Difficult but not impossible – Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Brussels

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Right-wing extremism research Judith Rahner spoke with EURACTIV Germany about an upsurge in coronavirus-related racism that could persist long-term. [Shutterstock | Sybille Reuter]

It has been a year since George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, sparking global protests and renewed demands for the recognition of equality. What progress has Europe made on diversity? Corinna Horst, Audrey Flore-Ngomsik and Emma Rainey take a closer look.

Corinna Horst is Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund, Audrey Flore-Ngomsik is CEO at Trianon Scientific Communication, Emma Rainey is Project Coordinator at the Brussels Binder Beyond. All three of them are volunteers at the Brussels Binder.

This month, the European Commission organised several activities within its “European Diversity Month” demonstrating the institution’s commitment to fight discrimination and promote diverse and inclusive workplaces.

The Black Lives Matter movement in the US has struck a new chord in Europe, – as well as US President Biden’s new diverse administration. Europe is realizing that being just gender inclusive is no longer enough.

The global events over the past year have shown that the bar has been raised to make policy-shaping and -making more diverse and inclusive. But what does it mean in practice? With Europe trying to set an example in many policy areas, does Brussels know how to be inclusive?

Since the launch of The Brussels Binder in 2017, our mission has been to provide an equal level playing field to women policy experts and ensure that they are visible in policy debates.  Women, while they are not a minority in numbers, have nevertheless been marginalized.

Yet, there has been an increasing awareness that excluding women is no longer acceptable. And this awareness has also begun to extend to mean other diversity indicators of European societies.

Therefore, the BB decided to embark on a journey to assess how we were doing on diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) by conducting an internal survey of our team of 60 volunteers.

We advocate to organizations to implement meaningful diversity, equity & inclusion (DE&I) strategies to promote gender inclusion; however, reflections over the past year have prompted us to ask ourselves how diverse and inclusive we are as an organization.

According to the internal survey (65% response rate), we learned that the prototype of a BB volunteer is a white (82%), heterosexual (87%) woman (97%) between the age of 25-35 years (53%) with no disability (92%) and no particularly strong religious affiliation (64%).

Given this dominance, as we are trying to increase the number of women on panels, were our efforts in essence only elevating white women? A quick glance on the pictures of profiles in the BB database – which by now includes over 1700 entries – confirms the assumption: most women registered are white.

It seems that our unconscious biases have contributed to upholding dominant structures existing in the Brussels policy bubbles.

The BB volunteer’s diversity in terms of age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability and religion, comes in at around 10%.

The only area where The Brussels Binder volunteer group was doing better was national diversity: 13 European nationalities were represented in addition to Canadian, American, Ukrainian, Chinese, and Turkish. It is one diversity that is well accepted in Brussels given the plurality of the member states in the European Union.

Yet, 76% of the BB volunteers are coming from urban areas, 70% identify with the middle class and 92% have a master’s degree or higher. So, we are falling short. And as one of the few BB volunteers of a minority background confirmed, members of marginalized groups most likely do not feel welcome.

While the survey results revealed the perception among volunteers of our leadership as being supportive of DE&I values and having a sense of commitment (around 70% respectively), however, only 51% of the respondents were sure about the real sensitivity and awareness about different cultural and social identities.

This was also indicated during an outreach to experts registered in the BB database in 2020.

Just like many other entities in Brussels, even the BB has some work to do in reflecting how the changing political context is affecting its own business model. We want to create opportunities to include marginalized women within its group of experts.

But that means we need to be inclusive in the recruitment of volunteers, board members, paid consultants of talented underrepresented groups.

The BB leadership is considering in-house trainings, a co-creation process to build a shared organizational identity and value proposition, a charter of values for volunteers to sign on, as well as encouraging internal discussions on DE&I. In addition, the organization plans to revisit its recruitment outreach as well as internal decision-making, governance, and leadership structures to be more transparent and inclusive.

The BB has always been about providing practical tools, so this effort is as much about commitments as it is about practice. Which means that every single volunteer is doing their part in making the organization an effective player in town.

As one respondent wrote: “We need to start practising what we preach by seeing gender beyond the white “female” perspective by making diversity and inclusion visible and meaningful internally as well as externally.”

With the European Diversity Month coming to an end, the real work starts now.  A crucial question remains: Is our predominantly white middle-class appearance the result of our own approach or are there other factors at play as well?

Asking our own members/volunteers is a first step. But we also need to engage with those whom we found underrepresented in our group.

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