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Diversity is a Structural Issue

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The Bartlett’s Kamna Patel is UCL’s first Vice-Dean for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. She believes it’s time to stop tinkering with procedural responses to inequality and start tackling the structures of power.

Diversity is a Structural Issue

Kamna Patel, The Bartlett's Vice-Dean for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion.

Credit: Kirsten Holst

“There is a status quo where one group of people benefit from it – that’s why we have inequality,” says Kamna Patel. “The challenge for anyone engaged in changing that, is how to get people to concede power.”

Patel, a Lecturer at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit, is The Bartlett’s – and UCL’s – first Vice-Dean for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). She’s six months into a three-year term and is determined to move The Bartlett away from what she calls EDI’s “low-hanging fruit” to think much more long-term about structure and how equality can be embedded within the university.

“I’ve been involved with equality groups at UCL for some time and my impression is that EDI initiatives are strongly rooted in HR – and that just doesn’t square for someone who works in development studies. You don’t take a procedural approach. We’ve got to ask: ‘why do we have the system that we have?’ Otherwise we will only ever be tinkering at the edges.”

We’ve got to ask: ‘why do we have the system that we have?’ Otherwise we will only ever be tinkering at the edges.

Kamna Patel

Diversity is a Structural Issue

Patel was speaking at the UCL Education Conference 2019 as part of a staff-student panel on 'How can we make UCL Education more inclusive?'.

Credit: Kirsten Holst

Most of Patel’s work is in the Global South and she wants to use the idea of social justice in the context of a university. She wants to use this to understand The Bartlett’s trajectory up until now and how it has arrived at a situation where there is a lack of ethnic diversity both in its student and staff body. UCL’s 2018 gender and ethnicity pay gap report shows that the university has a 17.5% gender pay gap (a 2% improvement since 2013), with more men than women occupying senior roles, and a “noticeable drop in the proportion of black and minority ethnic (BME) staff as we move up each level at UCL”. The result is a mean ethnicity pay gap of 13.1%.

Universities are not islands

“Institutions have to reckon with the structures they have put in place,” says Patel. “Universities are not islands – they reflect the society and disciplines around them. It’s not an accident.”

While Patel insists she’s not saying anything “fantastically new” but just “echoing the work of others in my institutional role”, her focus on structure over procedure is not the way EDI is normally discussed. Nor is her strong focus on anti-racist feminism to orientate her work. “Black feminism is about action – that is what I root my work in.”

The Bartlett might be one of the first built environment faculties to appoint a Vice-Dean for EDI, but it is not alone in taking this approach. There is a wealth of literature on structural inequality in higher education – works by Professors Sara Ahmed, Heidi Safia Mirza, Kalwant Bhopal and Dr Natasha Warikoo. This has helped to shape what Patel says are the three principles she’s appealing to in her role: first, understanding that the university is a place that is gendered and raced, which is to say that it creates a particular experience, especially for women of colour; second, identifying the systems of power and control that keeps things in place; third, taking action, notably action led by racialised minority women.

Black feminism is about action – that is what I root my work in.

Kamna Patel

The Bartlett EDI Group that Patel leads, which was born out of the faculty’s Athena SWAN committee, has consulted on what it wants to achieve and has a website setting out its areas of focus. One of those is about trying to understand whether minorities feel they belong in a place. This means getting beyond the usual KPIs to get a better sense of what cultural change might look like. “I don’t know what will work for our context [at The Bartlett] yet but we should be bringing our critical thinking capacities to all of our work, not just our research,” explains Patel.

Practicing social justice

One particular case study that she is keen to draw on is already happening at Brown University in Rhode Island, where undergraduates now take a crash course in racial inequality in the United States. “It’s about making that part of a wider educational project – talking about overcoming colonialism and its legacies, and how that legacy affects the life choices of so many people.”

As an institution that is training the future workforce, The Bartlett has responsibilities. It also needs to make sure that the workforce is aware of its responsibilities too – and this means grounding students with a socially-just agenda. “To be able to empathise with someone, it helps if you have certain life experiences to draw on,” says Patel. “That’s not as easy if you’re always having to imagine a life so different from your own. But if we are all working with people from diverse places, the gulf of imagining is not so wide.”

All of this points to ways in which the approach to EDI issues can – and ought to be – reoriented, believes Patel. It is not just about how The Bartlett can bring in different people to the faculty, but how it makes its offer more attractive to different groups. “It’s about identifying that we might be the problem and they might be the solution.”

The Bartlett is UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment, comprising 12 multidisciplinary schools, institutes and centres. Find out more: https://ucl.ac.uk/bartlett

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