What started as a simple gender equality survey has grown into a programme of staff development and diversity initiatives designed to explore and celebrate intersectionality in our workplace.

The PlayFair Steps Initiative at the University of Edinburgh is focused on a large group of staff who work within the University’s central Information Technology (IT) and Library departments, collectively known as the Information Services Group (ISG), to recognise that people’s identities and social positions at work – particularly in the technology industry – are shaped by multiple and interconnected factors. We have developed a range of activities exploring how a person’s age, disability status, race and ethnicity, gender, gender identity, religion or belief, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, and parent status contribute towards their specific experiences in and perspectives of our workplace. Using the local expertise of our academic colleagues and students, we seek to move beyond anecdote and create a more inclusive workplace with support from senior management for both top-down and bottom-up change.

ISG is the largest support group at the University with over 600 employees. Within the context of the University’s commitment to Athena Swan, and in line with a broader approach to change management in ISG, we have taken an opportunity to make some innovative moves to address equality and diversity issues for our staff in an industry that is heavily male dominated.

The organisational studies literature has long included intersectionality in its discussions of diversity and academic leadership development. Less is understood, however, in practice for support teams in the University setting. Through this initiative we explore how gender connects to various other experiences and characteristics to exacerbate ‘imposter syndrome’ and stifle feelings of inclusiveness in our workplace and create barriers to leadership.

We have developed a programme called The PlayFair Steps. The name was deliberately chosen to draw upon an understanding of ‘fair play’ at work, which involves everyone, and to sound familiar. The Playfair family are historically connected to the University and the name is well known in the city. The University is home to the Playfair Library, and the Playfair Steps  take one quickly from the ‘old town’ to the ‘new town’ alongside the national galleries. Willian Henry Playfair was an architect and his nephew (also) William was an early pioneer of infographics and the inventor of both the line and bar chart. Given that our initiative started after the preparation and reporting of data from a gender equality survey, the name seems fitting.

PlayFair Steps in ISG has manifested in two ways: via a Lecture Series and an Equality Working Group. Through these manifestations, the initiative has four distinct themes, each of which are discussed within this case study:

  • Myth-busting
  • Staff Engagement
  • Visibility and accountability
  • Data driven decision making and reporting


A cartoon in our archives showing Noreen Murray as a schoolgirl being reprimanded for making clones of herself in the laboratory (a reference to Noreen’s work cloning DNA)

The aim of the PlayFair Steps Lecture Series is to take advantage of our situation as part of a large research institution. Across the campus, we have world-class researchers with up-to-date expertise on the equality and diversity issues that impact our workplace. In an effort to move past anecdote and hackneyed stereotypes, we have invited academic colleagues from gender studies, business and management, social policy, and education to present to groups of ISG staff on their specific areas of research.

Topics covered have included ageism, an aging workforce, race relations in Scotland, managerial perspectives for understanding gender, disability and class intersectionality, and policy development for family and for parental leave. For each of these discussions, we have been afforded an exceptional opportunity to learn from current data, understand areas of contention and subjectivity and hear how gender and other characteristics intersect while also learning of established solutions toward inclusivity. At the end of each lecture we ask colleagues to consider how this knowledge can be applied within ISG. These recommendations are then promoted within our organisation.

While it may be unusual to invite our academic colleagues to speak within the university to a non-academic audience, we have found the experience to be particularly insightful. As a result, for the coming year, we have planned to include more topics which are intersectional across gender, age and family structures such as parenting, menopause and ‘Millennials’ in the workplace.

Staff Engagement

In addition to the PlayFair Steps Lecture Series, we also host a PlayFair Steps Equality Working Group. This distinct manifestation of PlayFair Steps give staff the opportunity to voice issues of note to them that the Equality and Diversity team within ISG can address. The group works very well alongside the lecture series and allows us to gather ideas about new takes on equality and diversity and present them to our staff in a unique and easily accessible way while also providing recommendations to senior managers.

These meetings have expanded from informal sessions to hosting external organisations to offer trainings/workshops on aspects of diversity that can lead to practical changes at work. For instance, we have hosted an Equality Working Group session with an outside organisation, Equate Scotland, to show staff the importance of language in our recruitment materials. Being aware of this can help ISG create the most diverse workforce possible. This workshop led to significant changes in our job applications, which are now written to show that ISG is inclusive for everyone and so that individuals no matter their characteristic or combination of characteristics will feel welcomed in applying for open positions with ISG. In addition, we have transformed our profile as an employer/recruiter on LinkedIn to project positive, inclusive messages and show the rich range of people and projects which characterise our University.

This is a particularly important and relevant change for ISG. In the city of Edinburgh, the University is one of the largest employers in the region, but we compete for staff against the many banks, technology start-ups and internationally famous computer games houses located nearby. The perceptions of our staff and potential recruits with regard to ISG being an attractive workplace may be key to ensuring that we can recruit and retain talent to support the university in its business of teaching, learning and research.

Visibility and accountability

The aim of the work undertaken in ISG is to establish a visible and accountable set of equality and diversity actions tailored specifically to our workplace context but situated within a larger university, city, and technology sector. With senior management support for change and bottom up staff initiatives, we aim to ensure that it is clear to all that we are working to ensure that all members of staff, no matter the gender, race, or other identity, have a fair and inclusive workplace.

One of the ways in which we use Playfair Steps to increase visibility is to target areas of technology in which there was underrepresentation from women. Discussions about gender representations, role models and women’s participation in developing technology have begun to cross into a wide set of our activities. At University of Edinburgh we have established a high profile partnership with Wikimedia UK. This partnership is designed to increase participation by women editors in contributing to Wikipedia. Currently less than 15% of people regularly editing Wikipedia are women and topic coverage is skewed as a result. We have also hosted speakers from the technology sector specifically on topics around ‘coding for diversity’ and ‘asking about gender’ to improve the user experience of the systems we build for the university. We have also taken the opportunity to name high profile systems after women, including our media asset management platform and cloud computing service. We took the opportunity afforded by a move to a new open plan office to ensure that there were no ‘single sex silos’ , and proactively commissioned art by women for our new glass walls.

Data driven decision making and reporting

The PlayFair Steps initiative began in 2015 following an initial data gathering task.  In early 2015, more than half of the 600 staff replied to a gender equality survey. The results of the survey provided the ISG senior management team with a starting place to promote equality and diversity in the workplace. In late 2015, we hired a PhD intern from within the university to interrogate the data from the gender equality plan, set SMART targets, manage our communication strategies, gather data on progress, and challenge the senior management team with new ideas.

Our Equality and Diversity Intern ( Dominique) drafted a gender equality plan mapped against ISG strategic goals and objectives for the next 5 years, which included the implementation of PlayFair Steps. The ISG Directors and other key staff were consulted and provided feedback and recommendations to gender equality plan. The latest version of that plan incorporates feedback from nearly 20 staff members. The plan was presented to and accepted by ISG senior management team and each group division regularly reports progress in specific areas against 1-5 year targets.

Our focus on driven decision making has led to important policy changes being implemented within our organisation. For instance, after a presentation to the senior management team in ISG on the analysis of the gender equality survey related to policy and human resource management, ISG’s senior management team immediately implemented a policy requiring all staff involved in recruitment to participate in unconscious bias training and an online diversity in the workplace course. In addition, we have set a short-term goal that 25% of all staff in ISG to participate in Equality and Diversity trainings. ISG’s HR staff monitor the trainings that have been undertaken by staff. We pleased to say that between October 2016 and February 2017, we surpassed our short-term goal and that 44.5% of staff within ISG have participated in some form of equality and diversity training.

The work we do with The PlayFair Steps show that its success depends on the involvement of everyone. Based on decisions that generated by data, our senior managers take a unique opportunity to implement policies that will support and benefit all staff. This, in turn, allows us to have the most inclusive workplace we possibly can.

Existing resources?

The University of Edinburgh is committed gaining Athena Swan certification. As a support department, we have fashioned our efforts in line with it. In the development of our own gender equality plan, we have found plans developed by the academic departments for Athena Swan particularly helpful. We used the plan developed from the University’s Chemistry Department (Athena Swan Gold award holders) as a guide for our own plan.  The Chemistry department are also our partners in celebrating Ada Lovelace Day.

We have also used materials and guidance from Equate Scotland and from LinkedIn to improve our company profile online.

In addition, we find working with community organisations particularly helpful. For instance, after an engaging presentation at our PlayFair Steps Equality Working Group meeting on International Women’s Day, ISG became a partner with Girl Geek Scotland. The Girl Geek Scotland network and community is for people working and studying in the technology, computing, IT, digital, creative, media, business, enterprise and related sectors in Scotland who are able connect and support each other. This partnership means that all ISG staff, regardless of gender, can now be involved and participate in networking or learning-based events and access a mentoring programme. Resources such as these provide great support to the Equality and Diversity team but to all of our staff. We have provided them opportunities to expand their own networks outwith of the University.


As an initiative, PlayFair Steps has been successful by allowing ISG staff to look at diversity and equality from various lenses and offering suggestions to change culture and attitudes to improve the workplace for all ISG staff, now and in the future.

Via the PlayFair Steps Initiative, we have shown staff and senior managers that there is a need to support women of various characteristics. After an initial focus on grade, promotions, pay and unconscious bias, we have moved forward into finding visible role models and case studies. By bringing academic expertise into the mix we have reminded colleagues that many areas of equality and diversity practice are contested, evolving and context situated. It is important for us as University staff members who support a diverse mix of students to recognise that people can face a mix of stereotypes that prohibit the inclusivity for which we are striving. We are consistently seeking solutions for this challenge.

impact ? 


PlayFair Steps has been successful in that it allows staff to look at diversity and equality in various ways and from various points of view, all of which contributes to improving ISG. Since our work started promoting equality and diversity and the implementation of PlayFair Steps, we do believe our efforts have had some impact.  The largest impact may be one of perception. ISG colleagues are well aware that there is a programme of equality activities. They recognise that there are talks and seminars underway, that our human resources efforts are much more focused on equality and diversity, and that the monitoring of training is in place. During the last two years, there has been a renewed focus on recruitment and selection, with proactive effort made to widen (and gain data insights into) the field of applicants and interviewees for our vacant posts. As a result, the number of women at Director level has increased three-fold and our vacancies are advertised in a more diverse range of places.

reflections to share with other institutions

The PlayFair Steps is an initiative which would be generalizable and applicable to many university central IT departments. The delivery of the programme is sponsored by senior managers and engaged staff across a range of grades including several student interns who bring fresh perspectives and up to date expertise from their own studies in gender equality, diversity and intersectionality.

One of the key messages arising from our staff survey and working group meetings was that ‘equality involves everyone’. This indicates that the success of any equality and diversity effort depends on ensuring that our plans target all groups and include a range of positive actions, in addition to those specifically designed for women.