Growing beyond acronyms

31 May, 2022

You may have heard acronyms such as EDI, DEI, EDIA, JEDI, and wondered what they mean. They refer to issues including equity, equality, diversity, inclusion and accessibility, concepts that take on different meanings depending on the cultural and historical context they exist in.  

Historically, and still today, we know that some people are systemically disadvantaged and marginalised in society, so whatever the acronym, inclusion work should generally try to dismantle and help unlearn prevailing unjust structural and cultural settings. 

The context for BAS 

So, what does the British, and Antarctic, cultural and historical context look like? The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) as an organisation has a particular history starting after the era of heroic exploration, which mostly saw young white, physically fit men going on expeditions to “the white continent”. This has left an imprint on the organisation. Back in the early nineties, the introduction of women to the wintering workforce was met with some resistance and suspicion.  

Since then, a lot has changed culturally and structurally within the organisation and people have evolved their thinking. A recent turning point in the BAS journey towards being a more inclusive organisation was the founding of the Diversity in UK Polar Science Initiative (DiPSI). The initiative, funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) brought together individuals across the Polar Research community, NERC and UKRI, enabling building a structured approach to understand the challenge and take action. 

The importance of belonging 

One of our invited speakers, Melissa Burt from Colorado State University, highlighted that a key element for increasing diversity within an organisation is to concentrate on the aspects of belonging. Melissa talked about cohort building as a way of increasing the sense of belonging, and reflected on some of her personal experiences within her science career.  

After some initial data baselining by then EDI Research Analyst, Donna Frater, to understand how the UK Polar Community compares with the diversity seen in the UK population, we set out to organise one of our first activities; the Polar Horizons programme, envisioned by Huw Griffiths.  

Working together as an organisation 

We knew how vital it would be to build the programme around the cohort experience, and had a strong sense that we needed to support the collective learning within BAS as an organisation. Alongside the scheduled talks, matching the scientists with the students, and the social activities; we created training for staff dubbed EDI101 

The training was meant as an introduction to working with individuals from underrepresented groups, and how we expect colleagues to support each other through adopting inclusive behaviours. It was created by staff for staff, keeping some of the peculiarities of BAS as an organisation in mind (like the pressure of living with colleagues on a ship or station in isolation far away from home). 

Opportunities for early career researchers 

In the past six months BAS hosted 16 internships bringing early career researchers from currently underrepresented groups into Polar Science. The interns did some really impressive work for their projects, which you can read about in our next blog. The delivery of the NERC-funded internships was built on the learnings from all the activities we organised over the past couple of years. Our ambition is to foster the next generation of Polar researchers in a setting that understands how people are structurally positioned differently.  

A process of continual learning 

From this project we’ve continued to develop our understanding of inclusion and belonging. We must move beyond assumptions: it can be easy to forget that people might not see themselves as we have decided to see them. For us, growing beyond the acronyms means showing a genuine will to change, and acknowledging the need for transparency and self-reflection, both as an organisation and as individuals. We’ve learnt that it’s not about always getting everything right, but it’s about what you do if you get things wrong. There are still many areas where we have learning and work to do, but we want to celebrate that we understand the importance of taking responsibility for our actions.  

We’ll be publishing a more detailed report on the internships in the next month.  

Please get in touch if you’d like to work with us, Pilvi Muschitiello and Geraldine Hough  

Find out more about our work at BAS in this area.