Its ironic really – how divisive initiatives for Equality and Diversity can be, but sitting in an Inclusion Matters workshop, led by the EPSRC this week, I couldn’t help but be struck by the strength of emotions many people have on this topic.
Nobody can deny that academic careers aren’t inherently tough on everyone, and so a core takeaway from the meeting must be confirmation that the many of the key challenges limiting the recruitment and retainment of women and other minority groups in academic research, are factors that influence the entire community.
A particularly resonant issue was the crisis in mental health, resulting from high expectations on workload, poor work/life balance, and the extreme lack of job security (also linked to the two-body problem, where academic couples are forced to live apart).
As such, a key area of consensus, seems to be that greater efforts should be made to protect the wellbeing and welfare of all students and staff. In the very worst cases this can be dangerously lacking. More worryingly, occasionally issues can result from extreme abuses of power by senior members of staff.
To address some of the most extreme cases, the 1972 Group has been set up. Focused on issues of staff-to-student sexual misconduct, they are working (together with the National Union of Students (NUS) and the Guardian) to commission research that analysing the extent of the problem in the UK. They wish to work together with universities to prevent such issues arising, and to support them to respond appropriately to such issues when they arise.
However, this still raises the question of what to do, when no specific institution can be held to blame, and rather issues arise as a result of the brutally intense and competitive academic culture?
Ultimately control lies with funding bodies. They have the power to move goal posts by acknowledging that a diverse workforce will only arise through funding researchers with a broader range of skills. Placing time limits on how long after their PhD early career researchers (ECRs) can apply for fellowships, demanding that ECRs move location, and placing significant emphasis on volume of publication output can only continue to limit the progression of minority groups.
Luckily these factors are beginning to change, but there is a long way to go. In the meantime, I would really like to see cross-institutional initiatives to prove mentorship, pastoral care and support to all members of the academic community. In particular, my experience suggests that providing undergraduate, PhD students and ECRs with approachable peer role models, will improve the chances that personal and professional problems will be addressed, at source. After all, we are all in this together, and we’ve all struggled with the pressures of academic life, at one time or another. Perhaps it’s time to start helping each other out?