Blog Series: Chapter 1: Define Representation and Why It Matters

This is the first part of my reflection serving as a member of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) team at the University. The series is titled: On Ethnic Representation and Equity: The Costs of Conflating Means as Goals.

This is the first part of my reflection serving as a member of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) team at the University. The series is titled: On Ethnic Representation and Equity: The Costs of Conflating Means as Goals.


The UUK & NUS report in 2019 reported that less than 2% of 19,000 professors in the UK higher education institutes (HEI) are non-white women. Improving the representativeness of UK HEI staff and students became a priority for Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion initiatives. Proposed solutions included racial equity hiring practices, such as having a more diverse interview board, and purposeful advertisement within the targeted populations. Whilst I appreciate the equity-based approach to improve ethnic representation, I worry that the current framing of “representation” would divert attention away from cultivating a culture that embraces unity in diversity. Despite continual effort, mainly by people from racialised communities, ethnic minorities continue to feel tokenised and marginalised in academia. In this article, I would re-assess the logic behind the current EDI approaches to define and improve representation, point out the intrinsic flaws of the current definition of representation, and propose potential barriers for UK HEI to re-calibrate the direction for improving representation. I argue that the philosophical positioning behind current approaches to promoting EDI conflates means as goals, and might limit our ability to evaluate whether we have truly promoted equity within HEI.

Chapter 1: Define Representation and Why It Matters

“Representation” is typically defined in the following 2 ways (Oxford English Dictionary):

  1. A depiction or portrayal of a person or thing, typically one produced in an artistic medium.
  2. The action of standing for, or in the place of, a person, group, or thing, and related senses.

I will refer to definition (1) as “Appearance Representation” (or Visible Representation), and definition (2) as “Rights Representation”. In my opinion, the need to represent arise as a product of “differences”. For example, “appearance representation” showcases something spectacular, it captures something that is different from the norm; “rights representation” serves the purpose of settling different opinions within or between individuals and communities e.g., legal representatives, political party representation.

Who is HEI trying to represent? What does a well-represented HEI look like? I believe this is determined by 2 main factors: the size of targeted community and school philosophy.

Depending on the size of the institute, the targeted community to be represented should be reflective of the local community (regional, e.g., Lambeth, London), the city the institute is based at (e.g., London), nation or country (e.g., England), or even the world. There is little point for a local primary school of 100 pupils in Kent to be representative of world population, which would mean >90% of White British pupils in Kent would have to compete for <10% of the places, essentially excluding most from education. Similarly, the proclaimed world-class international universities should recruit staff and students that is reflective of their targeted community, or at least their renowned global reputation. This view mirrors that of the suggestion made in the Sewell Report (aka the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities), e.g., “to make police forces more representative of local communities”.

School philosophy refers to the beliefs the HEI have regarding the (distribution of) characteristics in an ideal world. School philosophy may take precedent of the size of target population. Take women in academia as an example, it is not as simple as wanting an overall proportion of men and women in HEI that is reflective of the community. It is believed that women are disproportionately lost from academia, and that this has stifled academia from reaching its full potential (premise of Athena Swan). Acknowledging the hegemonic masculinity that persists in society (and academia), extra effort is required to promote and protect the rights and platform for women to develop their academic career. This approach to think about representation considers the social structures of the present and help us avoid reconstructing the inequalities that is presently observed in the community.

In essence, in a well-represented HEI, all groups should be represented, in terms of “Appearance” (in terms of number/proportion) and “Rights” (in terms of platforms/priorities), that is in-line with the institute’s philosophy, and proportionate to the size of the targeted community they are serving.

To be continued…


Author: joseph lam

On a Part-Time PhD Journey. Reflection on living Academia into a better place. 🇭🇰 Migrant in 🇬🇧

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