As a supervisor, you play an important role in promoting and creating equitable, diverse, and inclusive communities at McGill. Challenging bias and discrimination contributes to stronger communities, more fruitful interactions, and greater creativity. All members of the McGill community have a collective responsibility to create an equitable campus and are entitled to feel safe and included, regardless of identity or background.
Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at McGill
McGill’s Strategic Plan on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion notes that the institution seeks to “promote respectful, accessible, and inclusive work environments.” You are encouraged to consider how your role as a supervisor supports this vision while improving supervisory relationships.
The McGill student population is diverse. Students in the McGill community all possess different, interacting identities that can impact how they are perceived by others and the systemic inequities they experience. Another way to think of these factors is intersectionality, or how these different identities, based on “gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, class and other forms of discrimination,” interact to affect an individual’s experiences of inequity (Center for Intersectional Justice). For example, a racialized graduate student who also identifies as woman is likely to have different experiences – and face different barriers – in the university context than a racialized graduate student with another gender identity.
The barriers students face due to their intersecting identities will vary, and it is important to provide support tailored to each student’s needs. For instance, the identity of the student in the example above might not correspond to a commonly held image of a scholar, and she may face barriers in academic settings as a result. It is important as a supervisor to not only be aware of the different ways in which identities can intersect but also to acknowledge how some supervisees may encounter more barriers than others. These students may require more active intervention and support.
Power Dynamics and Supervision
We all navigate spaces with varying degrees of privilege and power. The Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion recognizes that “historical circumstances, social traditions and group dynamics have given certain groups in our society more privilege and power compared to other groups” (CCDI). These power dynamics impact how we experience the world and interact with others. The supervisory relationship is no exception. Since, in many cases, students rely on their supervisors for funding, progressing in the program, and opportunities following graduation, there is an inherent imbalance in the supervisory dynamic. This imbalance is not inherently negative, as long as it does not contribute to exclusionary or exploitative situations. If not managed, the power imbalance may be exacerbated by implicit bias – unconscious assumptions about certain individuals’ abilities or characteristics – and associated systemic barriers that students may face. As a supervisor, you are encouraged to consider how your relationships with your supervisees can support greater equity. For a deeper dialogue on power and privilege, please feel free to review the CCDI resources.
Supervisors also have a significant influence on how graduate students reconceptualize themselves and forge new identities as scholars and professionals during their programs. Graduate students’ success in this process “may depend on the extent to which they attempt to enact identities that are valued by their mentors.” Supervisors should work to prevent adverse affects on their supervisees’ identity formation by carefully considering the values they express regarding research and their students’ gender, culture, beliefs, and abilities. For more information on McGill vision for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, please review McGill’s Strategic EDI Plan. Equity at McGill provides resources for supporting accessibility, mental health, gender and sexual diversity, racialized students, and more.
As a supervisor, you may be working with students from backgrounds other than your own. At times, individuals may attribute meaning to some of these different intersections of identity. Others may also make assumptions about individuals’ capabilities based on these identities. The attribution of deficiencies based on an individual’s background or identities is known as deficit discourse or “disempowering patterns of thought, language, and practice that represent people in terms of deficiencies and failures” (Lowitja Institute). In other words, supervisors may, often unconsciously, attribute perceived shortcomings to the identity of the supervisee. Careful inspection of these implicit biases and working to dispel them can help to create a more positive supervisory dynamic. Recognizing diversity, in part, means accepting that people from different cultures have valid ways of life, including ways of teaching and learning that might be unfamiliar but not necessarily less effective or meaningful.
Strategies for Promoting Fair and Equitable Supervision
Completely eliminating implicit bias is very difficult to do. However, working to reduce or manage bias can contribute to more equitable and inclusive supervisory relationships. Recognizing biases is the first step in reducing them by. Try taking this Implicit Bias Test from Harvard University. Many people are surprised by the implicit biases they have.
Mindfulness can be an effective method for reducing the adverse affects of biases in supervisory relationships. Mindfulness in this context refers to deliberately thinking about how you perceive your supervisees. Bias reduction for supervisors is important for creating equitable opportunities in many of the decisions involved in your role (e.g., choosing who gets funding, publication opportunities, quality of letters of recommendation). This guide from The Perception Institute suggests several other interventions and strategies – including challenging stereotypes, questioning our own objectivity, and establishing a culture of fairness – that can help reduce and manage bias.
Ensuring fairness may involve making reasonable adjustments to accommodate the varied abilities, needs, values, and expectations of students. For additional supports on recognizing and minimizing bias, please consult the McGill Skillsets Framework for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.
What Questions Inspire Reflection and Action on Diversity?
By recognizing discrimination and bias in our communities, we can collectively take action to reduce and manage them while promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion. As a supervisor, you can take a leadership role in this process. Creating equitable, diverse, and inclusive communities results greater social cohesion, fruitful interactions, and creativity.
Examining Bias and Barriers
Promoting diversity, in part, means accepting that people from different cultures have valid ways of life, including ways of teaching and learning that might be unfamiliar but not necessarily less effective or meaningful. Unfortunately, within the context of equity, diversity, and inclusion, there are biases that can impede mentorship in the supervisory role. The mentorship role includes providing support in skill development, career exploration, providing feedback, networking opportunities, assistance in setting goals, and more. To help reduce bias, try reflecting on your respective backgrounds and how they may influence your ideas about the supervisor-supervisee relationship, including how you think you should work, communicate, and interact with each other. You are also encouraged to consider other concrete actions you can take as a supervisor to improve equity, diversity, and inclusion. Below are some questions for reflection for actively creating a supervisory dynamic that is fairer, more equitable, and less prone to bias.
Questions for Reflection:
- What factors shape your identity and how does that impact how you see and navigate the world?
- What are some of the systemic barriers that may exist for your supervisees and how can they impact their success (for example, international students and access to funding, students who are caregivers, students with accommodations)?
- In my supervisory role, are there ways in which you can minimize, remove, or reduce these barriers?
- Do you know what resources exist to support your supervisees in addressing equity, diversity, and inclusion issues?
- How can you minimize power imbalances and ensure that your role as supervisor/and or employer remains non-exploitative?
- How can you question, reduce, and manage my assumptions and implicit biases?