Tech in Culture EDI Alliance partner forum: Reflections and looking ahead to 2022

Author: Kathryn Mason

On Wednesday 17th November we held the fourth Tech in Culture EDI Alliance partner forum, marking the final session of 2021.

Since launching the Alliance in March this year, we’ve had three incredibly useful and open conversations around a variety of EDI considerations. These have been focused on recruitment, internal communications and mental health & the diversification of suppliers and supply chains.

We’ve been delighted with the discussions, insights and suggestions these forums have provoked so far, and everyone who took part in this latest conversation agreed how valuable they have been. As organisations who all work in and around the cultural sector, it’s often more valuable to hear about other people’s experiences rather than relying on resources we might stumble upon online. So this peer to peer network is certainly helping all of us progress on our own EDI journey’s, regardless of which stage we’re at.

With that in mind, we decided to use the final forum of the year as an opportunity to take a breath and reflect on some of the progress made, the challenges faced and where people plan to focus their EDI efforts in 2022.

Here, we’ve captured some of the many things we discussed.

Lots of recruitment (good things and associated challenges)

We opened the conversation talking about Substrakt’s experience over the past year or so. The first point raised was a common theme throughout our discussion – the sizable recruitment efforts we’ve made during 2021:

  • With 2020 overshadowed by the pandemic (and the impact this had from both a personnel and financial point of view) recruitment plans were put on hold in favour of protecting  the team we already had.
  • But because digital activity was the only way organisations could continue serving their audiences, 2021 has been one of the busiest times we’ve ever experienced.
  • We’ve gone from a team of 21 to 37, which has been hugely positive for:
    • rebalancing representation in our team (which we recognise is easier to achieve quicker for an organisation of our size). We’re more gender and ethnically diverse, and we have a greater number of neurodiverse employees.
    • leveraging a lot of the changes we’ve made to our recruitment process over the past year, which has involved making the entire process more inclusive. 

This led to a really interesting conversation around the fact that having a diverse recruitment process doesn’t necessarily mean an inclusive workplace:

  • Making your talent pipeline more diverse doesn’t always result in new starters feeling more included when they join the team.
  • A few of us agreed that we haven’t yet got the structures in place to ensure a diverse and inclusive everyday working environment, so we recognised this as a challenge we can look to address next year.
  • There was some useful advice shared about how we might started tackling it:
    • Start thinking about defining your company culture, make it a dedicated piece of work (if you haven’t already). This will likely result in you naturally having conversations about making your organisation a welcoming and inclusive place of work for everyone.
    • Have regular and transparent communication with your team about the things you’re doing. A quick-win when it comes to making employees feel positive about your EDI work is to tell them you’re working on it. So even if the structures aren’t in place, they know you’re making the effort to create them.
      • Sometimes we want to wait for the big ‘ta-da’ moment when everything’s done, but as we’re all learning, the EDI journey is long and complex and there’s so much to be done, so regular updates about what you’re doing will automatically make your workplace feel more welcoming.
  • Some of us have also moved forward with one of the practical tips shared in our last session – the ‘working with me’ user manual guides – and have had really positive responses so far.
    • These short documents give employees and new starters the opportunity to answer a set of questions about their working style and preferences, helping colleagues and managers get to know how their team likes to work in a super simple way.

On the subject of company culture in relation to recruitment, we also discussed the challenges associated with guarding against a hierarchy of employee experience, particularly when it comes to making international employees (or those who work outside the standard company hours) feel equally as included:

  • With company growth often comes international recruitment, which poses a practical question around how we can make everyone feel included in things such as team socials.
  • It’s also about creating benefits that can be accessed by the entire team and reflect the way its makeup has changed (whether that’s to include neurodiverse vs neurotypical people, those in the UK vs those abroad, disabled vs able bodied individuals, etc).
    • This isn’t something any of us have nailed yet, but we’re all working on it. One suggestion is to organise a team trip that can also be experienced in another country (i.e. a theatre trip) so while international employees aren’t there in person with the team, they are able to share the experience and participate in the chit chat that might follow.

Another challenge we identified when talking about ramping up our recruitment efforts has been the onboarding process:

  • It’s been difficult to onboard people in a remote working environment, particularly when these people were new to the remote working style altogether.
  • We’ve been navigating the best way to do this to make sure people feel comfortable knowing who to speak to and are able to get to know the team and their role – but we’re all still learning.
    • We all agreed that one of the trickiest things here is that every individual works and learns differently, so onboarding people over a zoom call can make it even more difficult to ensure you’re being adequately inclusive every time.

Some of the other changes people have made are:

  • Moving away from the idea of a ‘culture fit’ to a ‘culture add’, which not only reflects a change of language but also a shift in mindset, from “this person is similar to us so won’t rock the boat” to “this person is different and that’s great because that adds something new”.
  • Implementing a new Application Tracking System (ATS) that captures demographic data in a way that’s better suited for today’s diversity efforts (this specific example involved ditching the ‘checkbox’ approach in favour of free form text box answers).

So there have been plenty of wins as a result of increased recruitment, but also lots of challenges for us to continue addressing. One of the group captured it perfectly:

“The past year has been like a travelator of recruitment, inductions and onboarding. The challenge is making sure you’re doing these properly while keeping your values in people’s eyeline and getting the day to day job done. So make sure you remember how far you’ve travelled”.

Dedicated people, groups and guides

Another huge sign that progress has been made is the active appointment of dedicated individuals, and the proactive creation of EDI-related groups, to lead specifically on each of our organisation’s diversity and inclusion efforts:

  • One of the group was initially faced with the challenge of being a smaller organisation who, by virtue of their size and lack of historic focus on the area had no one really driving the EDI agenda (let alone any policies or documentation in place – although we all acknowledged this as a wider issue shared by organisations of all sizes).
    • Earlier this year they created a team Slack channel to get everyone thinking and talking about it.
    • They also appointed two people to lead on this specific strand of work and have since set targets and defined exactly what it is they are committing to. Having a more codified approach has helped move the internal conversation on significantly.
  • Since our last forum, another one of the partner organisations has created employee resource groups which are going live this month. Another has launched an internal working group focused on EDI that anyone can join.
  • Language and identity guides have also been rolled out internally at some of our organisations to help educate and encourage the use of more inclusive language.
    • One of the group has published theirs externally to help the sector start having these conversations too.

Tracking progress

This led to a discussion around the importance of measuring progress and communicating it to our teams, which is something we’ve all been focusing on over the last year. Making sure we’re telling the stories of our successes will remove the feeling employees might have that indescribable “stuff” is happening.

  • We started discussing how assumptions can often colour perspectives, and that the impressions people have about what they think is happening vs what is actually happening can be hugely different.
  • And so data is an incredibly useful, less biased way to paint the picture. We’ve all started collecting and using data in some guise to help us achieve this, whether that’s through:
    • Equal opportunity and equal monitoring forms
    • Surveying the team x number of times a year to gather EDI numbers
    • Thinking about an annual report that educates people who are joining at different points throughout the year on progress made.
    • Having monthly leadership meetings to review progress and reassess targets if needed.
    • Conducting gender equity pay gap reviews for salaries and demographic surveys to report out to the sector.

The conversation then naturally moved on to the subject of accountability, and the role it can play in pushing the sector to start moving the needle on diversity and inclusion:

  • Some cultural organisations who have been granted funding are required to report on the diversity of their team.
    • The obvious good thing about this is that it forces organisations to be more diverse. The less palatable reality is that some organisations are only turning their attention to EDI when funding is made available.
  • We’re also all being held more accountable for our diversity because we’re actively talking about it. Forums like this, for example, automatically hold us accountable – we need to show that we’re doing the things we say we’re doing.

Socio-economic background

As we started looking ahead to next year, somebody asked a really valid question – to what extent is socio-economic background something we think about as part of our EDI efforts?

  • We collectively acknowledged that it’s something less talked about than other EDI considerations like gender and ethnicity. It adds another layer to the diversity conversation and widens its meaning.
  • It’s also something we don’t have to currently report on in the same way, but we all agreed that there should be a greater focus on it, particularly for organisations who are operating in less affluent areas.

We then discussed the four factors that are broadly recognised to influence socio-economic status, with a view to start thinking about how we can bring it on our own EDI journeys:

  1. Parents occupation
  2. Parents education level
  3. Type of educational establishment you went to
  4. Whether you experienced economic deprivation as a child
  • Some of us have started asking our teams questions that relate to some or all of these areas (whether in team surveys, recruitment questionnaires etc).
  • The challenge is then what to do with these results, and how to talk about this data in a meaningful way.
    • Even if class is something we’re talking about (and trying to understand amongst our teams), we don’t really have the vocabulary with which to talk about it. For example, would someone feel comfortable and confident defining ‘middle class’ and working class’? We were all in agreement that the common answer here is no.

We briefly touched upon a conversation that’s gained lots of currency in recent years – the role of educational bias in hiring and the efforts we’re making to remove this from our organisations. It was great to hear about some of the different ways the group have been (or will be) addressing this:

  • Removing education and employer history from CV’s and cover letters in recruitment.
  • Changing the way we ask people to submit a cover letter.
    • In the arts, organisations often ask people to complete laborious forms that feel robotic and don’t really invite a more open answer.
    • Changing how (and the format in which) you ask for this information can really help us sound more human and as a result remove those entrenched elitist barriers. For example, “Forget the CV. Tell us a bit more about yourself” or “We’d love to get to know you” – talking in a human way encourages people to respond in the same way.
  • Planning a training session to educate teams about the relationship between privilege and (often unconscious) bias.
  • Reviewing the wages of junior staff members to diversify the talent pipeline.
    • This involves confronting the financial realities of working in the arts and culture sector. We all recognised that traditionally (because there is less money in the arts compared to other sectors) only people with money behind them (from parents, family savings etc) can step into the arts. It’s simply not financially viable for people with less money to work in the sector and be able to sufficiently support themselves.
    • And so the way to start diversifying our talent pipelines from a socio-economic point of view is to increase salaries of junior staff members who are entering their career in the arts.

So while the arts can’t compete with other sectors in the financial sense, we talked about the other things we can be (and are) doing to give ourselves a competitive advantage.

  • This was around company culture and having an appealing benefits package. For some, culture is as important to them as the money on offer. So if we can prove we’re a welcoming and inclusive place of work then we might be more attractive than a workplace with a bad culture or rubbish benefits – even if the money is better.
  • So as we’ve discussed in all of these forums, it’s about proving to people that we’re living our values. This is something we’ve all actively been doing over the past year and will continue building upon next year.

Parental leave policies (and the pay gap)

The final part of our forum reflected on a very live conversation that we’ve all been having at our organisations – how to define fair parental leave policies that adequately consider people’s long term progress and wellbeing (from both a salary and job seniority perspective). Or more bluntly, policies that don’t discriminate against an important life decision employees have made.

  • We started by recognising that there’s a lack of transparency across the arts (and also more broadly) about how to negotiate it.
  • But (partly as a result of the pandemic) a positive way that some of us have been addressing this is by reviewing the impact of having children on people’s daily lives and looking at how our flexible working policies can create the best working environments for parents, as opposed to radically changing specific leave policies.
  • We talked about some of the broader challenges associated with parental leave in relation to EDI:
    • How do we avoid creating gender pay gaps for people who have been on leave and therefore missed a pay review cycle, or don’t have a year’s worth of performance to be able to justify a salary increase?
    • How can we make sure that someone’s progression is given equal consideration when they haven’t had the chance to prove their development due to parental leave?
  • While there’s still a long way to go before finding a solution to this, we discussed some of the places we might start:
    • Try to establish a different evaluation criteria for these people.
    • This involves creating managed exceptions and taking a more individual approach that might consider other skills they may have acquired as a result of having a child (e.g. time management, ability to deal with stressful situations etc).

Looking ahead

Our conversation was peppered with discussions about our EDI plans for next year. So here’s a recap of some of those things I’ve already talked about, alongside some other things we touched on as focuses for next year:

  • Wellbeing and mental health – with a particular focus on trying to create the conditions where everyone feels like things manageable (it’s no secret that the past year has caused lots of burnout within our teams)
  • Neurodiversity and disability (and what that means for us as accessible workplaces).
  • Making sure our diverse recruitment processes also translate to inclusive workplaces
  • Trying to move from being reactive to proactive, by applying some longer term thinking and considering (and setting targets against) what we want our organisations to look like in the next 5, 10, 20 years.
  • More staff training to help create a foundation of knowledge, education and common language amongst our teams.
    • Some of us have arranged race awareness training for our teams next year to help move this conversation on.

So as with each of our forums to date, our conversation provided a helpful reminder that we’re on a long and often difficult journey that can be challenging to navigate. But it also showed us how much progress we’re making, and we all left the conversation feeling like we’ve managed to move the needle in a significant way against the targets we set ourselves at the beginning of the year. And that we’re allowed to (and should be) proud of it.

So as we head into the festive period for a (much needed) break, we’re giving ourselves a merry little pat on the back and are looking forward to continuing our EDI journeys in 2022.

The next Tech in Culture EDI Alliance partner forum will be taking place in the new year (read more about the alliance and how to join).

If you have any questions or would like to get in touch, just drop us an email, we’d love to hear from you: team@substrakt.com