Over recent years academic institutions have increasingly sought to establish policies to promote equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) initiatives amongst students and university staff. On paper, this sounds like a progressive move towards balancing inequalities which people from under-represented groups face, but how effective have these initiatives been in practice? In this blog, I reflect on whether EDI policies provide sufficient support for early career researchers (ECRs), and consider the wider impact they might have on dementia research.
When I first started university, I was relieved to finally be studying in what I thought would be a more diverse and inclusive environment to the one I had grown up in, where my siblings and I endured constant racial slurs and harassment at school, often from other students but sometimes from teachers. At the time, the racism we experienced was explicit name-calling and physical attacks, but it wasn’t until I went to university that I learnt racism could also be less explicit, in the form of “othering”; being consistently reminded that you are different, and not belonging. This can be anything from being inappropriately questioned about your heritage, to a refusal to correctly pronounce your name. As a muslim, I was repeatedly questioned about why I didn’t drink alcohol. I was not called names, but I certainly wasn’t made to feel I was being treated equally. This was over a decade ago and universities are quite different now. Or are they?
EDI policies are designed to promote equality and provide an inclusive workspace, as well as protect from discrimination based on any of the nine protected characteristics outlined in the Equality Act (2010; age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion and belief, and sex). The first time I was involved in what can be considered as an EDI initiative was as a PhD student 10 years ago, when I was invited to be a panel member on an application which led to a Silver Athena SWAN award for my department. For those who don’t know, the Athena SWAN Charter is a framework which is designed to promote gender equality in Higher Education and research institutions. I was involved in identifying areas where more work was needed in terms of how the department could support and advance women’s careers, and I worked on developing an action plan to ensure significant progress could be made. The scheme was relatively new at the time, and I remember being thrilled that progress towards equality was being made within the few years since I started university. I was relieved that people cared and something was being done, so future students wouldn’t feel the way I did when I started university.
Ten years on, many universities have established EDI policies and various initiatives promoted by teams dedicated to this sole purpose. This is a very different landscape to the one I entered as an undergraduate student. However, I’m not convinced there has been any tangible change for people in under-represented groups in academia, and I believe ECRs continue to be disproportionately affected by inequalities. Here’s why. Academia is structured in a unique way which enables those with prejudice or bias (conscious or otherwise) to engage in discrimination and harassment without reproach. Under-represented groups already face structural inequalities, but this is compounded by the fact that they disproportionately make up junior academic roles consisting of PhD students, postdocs, technicians, and research assistants; roles which are typically fixed term and dependent on grant funding. Unlike other organisations, this means that their job security solely rests with their Principal Investigator who doubles as a line manager. This dynamic creates a power imbalance, leaving many junior staff members feeling unable to report cases of discrimination or harassment for fear of losing their job. Due to the highly specialised nature of their roles, it is not like other organisations where staff can be moved into another role, and the perceived or actual threat of a contract not being renewed can be used to keep people silent. Although many institutions have policies in place to try and prevent such situations arising, and to enable reporting of misconduct, there is an increasing awareness of how discrimination and harassment can take the form of gas lighting; psychological manipulation whereby someone uses coercion to undermine another’s experience of reality. The subtle and insidious nature of gas lighting can make it difficult to recognise, and tangible experiences can be difficult to prove, which increases the likelihood of under-reporting of this type of discrimination and harassment.
We know that under-represented groups working in academia are negatively affected by the inequalities they face, which has escalated to the point where we have seen issues such as the gender, ethnic, and disability pay gap, and precarious working conditions at the forefront of the University and College Union industrial action.
The issue of precarious working has affected me personally as I have moved from contract to contract, city to city. When I was a PhD student there were a lot more 3-5 year postdoc positions available, whereas now I rarely see one longer than two years. Women in academia are disproportionately affected by such precarious working, often having to make choices between starting a family (in which a stable environment and secure income is desirable), and pursuing a career which may inhibit your ability to buy a house, require you to move cities or countries every few years, and make it difficult to maintain a meaningful relationship.
So what impact do these issues have on dementia research? Dementia is projected to be the most significant health burden of our generation, and despite progress over the last few decades in understanding the mechanisms underlying the brain diseases which lead to dementia, this knowledge has failed to translate into effective therapies. Longer contracts give ECRs the space to develop ideas and collect data for fellowship applications if they want to pursue research. Retaining ECRs from under-represented groups is going to be crucial if we want to make significant advances in dementia research. Although it doesn’t necessarily protect from redundancy, a permanent/open-ended contract provides a degree of security and a move away from the casualisation which is endemic in academia. It will lead to better science.
Time will tell how effective EDI policies have been in protecting under-represented groups from being disproportionately affected by inequalities, discrimination, and work casualisation. My concern is something which I’ve heard called “diversity-washing” whereby an organisation, for example, wants to be seen as promoting EDI without any meaningful engagement. A form of virtue signalling. Circling back to my involvement in Athena SWAN, I’ve heard a number of people accuse university departments of only applying for an award as a tick box exercise, and something they can promote on their websites and email signatures. However, I can say that I am proud of the work we did, and I trust my fellow panellists were acting in good faith. Despite my concerns about EDI initiatives, I am pleased to see organisations like the British Neuroscience Association develop schemes like the Scholars Programme, which is designed to support students from under-represented ethnic groups through providing opportunities and one-to-one mentorship.
For any great progress to be made in academia, we must recognise that EDI issues should be a strategic objective of every department, embedded in each departmental role, and not siloed as a special interest of an individual or group.
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.