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University of East London hosts 5th annual Global Equality and Diversity Conference 

Students in Stratford library

Conference celebrates progress but highlights areas which still need improvement

The Noon Centre for Equality and Diversity in Business at the University of East London (UEL) hosted its 5th Global Equality and Diversity (GED) Conference on 22 November.

The day brought specialists from academia, charities, and the public and private sectors to the Crowne Plaza Hotel on Royal Victoria Dock in east London.for discussions and workshops on equality, diversity, and inclusion.

The conference was chaired by Afua Hirsch, the noted media commentator, journalist, author and barrister. 

Alasdair MacDonald, director of programmes at the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, gave the morning keynote presentation, ‘Is Britain Fairer: The state of equality in Britain'.

He said, “Britain is in danger of becoming a ‘two-speed society’ with some groups being forgotten and trapped.  

“Prospects for some ethnic minorities, and children from poorer backgrounds worsened in many areas of life. People with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed, in low-paid jobs, have poorer health, be unable to access suitable housing, and are increasingly excluded from education.”

Mr MacDonald said that access to justice is also a concern, in light of recent closures of courts and cuts to legal aid for poor people.

However, he was upbeat about more ethnic minorities and people from disadvantaged areas getting degrees, and more women in higher-pay occupations.

Gail May, director of civic engagement at UEL, said, “Alasdair MacDonald set the scene brilliantly by describing where progress on equality has been made, while highlighting how uneven this progress has been and where people with a range of protected characteristics continue to be disadvantaged in terms of access to jobs, higher education, health, homes and personal security.  

“At UEL we’re working hard to be truly inclusive by providing pathways through higher education into highly skilled employment, including through our outreach in east London and our New Beginnings programme, which helps people from disadvantaged backgrounds enter university. 

“Our mentoring, volunteering, placements, student support services and employer and community engagement offerings are designed to reach, connect and support all our students to achieve.”

The afternoon's keynote speaker, Caroline Harper, chief executive officer of the international charity Sightsavers, highlighted concerns around inclusion of people with disabilities. The charity works in low and middle-income countries to treat and prevent eye conditions and neglected tropical diseases. It also campaigns for disability rights.

Ms Harper said, “We in the charity were clear about our mission and work, but we needed to think and take a look at how inclusive our own working environment was for people with disabilities. A staff survey revealed there was some improvement needed.” 

She cited the example of Kate, a Sightsavers employee with a disability. Kate was initially given somewhat simple tasks such as opening the mail. But, Caroline said, “We found that people with disabilities were often given token jobs to do.

"Now, Kate writes blogs for us, carries out public speaking engagements, organises social events, and attends board-level meetings to be a voice for staff with disabilities.” 

Other speakers at the conference included Dr Omar Khan, director of the Runnymede Trust; Tonya Antonis, Chief Superintendent, County Policing Commander, Suffolk Constabulary; and Sanchia Alasia, Mayor of Barking and Dagenham. 

The conference also featured workshop sessions covering parenting and work, age-friendly employers, and domestic and faith-based abuse.. Awards were handed out which recognised the equality, diversity, and inclusion achievements of companies and organisations.