Barriers facing early career researchers from minority groups

Written by Klara M Wanelik, Joanne S Griffin, Megan L Head, Fiona C Ingleby and Zenobia Lewis.

Read the full article here.

Over the course of the past ten years, Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM) academia has recognised that it has a diversity problem. The ‘leaky pipeline’, as it is often called, represents the shrinking pool of women in academia through the career stages from undergraduate students, through tenured staff, and then into more senior positions. Although the numbers vary between fields and countries, the overall trend is similar. Figures from the UK show that while over half of postgraduate biosciences students are women, only 15% are at professorial level. Aside from the moral argument for careers in academia being accessible to all those who want a place at the table, studies from corporate sectors have shown that diversity is beneficial in terms of productivity, outputs, and financial gains.

National schemes to improve the representation of women in STEM academia, such as Athena SWAN in the UK and Australia, have made some progress. And yet, the picture for non-gender minority groups is even more stark. Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME), disabled, and LGBT+ people are even more poorly represented in academia, compared to in the general population, and are more likely to experience institutional and cultural barriers to career progression.

Back in 2017, we held a symposium for graduate students and postdocs at the University of Liverpool, showcasing the experiences of staff from minority backgrounds. Feedback from respondents suggested there was an appetite for more open discussion regarding the challenges associated with being in a minority group in academia, and from this, the Breaking Barriers project was born.

We surveyed early career researchers in the ecology and evolution community. We asked respondents for data regarding their personal characteristics, for example, which gender they identified with, whether they identified as LGBT+, and whether they were from an ethnic minority background. We also asked whether they had come from a lower socioeconomic background, as we predicted that socioeconomic background could prove to be a barrier to career progression. We asked respondents to provide information on their career to date, and finally, we asked respondents for information on whether they had experienced any barriers to their career progression and, if so, whether they had overcome them.

Our results were upsetting to say the least. Of the 188 individuals that responded to the survey, 54% reported having faced a barrier or multiple barriers to their career progression. Of these, almost a third reported that they had not overcome stated barriers and/or had left academia as a result of them. If anything, we believe this could be an underestimate, since people who had since left academia would have been less likely to engage with a study on an academic issue. We also found that BAME and Latino-Hispanic respondents reported having few publications on finishing their PhD, and having fewer publications translated into having to apply for more positions before obtaining a job. Respondents from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were more likely to be in a research and teaching role, as opposed to a research only role. They were also more likely, along with women, and LGBT+ individuals, to report having experienced a barrier to their career progression.

What does all this mean? It seems that in the field of ecology and evolution there is a significant pool of the workforce who are struggling to access, retain, and succeed in an academic career. Our study suggests that multiple interacting individual characteristics should be considered in combination when we try to understand diversity issues in academia. In particular we would like to highlight that, while barriers related to sex were cited most frequently in the free-text questions, it was not significant in predicting the measures of career progression that we examined. This could suggest that gender is still viewed as an obstacle, despite efforts to improve female representation. Alternatively, the wider discourse with respect to gender diversity in recent years may have helped people feel more comfortable to voice these concerns (rather than concerns they may have about other diversity issues). Worryingly, the relative lack of discourse around other diversity issues, for instance with respect to ethnic minority groups or people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, may mean that these issues are more likely to be overlooked and underestimated. Until we have more open discussion and understanding of diversity as an intersectional issue, we might not see as much improvement in the field as we’d like to.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Over two thirds of individuals who said they had faced a barrier (or multiple barriers) to their career progression reported that they had overcome stated barriers. We were able to draw on these individuals’ rich experience, asking them about how they had done this. Two main themes emerged in these individuals’ responses: the importance of people (including mentoring, networking and associating with senior allies) and opportunities (including taking up as well as actively asking for opportunities).

In light of this, we suggest some routes towards improvement in our paper, including more emphasis on mentoring schemes, as well as broadening accessibility of networking opportunities by creating more online spaces for this purpose (which might be something positive we could take forward from the current Covid-related working circumstances!). We also comment on the somewhat grander aim of overall institutional cultural change. This will be crucial in order to see major improvements, particularly with regards to ensuring that opportunities are made accessible to all early-career researchers. We hope that through further research into intersectional diversity issues in academia, we might open up the discussion a little more, and move towards creating a culture where diversity can be fully appreciated.

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