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'Why bother with diversity? The best people will always float to the top!' This was one of the statements made during the Faces of Science Park event in February on diversity, which included discussions, workshops and a photo exhibition. What people often underestimate is that good numeracy skills, for example, are something that you have to learn. Implicit prejudices can play a role in this. Do you have the right resources to be able to learn these skills effectively, for example, do teachers give everyone the same amount of attention? It's not a level playing field. That’s why it’s so important to keep working on diversity and inclusion,’ says Machiel Keestra, Faculty Diversity Officer (FDO) at the Faculty of Science.

Diversity and the coronavirus crisis

The new reality of the coronavirus crisis has an impact on Machiel’s work as FDO: ‘We’re developing new approaches and adapting measures to the new reality of social distancing. It’s important that we continue to ensure that some groups are not placed at a greater "distance" than others, perhaps unintentionally. Working and studying from home affects some people more than it does others: how can we take this into account? Without open days, how do we reach prospective students from environments where going to university is not the norm? Together with the Diversity focus group, we have developed a checklist of best practices so that, even in this new context, we can continue to contribute to a diverse and inclusive Faculty community.’

New diversity policy in the pipeline

The coronavirus crisis may delay things a little, but Machiel is currently helping to develop the Faculty of Science’s new diversity policy. The first diversity policy focused mainly on the gender balance of permanent staff. Machiel: ‘Our Faculty had a serious leaky pipeline: the higher up the ladder, the lower the proportion of female staff members. So, job ads are screened for unconscious biases and stereotypes, such as asking for typically male qualities which women wouldn’t easily identify with. And there’s also the successful MacGillavry Fellowship for talented female researchers.’ The new diversity policy focuses on broader target groups, such as current and prospective students, and takes into account cultural and social economic diversity. ‘For example, we run a summer programme for students whose parents have not been to university, to prepare them for university life.’ And the new policy puts a greater emphasis on collaboration: ‘As FDO I work with an active Diversity focus group. I think it’s really important to have a network of Faculty members who focus on this issue. That way we get to find out what we’re all having to deal with and the initiatives that are already in place. We then share them within the Faculty and outside it.’

What appeals to me about my work on diversity and inclusion is involving relevant stakeholders and coming up with the best possible solution in partnership with target groups.

Closer link between local community and university

Machiel tells us us about a couple of these initiatives: ‘We’re working on a major project, the Student Impact Centre, to increase student engagement in the community outside of the Science Park and within it. Students will work on community projects that require academic skills, by offering coaching or acting as mentors, for example. This increases students’ knowledge and experience, and strengthens bonds between the local community and the University. Also, together with Professor of Astronomy Sera Markoff and the Islamic Student Association Amsterdam, last year the Faculty organised an Iftar meal for science. Machiel: ‘Pupils from the Indische Buurt area of Amsterdam followed a star-gazing trail and we highlighted the contribution of Islamic science to physics and biology, for example. Science can sometimes be extremely Eurocentric, and be presented as an exclusively Western preserve. But it’s important to also remember the contributions made by other cultures to science throughout history, and be a bit more modest about our own achievements, so pupils from other cultures can identify more with the subject.’

Staff training

There are activities for staff too: ‘It’s also great that the Faculty provides training for permanent staff, on topics such as collaboration in diverse teams, for example. Often, colleagues who are extrovert and assertive have the edge and get more attention than more reticent colleagues, even though these qualities are not necessarily relevant to successful scientific research. We must make sure that we don’t unintentionally hamper the development of talent or good research through these kinds of differences in communication.’

Continued focus on accessibility

Diversity is also about everyone feeling welcome in the building. ‘The Science Park building was not equally accessible to all. Last summer, the doors to the lifts were finally modified so wheelchair users can now use the lifts independently. A similar thing happened on the Roeterseiland Campus, where the new doors were too heavy for people on crutches to open, for example. Here in the Netherlands, we have committed to making public spaces accessible to all, so it’s crucial that we continue to focus on these issues, but we don’t always do so.’

Personal involvement in diversity

Where does Machiel’s interest in diversity and inclusion come from? ‘As a philosopher at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies, for quite some time I’ve been involved with various forms of pluralism, the principle that, for every issue, there is a wide range of equally valid perspectives. This means that, in many cases, you work with stakeholders to come up with the best possible solution.’ And that is exactly what Machiel does in his capacity as FDO. Machiel is also actively involved in the field of diversity outside of the UvA: ‘Together with my partner, I've developed an initiative called the Keti Koti Table. Here, over a meal, the various participants share personal experiences and insights with each other around the present-day consequences of the Dutch slave trade, using a dialogue method developed by us. Some 12,000 people have taken part in the initiative, and it’s clear that our approach avoids the polarisation that often occurs in discussions and debates.’

Machiel also attributes his interest in diversity to his own past: ‘My mother came out of the war as a Jewish orphan. About 15 years ago I interviewed the mother of a friend of my son’s. She said: “I’ve never talked to anyone whose family was so affected by the war.” It was then that I realised: what may be totally normal for you may be totally unique for someone else.’ Indeed, Machiel’s work as FDO is all about appreciating that people have different points of view, because only then can everyone’s talents be exploited to the full.

A diverse university makes more progress. And diversity comes from working together. Thats why we are committed to ensuring that everyone at the UvA can develop to the full and be themselves. Whatever their cultural background, gender, beliefs, sexual orientation or disability. Every faculty has a Faculty Diversity Officer who, together with staff and students, sets out the diversity policy. Every faculty does have a different identity. Over the next few weeks we will be publishing interviews with all of the Faculty Diversity Officers. This interview was with Machiel Keestra from the Faculty of Science (FNWI).

Machiel Keestra, assistant professor
Time working at the UvA: 29 years, in various departments
Lives in: recently moved to Zaandam
Hobbies: singing, individually and in a choir
What do you like best about your job? Being able to contribute, together with a wide variety of people, to the vital pluralism of our Faculty community.