Rob Green talks to CILIP conference keynote speaker Hong-Anh Nguyen about what can be done to improve diversity and inclusion in the profession to reflect wider society – and why ultimately this is everyone’s responsibility.
IT is no secret that diversity and inclusion in the library and information profession needs to improve. The current workforce is not representative – whether that is race, gender identity, sexuality, socio-economic background or ability – there is a disconnect between society and the profession. It makes it harder to meet the needs of users and there is an unequivocal need to address the issues.
Even within the profession there is imbalance – as a whole the profession is dominated by women, yet at the leadership level, the situation is reversed. While the issues are well-recognised, any solutions require effort and commitment – not just from leaders and decision-makers, but from all who work in the profession.
This year’s CILIP Conference, which takes place in Manchester on 3 and 4 July, features a strand on diversity which will look at both the profession and the services it delivers. Hong-Anh Nguyen, Information Service Manager at The King’s Fund, is chairing a panel session and will also be giving a keynote speech looking at what can be done to improve diversity and why it is everyone’s responsibility.
The UK, like much of the Western-centric world, has been historically framed by a white, middle-class male perspective. That historical framing is still very much in evidence today in power structures that are predominantly centred around that model. In the workplace, this is replicated in leadership roles and access to opportunity. Too often people from minority backgrounds find their chances to make a mark are limited by structural barriers, unconscious bias, and actions and decisions that, while not necessarily malicious, carry a significant negative impact.
The immediate impact is felt by individuals – those who are passed over for promotion, those who struggle to find a way into their chosen profession – but the wider impact is felt across society. Professions need to reflect society if they are to provide services that meet their users’ needs. Perspectives and experiences from within minority communities add value to an organisation which in turn helps to improve society as a whole.
From anecdote to evidence
Hong-Anh says that the first step is to look at an individual’s experiences within the workplace, and to take these experiences and use them as valuable data. If personal experience is transformed from anecdote to evidence, it sets it out as important and makes it harder to dismiss. She also believes there needs to be a conscious shift in the way we listen to people and the way we judge personal experience – specifically a shift from looking at intent and instead focusing on impact.
Hong-Anh says: “For instance, the conversation about racism and what constitutes racism should be less about intent and more about impact. So, we start to ask ‘what is the impact on the person?’, rather than what was the intention of an action.”
However, she believes that this is not necessarily an easy position to take because racism is such a loaded term. She says: “The problem is our understanding of racism is quite dated – so we view racism in this very binary way – a good person and a bad person, and you are good if you are not racist and bad if you are.”
“We need to move towards a place where racism is understood as a structural inequality. We already have an understanding of this with gender, where we very much understand that there are structural barriers to women progressing. But we don’t have that same understanding of the how those barriers play out in terms of race.
“What makes it difficult culturally is that it is easier to call-out sexism without people being mortally offended. If you do that with racism people feel very defensive because it’s tantamount to saying you are an immoral person.
“However, you can carry out actions that are racist, but still be a good person, and still be a nice person. There is a real disconnect there and that’s what makes it tough culturally to change this.”
The difficulty lies in the distinction between the open, aggressive racism and racism that comes from our own cultural perspectives. Hong-Anh says: “Unconscious bias is a really good example of this – we all hold and we all act on it. Therefore, your actions will be racist because you are acting on bias, but that doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person (and equally, that’s not to say that bad people don’t act on an unconscious bias either), it’s just acknowledging that it’s there.
“With unconscious bias, there is no way of curing yourself of it, it’s just about being aware of it and acting accordingly. That makes it difficult to call it out – a lot of times people will say ‘I didn’t mean to, that’s not my intention’.”
People from minority groups – whether ethnic, cultural, sexuality, gender identification or with disabilities – face barriers, whether intended or not, throughout their lives, and that is why we need to think about the impact on the individual. Hong-Anh says: “The reality of racism in the workplace doesn’t feel like out-and-out discrimination, like bad language or threatening behaviour. It is not what you think of when you think of racism.
“It looks like micro-aggressions and small slights, and it is the cumulative effect of those things that make you constantly feel excluded and not part of the organisation.
“The problem with micro-aggressions is that when you bring them up, they sound very minor. So, part of the culture change needs to be about how we listen. We are a profession that values information, data and evidence and I think we need to start thinking of lived experience as data and value it just as strongly as a form of evidence.
Listen – and value experience
“In the past when people brought up lived experience, it was very common for people to try to explain it away or rationalise it. For instance, someone getting your name wrong and saying ‘Oh, it’s just a mistake’. But do they get other people’s names wrong?
“That’s a very insidious way to shut down a conversation – to rationalise it or explain it away. And actually, people doing that are probably not doing it with any malicious intent, they are probably doing it to make the person feel better.
“Maybe at a deeper subconscious level they are doing it because they don’t want to think someone else would do something bad, or with ill-intent. But the effect of it, which is also an unforeseen consequence, is that you are shutting people down and they are not feeling heard.
“That kind of thing cumulatively builds up and you get the feeling that things are not being taken seriously and you question whether they ever will be taken seriously. We need to swing towards listening to people more, putting more value in their experience.”
Hong-Anh is working as part of a team that is looking at how The King’s Fund can increase its own diversity. The organisation mirrors the information profession in some ways – the workforce is predominantly female, and largely identifies as white. And despite the fact women take up the majority of positions, leadership is dominated by men.
Hong-Anh says that overcoming these imbalances will take time, but recognising the issues and moving forward is crucial. She talks about a speech CILIP Chief Executive Nick Poole gave at the start of the year in which he outlined CILIP’s commitment to delivering change across the profession. In it he said: “Putting equality, diversity and inclusion right at the heart of what we are and what we aspire to be as an organisation has felt like coming home – like finally stepping up to do the job which we were always there to do. It strengthens our advocacy, our focus and our resolve both to fight for diversity and representation in the sector and to do more to champion the role of our sector in creating a better world.
“We are learning, and will continue to learn. I believe that there is a powerful opportunity for us as information professionals in an information society to stand up for equality, to stand against injustice, to strive for equity in the representation of under-represented voices, to correct the imbalance of power rather than tacitly to benefit from it and to strengthen the hand of the brilliant, diverse people in our profession who are under-represented. That responsibility rests on all of us and I am committed to ensuring that CILIP does listen, does learn and does play its part in making positive change.” (Read the full text here.)
Hong-Anh says hearing the speech felt “really, really inspiring because in the past – and I know other people have felt this – we have felt that CILIP hasn’t always been publicly vocal in its recognition of what needs to change.”
Seeing a desire for change is refreshing and “it feels like the conversation about diversity is having a moment in the profession,” according to Hong-Anh. However, it is important that the moment is not lost and she says: “It also feels like we have been talking about it in quite a polite way, and now perhaps it’s time to be upfront about what the problem really is so that we can really face up to it.”
The practicalities of implementing change are not lost on Hong-Anh, who talks about the need for data to say where we are and targets to point to where we want to be. However, she adds: “The risk of tokenism [when using targets] is real, but you can mitigate against it by making sure that targets aren’t the only thing you are working towards.”
Targets are not silver bullets – rather they provide a framework for improvements without delivering solutions, so it is important to think more broadly about how to achieve them.
Empowered to make a change
“If the environment people come into is not welcoming and inclusive then you struggle. Are you culturally prepared for it; are you practically prepared for it? For example, if you say you want a diverse workforce, you need to have the facilities to cope with that – a prayer room for example,” says Hong-Anh.
There will inevitably be constraints – money, time or lack of resource, formal leadership structures – to implementing these sorts of changes, especially in smaller organisations. However, Hong-Anh says change can come from us all.
“Can you change your behaviour?” she asks. “What are you responsible for that you can change? The reality is we all have responsibilities in our roles. Look at those responsibilities and at what you can change to improve everything. On a broader level it is about rethinking what leadership looks like. It doesn’t always have to come from the top, there are lots of different models of leadership –and a real strength can come from a lot of people feeling empowered to make a change. That sends out a positive message.”
CILIP Conference takes place in Manchester on 3 and 4 July. Joining Hong-Anh will be keynote speakers Liz Jolly (British Library Chief Librarian), Patrick Lambe (Straits Knowledge), Kriti Sharma (AI Technologist), and Aat Vos (Architect).
For full programme details and book you place, visit CILIP Conference 2019.