Older Academics: A question of equity and age:

A black and white portrait of Albert Einstein.The university sector has an ageing workforce. But are older academics encouraged to stay on, and if so, are they treated with equity? This is an important question in the context of a higher education institutions in a competitive global market.

A qualitative study of older academics revealed that older academics are not treated equitably by management. There is an emphasis on “performance” but no investment in it. The main human resource strategy for older academics seems to be pre-retirement planning. So there are two issues: performance evaluation and age management.

The study was carried out by Catherine Earl, Philip Taylor and Fabian Cannizzo who discuss the role of corporate objectives in the employment of older academics. They conclude that the ad hoc nature of retirement planning has perpetuated stereotypes of older academics. It puts pressure on individuals to avoid discrimination by making sure they “perform” well. Both the institutions and the academics are vulnerable in this global climate and an equitable solution needs to be found.

The title of the paper is, “Regardless of Age”: Australian University Managers’ Attitudes and Practices Towards Older Academics

Abstract: As with other industrialized nations Australia’s population is aging and older workers are encouraged to work for longer. At the same time, Australia’s university sector, which is aging, is being reconfigured through changes that potentially marginalize its older workers as higher education institutions try to become more competitive in a global market. In this context, youthfulness appears to embody competitiveness and academic institutions are increasingly aspiring to a young workforce profile. This qualitative article builds on previous research to explore to what extent ageist assumptions shape attitudes to older workers and human resource management (HRM) practices within Australian universities even when HRM practitioners are well versed in antidiscrimination legislation that (unlike the Age Discrimination in Employment Act in the United States) applies to workers of all ages. Semistructured interviews conducted with 22 HRM practitioners in Australian universities reveal that university HRM practices generally overlook the value of retaining an older workforce by conflating “potential” with “youthfulness,” assuming that staff potential and performance share a negative correlation with age. While mostly lower-ranked institutions have attempted to retain older academics to maintain an adequate labor supply, this study finds that university policies targeting the ongoing utilization of older workers generally are underdeveloped. Consequently, the availability of late career employment arrangements is dependent upon institutions’ strategic goals, with favorable ad hoc solutions offered to academics with outstanding performance records, while a rhetoric of performance decline threatens to marginalize older academic researchers and teachers more generally.

Editor’s note: Professor Philip Taylor is a CUDA board member.

Can the construction industry be inclusive?

Two construction men sitting at a table look at a complex engineering diagram.There’s an assumption that you can’t be a construction worker if you have a disability. So it’s no use recruiting them. Yet this industry has its fair share of permanently injured workers. Many access consultants also have a disability, so the assumption doesn’t hold.

At last someone has joined the dots in The Fifth Estate article, Yes, wheelchair users can work in construction. Working in construction is not all about climbing ladders and working in confined spaces, says Jonathan Fritsch. The article is about seeing the opportunities for people with disability. The construction industry employs over one million people. There are many jobs that don’t require ladders and heavy lifting. And not every role is onsite. But like most recruiting companies, they place people with disability at the bottom of the employability scale. 

Employing people with disability within the industry should now be an imperative. The NDIS has brought the lack of accessible housing and public buildings to the fore. Including people with disabilities of all types seems to be a no-brainer now.

The full title of the article by Jonathan Fritsch is, Yes, wheelchair users can work in construction. Let’s see this as an opportunity.  

 

Returning to work with universal design

A modern office with lots of space and workstations by windows.Returning to work post-pandemic might be a bit scary. A useful article addressing the psycho-social issues discusses universal design as a wellbeing solution. That is, to place equal weight on the wellbeing of all employees.

Against the backdrop of COVID-19, Bonnie Sanborn argues that universal design principles increase employees’ perception of being valued at work. For example, adjustable workstations and social spaces with easy access for all employees. Being able to freely express concerns and ideas without fear of reprisals gives a sense of psychological safety.

Suggestions include creating layouts where all employees have equal access to the best views. This might mean allocating this space as a common area. A blanket standard for ergonomic features on furnishing might sound equal but doesn’t cater for differing needs. Giving people the right tools and equipment for the job shows the boss understands the nature of their job. 

The article, The Psychology of Returning to the Office: How Design Helps, discusses these factors and more. There is a reference list at the end.

 

Barriers to employing autistic adults

Logo for Aspect CapableIf there is a supportive environment, many autistic people could be employed. Indeed, they could flourish and be an asset to the workplace. Employers need to know what sort of adjustments are needed so they can reach their potential. Often they are really simple, particularly if thinking from a universal design perspective. An interesting and informative article from London South Bank University covers the topic comprehensively. The open access article can be downloaded in Word from the university website. The title of the article is “Identifying and Addressing Barriers to Employment of Autistic Adults”. In the UK they have The Equality Act and The Autism Act which emphasise access to work. Good to see this topic being covered.

Aspect Capable website has more information on a Australian initiative and the video shows how autistic people can achieve in the workplace.

From diversity to inclusion at work

A mosaic of many different faces and nationalitiesThere’s no one right way to measure workplace diversity and business performance. According to a systematic review, equality and diversity need to be “embedded in the business strategy, not treated as an ad-hoc addition”.

Consistent with all universal design thinking – it has to be thought of from the outset.  Then thought about throughout the design process, whether it is a building, a service or a business policy and strategy. The research was commissioned by the Design Council. The findings make for interesting reading because they discuss the benefits as well as some of the drawbacks that need managing along the way. There are several references to original research included in the article. 

Here is a quote from the Design Council report:

“Benefits of diversity and inclusion are found to include: reduced costs; improved resourcing of talented personnel; better products and services; enhanced corporate image; improved creativity and problem-solving; better decision making; innovation; greater flexibility; increased productivity; improved organisational performance and efficiency; enhanced trust in relationships, satisfaction and commitment within the workforce; and improved customer relations and service delivery.” (Rohwerder, 2017, p.2)

Diversity and inclusion needs to be managed well. If not, it can lead to conflict and loss of productivity. However, some research suggests that a difficult start can still lead to productive results in the longer term. Hence, diversity becomes the norm for an inclusive workplace.

Open Plan Offices: What’s the verdict?

Looking down into a large open plan office with desks and partitionsThe debate about whether open plan offices make good places to work continues. A team of Harvard researchers found that they weren’t. But it seems they were looking at the extreme of open plan, and poorly designed at that. In defense of open plan design, architect Ashley L Dunn argues that the Harvard study chose offices where there were no partitions and no separate meeting rooms or places for private conversations. These are elements that make open plan effective. You can read more from Dunn in the FastCompany article. By chance, most open plan designs end up being more accessible for people using wheeled mobility devices. Toilets and staff rooms might be another matter though.

It would be good to see an article such as this also tackle issues of inclusion and accessibility in office design, particularly for people who for example, are deaf or hard of hearing, have back pain, or have low vision. Some solutions are simple such as moving clutter from walkways. The video below from the Rick Hansen Foundation shows how simple things make a big difference – it doesn’t have to be perfect.

 

Employment articles

An older man carries a briefcase and looks in the window of a commercial building. A younger blonde woman carries a large red bag and is wearing a blue suit.The Financial Times has featured several reports on employment and disability. One of the articles asks employers to give themselves a chance to find hidden talents. Written by Lord Blunkett, past Work and Pensions Secretary in the Blair Government, it shows the importance of having champions at high levels of decision making. When it comes to budgets, disability is too often seen as a cost – and a cost that can be easily deleted. Lord Blunkett was there to make sure that didn’t happen under his watch. There are several articles and reports in this series on the modern workplace and disability, including flexible attitudes, and workplace adaptations.