says Ezawa. She also notes that people are talking much more about diversity, inclusion and dignity and respect. A number of study associations have now included D&I as an important topic in their policies.

Sometimes there are tensions and discussions and then as a community you want to offer a solution that works for everyone. By raising awareness Ezawa is making the issue visible to different groups. ‘This doesn’t immediately change the problem, but people know whom they can contact. And that the University considers this a very important issue – that generally makes people feel safer. Our colleagues at Student and Educational affairs are now taking this issue further.’

Gender-inclusive language and all-gender toilets

Steps are also being taken regarding gender-inclusive language. A growing number of students and staff have contacted us because they didn’t agree with automatic emails with the salutation ‘Ms/Mr’. Various boards of admission and examiners came to Ezawa for advice.

‘There are more than two gender identities,’ she explains. ‘People can be a man according to their official sex but feel like a woman (gender). Or non-binary: someone who does not feel at home in the gender categories of man or woman. It may seem like a small thing but if you are constantly misgendered it does something to you. People who are in transition experience this daily. We wanted to change that.’

The ISSC has therefore worked hard to make it possible to change your preferred name in SAP and studielink. If you change your preferred name there, this will be automatically propagated to other systems. Another challenge was the pronouns on degree certificates. ‘She’ or ‘he’ is no longer used on degree certificates but ‘student’ instead, so the certificate fits students regardless of their gender identity.

Ezawa held a survey to find out how different forms of salutation are perceived. The results made it clear that students and staff thought ‘Dear [first name + surname]’ was the most appropriate salutation in automatic e-mails. It was also clear it would be best if people could state their preferences. ‘It’s actually in everyone’s interest: we all want to be addressed pleasantly and correctly. Everyone should have the same opportunity.’

Gender-neutral toilets had also been on the wish list for some time. Ezawa started sharing information about the need for these toilets two years ago and gave some advice on their design. Then there is the question, for instance, of what kind of sign you should use for the toilet. ‘At the end of the day, it’s not about the user but the type of facility. So you just call the facility “toilet”.

It was also important that this toilet wasn’t an afterthought, hidden on the fifth floor. And there are two different options in one place: sitting toilets and standing facilities. It is important that everyone feels safe in such a place. Within a year we have made a lot of progress and I’m really pleased with that.’ There is now at least one all-gender toilet in most buildings , and more are being built. Wheelchair-accessible toilets are also available. More lactation rooms and quiet rooms are also available.

During the ‘Asians in the Netherlands’ meetup

Dealing with resistance

Ezawa wants to show that she takes care of everyone’s interests. This takes time and you need to give people the space to become aware of certain situations. She receives both enthusiastic reactions and resistance, she admits.

‘It is good to get to the bottom of why people feel uncomfortable; everyone has different experiences. But as a community, you have to listen to everyone as best you can. It’s a democracy. We therefore look for balanced solutions. I’ve noticed that for young people in particular it is second nature to take everyone into account.’

There is also a small group that finds the changes difficult. Ezawa likes to point out her approach to these people: it is not about being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but about respecting the different lifestyles and experiences within a community. ‘We are all there for solutions. It’s important to work together on these.’

Racism is one of the most complex issues within D&I. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, many Chinese students came to her because they were facing abuse on the streets. How do you deal with that? Should you get angry or say something? Ezawa thinks it is important to provide answers to practical questions like that as well. And she sees that sometimes the distinction is not made between discrimination and racism.

‘It’s complicated because people don’t intend to hurt with their comments. We then try to make it clear that it is not about the intention of the sender but about the experience of the person receiving a comment. When we do not recognise the other person’s experience as important, the community is felt to be unsafe. We now understand this with consent. So when someone experiences an action or comment as harassment, for example, that is what it is. We also want to make people aware of that when it comes to racism.’

D&I is therefore offering training on dealing with diversity, such as ‘Beyond the labels’ and ‘brown eyes, blue eyes’.

The D&I Expertise Centre works with a lot of networks: the LGBTI+ network and other queer networks, Leiden University Diversity and Equality network (LUDEN), the Neurodiversity Platform, the RISE and Vitaal women’s networks, the Afro Student Association, Middle East and North Africa Student Association, and the Access and Support Platform for students with disabilities. A network of students from Latin America is also under development.  These networks provide a safe place and cultural community as well as parties and community gatherings. They also hold lectures and panels and receive training on how to deal with complex issues.

Aya Ezawa on Purple Friday

The future of Diversity & Inclusion

Looking ahead to important themes in the future, the first thing Ezawa mentions is Keti Koti 2023 (the commemoration of slavery and the celebration of freedom).

‘We want to reflect on this as an institution. What impact does our slavery past have on the present and what can we learn from it now? The ideas slavery is based on are still alive today. That you can treat someone else as “the other” has grown through history. Keti Koti allows us to reflect on this and to have conversations. As an educational institution, we also have a lot of knowledge on the subject.’

D&I is also working on accessibility to make many of the beautiful old buildings easier to use for students and staff with disabilities. ‘We don’t want students’ performance to depend on facilities. They shouldn’t have to put up with that. We therefore want to focus on facilitating different needs, such as those of wheelchair users or people with visual impairments.’

Ezawa finds it fascinating how you can get the awareness ball rolling. It always has to be intrinsic, she explains. ‘I get incredibly energised when the penny drops with someone or when people say they want to solve something. When we don’t just think for ourselves but do something for someone else. I can enjoy a moment like that. It’s nice to talk to people and to experience how different things come together. That’s special.’


Tekst: Imme Visser

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