Guest blog

Blog – What type of role models do we need in academia?

Blog from Dr Kamar Ameen-Ali

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The failure to attract and retain women and racial/ethnic minorities in academia has long been the focus of many institutional and organisational equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) initiatives. The lack of gender and racial/ethnic diversity is an issue which has particularly affected the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), but role models in STEM have been considered to be a meaningful way of achieving greater proportional representation. In this blog, I will discuss how effective role models can be, with a focus on what this means for dementia research.

I’ve been meaning to write a blog on gender disparities in dementia research for a while, after seeing the report and analysis by Alzheimer’s research UK (ARUK) in 2022 on the ‘Impact of Dementia on Women’. We know from this important work that female dementia researchers are less likely to become senior academics and are leaving academia at higher rates than men. I can speculate as to why this may be, and others and I have written about it in our blogs and discussed it on the Dementia Researcher podcast many times. Despite dementia continuing to be the leading cause of death for women in the UK, female researchers are less likely to obtain senior grant funding, stifling career progression. Female researchers are failing to achieve longevity in researching a condition which they are more likely to be affected by, than male researchers. This research didn’t look at the intersection of sex with other characteristics such as racial or ethnic identity, but it is possible, if not likely, that female racial/ethnic minorities will be disproportionately affected compared to their white female counterparts, as we see in many other areas. It was only when I was invited to take part in a panel discussion for a workshop organised by Women in Neuroscience UK on ‘Tackling gender gaps in dementia research’ at the ARUK conference in March, did I appreciate how some types of role models and mentors can significantly influence how we address these inequalities.

A role model can be loosely defined as someone people look up to and strive to be like. They signal various desirable characteristics which others may wish to obtain or imitate. When I was reflecting on this topic for this blog, I realised I had never had a role model when I was younger, and I wondered why this was. After some reading and discussions with colleagues, it seems people largely select their role models based on demographic characteristics they perceive to match their own. There is a popular phrase that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. This means that if, for example, we don’t see women in senior academic positions, those who are in junior positions aren’t going to think the senior positions are attainable for them, and it becomes somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I was born and grew up in the North East of England, which is predominantly white compared to other regions in the country. I never saw myself reflected in the people around me, particularly because when you’re mixed race and female, you’re in an even smaller minority, facing unique challenges which others often aren’t able to relate to. A lack of exposure to people who were a demographic match to me, either in real life or in the media, meant that I never had a role model. This can be challenging for young people in this situation, as they become increasingly aware of their identities, and using cultural and social information to determine how certain gender and racial/ethnic characteristics occupy particular roles and professions in society. Demographic characteristics can signal important information to young people about what they might see for themselves in the future, and whether or not people they consider to be like them can obtain certain positions and achieve particular things. For example, had I seen a scientist with similar demographic characteristics to me when I was younger, I would have likely been assured that becoming a scientist was a realistic and attainable goal, and that it would be possible for me to balance the unique professional and personal ambitions that women face.

I know what you’re thinking. I still became a scientist despite not having a role model, so do we even need them? Throughout my career, I may not have had a role model, but I have had good mentors. Most have been white male professors, who I wouldn’t say fit the definition of a role model outlined previously, in the sense that I didn’t strive to be like them, and they didn’t have specific characteristics I wanted to obtain. For me, as I felt unable to successfully find any role models with shared demographic characteristics, I instead had to look at intrinsic characteristics which more closely reflected my core values. This to me has felt more meaningful and helped me to determine that academia was ultimately the right fit for me, due to our shared values.

Researchers carried out a systematic review which highlighted two characteristics that role models, or mentors, can have which lead to a positive effect on learners. The first is a desire to help others, which contradicts the stereotype of a scientist working in isolation and being antisocial. The second is being open about the need to work hard in order to be successful, and sharing experiences of the various persistent failures that academics experience. Again, this contradicts the stereotype of scientists being geniuses and always being successful. So it’s clear that these characteristics signal that an academic is an ordinary person and suggests that what they have achieved is therefore attainable. Having core values which people find relatable is desirable in a role model.

It’s clear that role models have a place in attempts to recruit and maintain women and racial/ethnic minorities in academia. Doing so provides diversity of thought and experience, which is necessary if we want to see significant advances in dementia research. Although role models tend to be chosen based purely on reflected demographic characteristics, there is also significant value in considering role models based on matched core intrinsic values, particularly for individuals from minoritized groups with intersecting identities.


Dr Kamar Ameen-Ali

Author

Dr Kamar Ameen-Ali is a Lecturer in Biomedical Science at Teesside University & Affiliate Researcher at Glasgow University. In addition to teaching, Kamar is exploring how neuroinflammation following traumatic brain injury contributes to the progression of neurodegenerative diseases that lead to dementia. Having first pursued a career as an NHS Psychologist, Kamar went back to University in Durham to look at rodent behavioural tasks to completed her PhD, and then worked as a regional Programme Manager for NC3Rs.

 

 

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