The image depicts the statue of Gaius Julius Caesar in via dei Fori Imperiali (Rome). Picture by Antonio Filigno

Having grown up in Italy it is difficult not to develop a fascination for the Roman empire. It is not intentional, but somehow, day after day you stumble upon it and before you realize it, it has become part of your cultural baggage and system of references.

Thinking about my four years at FZJ I can’t help but think about the famous sentence “Veni, Vidi, Vici” (“I came, I saw, I conquered”) pronounced by Julius Caesar after his swift victory at the Battle of Zela (or, if you prefer, it’s elegant Ghostbusters re-adaptation “We came. We saw. We kicked its @##“). Well, if you can picture that, now, just picture the opposite. It is not that we lost our battle (or got kicked in the @## to keep the elegant reference) but every step we took required a great amount of time and effort by people from all over the organization.

Speed is not a value by itself. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy working in a fast-paced environment where everything seems possible, and I want to see tangible results as outcomes of my work. Diversity, equity, and inclusion, however, often requires patience and perseverance, especially if you want to go beyond performative actions and have a long-lasting impact. Aristotele wrote that “the action that follows deliberation should be quick, but deliberation should be slow” and our way of moving forward has been very Aristotelian.

As we started our DEI project, our goals were to evaluate the status of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the Center, develop a DEI strategy and implement it. After a little more than two years, we have released FZJ’s first diversity and inclusion action plan, this is certainly an achievement that deserves celebrating, especially because it gives us a glimpse into the organization we aspire to build together.

During this time, I discovered a community of exceptional people, fierce allies and passionate individuals who tirelessly work to bring change forward: scientists, administrators, technical and area experts, employees in charge of maintaining our physical and digital infrastructure, trainees, doctoral researchers, fire fighters, guests, and fellows from all over the world. Our Action Plan, not only sets a vision and goals for the future, but also wants to recognize some of the outstanding individuals who tirelessly contributed to make Forschungszentrum Jülich a safer and more welcoming organization for people from a variety of backgrounds, with a variety of needs and aspirations.

You can download FZJ Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan (PDF) following the link in the text. The document is divided in four sections: a brief foreword from our board of directors, explaining why diversity, equity and inclusion matter to us, a short history of DEI at the Center, an overview of our assessment and a final chapter explain what goals we have identified for our organization and how we are going to achieve them. I will tell you more about some of the measures we have already implemented in my next blog post.


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Official music video of the song “Trapped in a Box” by No Doubt.

Diversity and inclusion should be about recognizing people´s individuality, seeing the person beyond the label. Though, labels are an essential tool for D&I practitioners, and I am not sure there is an easy way out this paradox. It is a daily conundrum. Labels often perpetrate those same power dynamics that diversity and inclusion practitioners should be challenging. They are intrinsically divisive; they create artificial barriers harnessing a reality that is often more fluid and complex. Yet, labels provide an important framework to analyze and validate the experiences of an heterogeneous group of people sharing common experiences or characteristics – whether those are subscribed or ascribed.

A friend and former colleague told me that her European students often believe that D&I does not exist in Europe – nor there is need for that. Somehow, they believe that inequality is specific to the United States and therefore it needs no addressing outside of this specific context. Police violence, LGBTIAQ+ shootings, limited access to education and healthcare, the KKK, are often brought as examples of realities foreign to Europe. Inequality, however, is everywhere and Europe makes no exception. Failure to recognize it signals that we might be watching from a privileged position.

Context matters and we can´t expect inequality to look the same across counties with different cultures and administrative contexts. Our past is not America´s past and social constructs that apply to the U.S. do not easily translate to Europe´s context. Further, there is a high degree of variability across Europe itself, even when our cultures are not too far apart. The D&I conversation, however, is very much dependent on U.S. specific identity labels that poorly apply to the cultural and social context of Germany. And this has been one of the main challenges that we have faced when we started developing a climate survey for Forschungszentrum Jülich. We knew what we wanted to ask, but we felt like we didn´t have an adequate vocabulary for that.

One good example for that is what Americans call “Race”. Europeans – unless they are playing at Dungeons and Dragons – do not talk about race and there are very good reasons for that. Race is a social construct based on the false premises of white supremacy and using it to classify people means holding true this way of making sense of society. While race is a made-up concept, however, the impact of racism on people´s life is very real and should not be ignored. Data collection, therefore, should not be avoided. The question, however, remains: how can we monitor racism within our context without talking about race? From our discussions with our D&I council, it seemed clear that skin tone was only one of the many aspects to be considered. But then what about other physical traits such as hair color and texture that are still essential to the process of othering in Germany? Not only we have an awareness problem, but we also have a language one. Speechless, that is how we felt. Simply unable to adequately put into words the reality that many people are living.

Of course, a possible way of action would have been to ask people to self-define themselves. As it comes to surveys, however, this solution is not always preferable as variance in respondents ´answers might generate data that then are hard to analyze and compare. In consultation with the Sounding Group, therefore, several questions were created to capture the uniqueness of people´s experiences based on a variety of intersecting characteristics that fit the cultural and social environment within which we operate. It was honestly challenging and time consuming, but creating the survey gave us the opportunity to redefine diversity from our own perspective.

A Lego character depicting an archeologist, a looter, or maybe that's just a diversity and inclusion practitioner.

A Lego character depicting an archeologist, a looter, or maybe that’s just a diversity and inclusion practitioner. Photo by Grianghraf on Unsplash.

Indiana Jones has aged terribly, there is no doubt, and this seems a recurrent problem with many of  my childhood heroes.  I can still hold onto Jam and She-ra but it doesn’t really fix many of the 80s and 90s pop culture’s issues as it comes to diversity and inclusion. Our own biases stem from the meaning system in which we were raised, and while most regret puffed shoulders, ruffles, and peculiar hair choices, uncovering the faults of schooldays champions has a bitter taste. I am just surprised, though, that today we keep talking about implicit biases, because the kind of messaging I get from old-time favorites is all but implicit. That is not where I want to go with this post, however.

Exploiting the Indiana Jones metaphor, rather, I was trying to evoke that sense of adventure, gusto for untraveled paths and eagerness to dig up hidden treasures that sometimes make looters, archeologists and diversity and inclusion practitioners unusually alike. Or at least that is how I felt when, after months of data collection and analysis, the production of a massive report and innumerable meetings with key stakeholders we came back home holding a D&I action plan in our hands.

I would consider writing FZJ’s first diversity and inclusion report a very important first milestone for the project. Mr. Jones might “not follow maps to buried treasures” and he might claim that X never marks the spot. Yet that is what the first report meant to us: a map with clear coordinates and instructions. A building block for further action that enables us to better seize our challenges and plan for adequate interventions.  

The report developed encompassed an evaluation of current anti-discrimination measures and resources, a qualitative study regarding the experiences of minority employees working at FZJ, an audit of internal policies, processes and infrastructure, the analysis of most relevant representation indicators, and a climate assessment based on data obtained through an employee survey in spring 2021. Multiple stakeholders were involved in the process and outcomes were presented to the Board of Directors, the D&I Sounding Group, the D&I Project Board as well as FZJ employees during the project´s “Strategy Development” stage.

From a general perspective, the report presented a positive situation as it concerns FZJ’s overall climate. Data emerging from the Audit do not suggest gender or ability-based biases in hiring. Further, the center was found to be compliant with German anti-discrimination laws. Qualitative interviews, however, in some cases also revealed negative attitudes towards women and ethnic and sexual minorities in our work environment. From the survey, it emerged that one in four participants has at least occasionally witnessed bullying or acts of exclusion in the workplace, and people belonging to underrepresented and/or minority groups were less likely to report positive experiences.

The survey revealed that leadership is an essential component to create and sustain an inclusive environment. People who rated their superiors positively were more likely to report better workplace experiences. From qualitative interviews, however, it emerged that people in leadership positions might lack information and skills to champion change within the organization and model inclusiveness.

In the survey, international employees reported less positive experiences than German employees as it concerns access to services and information. Additionally, interviews revealed that currently provided information and services might not always respond to the needs of under-represented and minority groups. The mapping of anti-discrimination resources revealed, for instance, that information on individual rights, institutional resources and employees’ duties are not always adequately communicated to different employees’ groups. Currently existing D&I infrastructure, furthermore, does not always allow the organization to adequately integrate diversity and inclusion considerations in its daily practices.

The survey also revealed that scientists scored lower than other participants did as it concerns personal connections and involvement opportunities. Doctoral researchers were more likely to report high levels of stress and isolation. It should be considered, however, that data were collected during a country-wide lockdown due to Covid-19 which might have exacerbated such feelings.

Developing the FZJ D&I Report was an incredibly intense period. The workload to be processed within six months was considerable and adequately communicating over 150 pages of findings to different audiences and stakeholders wasn´t any easier. In some circumstances, however, what proved to be really difficult was holding people from jumping to action. We finally had a map, that was true, but we still needed to draw an X on it and discuss logistical details – which is often not a very enticing conversation when compared to the thrill of hitting the road.  

A very short story of how our diversity, equity, and inclusion journey began

Diversity and inclusion is not a project, it is a long-term commitment…or at least this would be my first reaction if someone told me that they were initiating a project to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion within their organization. There is no on/off switch. Committing to D&I is more like embarking on a life-long journey than a hundred-meter sprint. Still, this does not mean that we have to move forward like Alice, following a white rabbit down a hole with no clear goals or direction. D&I is not a wandering in the hope of getting back home in time for tea. It requires intentionality, planning, and coordination. The temptation to hit the trail as quickly as possible might be strong, especially when we know that a long journey is ahead of us. Yet, it would be a very bad idea to set out on the road without knowing exactly where we are going, with whom, and which intermediate milestones we might need to reach before arriving at our destination. I found that in several cases, the problem is not to agree on abstract D&I statements, but rather on details such as “how do we get there”, “what needs to be changed”, “how” and “by whom”.

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As a diversity and inclusion practitioner, I like talking about why organizations should commit to diversity, equity, and inclusion. I put my full hearth and energies in what I do and those around me probably know how passionate I am about helping research and educational institutions to build a more inclusive and equitable environment for students, employees and society at large. Once, a friend made me notice that I might come across as rather cynical in professional settings. I would call that pragmatism instead…It is true, however, that when I talk about diversity and inclusion (D&I) I tend to focus more on the business case rather than moral arguments. If I do so, nevertheless, it is just because I think it is more effective when I address a wide and composite audience with a variety of opinions and political leanings.

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