Like other Canadian universities, Université de Sherbrooke has embarked on a long-term process to improve equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) practices on its campuses. As part of these efforts, the vice-dean of research’s team at the École de gestion [school of management] wanted to contribute and participate by organizing an awareness-raising activity for its community. This is the story of an extraordinary project.
Our first question was, what form should this activity take? The EDI workshops springing up all over the university community have provided us with a plethora of examples to follow…or not! Since attendance is normally voluntary, we felt that the workshop format might only end up reaching community members who were already sold on the need to implement EDI practices in academia. So how could we effectively educate our community?
The leaky pipeline metaphor as leitmotif
We were determined to focus on systemic barriers to diversity, a concept that is key to, and the final rationale for introducing EDI within the academic community. We felt this choice had pedagogical value (especially in a Quebec context, where the word “systemic” invariably causes an allergic reaction for some politicians) and would help guide faculty reflection. But what medium should we use to avoid a purely academic treatment of these issues?
The concept of systemic barriers is frequently illustrated by the metaphor of the leaky pipeline, which represents the uneven progress made by specific groups (e.g., women, minorities) as they move through the academic continuum, from graduate school to full professor. The pipeline is described as “leaky” because attrition among prospective faculty is disproportionately high for these groups, which suggests that they experience a larger than usual number of barriers that are generally unnoticed and unintentional, but that are part of a web of individual, organizational, disciplinary, and other practices.
We found our leitmotif!
One helpful aspect of the pipeline theme is that it is easily visualized. We came up with the idea of organizing the awareness-raising activity as a temporary scientific exhibition in which visitors would follow a path on the floor, representing the leaky pipeline. Throughout the tour, bottlenecks (barriers to recruitment, retention, and advancement in one’s academic career) would be represented as “leaks” in the pipeline. The “exit” locations would physically guide visitors to posters that displayed the predominant systemic barriers at each career stage (e.g., professional isolation among assistant professors).
The activity would illustrate systemic barriers in a concrete way, supported by statistics and data. To maximize the exhibition’s persuasive power, we needed data representative of our context (Quebec, academic discipline, etc.) – which would require some prior research – so that it would “speak” to our community and help to overcome the assumption which sometimes persists in the humanities and social sciences that EDI is “just a matter for the science and engineering fields.”
The long road to completion
The awareness-raising exhibition was a wonderful concept… in theory! Since our team had no prior museology experience, the project seemed to us in retrospect to have benefited from certain favourable conditions that helped to make it a reality. Not surprisingly, the most important requirement was available resources (human, material, financial), in particular: that the faculty had sufficient professional resources to create content and manage the project; that the vice-dean of research was willing to allocate the resources necessary for the physical realization of the exhibition (printing, graphics); and that there was adequate (and available) exhibition space. The support of our faculty directors and the Secrétariat à la condition féminine du Québec were also key for the project’s continuation.
Some of these conditions were positively essential. In faculties where professional resources are either not available or consumed by day-to-day operations management, our project would have been quickly compromised.
Through a mixture of luck and opportunity, we were also able to rely on results from a 2020 literature review on systemic barriers in the management sciences, which supported a large-scale grant application. Reusing the findings of this review in the context of the exhibition reduced the time-consuming research work we needed to do.
Budgetary constraints can be addressed with a little creativity. For instance, a few compromises in the materials we used allowed us to significantly reduce printing costs. The Secrétariat à la condition féminine du Québec’s sponsorship program helped us to offset the non-negotiable part of our budget – primarily graphic design fees.
As the exhibition closes, can we say it was a success? Because it was held in a public and freely accessible space (the third floor of the school of management building), there was no easy way to measure attendance. Informal feedback from colleagues, which was overwhelmingly positive, suggested that the exhibition succeeded in raising awareness, but the significance of this finding is limited and not entirely reliable because of possible selection bias. Lessons learned for next time…
Considering the short-lived nature of the event (21 days), was it worth the investment (time, energy, funds)? The answer is clear to us, if only because of the spontaneous hallway discussions sparked by the event and the community’s enthusiastic response. However, the chosen concept clearly presents certain issues of long-term viability. Thankfully, our temporary exhibition can be easily converted into a travelling exhibition; already, another department at Université de Sherbrooke is interested in housing it. And why not use this opportunity to develop it into a digital exhibition as well? This is a simple idea, suggested in passing during a conversation with a member of the university administration, but it sounds like a new and irresistible challenge to us!
Maxime Plante is a research professional affiliated with the vice-dean of research’s office at the Université de Sherbrooke’s École de gestion; Julie Frédette is a research professional affiliated with the vice-dean of research’s office at the Université de Sherbrooke’s École de gestion; Amélie Bourbeau is assistant director of research at the Université de Sherbrooke’s École de gestion; and Claudia Champagne is vice-dean of research at the Université de Sherbrooke’s École de gestion.