Fifteen to One | Exciting plans to embrace equity at Leeds

On the eve of International Women’s Day, Director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, Fiona McClement, outlines plans to meaningfully implement our EDI Strategy and help improve gender equality.

Fifteen to One Q&A | Exciting plans to embrace equity at Leeds. March 2023

This year’s IWD campaign theme – embrace equity – aims to explain the difference between equality and equity and to get the world talking about why equal opportunities are no longer enough.

Appointed just over six months ago, Fiona is about to launch a range of new projects to help address gaps in the University’s current approach to these issues, including in areas such as behaviour change.

Find out how insights from our employee engagement survey will help shape this work, the challenges we face and the brilliant people at all levels of the University who are enabling our students and colleagues to thrive.

Can you describe your role in 100 words?

Essentially, to co-lead on delivering the University’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Strategy. EDI needs to be everybody’s concern. There’s such a lot of activity, goodwill, passion and knowledge on EDI across the University but it’s not as joined-up as it needs to be if we’re to make greater progress. By progress, I don’t simply mean statistics and KPIs, but also harder-to-measure improvements in day-to-day lived experiences. There are some areas where the University is doing exceptional work, but in other areas, EDI practices and systems are quite dated. 

How have you enjoyed your time at the University so far?

I’ve really enjoyed it. I’m fortunate to work in a role focused on issues I care deeply about, so it’s also natural to feel frustration sometimes at the pace of change within society and our institutions. What brings me real pleasure is working with brilliant people who are passionate about improving the lives of others – and there are many of those people here at Leeds. 

What’s really impressed you about Leeds?

Again, our people. Colleagues like Louise Banahene, Director of Educational Engagement, who’s making such an impact on access and student success; Professor Cat Davies, Dean for Research Culture, who’s leading the agenda to strengthen and diversify our vital research; and Masud Khokhar, who’s an exceptional, values-driven leader of our libraries. There’s so many people working hard every day – at all levels of the University and in different roles – to enable our students and colleagues to thrive. 

What question have you most frequently been asked in your new role?

What’s the difference between your role and the EDI Deans? Sadly, the wonderful Professor Louise Bryant, one of our Co-Deans, is stepping down in April to focus on her faculty role, so Dr Kendi Guantai will remain as the sole EDI Dean. But the short answer is we work really well together as a team and there’s a lot to do. The Deans are academics and I’m from professional services but our diverse perspectives and experiences are a strength, which is what EDI is all about. 

What are you most looking forward to working on?

The EDI Strategy is quite high-level, so now it’s all about how we meaningfully implement it in practice. We’re just about to launch some really exciting workstreams. One I’m particularly looking forward to is ‘behaviour change’. We’re very proud of the institutional values at the University, but what do we do when people behave in a way that really pushes against them? How skilful and confident are we in dealing with this and do we have the systems and infrastructure to address it? There are some really interesting early insights emerging from our employee engagement survey. I’m looking forward to taking an evidence-based approach to addressing these issues and harnessing academic expertise on behaviour change for institutional improvement. 

Leeds is marking International Women’s Day tomorrow (8 March). What progress is the University making on gender equality?

I would say it’s mixed here at Leeds, in the same way it is across the sector. Female students do well in admissions and attainment overall, but there are still some disciplines with significant gender imbalances. Whilst we respect individual choice, if the imbalances are caused by systemic and cultural bias and self-limiting stereotypes, they remain a problem (the same goes for male students in traditionally female-dominated disciplines, too). 

I think there’s more awareness in society of sexual harassment and sexism being unacceptable, but it’s still a feature of women’s lives far too often.

At Leeds, we’re making progress on the recruitment of female academics. But our gender pay gap remains static for the simple fact the large majority of our highest paid colleagues are male. There are broader societal and economic reasons why men and women cluster in different occupations, contract types and working patterns, but we have to work hard to ensure our internal policies and practices don’t exacerbate this. 

As we know, the pandemic and lockdowns had a greater impact on women than men. It shone a spotlight on how uneven home caregiver responsibilities remain. For example, this period saw submissions of scholarly papers by women decrease, whereas they increased for men. I worry about the long-term impacts, that the pandemic has set back progress and that institutions are not implementing effective responses to the lessons learned.

Is there something, or someone, that has inspired you in your career?

My former colleague at UCL, Sarah Guise. Sarah very sadly died suddenly in 2018. We sat next to each other for nine years and I still miss her deeply. She was an exceptionally thoughtful person. In terms of my career, she demonstrated to me that kindness is not the same as weakness, and that you can do serious work on very serious topics whilst not taking yourself too seriously all of the time. She had a tremendous sense of humour. I especially think of her a lot around International Women’s Day. 

I worked for a number of years for anti-racism organisations, including a community-controlled Indigenous organisation in Australia, and I was inspired by many of the community leaders and elders. It can often feel that moral compromises must be made between being an activist or a leader, but they’re not mutually exclusive. Your moral compass is really important when you’re trying to disrupt the status quo, whilst simultaneously being regarded as part of it. 

We all have that professional or personal achievement we’re incredibly proud of – can you tell us yours?

Since 2021, I’ve been collaborating with CERN in Switzerland delivering leadership interventions on tackling unacceptable behaviour. I’m proud of the work but I also enjoy it immensely as CERN is so internationally diverse. It’s fascinating to bring people together who have vastly different cultural backgrounds to explore complex human behaviour. 

What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career that you know now?

There’s a lovely Maya Angelou quote: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

If you didn’t work in HE, what would have been your chosen career?

Young Fiona wanted to be a dolphin trainer! Possibly a bit unrealistic but I’m glad my aspirations evolved anyway. I’d much rather see them swimming freely in the sea. 

What are your campus highlights so far?

The campus itself was a large part of the appeal of working at the University. I find the mix of architectural styles, public art and green space invigorating. The rabbits are ace, too.

Have you found a favourite location on campus?

The Roger Stevens Building. I’m a fan of brutalist architecture and interiors. My partner used to work at the Barbican and I spent a lot of enjoyable time there, so it feels like there’s a pleasant connection between my previous life in London and my current one. 

What do you do to relax away from University life?

I have two young, beautiful, energetic Labradors – Frida and Pearl. I spend a lot of time on the moors with them, which is good for the soul. 

Where’s your favourite travel destination and why?

I’m fortunate to have travelled a lot in my 20s and 30s – it was a big passion. Tanzania stands out as a highlight. I lived in Scotland for eight years after I finished university. It’s my spiritual home and where I spend as much time as I can now. There’s a very special place where I’ve stayed a few times, on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. It’s a tiny beach cabin with its own pure, white, sandy beach and very little for miles around. I’m going back in August and I can’t wait. 

What’s your random claim to fame?

When I was at school, my work experience was at Leeds Playhouse, in stage management. Alan Rickman was directing a play there at the time and he was very kind to me. To this day, I’m impressed that my comprehensive school in Bradford arranged such a cracking work experience placement for me. It led to me being accepted into the National Youth Theatre and spending a summer in London, where I met and worked with quite a few famous people (and people who’ve gone on to be very famous now). It was a really formative experience for me, so I’m very grateful to whoever arranged work experience placements at Hanson School in the early 1990s!

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