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WHERS | World Higher Education Ranking Summit - Safety and inclusiveness in learning environments

UN Sustainable Development Goals

Safety and inclusiveness in learning environments

Dr. Rita Kakati-Shah

Award-Winning Gender, Diversity, Inclusion & Career Strategist | International Speaker | Author | Fortune 500 Adviser | Board Advisor | Founder & CEO, Uma | TV Show Host

February 22nd 2022 - United States

Promoting Safety and Inclusiveness in Learning Environments: Dr. Rita's Insights

Join us for an inspiring and informative talk by Dr. Rita as she discusses the vital role of education in creating safe and inclusive learning environments. Dr. Rita shares her personal journey, highlighting the challenges she faced as a minority, and how these experiences shaped her perspective on inclusion and belonging.

In this video, you'll explore:

  • Dr. Rita's journey from a diverse neighborhood to cosmopolitan academia and her corporate career.
  • The importance of fostering a safe learning environment and the impact of discrimination on student participation.
  • How inclusion and belonging are key factors in student success and retention.
  • Practical tactics for promoting higher education that focuses on safety, ethics, and empathy.
  • Dr. Rita's insights on the "decency quotient" and how it can enhance inclusivity.

Discover actionable strategies to empower your students and colleagues to thrive in educational settings. Don't miss this engaging discussion on building a more inclusive and supportive learning environment.

Speakers Info


Dr. Rita Kakati-Shah Founder & CEO at UMA

Rita Kakati-Shah is a distinguished figure in the world of gender, diversity, inclusion, and career strategy. As an accomplished speaker, author, and trusted advisor to Fortune 500 corporations, she has left an indelible mark on the global business landscape.

Session Script: Safety and inclusiveness in learning environments


Dr. Rita
Thank you so much for having me at this incredible conference. It's really an honour to be here. So today I'm going to be talking to you about the role of education in safety and inclusion.

So a little bit about the agenda that we're going to be talking about, I'll quickly go through my journey, and the different facets of inclusion that I've felt both personally and professionally to give you a highlight of the talk for today, then we're going to be looking at what constitutes a safe learning environment, and then the importance and inclusion and belonging, and then we're going to look at some tactics for higher education.

Dr. Rita’s Journey

So, to tell you a little bit about my journey, I was born and brought up in a suburb of London called horn church, my family is from a place called Assam, which is in the northeast of India. They moved to the UK, many moons ago and settled there. And my younger brother and I were born there in the UK. And when I grew up at the age of five, I remember my first discrimination experience that I realized something was going on, because I was the only brown girl in a very lily-white neighbourhood. And certainly, the only brown person in my school for many years until my younger brother came along a few years later. And I remember there was an example where I went to school and my at the time best friend asked me to eat grass. And I was taken aback and I thought, what do you mean? I said, well, you're Brown. And my parents said that people from your part of the world, that's what you eat. And I was taken aback that was my first slap on the cheek that wow, I felt different all of a sudden.

Me I had a bit of a mouth on me though. So I responded. So I don't I've never eaten anything off the ground, can you show me how it's done? And everybody started laughing around them. And that person promptly stopped doing that. But the point being is that when you are kids, you sometimes face examples of discrimination. But when your kids don't understand what they are, quite often it comes from somewhere else. It comes from a messaging that you've given at home, from your family, from parents, from peer groups, and from what you've seen in the media. And that is really what shapes you.

So that is what shaped me at the time thinking that was the first time I noticed, feeling different. Having said that, a week later, that same child, and maybe we were best friends again because that was all done and dusted and forgotten. And there must have been a different conversation that happened at home. But that still scarred me. You know that it's something that you remember forever. As I went through my formative years, I studied at King's College London, my alma mater, I did a master's in management there. And I currently am on the Advisory Council of King's business school. So, it's kind of gone full circle now. And I'm going to tell you that we've been in the heart of London was a very different experience for me because now you're in a cosmopolitan space. There are real folks that come from all over the world. And in that sense, I felt a lot more like a sense of belonging. It's that sense of belonging where you feel that this is your place, and I felt that it came. One thing I will say though is that I was the only Indian of Assamese origin there, and quite often, and here's the thing when other people think of regions around the world, they usually kind of pigeonhole you into these areas thinking oh, that person's has an Assamese background. Individually. I will tell you right now that most of the other Indians had never even heard of Assam, let alone even understood where it was on the map.

So, there was a lot of discrimination felt there as well, where they just almost said, Oh, I saw a tribal area is that where people eat food differently and have different sort of cuisines and they didn't mean it in a polite, inquisitive way. It was done really in a way that you felt discriminated against. So that came from a student perspective. And then later in life as you meet different professors or university folks there that were used to kind of teaching in a very older sort of archaic methodology. They're not often used to students having that empowered look when they come in from the UK as well, especially from Indian heritage. So, these are very, very different facets and backgrounds as well. I started my career after university, I left Goldman and I went into finance.

Bad experience of Presentation at a multinational bank

And I was at a multinational bank, Goldman Sachs. And I spent the next 10 years there, I was the only person on the equities trading floor that was a woman, a brand woman at the time. But here's the thing, I loved it. I didn't want to feel out of place because I went into this role understanding and wanting to understand what this meant, I wanted to explore I wanted to find out what this is all about. And I'm giving you this corporate example. Because when you think of education, you are thinking of the formative years, you are bringing up the next generation of movers and shakers change makers to go into roles later in life, whether its academia, whether it's the corporate world, whether it's a non-profit, whatever the industry is, you are shaping them.

To me, I was shaped to go into the financial but with a very inquisitive mind. And I loved the experiences I had because I wanted to learn. I remember this one example of where the first time I had to give a presentation at the morning meeting, and this was at 6:30 in the morning. And every day, every morning, somebody has to speak on the hoot the loudspeaker that goes on the trading floor with three trading ideas. I tried to do it, and I press the mute button. Once I figured it out. Nobody even listened to what I was saying. And I was like, Okay, that didn't happen. And then baby, the other people said, Oh that was a bit of a fail, wasn't it? Rita went back to my desk.

Improvements after presentation

I put myself on the roster for the next week. They were like, oh, are you sure about the return? Do you want to do that? But yes, I do. And here's the reason why I wanted to know why. I couldn't get my voice heard. I honestly didn't, it didn't even cross my mind. It was because I was a woman. I don't know, there's something there. I spent the next five, or six days observing how my other colleagues did this. Some were not very great to listen to others that were fascinating that everybody Pin dropped silent, when listened to. I, would watch their behavior. I would watch what they did their body language, how they said it, and what pet did they stand. What do they do with their hands? What is it about them that stood out to everybody else? So, I followed this, and I did the pursuit. And I realized that the three ideas, people have given were actually pretty good.

And I also noticed in that room in the morning, certain voices were louder, and some were quieter, people tended to listen to the louder voices. This same setting is true in the academic arena, too. You see some students that will put more hands up. And naturally, if you are in the teaching position, you may be more likely to pick those names who are looking around the room as an epic who has a voice to share. And so I looked around the room where I was and I thought okay, I want to do that came the morning it was I remember 5:45 am is when I got there to do my three research ideas for my next morning meeting. And I spoke to the three loud people that I had observed. And I asked each of them for one idea. And I did that. And then I went into my morning meeting, turn on the hoot.

I stood up this time. Yes, I was the shortest person and woman. You know, that could be because I was a woman I didn't know. But I'm so I stood up this time and I leaned forward. And I didn't say anything until the room was silent. It took a few seconds the room was silent. And then I started to speak. And my three ideas I gave credit to the three people I spoke the ideas what that meant was they wouldn't interrupt me that they applauded me when I mentioned their ideas, they it made them look good. It made me look good because they now supported me. And everybody listened. And from that moment onwards, I set my, stake on the trading floor and it became mine.

Rita in the pharmaceutical Industry

Similar to that I had so many examples in life where I thought okay, how do you get that sense of belonging? Why is it so important? Because if you don't feel that sense of belonging, you feel like it's not meant for you. And then it's a journey that is hard to take. Soon after I transitioned into the pharmaceutical industry. I was in business development which took me around the world. I now live in New York, which is where settled after I got married. And I have two small children, a seven and a nine-year-old. And when they were very young, I took about three and a half four years of tourism.

I have to tell you one thing out of all of the many roles I've ever been in whether it was in investment banking, whether it was in the pharmaceutical industry, or crossing multiple time zones at a time, nothing beat my journey of motherhood. It was not just 24/7 it was by far the toughest most challenging job I'd done. Don't ever take a sick day, it's nonstop, you're always on call.

Skills that Rita Learned

It's a Saturday morning, I want to have a line that doesn't work that way when you become a full-time parent and become a mom. So, things like that I learned a lot. But I also learned skills that I didn't learn when I was in the paid professional workforce. So, I very much called motherhood, a career, not a career break but a career because it very much was. And I was picking up skills of this specific career, communication, and negotiation, just to have the examples that I picked up and became so great up because of this new role of mine. But then fast forward three or four years when my kids were not old enough for me to kind of think about school, day-care, trust somebody to watch them during the day if I wasn't there. And I thought about what role I wanted to do. And I noticed there was a disconnect between this incredible pool of other fellow women and other minority groups that had taken some time for family for other reasons, whatever it was, and the paid workforce.

Empowerment journey

So I started Uma, really that empowerment journey to help women and minorities later on in life. So what is Uma? What is it that I do? So we have offices and a presence all over the world. And it is an international platform that works across academia that works across finance, and corporations, that helps to shape policy forums, in terms of empowering confidence, inspiring success, and building up leadership and resilience, specifically in the formative minds of the youth, girls, and minorities around the world. So that's what I do. For a living, I just released a book called The goddess of go-getting as well, specifically addressing my personal and professional journey as well, to talk about the issues of culture, corporate, academia, and empowerment as well.

Safe learning environments

Now we're going to be talking about safe learning environments. So here's a question that I want you all to ponder in the audience. Why do you even need a safe learning environment? So take a few seconds to think about that. What is it about? Do we all hear about safety? We all hear about it as being conducive to learning. But why? What is it about that? What is it the research shows? Why do we need this in the first place?

Why do you even need a safe learning environment?

Well, here's one thing that research shows students who don't feel like they're in a safe environment who have that fear, or afraid for whatever reason, they often don't go to school, they don't often go to the university, they stay away from the education environment. And if they stay away from that they can't get educated, they can't become that change maker later on. So that's the fundamental issue. Why do we even need to look for a safe learning environment?

So what does the safe learning environment focus on?

So what does the safe learning environment focus on? What is the reason we're even here today? What is the reason that's driving the focus of this conference? Well, I like to think of it as not just a balance of just one thing or another. But I like to think of it as a holistic, all-rounded balance of looking at Yes, academia, it's very, very important. Like, what are the grades that people are learning? Are they paying attention in class? What are they asking the right questions? How are they interested in taking? Are they putting their coursework in on time, things of academic achievement, but also equally, if not more important, it's also maintaining that learning standard, that ethical standard, as well, when you think of safety, safety isn't just about you know, can you defend yourself? Can you learn correctly, but what are the ethics that the university or the educational institution is promoting out there? Are they have a high ethical standard? Is there a code of conduct that protects the students, and the faculty in the universities and delivers to the best of their ability as well? Ultimately, what does this do?

A positive relationship between faculties

It fosters a positive relationship between faculty, the staff, and the students, between the learners and the movers and shakers of tomorrow. So this is fundamentally why this is so important, it seems to be a topic that we will talk about. But ultimately, this is the reason why we think of that. And one thing I wanted to mention is that we think of education as being just what the students do, what happens with faculty on campus, or hybrid, if for those institutions that are still running hybrid, or remote models now, but ultimately, it's got to be a holistic approach, again, of encouraging what happens in the home, what happens outside of the university to have that partnership together. The only way that safety that students that academia that learning will take place in its full format is if you encourage that full-on partnership between parental and community involvement as well. And that's very, very important to establish in this talk for today.

Sense of inclusion and belonging

Ultimately, if you feel a sense of inclusion and belonging, that's what matters. If you walk into an environment where you don't feel that sense of belonging. If you are so out of place, you don't feel that sense of community. That's the issue. And that's where you switch off. So rather what we're looking at is how you create that environment where students feel that warmth, that inclusion, and belonging, this is their place. So now let's look at inclusion and belonging, and take a few minutes. So I wanted to, again, ask you the question, why do you think people leave their environment, whether it's the work environment, whether it's the academic environment, whatever it is that something that you might be in a job, you might be a student in the classroom, you might be a student that is in a club, what makes you want to leave that environment that you're in? So, I have a few minutes to think about that examples, either yourself personally, or other people that you know, and what are those driving factors there.

What makes you want to leave that environment that you're in?

I'm going to share some stats with you now. So, one of them is a lack of trust. If people no longer trust their boss, trust the institute, trust their lecturer to deliver what they're taught to them. They're switched off, they might want to leave that environment. And from a study done by CareerBuilder. And this is something that you can stem across different industries. 58% of respondents cited lack of trust, as being the main reason, lack of appreciation.

Lack of appreciation
And this is something that we take for granted, more than we think if you don't feel valued, if you don't feel appreciated for who you are, and the impact or the vision that you're sharing, or the voice that you have, you're going to switch off. And unfortunately, this gets noticed when it's too late. Quite often when someone feels much undervalued, they switch off. And then if you dangle a golden carrot if you offer someone a pay rise, or you offer someone, even a promotion, the damage is already done. So you want to be able to get that advanced, to get that appreciation, that sense of belonging early on in that cycle. Research shows that 79%, that's over three-quarters of people, and sites, leave their environment because of feeling under-appreciated.

Cite discrimination

And of that figure 79%, a 37% cite discrimination, they felt some sort of discrimination as their reason for leaving that environment. So the next slide I wanted to share with you is the types of forms of discrimination. Now, this is taken from the workplace situation. But it's very transferable. Because remember, whether you're in academia, whether you're in a different industry, whether it's a policy or not fits a corporate environment. Ultimately, at some point, you are in some sort of a workplace. And these are different elements that can stem across, as you can see here, that if you cannot follow this, this line diagram, retaliation is where people feel that you know somebody's you know, battling heads with them.

And there's a tactic for that environment where two people don't see eye to eye, that can come in at almost 50%. And that's what people cite, race. Another important thing is when people don't understand or value the background you bring with you. And that background could be race, it could be physical ability, whether you have a disability of some sort, it could be your gender, it could be whether you're male or female, or however you identify. And that's something that people feel they can be discriminated against your age.

Academic environment

Don't forget, in the academic environment, you have students that come up naturally through, you know, through school, through university, but you also have postgraduates, you have people that come on later in life to study after they've been in the work environment for a bit, or they decided that you know what, it's a dream I've accomplished what I have, I'm coming in later in life to do a postgraduate or some sort of academic study. And that's important to know that age plays a factor there.

Country of origin

Your country of origin, where did you come from? It's an accent that you bring with you is a certain cultural or environmental nuance that you bring with you. This is something that people have cited as feeling discriminated against as well. What is your religious background? Or the practice that you have? And what about your skin tone? These are all things that are actual examples of discrimination that people have cited in studies out there. So, what I wanted to share now is based upon that, so what have we looked at? We've looked at what constitutes a safe environment that we're talking about today.

What constitutes the importance of inclusion and belonging?

What constitutes the importance of inclusion and belonging? Why do we even need to feel that? What does it look like in terms of research and what are the statistics and the data out there? And now we're going to look at some tactics of really enforcing this higher education, inclusion and belonging, and safety in the environment. So, some exploration is what we've just spoken about is instilling that said it’s a community and belonging. Remember, ultimately, what is diversity equity inclusion about? It's a great buzz theme right now. I've been in space since the early 2000s. I when it wasn't even called that. But it certainly is now that ultimately, if you feel that sense of belonging you feel in a place that can make the difference. I'm going to share with you another story from my childhood to hone the point here. So I gave you the example of when I was five years old. And I had the example of really where I was made to feel like I was the darkest person in the room in terms of skin tone.

The other example was when I was a child, so my parents, my mom, in particular, wanted me to learn classical Indian dancing. So she signed me up for power to Natyam classes at the weekends. Now part of our team is a dance form from South India, from the Dravidian, part of India where the skin tone is naturally a little bit darker than my skin tone, which is very North-eastern in complexion. And when I went to my dance classes at the weekend, all of a sudden, nobody would talk to me again, this time because I was the fairest person in the room. So I all of a sudden felt, where do I belong exactly? I was young, when this was all taking place. It was a confusing time, I had to tell you, during the week, on Sunday, the darkest at the weekend, I was the fairest. I'm like, whoa, what's going on here?

Being Minority

But one thing it does two things, actually, one, when you have that loss, you think where do I belong? So you're always skirting here and there. One thing when you are in that minority category, and I like to categorize minority has been anybody who is the lesser of that particular environment. So, in my case, I was the only person of that fairer skin tone. At the weekend, during the week, I was a dark one, you could be a minority if you were vegetarian, and you were in a room full of meat eaters, and you are in a minority.

The point is everybody, at some point has felt that situation where you haven't fully felt that you've been in that sense, two things can happen. When I was younger, and other people of minority backgrounds, when they feel this, when you're younger, you develop an insane tolerance for empathy, when you're because you're the one who's always trying to fit in, you don't realize that's what you're doing and the age of five or six years old, but that's what you're doing. And you build an ability to converse with and get into other groups a lot easier. So, you kind of has that situation there where you're forcing yourself to feel that sense of belonging and that community. So, you have very, very different experiences and facets there. Because if you don't have that, then it's that cold feeling. And we've all felt that to think of how that feels when you are the only author. And then what can you do to help others feel that sense of belonging? If you are in a room and you notice you are only vegetarian in the room? How can you sort of make sure they feel part of the conversation? What can you do to prepare for them as well, when they come into the room?

This is something I like to talk about the decency question. So think about 20-30 years ago, when we were all measured by our IQ or intelligence question, whether it's for a job, whether in the school setting, we were measured by questions to measure what is our level of IQ. Fast forward a decade or so after that, then EQ was the buzzword, it still is in lots of different ways your emotional quotient, and your ability to understand others. I like to think about these days in this day and age, the decency precaution. And that's a bit of a combination of the IQ and EQ. The decency quotient is a combination of this genuine desire to do right by others when you are trying to make an inclusive environment for others.

How are you genuinely trying to help others?

How are you genuinely trying to help others? What are you doing to help somebody else? Not just on paper? But what are you doing? Are you going out of your way to talk to that vegetarian in the room? If you are having a party, a cocktail evening, and there is a pregnant lady in the room? Have you made sure there are soft drinks that she can drink or whatever, you know if there's an environment for religious backgrounds, where people just don't always have the same food preferences or drink preferences, what are you doing to ensure that everyone feels that sense of belonging? Decency quotient, how are you chaperoning championing, mentoring people in your teams in your classes, to train people in your classes to make sure everybody feels those voices are heard in the room? So this is an onus that you can look at to increase your DQ.

Something else is about listening to folks. If you give lectures if your tutor is a professor in an academic facility, are you listening, not just watching the room but listening to folks around you? Some people are going to put their hands up more often than others. I gave you the example earlier on and even equated it back to the trading floor. It happens everywhere in life. But are you observing the room? Are you reading the room who is it out there that you know has a voice that may yet not have the confidence, how do you help them without calling them out, but doing the way to say so and so, I noticed that you handed in a paper talking about this topic, we'd love to hear from you if you could share something on this. So, things like that can help bring things out this also exercise empathy as well.


When we talk about communication. And this is an example I go back to motherhood myself, when we talk about communication, we very, very much think about what do you do to do you stand in front of a room, you give a presentation, but what do you do else, and that I found out myself at empathy, listening, reading the room, understanding cues, visual cues, nonverbal cues are just as if not more important, these are things that you can do, measuring the MSN, I like to think of all of what I talked about has been rules of the playground, to lead this example. So, I've taken a lot of these examples from the book that I mentioned, it's called the goddess of go getting that me I don't know if you can see my screen. It's called the goddess of a good getting and it is an example for academic institutions, for companies out there, for students, for professors, for leaders of companies to look and it talks about how you can envisage confident leadership to get that success on the ground was the playground talks about when folks are younger, what do you do to allow people to fall over get scraped and pick themselves up to build up the skills to really helped fight their case as well in inclusion and belonging to have their voice to build that confidence? What can you do to help your students build up on the rules of the program so they can succeed later on in life? So, I just wanted to share that with you. And on that note, thank you so much for the presentation.

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