Experiences of LGBTQ+ Doctoral Researchers

Written by Dr Ross English, University Lead for Doctoral Student Development, Centre for Doctoral Studies

Earlier this year I was one-half of a research collaboration which set out to investigate the experiences of LGBTQ+ doctoral researchers in the UK. This project came out of last year’s Vitae International Researcher Development Conference where a small group of delegates shared their personal experiences. It was clear that there were issues to be addressed but little evidence had been gathered from which to start a conversation on a sector-wide basis.Though this project was aimed at doctoral researchers, it’s emerging findings may also resonate with research staff.

Studies of LGBTQ+ students and staff have been undertaken but doctoral students are either absent from these reports or lumped in with ‘students’ or ‘postgraduates’; the latter including a much larger Masters cohort. The question we had was whether there was anything in the PhD experience which created or exacerbated challenges for LGBTQ+ students. So I and my co-investigator, Kieran Fenby-Hulse of Coventry University, launched a survey which gathered responses from 224 current PhD students from 47 UK Institutions.

The stories the responses told were rich and varied, heartening and disheartening, and too numerous to do justice to here. Collating and summarising the responses has not been straight-forward as we attempt to balance identifying common issues while respecting the unique nature of each person’s experience. We did not, for instance, want to artificially categorise respondents’ identities for the purposes of running correlations. We also did not want to dismiss experiences via statistics; e.g. that only 1.3% of our respondents said that they know for certain that their primary supervisor is not LGBTQ+ friendly could be presented as a positive finding for the sector, losing the fact that, just in our relatively small sample, there are three people currently going through that experience.

As for our findings, they are still taking their final shape but some common themes are emerging: There are issues of awareness within many people’s research environment; that heteronormative, cisnormative and binary gender assumptions (unless corrected) can lead to issues faced by LGBTQ+ doctoral students remaining side-lined. Many respondents commented on the invisibility of LGBTQ+ role models in their field and the subsequent question of whether one needed to fit-in to progress. The challenges of operating in an international environment came out clearly; where students are expected to research, attend conferences, collaborate with or look for jobs in areas of the world that are culturally and/or legally LGBTQ+ hostile. Explicit homo- and trans-phobia still raises its head and the role of senior staff in either enabling or challenging such behaviour was clear. Where the supervisory team fits in to this picture (indeed, for some, the question of whether it does at all) was the issue that divided our respondents most.

We are aware that the majority of the issues raised are not PhD specific and hope that our findings will have wider relevance. We also are conscious of not just seeking the problems people face and are keen to recognise those LGBTQ+ students whose experience of doctoral study has been an open and positive one.

The results of the study will be submitted for publication in the next couple of months and a full report will be released in early 2018.

If you are interested in carrying out a similar study about the experiences of LGBTQ+ research staff, please contact ross.english@kcl.ac.uk.

Supporting BME Research Staff

Written by Dr Bernadine Idowu, Diversity & Inclusion Champion, Dental Institute

As a Black Minority & Ethnic (BME) female scientific Early Career Researcher (ECR), I had always wondered why BME staff are under-represented in academic posts at lecturer grades and above in both STEM and non-STEM subjects. Prior to working in Diversity & Inclusion I had not seen any data, but heard people talking about it, I however, did not fully appreciate the magnitude of it. When the opportunity arose to begin to understand the challenges of under representation under the then Manager Ms Debbie Epstein (Diversity & Inclusion Team), I jumped at the opportunity and began to quickly realise, that one reason could be since there are not many role models, many BME ECR staff would not apply and some that did apply and were unsuccessful gave up, after the first attempt.

Looking back, I have been extremely fortunate as a researcher within the different institutions I have worked at, I put that down to having supervisors and mentors, that have always supported me. I feel it is my duty to give back and that is why I have become a mentor. I love being a mentor as it is so rewarding. Being an award winning scientist, encourages my mentees, both PhD scientists and undergraduates wishing to pursue a career in science.

King’s as an institution sees under-representation of BME staff as one the key priorities to tackle, in order that we can enrich our academic community and provide role models for future generations of academics and researchers. We have initiatives such as the Athena Swan and Race Equality Charter Marks which focuses on gender and race equality respectively. We also have a new King’s Diversity Mentoring Scheme which is open to academic and professional services staff from diverse groups, prioritising those with at two protected characteristics.

With the support of the Principal and senior Leaders such as Chris Mottershead (Diversity & Inclusion Champion) we aimed to address this by delivering the first ever conference of its kind, i.e. ‘BME ECR how to stay in academia’, providing key tools to help us stay in academia. Tools such as applying for fellowships, the power of mentoring, the importance of networking and finally, prioritising caring for health and well-being! The theme of the day was to be Positive, Practical and Pragmatic (3P’S) to empower the delegates to be bold and take the next steps.

Briefly, there were two sessions, the morning session started with an opening address from the Principal, followed by BME academics from King’s and various Universities within London and UK, all invited to talk about their experiences and to give the delegates some advice. The afternoon session was more interactive with workshops which covered the above tools required to stay in academia. Networking was encouraged throughout the day.

It was a well-attended conference consisting of undergraduate students, PhD students, ECR, academic BME and non-BME staff, also invited guests and some members of staff that heard about the program and wanted to be inspired by seeing and hearing BME academics come together in one space, the Great Hall, the space really did live up to its name.

There were so many positive feedbacks, one which really stood out is as follows “It was a relief to have what felt like a private, personal ‘failing’ identified, named and reframed. The description of the speaker’s successes was very inspirational. We came away feeling validated, with important tips and ideas for personal development and certainly empowered. The quality, format of the day, choice of speakers and food were all excellent”.

My only hope is that this is the beginning of things to come, such gathering provides a powerful & inspirational message to ECR. This model needs to be embedded in various University cultures, only then will we begin to witness a steady increase in BME staff in academia.

Beyond Athena SWAN – A Faculty Perspective

Written by Sabina Khanom, IoPPN, Culture, Diversity and Inclusion Project Manager

Mention of the Athena SWAN Charter is likely to provoke an array of responses from university staff and students, which can range from subdued pride in the hard work of a Self-Assessment Team (SAT) that leads to awards (bronze, silver or gold), or a thinly veiled rolling of the eyes as in ‘oh not that again’. Despite the various individual opinions, Athena SWAN has undoubtedly become a renowned vehicle for change within universities in the UK.

Our Athena SWAN journey at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience started in 2012 and as we looked at a number of different types of data from across the faculty, a pattern emerged of gender inequalities. For example, at the IoPPN around 65% of our postdocs were women, yet the numbers more than halved at professor level. Why was this? Initial arguments we faced were that women were ‘off having babies’ and ‘were less ambitious’ and when we raised the issue of implicit bias potentially playing a role we were told ‘scientists have no biases’. As we delved deeper, it was clear that biases and other systematic barriers meant that at a number of critical stages across academic careers, we were not retaining women.

Over the last five years our SAT, Postdoc Network and Research Innovation Committee have been addressing some of these issues in a number of ways:

  • Representation of research staff on departmental and IoPPN committees
  • Providing career development and support such as Junior THRIVE and proposal writing workshops
  • Better representation of women in decision making committees
  • Increasing awareness and access to HR policies (shared parental leave) and workplace flexibility
  • Rewarding and recognising the contribution research staff are making using initiatives such as Independent Researcher Awards and the Honorary Lecturer Scheme
  • Raising profile of role models through Inspiring Women portraits and Women in Mind interview series
  • Diversity and inclusion training on various topics such as Implicit Bias, Dealing with Microagressions (subtle bullying tactics), Intercultural Communications and Imposter Syndrome

Although the Athena SWAN charter previously focused on removing inequities women faced in STEMM careers, it has evolved to include broader gender identities and also to consider how gender intersects with other protected characteristics (intersectionality). Along with King’s Race Equality Charter and Stonewall award, we too have broadened our remit and are working on diversity and inclusion using an intersectional lens, which should benefit a broader range of people.

With the launch of King’s 2029 strategy, our work on creating a diverse and inclusive environment has become imperative.

What can you do? Here are four things we can all do:

  1. Understand our biases and learn how they manifest in the working environment
  2. Use inclusive language – who are we excluding?
  3. Get involved in some of our activities, give us feedback so we can improve
  4. Be an active bystander – speak up if you notice bias or discrimination