Diversity and digital leadership: Understanding experiences of workplace equality and diversity and inclusion
Doing a doctorate part-time while working full-time has been exhausting and invigorating in equal measure. It has occupied my annual leave, evenings and weekends as well as two periods of prolonged industrial action and the covid lockdown. I have learned all kinds of new stuff, including a bunch of new digital and infolit skills. As I get ready to submit my final thesis, here’s how my abstract is looking:
The aim of this research is to gain an understanding of the experiences and perceptions of workplace equality and diversity issues amongst digital leaders in higher education. The participants interviewed for this study are digital leaders working in universities in Scotland in 2019. The study provides a snapshot of data which has been interpreted to provide an understanding of the participants’ experiences and attitudes towards workplace equality, diversity and inclusion. It is the first study of its kind as it focuses on overlapping areas of leadership (diversity, digital and organisational) amongst digital leaders in higher education, a group rarely researched. This study makes a contribution to both both theory and practice and is timely and useful for the university sector.
The study uses a feminist approach to research design and data analysis which serves to highlight the issues of power and privilege which shape the experience of the participants. It takes an intersectional approach to understanding the diverse identity characteristics of digital leaders, recognising that people’s identities and social positions at work are shaped by multiple and interconnected factors, and the significance of these factors for leadership.
In this study an insider researcher was well placed to investigate perceptions and experience and to make recommendations which influence ongoing practice. In order to be credible and useful to the sector research findings are presented with rigour which addresses concerns about assumptions and unfounded interpretations. The process of achieving this by research design, particularly in the formation of interview questions and data analysis is described. The original data gathered from participants is reported and presented alongside references to relevant literature where these serve to explain or shed light on how the data have been interpreted. Quotations from the raw data have been included to demonstrate how interpretations of the data have been achieved and to illustrate findings. This ensures reflections of the participants are presented in their own voice and brings a lived experience and credibility to the findings by ensuring that data interpretation remains close to the words said. The data are presented against themes arising in the data, several of which reflect the themes highlighted as arising from the review of previous literature.
‘Digital leadership’ is an emerging 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 role of senior management in leading change in organisations is well understood and increasingly researchers and practitioners now recognise expertise in workplace equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) as a significant area of valuable knowledge. ‘Diversity leadership’ is also an emerging discipline defined by combining diversity principles and leadership competencies for workplace development.
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. Professional staff in higher education remain a much under-researched population of leaders. With increased professionalisation amongst these staff more now occupy senior executive positions within universities; roles that were previously only held by senior academics. The knowledge and skills which this group of senior leaders have are essential to the success of their institutions. The data in this study indicate that digital leaders do identify their own and organisational values as drivers for action around equality and diversity at work, and that these are negotiated and balanced in context and that that context includes policies, practice, leadership and risk. This study offers a number of insights for understanding the importance of diversity knowledge as a leadership capability. The data show that the ways in which managers approach and apply effort to issues in their workplace is heavily influenced by their own identity and personal experience. There is a risk in any sector that assumptions are made about the types of people who are managers and the kinds of things which will motivate them to champion issues over and above their day to day functional or multi-functional roles. Although the participants in this study have no formal workplace designation as an equality and diversity lead in their organisation they are not ignorant of the organisational development and social justice reasons for engaging with EDI, and they see it as part of their leadership role. Digital leaders in this study were clear that they make choices about where to spend their time and that involvement in diversity and inclusion was just one of many areas which make calls upon their resources. Respondents highlighted that where they found it easier to get involved, they would, and they saw this as a help in delivering their jobs as leaders. They made a different set of considerations however, when deciding to become ‘champions’ themselves and this is inextricably linked to their perceptions of the associated risks. Digital leaders in this study highlighted areas of personal, professional and reputational risks to themselves. In some cases these risks were sufficient to discourage them. They found that championing equality, diversity and inclusion risked limiting their own social and cultural capital. Significantly they found that championing diversity could work against their leadership of digital thus undermining their leadership effectiveness. Understanding these perceived risks, and the interplay of diversity and digital leadership is essential for moving forwards in developing digital and diversity leadership within organisations.
This study provides future researchers and practitioners with a starting point from which to study diversity and digital leadership activities in similar organisations and other universities, colleges and schools. Diversity management in the digital sector and higher education risks falling behind if it is slow to respond or support its digital leaders in this work. The findings of this study are a contribution to professional practice which may hope to facilitate a speedier response to the equality and diversity issues which are becoming increasingly high profile and urgent in higher education and in wider society as we embark on the 2020s.
Key words: Digital, diversity, leadership, power, organisations, equality, inclusion, intersectional, interpretative, feminist, risk, business, higher education, professional, widening participation, women, STEM, class, race, IT, UK, human resources.