ED&I leadership in Higher Education with guest speaker Professor Dilshad Sheikh

ED&I leadership in Higher Education with guest speaker Professor Dilshad Sheikh

Rebecca Brandwood and Sarah Shaw from the Odgers Interim Education Practice hosted a webinar on ED&I leadership in Higher Education with a focus on sweeping away barriers to progression. 

Although the Higher Education Sector has in recent years made huge strides with respect to Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (ED&I), there is always work to do. A recent Odgers Interim webinar, hosted by Rebecca Brandwood and Sarah Shaw from our Education Practice, explored what universities can do to become more inclusive and thereby attract and retain leaders from underrepresented communities.  

Our panel included Odgers colleagues Elizabeth James, Partner and Head of the Education Practice at Berwick Partners, and Sue Johnson, Managing Partner of our Inclusion & Diversity Consulting Practice. Our guest speaker was Professor Dilshad Sheikh, Deputy PVC (Academic) and Dean of Faculty of Business at Arden University who has a strong interest in ED&I.  Dilshad is passionate about widening the appeal of Higher Education in order to attract students from beyond traditional pools, and to improve their experience of university and subsequent academic outcomes. 

Dilshad, who is originally from Kenya and has South Asian heritage, began the event by candidly recounting some of the obstacles she has had to overcome during her 24-year career in the University sector. “I found that in academia, at the start of my career, you probably have to be 10 times better than the next white man.”

She added that some comments made by colleagues and fellow academics chipped away at her self-confidence to the point where she questioned whether she should be pursuing a career in Higher Education. Imposter syndrome, Dilshad said, was a significant barrier to progression. Moreover, she has had to develop resilience to deal with repeated knock-backs: “Trying to get the best jobs possible, knowing yourself that you've got the skills, qualities and experience but every time you go for an interview, it's just no, no, no, because apparently someone else is better.” 

There are still uncomfortable moments. Sitting at a high-profile table at an event a few weeks prior, Dilshad was taken aback when a successful individual she was speaking with asked her out of the blue, “where’s that accent from?” Dilshad is proud of her Brummie accent, and she was surprised that her fellow guest focused on that, rather than on the value that Dilshad was adding to the conversation.  She is resolutely determined to be her authentic self which makes her a great role model. Yet clearly, more progress is called for in ED&I across Higher Education.   

Elizabeth James, who also heads the Allies Groups within Odgers, spoke about the importance of representation when building shortlists.  Talent progression in any organisation may be hampered by lack of diversity at senior levels due to a lack of role models and the absence of lived experience that helps dismantle structural inequalities.  However, in academia, the talent pipeline into leadership positions, more so in some disciplines than others, is incredibly homogenous and therefore, representation cannot happen at the speed it should.   

Unquestionably, diverse shortlists are a positive thing, but the attraction of talent requires a broader and more provocative approach. Executive Search is of course an excellent way to reach more professional communities and geographies, but it has to be done sensitively.  If you are a female professor from the global majority, it is inevitable that you will be approached on numerous occasions by headhunters. At what point does that become a micro-aggression?   

Most colleagues who are earnest about attracting a diverse shortlist will recall more than one conversation where they are asked “am I only being approached because of my background?” As such, there is a bigger conversation to be had.   

Liz explained that one of the strategies she has used with her clients is trying to understand precisely what they want from their academic leaders, in terms of improving inclusive practices in all senses.  This means expecting everyone to play a proactive role in delivering change and breaking down structural and cultural barriers for staff and students alike.  

One way to do this is to build in specific provision to the recruitment process that measures the extent to which candidates have a track record of delivering measurable change related to EDI.  The other is to better understand their appreciation of allyship and how that can positively enhance the sector as a whole.  In short, it is not just up to individuals from under-represented groups to be the agents of change.  It is everyone’s responsibility.  

Dilshad pointed to her work at Arden University as a case in point. She inherited a curriculum that was “not inclusive and diverse” both in terms of the case studies it contained and the guest speakers (often entrepreneurs) who were invited in. Hitherto, the concept of decolonisation had not been centre to curriculum design.  Dilshad therefore set about ensuring that students’ cultural capital was understood so that the content and context of provision aligned with their own lived experiences and outlooks.   

The fact that Arden has truly bought into the ED&I agenda matters greatly to Dilshad and a lot of work has been done culturally to ensure that the approach is not just a tick box exercise. As an example of how this has been disseminated is how (with the help of her colleagues), Dilshad has introduced an excellence framework in Inclusive Curriculum. “Sometimes we make the assumption that our academic staff know what being inclusive and diverse in the classroom means. With the framework, people can seek guidance if they get stuck.” 

Sue Johnson observed that recruitment is the first stage of the journey and can be the fastest way to shift the diversity demographics of an organisation. Odgers has developed an Inclusive Recruitment Diagnostic tool to help organisations put in place more equitable recruitment processes. Sue has also been diligent in her analysis of the overall anonymous data that the tool creates.  At present, the lowest scoring area for inclusivity in the recruitment process is around shortlisting.  

Sue stated, “this is because it is the stage in the recruitment process with the most human intervention, and where unconscious bias has the biggest opportunity to raise its head”. Clearly there is much to do, but to understand where these pinch points lie allows us to be proactive in our approach thereby delivering the outcomes that are needed.   

This event summary only scratches the surface of what was a fascinating, wide ranging discussion on ED&I leadership in Higher Education. If you have an interim management need or would simply like to talk about ED&I and leadership talent trends in the Higher Education sector, please get in touch with Rebecca Brandwood or Sarah Shaw.      

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