Representing the Underrepresented

It can be a strange experience working in an HE equity-focused area when you’re from a minoritised background yourself.  Sometimes the lines can blur between being a staff member and being expected to be the voice of any staff or students that happen share a particular minoritised characteristic. Some people who have first-hand experience of marginalisation are instinctively drawn towards equity-based roles (Tatli, 2011) but not everyone is, in fact, some people prefer to keep at arm’s length from anything that vaguely resembles work that reflects their own uncomfortable experiences and to be honest, both decisions are quite logical.

Regardless of the specific aspect of marginalisation we may be talking about in this context, it is clear that when staff members share certain characteristics of the students they are trying to support, there are particular implicit advantages that may come with this. The often assumed benefits to this situation include the idea that such staff may possess an innate motivation to authentically advocate for positive change because they can apply their own similar lived experience to the students’ marginalisation, and therefore their insight is personal enough to be useful. The staff member’s sense of empathy is helpful for involvement in activities, from providing direct support to students to devising university-wide strategic change towards equity (Bothwell, 2020). From a student’s perspective, observing that a member of staff with their particular characteristic is working as an academic or in a professional role, particularly if the role is considered to be a symbol of perceived success, can be powerful in inspiring students to recognise that people ‘like them’ can achieve their goals if they know that others ‘like them’ have done so before (Sealy et al., 2010). There is also the potential for a greater sense of trust to be formed between the institution and the student, as well as an increased sense of belonging and camaraderie within an otherwise isolating context of institutional and societal inequity.

The above is all well and good, in theory, at least. The idea of being able to see oneself and feel a potential connection with others through a shared aspect of lived experience is not problematic on the surface. However, there are some crucial considerations to be made when staff are involved in equity work with students.

It may seem obvious, but it is key to remember that the characteristics that we often use to categorise students, mostly for ease in data analysis, are not really appropriate to describe three-dimensional human beings. Therefore, we often then progress towards to the complexity of intersectionality, where there is a moment of pause to acknowledge that we can be, and we can experience more than one thing at the same time. Though, it is from this point of intersection that we can start to appreciate that even when sharing a number of lived experiences, this does not necessarily equate to people forming an automatic connection or feeling a sense of belonging with each other (Fernandez et al., 2023). Therefore such connections cannot be assumed to have taken place and it is essential to emphasise here, that we are not all the same and will not react in the same way, despite the similar categories we may have been conveniently placed into.

Arguably, the BAME label is one such area that highlights this rather poignantly. Yes, it has come under some recent criticism and officially, the government no longer recommends using the term (GOV.UK, 2022), however, it is still widely used in a professional capacity and especially within the HE sector. It is again assumed to some extent that there is a level of sameness in this artificially imposed homogenised group and as is often the case, characters from the fictional ‘Republic of BAME’ are dehumanised and reduced into two-dimensional and othered creatures (Singh, 2021). Using labels such as this are not only unhelpful but are dangerous, particularly in the context of equity work. If we consequently then assume that neatly placing Black or Asian staff to work on inequity within a BAME student context somehow resolves ethnicity-based structural injustice, that is simply untrue. Using large-scale labels such as BAME serve to only mask specific inequities within these separate categories and assuming that staff from similar backgrounds will automatically and inherently be able to solve such deeply entrenched societal-level marginalisation, is illogical and unfair (Singh, 2021).

It is also dangerous to presume that staff that share particular student characteristics will naturally demonstrate positive actions for the support of these students. The existence of gatekeepers, as well as the power dynamics involved in more senior positions, can actually serve to surreptitiously reinforce inequity through more discrete methods of discrimination. We cannot therefore rely on the idea that issues of inequity are automatically solved when the staff profiles of HEIs become more diverse. The issue is complex and needs to be addressed as such. Staff members from different backgrounds are human beings after all, and therefore vary in their desire to authentically engage in equity work. Yes, it is clear that many HE providers have work to do to create a more diverse staff network, as there is demonstrable value in doing so when linking this to more equitable outcomes for students, especially from the perspective of seeing likeness and being seen by those with similar characteristics, but crucially, recruitment to increase diversity needs to be actioned for the right reasons and with the right people, not just to tick a box (Ahmed, 2018).

When we, quite rightly, focus on the equity of students, we should be mindful of not underestimating the impact that this can have on staff from similar backgrounds. Firstly, some staff may be part-time students too, so when we use language to refer to students as being marginalised or disadvantaged, though unintentional, it can be rather wearing to hear when referred to so casually. It’s important to also remember that the concept of staff having ‘lived experience’, does not often refer to experiences in the distant past. Experiences of microaggressions and inequity are not limited to the context of being a student, but they usually impact various aspects of whole lives, and so when staff have lived experience, it’s more accurate to say that they have ‘living experience’ of structural and societal inequity, as it doesn’t suddenly just go away when moving into the working world. Also, the impact on staff members that share characteristics with particular underrepresented communities can be exhausting as they often feel the injustice personally, be it because they have or are experiencing it themselves or have family and friends currently experiencing it (Kandola et al., 1991). Therefore, for many staff members working in the area of inequity in HE, it can become somewhat draining, fatiguing and frustrating (Bhopal, 2023). Research now shows that the cumulative impact of daily exposure to inequity and injustice for people in their professional lives, as well as personal lives, can result in psychological trauma (Nadal et al., 2019).  Coupled with this, the added pressure of being repeatedly selected to illustrate diversity in recruitment panels, being especially photographed during events and having the additional burden to organise and run EDI sessions for colleagues, it is perhaps understandable when staff members from marginalised backgrounds tire from hearing that ‘change takes time’ and is also understandable when they perhaps choose to temporarily or permanently leave the area of work (Ahmed, 2018).

From these issues, we can see that it is more than reasonable to understand that some people choose not to actively involve themselves in this type of work. There is absolutely no shame in trying to gain some space away from these topics, particularly when there is living experience of challenging situations on a daily basis. However, for those staff members that do choose to continue the work in this area for as long as they can, many do so out of a deep sense of personal responsibility and a profound desire for change. What is vital is that we ensure that staff from underrepresented backgrounds are able to continue to develop this work by providing strong support for them through authentic active allyship from those outside of the ‘living experience’ category. Recognition is also needed to know that sometimes the mental and emotional exhaustion felt from being exposed to injustice day after day, requires support in the form of kindness and the acknowledgement for the need to have temporary breaks to avoid burnout. Finally, knowing that in order to address the mission of injustice in every form, it takes support from every level, particularly senior staff to implement real change.

Blog By: Farnaz Rais, Stakeholder Engagement and Delivery Lead Open University


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Kandola, R.S. (1991) Equal Opportunities can Damage your Health : Stress Amongst Equal Opportunities Personnel. Oxford: Pearl Kandola Downs.


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Tatli, A. (2011) ‘A Multi-layered Exploration of the Diversity Management Field: Diversity Discourses, Practices and Practitioners in the UK’, British journal of management, (22) 238–253.

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