Outward Bound does not reflect society’s diversity – Martin Davidson

What do you see when you close your eyes and try to picture an outdoor education instructor? Chances are it would be a young, white, non-disabled, male. That ­corresponds quite closely to the ­profile of many of our current instructors, when, at the time of our staff survey, 80 per cent were male and white.

Young people on an Outward Bound course
Young people on an Outward Bound course

If we look more closely, none of the categories above are real prerequisites for the job. Being fit, surely is necessary? Yes, but as our Paralympians have shown us, you don’t ­necessarily need to be non-disabled to be ­physically fit.

Youth is another category we need to question. Although our ­bodies decline eventually, the experience and wisdom gained with age is a prized resource to be used and is as valuable in our profession as it is in others. When it comes to gender and ethnicity, is there any reason why women and people of colour shouldn’t excel as outdoor instructors? After all, they do just as well on our courses. So, something is ­happening here to work against a more diverse workforce. To improve diversity we’ve decided to open our mindset and review this issue.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

We have spent decades at the ­Outward Bound Trust developing young people’s potential through challenging adventures outdoors. We have devoted boundless energy to ensuring that we are reaching out to those who need us most. Our residential programmes are now populated equally by girls and boys. Around 15 per cent of young participants are from ethnic minority groups and we are making strides to reach young people who are carers and engage with youngsters from some of the most deprived areas of the country. During 2017, 82 per cent of schools we worked with utilised our bursary to enable their participation in our residential programmes.

The skilled instructors who run our programmes do not reflect the diversity of the groups we serve. We believe that greater diversity of staff could support increased impact for young people, and will help the trust to thrive as an organisation. Over the coming years we will be actively exploring this. We know that this is a wider issue within society today. We also know that as an organisation we are not consciously biased against any minority group.

Countless studies demonstrate how some people in society are negatively affected by the impacts of continued unconscious biases, particularly when it comes to employment and career pathways. Everything from initial career selection, advertising and recruitment, right through to training, progression and pay are shown to be affected.

A January 2019 study by the ­University of Oxford sadly found that applicants from minority ethnic backgrounds face ‘shocking’ levels of discrimination in the labour ­market and that this has not changed for more than 50 years.

We also know that bias is learned and can therefore be unlearned. Increasing understanding about some of the complexities of being human can help to ensure we are not sleep walking our way into unintended consequences.

Research shows us that having diverse role models encourages further diversity and improves ­self-image and aspirations for under-represented groups. A report by ­management consultancy firm ­McKinsey provides compelling ­evidence that having a more diverse workforce also benefits business and the economy, saying: “Companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. Companies in the bottom quartile in these dimensions are statistically less likely to achieve above-average returns.”

So, what are we actively doing to tackle this? We have gone right back to the educational principles we champion within our programmes, the learning pedagogies that make up the DNA of our courses.

Climbing mountains, jumping into lochs, scrambling through gorges – a whole host of challenging physical activities are used to engage young people during their time with us. These activities allow us to instil learning. Teaching young people to have a different view of themselves and their potential, moving from a ‘fixed’ to a ‘growth’ mindset.

This theory, developed by Carol Dweck, is based on the idea that ­intelligence and capability are not set in stone but can be developed through trial and error, challenges and experience. It encourages young people to believe that they can be ­better than they ever imagined.

So, over the next 18 months, we are applying a flexible mindset to our own workforce. We are putting time, energy and money into investigating our own unconscious biases. We are looking at and reviewing work ­practices that could improve diversity. We will consider how we can attract a higher number of applications from people from an ethnic minority background and female candidates onto our graduate development scheme by targeting university courses with higher representation, offering work placements and 50/50 male/female shortlisting.

Perhaps we can’t solve this ­complex societal problem ­overnight or alone but we are committed to change and to practising what we preach. We hope that by employing the kinds of skills we develop in our young people ourselves, we might become better than we ever imagined.

Martin Davidson, director of The Outward Bound Trust in Scotland.