I am a researcher in the area of diversity and digital leadership. This is one of the emerging challenges for higher education leadership and management: that of ensuring that their digital leadership is diverse and inclusive.
Digital leadership is an area of leadership studies which is gaining popularity as organisations seek to ensure that their businesses are best positioned to thrive in an increasingly digital world. The experiences and attitudes of leaders to issues of equality, diversity and inclusion is key to institutions’ organizational culture and the context in which institutional vision, policy and strategy for digital education is developed and delivered.
Digital leaders in higher education are a group of professional staff who lead specifically in areas of the organisation where the use of technology is key to the strategic delivery of higher education such as IT, AV, learning technology, student systems, business systems data and IT infrastructure. With increased professionalisation amongst these staff, more now occupy senior level positions within universities such as vice principals, pro-vice chancellors etc; roles that were previously held only by senior academics. In the light of a huge shift to home working and online delivery as a result of the recent and ongoing pandemic, the importance of digital leadership in higher education has never been more vital.
The experiences of professional staff in universities is a growing area of interest to researchers as evidenced by several recent publications, but there are still few studies looking at the IT professional groups and even fewer looking at diversity in universities’ digital leadership. The adequacy and usefulness of research will be seen by the ways in which the findings can be directly applied and used in practice. I aim to influence ongoing development of practice in organisations and ongoing discussion of diversity within digital leadership in the sector.
Early findings of this research were presented in the UK at Equality Challenge Unit events in 2018 and at the national conference of practitioners in Universities HR in 2019. In 2021 findings and recommendations will be published on relevant blogs and presented at conferences including the Advance HE Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Conference in March 2021.
I run CPD sessions for digital leaders via universities and professional associations. These opportunities for knowledge dissemination and industry engagement offer routes to transfer and integrate critical analysis with practical, meaningful links of the findings to the profession.
ICTF workshop- University of Oxford- 23 June 2021
I’m writing a chapter on ‘The Importance of Diversity and Digital Leadership in Education‘ for an upcoming Handbook for Digital Higher Education.
In 2020 we published the second edition of ‘Designing Learning’. Butcher, C., Davies, C., & Highton, M. (2019). Designing learning: from module outline to effective teaching. Routledge.
I hope in 2021 to see publication of this book ‘Dangerous Women ‘ in which I have a chapter https://www.iash.ed.ac.uk/news/dangerous-women-book
You can download an open access version of the book EqualBITE: Gender equality in higher education https://library.oapen.org/handle/20.500.12657/37807 Robertson, J., Williams, A., Jones, D., Isbel, L., & Loads, D. (2017). EqualBITE: Gender equality in higher education (p. 364). Brill.
My work on diversity and digital leadership in practice has won a number of industry awards including:
- The Scottish HR Network Magazine Attraction & Resourcing Award of the Year 2019
- Universities HR Excellence Award for Equality and Diversity 2018
Board, Committee and Advisory
An invited member of advisory committees including the 2019 Centenary Commission on Adult Education and the judging panel international Digital Education Awards 2020.
Contributing to peer review of CPD quality and standards as an assessor for certified and senior certified membership of the Association of Learning Technologists.
Member of University of Edinburgh Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and Senate Education Committees and University Court committee on Knowledge Strategy.
Previously a member of the governing body of Kellogg College, Oxford (2009-14) and board trustee of Edinburgh University Students Association (2011-14).
Thesis as clickbait
There are many amusing posts on Twitter in which phd students play with describing their research as something which would attract click-throughs in social media. The titles are designed to surprise and cause the reader to want to find out more. Here are some of my attempts:
‘What IT directors really say about their female and black colleagues and why’.
‘What IT directors really say about their female and black colleagues will shock you’
‘Digital leaders say data doesn’t count’
’10 things you can do to stop premature ageism’.
’10 neat tricks to improve your social life at work’
‘She took a risk and you will be shocked at what happened next’
Thesis as a springboard for further research
My study provides management level insights which will inform practice and provide a basis for further research. It serves to highlight structural issues of power and inequality which exist in the work context of HE IT and the extent to which that is similar or different to the wider digital sector in Scotland. Although not the focus of this study, there is a growing discourse in the IT industry about structural inequality and the role of diverse teams in designing and building digital products for diverse users (Rock & Grant, 2016) and the risks IT companies take when they forget or underestimate the economic power of women, LGTBQ+ or people of colour in the market place, to say nothing of the ethical issues.
Digital leaders have an important part to play in combining digital and diversity leadership in organisations. More research is also needed on business drivers and evaluation for combining digital leadership with diversity leadership. While it might be assumed that if there is a strong business drive for something, it will be accepted and supported by the senior management who want to improve their business, but this may not be the case for digital leaders championing diversity. If it is assumed that leaders will view equality and diversity programmes in the same way as any other business issues one must ignore the reality of how disruptive to existing power structures these initiatives may be. Previous research has highlighted the challenge that while it might be appropriate to engage male leaders, as those who are most likely to have the power to implement change, in leading such work they are often the main beneficiaries of an unequal status quo and may choose to lend less support to these business cases (Bjørnholt, 2011; de Vries, 2015, p. 22). Several of the digital leaders in this study who are men described their very clear commitment to EDI activity and the role they have played in making things happen.
The treatment of EDI as just another area of organisational development also risks ignoring the ongoing, very real perceived risks associated with this area of work. Digital leaders in this study consistently highlighted areas of personal, professional and reputational risks to themselves. In some cases these risks were sufficient to discourage them, in others they recognised that standing up and championing diversity risked limiting their own social and cultural capital and that championing diversity can undermine your digital leadership. Understanding these perceived risks is essential for moving forwards in developing digital and diversity leadership within organisations.
Colleagues and researchers who are interested in developing diversity leadership within organisations may find it interesting that the managers in this study are strongly influenced by their experience as working parents and their motivations to engage with EDI issues was strongly influenced by those experiences of childcare, flexible working and support structures (or lack thereof). The experience of parents of daughters is highlighted as an important part of what shapes managers’ attitudes and offers a potential of area for further work in engaging fathers in digital workplaces. The data found in this study can be interpreted to show that class and gender are a significant factor in shaping participants motivations to champion equality and diversity in the workplace and that their choices whether or not to take on that role as visible champion is mediated by their considerations of their own and organisational and values, demographics of their senior management colleagues and the time and effort they personally have to put towards the cause. It also shows that they have an interest in race and ethnicity in the workplace and see the overwhelming whiteness of their organisations as a failing. Despite having no formal responsibility for the delivery of strategic actions towards widening access in their universities several of the digital leaders in this study identified it clearly as an area of interest and motivation for them. This reflects their own identity and experience of coming from backgrounds which they felt were historically disadvantaged in relation to higher education. Furthering an understanding of the backgrounds from which digital leaders come and their interest in widening access to education offers a new angle on further work in promoting diversity and inclusion in digital leadership.
There’s hope for us yet.
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