Gender equality work in a distance learning institution

Lotz, Nicole; Siddharthan, Advaith; Priola, Cinzia and Wallace, Janette (2022). Gender equality work in a distance learning institution. In: Diversity Interventions 2022, 7-8 Apr 2022, Oxford.

Abstract

With many HE institutions increasingly adopt hybrid working models and expand their online education portfolio, an examination of the barriers as well as best practice for developing and implementing equality work in distance education settings is timely. The Open University (OU) is the largest university in the UK, delivering flexible, distance education across the UK, Ireland and internationally. The OU holds
an institutional Athena Swan Bronze Award, most of the STEM departments hold awards at silver level, and AHSSBL departments are running their initial self-assessment processes, with the Business School being recently awarded a Bronze Award. Looking across the self-assessments in these departments, the OU’s Athena Swan Champions Network, a group of the Chairs of SATs in the departments, has identified specific gender equality challenges and opportunities that arise in a distance education setting.

Challenges

A large, distributed organisation, in both regions and nations, produces substantial amounts of data, and introduces errors and inconsistencies in data. Several actions set out to develop a comprehensive system for data collection and monitoring.

The distributed nature of our institution also made our equality efforts less visible. The OU has no undergraduate students on campus, and many staff are homeworkers. Several actions focused on establishing regular communication channels (and core working hours policies for meetings), as well as events to increase visibility, both online and face to face, such as Women in Engineering student conference, or Maven of the month continuing the work on the BBC internet talk radio show in 1995, and celebrations of diverse role models for Ada Lovelace Day, International Women’s Day, LGBTQ+ week, etc. While our partnerships with the BBC, and open educational resources on FutureLearn or
OpenLearn reach millions, monitoring their uptake is a challenge.

Further actions seek to tackle workload management in a distributed environment which can obscure transparency of workload allocation. The monitoring and reporting of workload allocation is often described as a ‘work of fiction’. While this offers freedom and independence to some staff it leads to reports of dissatisfaction by other staff.

Opportunities

Actions across departments on making interview panels more gender balanced, ensuring gender balanced imagery in prospectuses, and the increasing visibility of our equality work, had positive impact on diversifying the recruitment of staff and PGR students. While flexible working attracts more women to the OU, it is our responsibility to make sure their careers develop as well. Online support of career development, through training, leadership courses, peer mentoring and working groups, improving gender balance in staffing boards and making equality and inclusion work a career pathway had positive impact across the institution, with all the Athena Silver departments achieving gender balance in promotions. The increasing research and scholarship that focuses on inclusion, had a positive wider impact, attracting more staff and students who are strengthening this work.

In conclusion, hybrid working brings the greatest challenges to our equality work. COVID-19 induced home working across the board brought unexpected opportunities for inclusion to the fore.

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