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Diversity – time to spell it out
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  1. Adele Waters

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Do you consider diversity to be a ‘fluff’ word?

That is what the British Veterinary Ethnicity and Diversity Society (BVEDS) implied last month when it retweeted the view that ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ were ‘fluff’ words that stripped white people of their accountability for the ways they perpetuate racism.

A bold and interesting take, perhaps, but also rather unhelpful – why make this topic even more difficult and tribal? However, the society is correct in its view that words matter. And also that words without action don’t count for much.

So where does diversity sit within the UK’s veterinary profession? First of all, it is clear that the profession does not reflect the society it serves. According to RCVS data, it is 60 per cent female, 97 per cent white and 24 per cent privately educated – far higher than the UK average of 6.5 per cent attending private schools. (Data for all categories of protected characteristics are not available).

Historically there has been a tendency to think this typecasting – ‘white middle class boys’ and latterly ‘gals’ – was just one of those things, a shame but not really fixable. Recently this has changed and diversity has crept up the veterinary policy agenda.

Last year Amanda Boag made it a focus during her RCVS presidency and that work will continue under the current president Niall Connell. The college has set up a working group to look at what can be done to create a profession that is more representative. We can expect incoming BVA president Daniella Dos Santos to also drive this agenda forward.

But there are three fundamental questions that the profession must address.

First what is the case for diversity? The moral case is fairly well understood – all people with protected characteristics have a right to be treated equally – and this is supported by the law.

The business case, however, needs more work – perhaps along the lines of the Women on Boards initiative, which set out the business advantages of having gender-balanced boards in FTSE 100 companies? The argument is diverse boards = better challenge = better governance and improved business performance.

If the business advantage is not well articulated or understood, buy-in will be limited. Progress on this will begin at BVA Congress in November when business consultancy firm Pearn Kandola will lead a discussion on the value of attracting and retaining diverse teams.

Second, how will we know when we have got there? Is there a specific aim? For example, should the demography of the vet profession seek to mirror that of the UK, as collected by the Office for National Statistics? No one has decided this, nor who should monitor progress or who should lead it.

Finally, what tangible actions are in place to really support this work? Here the BVEDS is right – action needs to follow. There needs to be support in three areas: when applying to vet school, while at vet school and in-work support. And no one can underestimate the importance of having positive role models at each stage to inspire and support.

The university sector deserves praise here

The university sector deserves praise here. As we report this week, there are now numerous schemes at vet schools across the UK aiming to get more people from disadvantaged backgrounds into education (see p 187). For example, Bristol is offering ‘taster sessions’ and free academic tutoring in local schools for students interested in studying veterinary science.

So perhaps we should go back to where we started – with words. As Navaratnam Partheeban, who co-founded BVEDS, says we need to use words that can inspire action, understanding and acceptance.

Next month this journal will dedicate some of our pages to celebrating the diversity of the modern veterinary family. I have chosen the word ‘celebrating’ deliberately – because it is through inclusion that we learn about otherness, we can accept differences, and in so doing, we sharpen our understanding, our compassion and our humanity.

This, in turn, helps drive progressive thinking and better conversations with clients, our fellow professionals and, more widely, those in society the profession wants to influence.

That’s hardly fluff.

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