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Enabling equitable cultures in Physical Geography

By Gavin Brown, The University of Sheffield Naomi Holmes, Sheffield Hallam University, Catherine Souch, Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) & Nicola Thomas, University of Exeter

Many persistent inequalities continue to impact on the experience of studying and working in (British) universities. There are classed and other inequalities in how easily students can access degree courses at different universities. There are gendered and racialised inequalities in the educational attainment at different stages of education. And there are gendered, racialised, and (dis)ability pay gaps in the wages paid to university staff. While some of these inequalities are a result of flawed processes within the university sector, others are the result of wider social relations. The Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)’s Geography of Geography report has highlighted many of the factors that influence and limit who gets to study geography. While it is easy to be disheartened by the scale of some of these persistent inequalities, there is still much that individual Geography departments can do to make their staff and student recruitment, curriculum and pedagogy, and workplace cultures more equitable, diverse, and inclusive.

The Quality Assurance Agency’s new Subject Benchmark Statement for Geography (March 2022), offers the strongest guidance yet to UK university Geography departments on how they are expected to embed equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) commitments within their curriculum. It states,

Geography, as an inclusive learning community, has a collective responsibility to embed equity, equality, diversity and inclusion within all institutions, processes, curricula, and pedagogies. This responsibility to go beyond the minimum expectations of equality ensures an equitable community that recognises learners’ difference in prior experience and opportunity and can help to remedy systemic disadvantages in the subject, for example: through widening participation agendas to ensure economic disadvantage does not hinder a student’s access, experience or outcome; countering the under-representation of marginalised groups inclusive of, and beyond, those with protected characteristics as defined by the Equality Act 2010; adopting a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination and harassment, including everyday microaggressions; and closing structural awarding gaps.

Our Enabling Equitable Cultures of knowledge and practice in physical geography and environmental sciences project, led by Dr Naomi Holmes at Sheffield Hallam University and funded by NERC, has investigated ways in which Geography departments can meet and exceed the EDI commitments contained in the Subject Benchmark Statement, with a focus on practical steps and guidance.

The Enabling Equitable Cultures project recognised that many UK Geography departments already have a track record of excellent work on EDI issues, but that work across the sector is uneven and institutional context can have a significant impact on the priority issues for different departments.

We also recognised that academic geographers have invested considerable intellectual resources in thinking about how to challenge and overcome the colonial legacies of our discipline, as well as the structural inequalities within our institutions. Similarly, we recognise that when time is scarce, it is too easy for departments to focus on legal compliance and/or to focus on metrics-driven equalities exercises. Our vision was to help departments to identify quick, relatively easy, but effective changes in local practices that aren’t reliant on shifts in institutional policy. At the same time, we want to encourage Geography departments to view equality, diversity, and inclusion work as on-going transformative processes, rather than ‘box ticking’ exercises.

Our project team drew on the rich body of existing equalities work in Geography, seeking to spread good practice, rather than ‘reinvent the wheel’ or gather ‘new’ evidence on inequities that have been documented time and again over recent decades (see for example, James Esson on racism; or, Avril Maddrell and colleagues on gendered disparities). To this end, we focused on those areas of geographical practice where tackling inequalities and exclusions are more advanced (such as making fieldwork more accessible and inclusive, and projects designed to ‘decolonize’ the curriculum), to think about how lessons can be carried over into other areas of our teaching, research, and workplace cultures. But we also worked closely with the ten departments represented on our project advisory group to identify equalities issues that they were ‘stuck’ on and disciplinary spaces (e.g. labs) which have attracted less attention.

Our approach has been to think holistically about equalities issues in Geography higher education from the recruitment of undergraduate students, through different aspects of the undergraduate and postgraduate curriculum, to issues with the training, recruitment, and retention of academic geographers and others who work in our departments. To this end, we held an important focus group with technicians from UK Geography departments, recognising the crucial contribution of them and other professional services colleagues to Geography teaching, research, and the workplace cultures of our departments. Other focus groups addressed either specific equalities issues – around neurodiversity, social class, and supporting trans and non-binary geographers – or different aspects of geography teaching and training – including work to decolonize the curriculum, making fieldwork more inclusive and accessible, or support for postgraduate researchers and early career geographers. We also conducted an online survey to record geographers’ experiences of EDI issues in their departments and to explore the work Geography departments have undertaken to make their workplace cultures more equitable and inclusive. We will be publishing a deeper analysis of this research over the months to come.

It was always our intention that this project should be more than a purely academic exercise and should provide geographers working in UK higher education with practical tools to address equality, diversity, and inclusion in their teaching, research, and working lives. To this end, we have already published a set of resources on the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) website that explore specific EDI issues in more depth. These resources are thematic and cross-referenced. They contain links to published academic analysis of equalities issues in Geography (and related subjects), as well as pedagogic reflections on inclusive and anti-oppressive teaching strategies, and practical toolkits for addressing many of these issues. These resources are intended to be dynamic and will be updated and refreshed as more material becomes available. In particular, we plan to commission short videos and other case studies highlighting ‘good practice’ from UK Geography departments and practical lessons that can be learned from our colleagues around the country.

We are developing a toolkit of linked ‘maturity models’ that departments or research groups can use to prompt reflections on their values and existing EDI work, considering the extent to which these have been developed reactively (as ‘problems’ arise) or take a more anticipatory approach to inclusive practice. This tool is intended to be more than a checklist of good practice, and instead a prompt to reflect on justice, equality, diversity, and inclusion as on-going processes which transform how and what we teach, conduct our research, and work with our students and each other. We hope that the outputs from this short project will support departments to take actions that contribute to greater diversity within the discipline, help to deepen the community’s commitment to systemic change, and help to build communities of practice around EDI work in Geography.

About the authors: Gavin Brown is Visiting Professor in Geography at The University of Sheffield, Naomi Holmes is Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography at Sheffield Hallam University, Catherine Souch is Head of Research and Higher Education at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), & Nicola Thomas is Professor of Historical and Cultural Geography at University of Exeter

Suggested further reading

Lawrence, A. & Dowey, N. (2022) Six simple steps towards making GEES fieldwork more accessible and inclusive. Area

Bracken (née Bull), L. and Mawdsley, E. (2004), ‘Muddy glee’: rounding out the picture of women and physical geography fieldwork. Area

How to cite: Brown, G., Holmes, N., Souch, C., Thomas, N. (2022, 11 July) Enabling equitable cultures in Physical Geography. Geography Directions. Available at:

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