Providing Some Context for the mdw Diversity Strategy
In March of 2019, the Vienna Chamber of Labour commissioned a study on Experiences of Discrimination in Austria in the areas of employment, housing, health, and education. Nearly half of the individuals questioned for this study reported having felt discriminated against in at least one of these areas, and the types of discrimination they reported having experienced in educational settings include the following: disparaging behaviour by instructors, unfair performance evaluations, denial of opportunities to speak in class, and discriminatory language and/or illustrations in instructional materials. In a study conducted by the Institute for Advanced Studies (Institut für höhere Studien – IHS), 23% of the university-level students who were questioned indicated having experienced discrimination in the higher education context at least once. And another interesting point is that a glance at the participants’ experiences of gender-specific discrimination shows that the individuals affected most frequently are woman* students at arts universities. The exclusionary practices in such cases are similar: use of discriminatory language, stereotypical attributions, prejudices, and/or the unequal distribution of resources. And it we look at the mdw’s own “gender dimensions”, we do see that gender stereotypes by programme of study and within certain programmes of study, the infamous “glass ceiling”, and—on the other hand—living, breathing gender diversity are indeed all very real phenomena.
In the mdw Diversity Strategy, we reflect (fully conscious of the fact that not all individuals enjoy equal access to resources) upon how categories such as gender, race, sexual orientation, and social origins play an important role in how individuals are viewed, perceived, evaluated, and/or judged—in other words, in how differences are constructed and (can) produce inequalities. After all, an essential step toward ensuring fruitful studies, teaching, and careers spent working at universities consists in examining such processes of differentiation as well as existing structures in terms of the inclusion and exclusion that they produce, doing so with the aim of empowering those who are socially less powerful or suffer from a comparative lack of social resources.
The equality and diversity-oriented work being done at the mdw aims to accomplish precisely this, thereby also effecting change in the University’s culture. The idea is to “shake conditions up in a decolonial sense”, says the education and gender researcher Maureen Maisha Auma, who calls for a “constructive linkage between diversity, intersectionality, and decolonisation” (Auma 2019). Decolonisation is an issue here because the effects of colonialism as a global system of exploitation can be observed to this day in images, language, (Eurocentric) knowledge, dichotomous modes of thought, and racist worldviews. This needs to be considered in combination with diversity; after all, one of the perennially present concerns is that of how to approach the aforementioned work of differentiation, evaluation, and judging in such a way that inequalities and structural discrimination are reduced. Furthermore, decolonisation’s linkage with intersectionality serves to point out how multiple different manifestations of discrimination can be intertwined and thus have simultaneous effects. The mdw Diversity Strategy therefore takes up Auma’s call, bundling diversity measures that aim to encourage processes of learning, unlearning, and change (Interview, p. 34). Learning just what all excellence can mean and in what diverse ways knowledge can be produced, learning to critically question things and guide processes of negotiation, and learning to adopt new and different perspectives—while also unlearning long-practiced ways of acting and considering certain things to be givens. This additionally has to do with unlearning by organisations like universities, because “focussing on structural discrimination within an organisation—i.e., working actively to change those structures of an organisation that facilitate discrimination and bring forth mechanisms of division—is often a taboo topic” (Bargehr 2018).
In a capitalist society shot through by power, differences, and structures of inequality, universities—as public educational institutions—are bearers of social responsibility and can intervene in spaces of learning in order to create conditions for emancipatory educational work. In doing so, diversity can function as an important category of analysis, as an instrument for recognising how differences are constructed and what unequal social positionings are associated with such differences, and as an instrument for pointing out possible ways of realising equal access to and participation in both social resources and the power to shape and make decisions.
Auma, Maisha Maureen (2019). “Decolonial moves in den Gender Studies. Unsere Lernverhältnisse in Bewegung bringen”, lecture as part of the lecture series Vorträge zu antirassistischen, BPoC und migrantischen Perspektiven aus Kunst und Bildung, 13 Mar. 2019, Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.
Bargehr, Gabriele (2018). “Die Organisationsfrage aus antirassistischer Perspektive”, in: Bildpunkt, May issue, online: http://www.igbildendekunst.at/bildpunkt/2018/aus-dem-utopischen-halbdunkel/bargehr.htm [18 Jul. 2019].