On Inclusion: An interview with Prof. Dr. Ella Roininen – Part 1

I interviewed Ella (image below) on the topic inclusion, according to her personal views but also in her function as Professor of International Management with focus on Gender, Diversity and Inclusion and the Equal Opportunities and Diversity and Equal Opportunities Commissioner for Karlshochschule.

In this interview Ella will talk about what inclusion means to her, her personal experiences as well as how inclusion is lived at Karls. Furthermore, she reflected upon societal and individual acts of inclusion, how to make it work or what to look out for when it comes to the topic of inclusion.

Int: How would you personally define inclusion?

Ella: Here I quote authors Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy: “Diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice, and belonging is having that voice be heard.” Inclusion to me means that people feel that they belong to their environment, in this setting are enabled and feel comfortable to express themselves, and by doing this, can make a contribution in that they are getting heard and valued for who they are and what they are saying. In other words, this means that everybody in the diverse community gets to be an active participant of that community.

Int: If you think about the topic of inclusion, what do you think is most important?

Ella: To me personally, the topic of inclusion strongly relates to the concept of voice, as shown above. Voice means empowering oneself but also behaving in an empowering manner towards other people. Been empowered in this context means feeling encouraged to be oneself and via one’s demeanour encouraging others to be themselves. If we think of a classroom setting, the easiest way to empower people is to notice and be respectful of them, give them the space to express themselves, and hear them out when they want to contribute. It also means to actively make peoples’ contribution visible by joining the conversation, asking questions and trying to give due attention and representation to different people. On the other hand, the easiest way to include oneself is to make yourself relevant. Taking a seat in the front, joining the conversation, asking questions, being a good advocate of oneself – and knowing that your stuff is valid and important!

This doesn’t mean one is expected to be an extrovert, always promoting oneself, or actively participating in everything. Rather, that everyone gets to find their own way to contribute. The main thing is that we feel: “I belong here and I have a contribution to make. I’ve been given my unique voice – through my personality, live experiences, skills and knowledges I learn – so that I can talk about topics that are dear to me.” Voice of course meaning not just the spoken expression, but what I as a person represent and bring to the world.

A sense of belonging within a community or society is an essential element for inclusion. Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Int: Now you already spoke about certain parties being affected by inclusion, speaking about peoples themselves, but what other parts of society are effected by inclusion and its concept?

Ella: So, for this question I want to talk about structures that prevent people from fully participating in society’s functions. Take lack of representation, for instance. Different groups of people can be excluded from bodies of power through socialisation, that is, normalising belief systems by which we view is as normal and natural that some groups of people have more say and resources in society than others. If we such norms exist in our heads, we have already at the outset decided to apply different standards to different people, including the standards we apply to ourselves. This would affect whom we choose as leaders, experts and other sorts of spokespersons to represent us. The norms in our head can become physical barriers, too. Restricted access to education to people with disabilities or to work to people with a refugee status, financial penalties if you don’t fit into the heteronormative family pattern, lacking child care opportunities to single parents, biases in recruiting, and so forth. All these create, or on the other hand, rob people of opportunities, rendering the norm person – the white, able-bodied, straight male or at least cis-gender, neuro-typical person – visible, making it easier for them to strive in life, than a person who deviates from this norm. So in a nutshell, society’s structures, systems, institutions as well as its different cultural sites, such as media, reproduce inclusion or exclusion of different groups of people in countless ways.

Int: Since you came to Germany, as a “foreigner” how did you experience Germany based on your experiences here. Would you say Germany is an open and inclusive country nowadays?

Ella: Based on my experience, which is the experience of a person that fits to lot of the above-mentioned norms in Germany, I’d say I have had a pretty easy ride. People mostly wouldn’t even think of me as a non-native until they hear my accent, and even then I’ve been from the start able to express myself in German. I mostly haven’t had the feeling of not being included or not be welcomed. It has to be toned that there are many privilege factors affecting this experience. Also, as I came from Finland but lived a long time in another German speaking country, the German side of Switzerland, and spent time with many German people, I already knew a lot about the society and the codes of behaviour in the country, which certainly hasn’t been the case in every place I went to live in.

Int: Did you ever have an experience of exclusion in your life or negative inclusion?

Ella: I do have the constant experience of being non-native to a society I live in. I don’t feel like being German or Swiss, although having lived in these countries for a long time. I lived in several other countries as well, and always felt Finnish. I think everyone feels their roots in their own way, which cannot be generalised into any nationality type, and successful integration of course doesn’t mean that the person loses this sense of where they are from. So I feel my “Finnishness” but at the same time I don’t feel foreign to the places I live in. I like this ambiguous position and it is in fact one of the reasons why I always wanted to live abroad. I enjoy being a little bit of an outsider to the society I live in. In this position, I am more observant and better able to choose what norms or practices I want to participate in. However, again I want to emphasise that this is a privilege that my identity and social position enable me to have, and by far not everyone who has emigrated their home country have the same choices of positioning themselves in relation to their new home country as I have. And of course this position also brings downsides, such as never fully feeling the belonging to where you are, kind of floating and not having a home. Sometimes feeling excluded. Sometimes loneliness, too.

In respect to negative inclusion, I think you mean exclusion. I could come up with a bunch of anecdotes here, mainly related to gender, which many students also know from my lectures. In many phases of my life, I’ve on my own navigated within patriarchal structures, in the working and private life. This means swimming against the current in bigger and smaller ways. But I think those who have the courage to swim the rapids change the world, and I always wanted to be part of that change, at every level whether its my identity or what I do for work. I find it exciting and at the same time an urgent necessity.

Int: Now you started to speak about gender in relation to inclusion. So, do you still think that there is a lot of exclusion going on, when it comes to the topic of gender.

Ella: In any case. Gendered, as well as racists, ableist and ageists, processes can be found at any work place. They are part of our lifestyle. If I talk about my own working experience, it’s about being a cis-woman in work places where hegemonic masculinity would demonstrate as the norm way of being. In such settings, there can be gendered processes, such as the use of gendered language or male bonding, or affinity biases, pattern matching for instance. It’s sometimes hard to put one’s finger on those things and address their marginalising effect. Sexual harassment has been a typical experience, too, especially earlier. This is, needless to say, highly detrimental to one’s sense of belonging and having the space to grow. Also we are all individuals with different default settings, and something those are not what fits into the ‘ideal’ worker or leader. They affect our working lives and careers through the experiences we and choices we make in life. 

I have been lucky to be able to choose working places in which I feel fairly free to be who I am, and leave those that cross my boundaries and inhibit my growth, behind. This is my message to the students, too: If you are in an environment where you have the choice to choose where you work, you don’t have to put up with bad behaviour. There are alternatives, firms that protect their employees and want to question their own biases and act equal. There are more and more of them, one could even say that a generational change is taking place. Likewise, there are institutions that tolerate the opposite behaviour. In the former, we are much more likely to be able to be able to use our voice and make a contribution, in the latter, our well-being will be compromised.

Thanks to the debates raised by the #metoo and BLM movements, we are experiencing a drastic rise in critical awareness of what it means to be suppressed based on one’s group membership. People are who like to think of themselves as civilised are less likely to present themselves as racist or sexist or some other way exclusive. But for sure more subtle or maybe even unintentional ways of excluding people remain, which need to be talked about. Equality as a topic has not a sell-by date. As we know, it can be quickly deteriorated, so we need to keep moving even to stay where we are now.

Int: How would you see your role as Professor of International Management with focus on Gender, Diversity and Inclusion, but also as the Diversity and Equal Opportunities Commissioner at the Karls when it comes to inclusion?

Ella: There are so many levels to this. As an educator it is the classroom instruction, sharing the theoretical knowledge, helping students to apply the theories, and sharing my business experience and over time developed insights on the topic. It’s about encouraging the students to develop their awareness and understanding on inclusion, and adopt this as part of their everyday lives. And of course I am always happy when a student decides to conduct a research project on diversity and inclusion, and when students take ownership of the topics we talk about in the classroom and start creating their own extracurricular projects and educational events around them.

When it comes to my role as the Diversity and Equal Opportunities Commissioner at Karls, I see a big part of my role as bringing visibility to different topics related to diversity and difference, at the identity level, as what it means to the diverse members of our community at Karlshochschule, at the institutional level, and even at the community and societal level. For instance, we have teamed up with the Karlsruhe Disability Council to educate ourselves on accessibility, and through our policies and student initiatives we address a range of topics, such as gender, race, mental wellbeing, learning barriers, and LGBTQIA+. I want different people to get heard and I want to normalise discussing topics related to power, discrimination and marginalisation, and of course keep entering into constructive dialogue on these topics and together with everyone at Karls create a place for innovative solutions.   

To make inclusion possible, different groups, especially marginalized groups, their specific needs and the current social barriers that need to be considered. Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Furthermore, our practices and policies are in my radar. This means ensuring that we as an institution are constantly up to our imperative to be inclusive. For example, using gender-neutral language in all our written materials is such a policy. Examples of inclusive practices are ensuring that our partner universities fulfil certain ethical standards before entering into contracts with them, or monitoring possible biases in staff and student selection processes. Following up on hate speech and cases of harassment are important activities, too. Or us setting up mental health support systems, as well as further systems and initiatives to reduce visible and invisible barriers to strive at our university.

And lastly, there is the aspect of resources. This means ensuring that we have the leadership, expert and time resources to deal with all of the above. Professors who work with postcolonial, feminist or queer theories, for example, is a critical resource in this sense. Being able to create transformative educational programs is another one. We also need time and money to organise training events for students and staff, to research, publish and network. This is all part of the inclusive, ethics of care mindset, which is at the centre to me.

As you can see, there are many different sides to how I, my colleagues and the Karls students work towards inclusion. Different fronts have to be attended simultaneously, and basically the work never ends. That’s the beauty of it, too: to work on something constantly evolving, being able to put the theory into practice and the practice into theory.

In the second part of this inclusion blog series, Professor Ella and I will go deeper into applying the concept of inclusion at the individual and societal level. Until next time!

Article by Sven Lohmeier *SLO – International Business, 5th semester (KarlsStorytellers

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  1. Pingback: On Inclusion: An interview with Prof. Dr. Ella Roininen – Part 2 | Blog Karlshochschule

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