“What Kind of ‘Diversity’?”: Mixed Feelings Over Respect and Diversity Week Merger

1 April 2018

Content warning: mentions of sexual harassment and sexual assault

The University of Melbourne’s decision to combine Respect Week and Diversity Week this year has garnered mixed reactions from students.

In 2018, the once separate Diversity and Respect weeks ran in conjunction, from 19-23 March.

In light of a renewed spotlight on sexual harassment and assault at universities nationwide, some students view the decision as a diminishment of this issue, given that Respect Week has historically been one of the University’s main platforms to raise awareness about sexual harassment and assault on campus.

The University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) women’s officer, Kareena Dhaliwal, believes that the merging of the weeks is a natural consequence of combining two distinct, but related issues. “Just naturally when you put these issues together, everything you’re talking about has less time focused specifically on it,” she said.

Respect Week, now in its third year, was conceived as a way to ‘promote the University’s policies and support structure around allegations of sexual harassment and assault’, forming part of the nationwide Respect. Now. Always. campaign by Universities Australia.

In regard to the events the week has dedicated to raising awareness about these issues this year, Dhaliwal said “they are sort of getting lost in all the rest of this.”

Some students have expressed similar thoughts.

“In light of last year’s data about sexual assault and harassment it seems like a bit of a move backwards, considering that when that data came out there was such an uproar about it,” said Chloe Hunt, a second year arts student.

Natasha Guglielmino, a third year environments student, echoes these sentiments. “This seems like a weird move, especially since sexual harassment and assault has been in the news a lot and is a really current topic. It just seems really tone deaf.”

According to University documents, the move to combine Respect Week and Diversity Week aligned with discussions about how to “broaden the tolerance and inclusivity message [of Respect Week], without detracting from the core focus on sexual assault and harassment which will remain the main priority.”

Whether this has been achieved is debatable.

In 2017, the Respect Week program included talks on domestic violence, workshops about consent, and the UMSU women’s department hosted a screening of The Hunting Ground—a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses in the United States.

In contrast, this year there were only two events on the Respect Week calendar that related to sexual harassment and assault: a workshop on bystander intervention, and a workshop on staying safe on public transport.

The week’s other events had a much broader focusevents included ‘LGBTIQ People with Disabilities in Education and Beyond’, a live stream of the First National Virtual Disabilities Conference, and ‘International Friendshipping Lunch’.

While these events undoubtedly focus on important issues, they can be seen as emblematic of the shoehorning of various related but distinct issues of representation into one single week.

This broad week, with vast and far-reaching aims, struggles to articulate its distinct place beyond the University’s year-round emphasis on a harmonious and inclusive community.

“It’s like, what kind of ‘Diversity’? Because that can be a lot of things,” said Dhaliwal.

Richard James, Deputy Vice Chancellor and chair of the Respect Taskforce defends the decision. “The whole principle of Respect Week is to recognise we have to have a tolerant and diverse community that is imbued with respect for difference. So it’s a very natural alignment, from my point of view.”

Elizabeth Capp, Director of Students and Equity, says it is also an issue of practicality. “This year’s timing was chosen based on (1), our need to get the Respect message out as early as possible in semester and (2), taking advantage of the synergies that are evident between Respect Week and Diversity Week.”

However, while the University did email students about Respect Week and Diversity Week in advance, some remain unclear about the message of the weeks and the events available to them.

“I only knew it existed about an hour ago,” said Chloe Hunt, on the Monday afternoon of Respect and Diversity Week. “If I’d heard more about it I would be more interested in it, but considering I just heard about it today I probably won’t get involved.”

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