Deborah Ashby outlines RSS plans to promote equality, diversity and inclusion

At our 2020 Conference, RSS President Professor Deborah Ashby gave a speech where she outlined four steps that the RSS will take to fight racism and discrimination, and to promote equality, diversity and inclusion.

Watch the speech here:

Here is a transcript of the speech in full:

Before we begin the final day, I want to talk about a subject that is important to me, to the Royal Statistical Society, and to the discipline of statistics as a whole: what we can do to fight racism and discrimination, and to promote equality, diversity and inclusion.

Over the past months, I have been deeply moved by the Black Lives Matter protests that have taken place in the US and subsequently around the world. I am so saddened by the deep and damaging injustices that have caused them. I live in central Westminster in London, so saw first-hand the huge strength of feeling here. Personally I didn’t join those protests, because of Covid. But did think about what response I could make, and what the Royal Statistical Society could make. 

In June, after reflecting carefully, especially after realising what a key role that statistics can play, I made a statement. I said I wanted to make equality, diversity and inclusion a priority for the rest of my presidency. Today I’d like to set out the steps we are taking and will take to make this a reality – and crucially I want to invite you to join me because I cannot do this alone.

There are four areas I would like to focus on:

  • Promoting diversity and inclusion among the statistical community and the Society’s membership
  • Promoting diversity and inclusion in the Society’s staff and operations
  • Discussing the historical relationship between statistics and racism and discrimination – and to confront the malign role that statistics has sometimes played
  • Looking at how we can make better use of statistics today to tackle racism and discrimination, and build a better future

Let me say a little about each of these in turn.

First of all, our membership. We have been working on this for a while. It is important that the community of statisticians should be inclusive and welcoming and reflect the diversity of the society we serve. We know we have more work to do in this respect, not least at RSS HQ. We have put in place a new membership database that will allow us to understand properly the ethnic diversity of the Society’s members. If we can’t collect good data about our membership, who can? And we are now working to increase the diversity of members taking on leadership roles in the Society, its sections and local groups, and among our award-winners and grant recipients, and I’ll finish by saying what you can do to help with that.

The Society’s staff and operations will also be changing. Last year, we embarked on a benchmarking process with other learned societies to understand the shortcomings in our processes. A staff working group is now acting on the recommendations, from making our events more inclusive to changing our staff recruitment processes to reduce the risk of discrimination.

It is also time we assessed again the history of statistics as a discipline. Angela Saini’s brilliant talk at this conference on Tuesday drew attention to the connections between some of the founding figures of the field of statistics with eugenics and racism. To some of you, this may have been quite new, while others will recognise it as a long-running debate. My first task as President last year was to submit our response to the UCL enquiry in that area. I am not proposing that statisticians stop using Analysis of Variance because of Ronald Fisher’s vocal support for eugenics and racist views of genetics. But people have been trying to distinguish between the work and the man. Rothamsted have renamed Fisher Court Analysis of Variance Court. There has been a Twitter discussion from statisticians who have suggested that we don’t use Fisher’s Iris dataset, because it was published in the Annals of Eugenics, and maybe we should be using others. There was a successful campaign to rename the Fisher lecture – the language that is being used now is that we ‘retire’ some of these lectures and have other ones instead.

I know that there are strongly held views on this and one of my pleas is that we try to have a robust but constructive debate; and that we hold respect for those who have different views to ourselves. But it is right that we are mindful about what we commemorate. The signal we are sending to those working in statistics today, or considering doing so, is so important. To advance this debate, the Society will be running a series of events over the coming year to discuss aspects of the history of statistics – both good and bad – and crucially, what they mean for diversity and inclusion today. The first of those events will take place in Members Week, 19 October, and will look at the relationship between distinguished statisticians of the past and historic racism.

The final area of focus, and it’s the one I want to give most energy to, is the role statistics can play in fighting racism and discrimination in the present day. We have seen several powerful examples of this at this conference: Roger Halliday gave a fascinating talk on how the Scottish Government uses data to promote equality and diversity. Raluca Crisan’s session addressed developing software solutions to mitigate unintended bias in algorithms – which we are acutely aware of after the recent A level and GCSE debacle. I attended Anna Vignoles and Simon Burgess’s session which took us through a rounded analysis of educational inequalities in the context of Covid-19. There are sessions on vital topics like work and gender, and later this morning I’ll be at the session on migration statistics.

In the coming months, we will be working with our sections and special interest groups to identify and promote statistical research that tackles pressing issues of equality and diversity. We also hope to work closely with the Office for National Statistics to identify the new investments in data that are necessary to understand and tackle discrimination in the UK today.

These four areas of work will be priorities for the remainder of my presidency, but they will all carry on beyond it. This is a cause that the Society is committed to for the long haul. I would like to end by asking you for your help.

If equality, diversity and inclusion are causes close to your hearts, please let us know, and how you can help. This may be through your work as a statistician. It might be through your involvement in a section or local group of the Society suggesting a more diverse set of speakers, or topics. It might be through identifying more things the Society can do – how can you help us make these happen? One of my last duties as President is to chair the Honours and Awards Committee. My first duty as Past-President will be to chair the Presidents Nominating Committee and I’d love to see a really diverse set of nominations – that needs you to make those nominations.

I invite you to join us in the next weeks and months to help deepen the commitment of statistics to the cause of equality, diversity and inclusion, and continue the tradition of using statistics to make the world a better place.

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