The conversation

Sana Ikram, Elizabeth Scott, Issue 117/11, p17, 01.11.2017
Are diversity schemes effective?
Dear Elizabeth: Diversity has been a drawn-out conversation. I’m stunned at how little progress has been made. I appreciate the sector’s efforts, but don’t think diversity schemes are effective. Black, Asian and minority-ethnic (BAME) trainees work twice as hard, and overcome cultural and social barriers to find any success or recognition in the sector. The prospects for career progression and professional development are a massive struggle. These schemes clearly mark the tokenistic value of the work produced. On the other hand, it does provide a great platform if you can use it in the right way. Best wishes, Sana

Dear Sana: I was part of the Museums Association Diversify scheme and wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t been awarded the bursary. But overall, it’s clear these schemes haven’t worked, and haven’t led to any significant change. So, while diversity schemes can work and there are some victories, it isn’t enough. The million-dollar question is, what could work? I am intrigued by your last sentence – what does using schemes in the right way look like? I’m not sure I can necessarily pinpoint what I did to make the scheme work for me. Best wishes, Elizabeth

Dear Elizabeth: My strong influence in the sector results from engaging in opportunities and working on my professional development outside my Strengthening Our Common Life traineeship – this was only a platform for me to jump from. I networked with the big players and attended conferences and training events all over the country, promoting myself as a “diverse” museum professional. I am still conflicted on the repercussions. Furthermore, it takes initiative and passion. It would be most effective to support others in also giving them a voice. Many “diverse” trainees do not acquire the right experience to progress in their organisations. Best wishes, Sana

Dear Sana: To make schemes work, organisations must have a culture that fosters not only an encouraging environment, but also gives trainees significant work, which in turn gives them the confidence, skills and experience for the next step in their careers. It’s also about the schemes doing more to support the trainees and the organisations; it’s not enough to just create the schemes and hand them over. There needs to be an understanding on some level of what it’s like to be the only BAME person in a room – the whole organisation, perhaps – and how tough it can be. Best wishes, Elizabeth

Dear Elizabeth: I persisted in my traineeship due to my amazing mentor. I was relieved that someone had my back and championed diversity issues. A trainee’s purpose isn’t to fill staff shortages or be a marketing tool. I developed and facilitated learning activities with diverse audiences without support or even keen interest from supervisors – even though it was a requirement for my qualification. I was restricted in presenting alternative cultural narratives in the museum’s collections because of “problematic” themes. Most insulting was being encouraged to apply for a role in the museum’s shop when I demonstrated specific interest in collections work. Best wishes, Sana

Dear Sana: It is disheartening and frustrating having the conversations and experiences you had during your traineeship. However, there is value in this – you brought that dialogue into the workplace and you challenged thinking. Although diversity initiatives have been only partially successful, they do offer a way in. We are on a journey that is about 30 years in; the trajectory to a museum workforce that reflects the diversity of society may be another 10, 20 or 30 years down the line. We have to ensure it remains at the top of the agenda and progress change, whether that’s through diversity schemes or in other forms. Best wishes, Elizabeth

Sana Ikram and Elizabeth Scott will be discussing the issues raised in this article in a session at the Museums Association Conference & Exhibition in Manchester, 16-18 November.