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Throughout the project, user researchers and end users both discussed the idea that EDI practice can feel like a tick box exercise. Emma explores this same issue in a marketing and communications context.

Walking the EDI tightrope: inclusivity or ticking boxes?

By Dr Emma Fields (10/08/2022)

How can we stop Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) becoming a tick-box exercise? It’s a question I wrangle with philosophically and professionally on a daily basis. A bit of background about me. I’m a senior leader in marketing and communications working, more recently, in the UK higher education sector. Translation: my team produces the advertising creative and publications aimed at recruiting potential students. I’m also a single parent who worked full-time while raising my son, often in a male-dominated workplace. EDI in the workplace has been my lived experience, personally and professionally.

Ticking the box
So where have I experienced EDI as a tick box exercise? I don’t think there’s enough room in one blog post to cover it all, but here’s a working example. Every university produces a number of prospectuses each year targeted at specific audiences, typically potential undergraduate, postgraduate and international students. Grouping potential students into these three groups is problematic in itself and reflects the organisational process of the sector. There is always a point in the production process when the question ‘are all of the protected characteristics represented?’ is asked, usually in relation to photography.

Visibility and telling the truth
And herein lies the crux of the tick-box issue. It’s relatively straightforward to represent outwardly visible characteristics in images, but how are non-visible characteristics – sex, sexuality, disability
represented? Disability is particularly pertinent for youth marketers. While there are individuals with visible physical impairments, mental impairment affects the largest number of 16 – 24 year olds by far. 34% of students report having psychological difficulties for which they needed professional help (MHFA, 2020). How do you visually represent students with mental impairments and how they are supported by the community? Particularly when it’s not ethical to put a call out for students with specific protected characteristics to be featured in the university’s marketing and communications.

Even if you’re able to represent each of the protected characteristics, how do you maintain a balance between ‘covering’ them (tick-box-esque language in itself) and providing an authentic representation of the community? For example, a balance often needs to be struck between ensuring all races are represented while not skewing the portrayal of the community’s racial demographic split. As a marketing and communications professional, I always adhere to the Advertising Standards Authority’s maxim to tell the truth. More importantly, providing an inclusive environment for students includes telling the truth about the actual level of EDI in the university community rather than the aspirational level. They need to know that at the end of their protracted decision-making process they’ve chosen the right university for them.

Walking the tightrope
Ultimately, EDI as a tick-box exercise dehumanises individuals and distorts authenticity in messaging. So how to strike a balance? I’ve barely scratched the surface of this issue and don’t have all the answers. Here’s how I’ve made a start...

Tell the truth. Draw on your organisation’s internal research and data to understand the current position of EDI in your community, such as racial demographic split. Use that intelligence as a frame for your story.

Use different ways of telling your story. Yes, a picture is worth a thousand words, but strong copywriting based in a cultural understanding of the lived experience of individuals with protected characteristics is equally as effective.

Work with colleagues to find individual stories. Working in a university marketing department, I had the advantage of being able to speak to a large pool of student ambassadors who were all actively engaged with the university brand and happy to be featured in marketing. I also worked with student support services staff to sensitively identify potential individuals who may be willing to share their experience.

Focus on humanity. Remember, that trans student is an individual who has faced personal struggles and societal prejudice to be where they are today. If a tick-box exercise dehumanises people, then telling their individual stories is the first step towards rehumanising.

MFHA. (2020, October 15).
Mental health statistics. MFHA England.

About Emma

Dr Emma Fields is a senior leader and marketing communications professional who has worked in the leisure marine and higher education sectors. In her work, she represents current levels of EDI in organisation communities alongside supporting the attainment of aspirational levels.