Equity, diversity and inclusion roles within the Higher Education space are unique, but many people come to the field with experience from other sectors. When Sarah Guerra became King’s College London’s (KCL) Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) in 2017, she brought with her several years of experience in EDI roles within government bodies.
Kitty Hadaway, our EDI lead at GoodCourse, sat down with Sarah to ask about what attracted her to her role, and how the EDI space has changed over time.
After leaving university, I started my working life in the Civil Service fast stream. I had studied Law and intended to become a qualified solicitor – but at the time, opportunities for training contracts were few and far between, especially for working-class, brown candidates like me, so I started to consider other graduate routes.
I’m glad that I applied for the fast stream because it gave me fantastic exposure to a broad range of challenges and styles of working. I could access great quality training and had the opportunity to gain experience in the area of public policy.
After I had my second child, I returned to work part-time but I found that the opportunities for career progression weren’t the same as for people in full-time roles. So I negotiated a secondment to the ARC and the FDA, which are trade unions for civil servants and public service professionals.
There, I helped to build the union’s EDI and health and safety policies. To start with, that work was informed by my own lived experience as a Black woman with parents who immigrated to the UK. I added to what I already knew through informal learning and research, especially around LGBTQ+ and disability issues.
The fact that I enjoyed my first EDI role and felt that I was very effective in it, made me open to pursuing this sort of work in the future. It wasn’t always easy – when I was first starting out, a lot of people were hesitant to make changes and there was a general conservatism in many organisations.
We’ve been able to make a lot of progress - for example, we’ve just achieved 14th place in the Stonewall Top 100 Employer list
A short while after leaving the ARC and the FDA, I became Head of Diversity and Inclusion at the Ministry of Defence. In 2017, I was appointed to my current role at KCL, where we’ve been able to make a lot of progress – for example, we’ve just achieved 14th place in the Stonewall Top 100 Employer list. At the end of the year, I’ll be moving into another EDI role at a public body.
What I’ve learned on my journey is that there will always be reasons why EDI initiatives are good for an organisation, and many ways to argue for it being embedded into different structures.
My role at KCL involves implementing changes for both staff and students. We’ve built a centre of EDI expertise and embedded it across the university. When I joined KCL, it had a bronze Athena SWAN charter status – now it’s silver, so that’s a big improvement.
When it comes to working with students directly, my team and I partner with KCL Student Union (SU) as much as we can. We’ve built an EDI governance structure that makes student leadership central to our decision-making, and we meet with KCL SU’s elected leaders regularly throughout the year to discuss how we can support their projects.
I try to use data wherever I can, because it really helps us to prove that there’s a problem to be solved, no matter what in particular we’re working on.
For example, when I arrived looking at the data I could see that 56% of our domestic students were Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic. That in itself was compelling evidence that racial equality is a majority issue, not a minority one – so the university knows that it’s imperative that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic students feel welcome and able to thrive at King’s College London.
I think that it’s important to really get to know yourself and what motivates you, and try to find an organisation that fits. You don’t necessarily need to be an advocate or a campaigner to work in an EDI role, although there are plenty of opportunities for that sort of work if you do want to do it!
I think I have three answers to this question.
The first would be Lord Simon Wooley, who I think does an amazing job of using his influence with integrity.
Then, I would say Baroness Helena Kennedy – I saw her speak while I was at university, and I’ve always been inspired by her articulacy and clarity of thought.
And I hugely admire Professor Funmi Olonisakin, who is one of the few Black female professors in this country. She founded KCL’s African Leadership Centre, and I feel that I’ve learned so much from her about different kinds of leadership and power.
For me, it would be Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain, by Mike and Trevor Phillips. That book helped me to understand British race politics and my own experiences as a child of immigrant parents.