Diversity in research: You can’t be what you can’t see

Staff diversity in higher education and research became an issue in the Global North from the 2000s, but there is little evidence of a universal or global understanding of what diversity is due to a variety of factors including terminology usage and data gathering.

From our new book, ResearcHER, it is evident that diversity manifests in complexity and is situational and contextual.

The book showcases the research of 28 women and non-binary researchers. Each profile, importantly, highlights not only their research, but also their personal positioning and career path, inviting the reader to better understand that researchers are a diverse group, and not only the narrow white, cis, male stereotype that is so often associated with research careers.

The researchers in the book were drawn from the membership of the Women in Academia Support Network (WIASN). WIASN was founded in 2017 as a Facebook group and has since been formalised into a charity. The membership currently stands at nearly 14,000 members from over 100 different countries.

Potential for innovation

The researchers featured in the book have different lived experiences – even when they have similar diversity issues. But this complexity drives the potential for innovation.

It is, therefore, essential that the research environment is diverse and equitable in order to drive high quality and meaningful work on the world’s urgent and essential issues. Research should be undertaken for the benefit of everyone in our communities.

We need research teams to be representative of the communities they are serving. As civil rights and children’s rights activist Marian Wright said: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” If you don’t see yourself, your struggles, your community, your potential in what is researched, it also makes it all the more difficult to see yourself as part of those research teams.

For example, in the United Kingdom in 2021-22, despite the near parity of male and female PhD candidates (with less than 1% identifying as other), just 28% of professors identified as female and, therefore, the potential to influence what is researched and for whom is diminished.

An astonishing revelation in the UK in 2022 was the realisation that male-dominated health research had resulted in women’s health needs being under-researched and neglected to the point that women’s health was significantly negatively impacted.

Women’s health will now be a government priority. But it is important to recognise that gender is not the only barrier.

Race and disability

Damningly, to date, there are only 41 professors in the UK who identify as black women. And overall, just 2% of professors in the UK in the 2018-19 data identified as black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) women.

Dr Addy Adelaine challenged research funders UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the National Institute for Health and Care Research on why, of the “£4.3 million (US$5.2 million) of research funding to explore the disproportionate COVID-19 risk among people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, £0 has gone to black academics/researchers”.

Similarly, despite 20% of the UK population having a disability, just 4% of academic staff in UK universities identified as disabled, making the number of disabled professors in the UK barely perceptible.

It is difficult to determine at the moment if low declaration is due to higher education’s poor record on supporting disabled students and scholars, or a lack of psychological safety for staff to disclose – which is a major concern.

The National Association of Disabled Staff Networks (NADSN) is a global super network of disabled staff networks from higher education and the public sector and is chaired by Dr Hamied Haroon. It is fighting to change this.

NADSN’s STEMM Action Group chair Dr Jennifer Leigh (ResearcHER chapter author) presented evidence to a UK parliamentary committee on the negative effects on science innovation and healthcare when disability is not represented or supported.

NADSN is pushing for a disability charter for UK research and innovation. UKRI data shows that just 1% of UKRI funding was issued to researchers identifying as disabled.

It is not acceptable that non-disabled researchers are more ‘fundable’, and yet the headline data implies this. Behind headline data such as this are lived experiences of disability and a plethora of minoritising and othering intersections which researchers and academics navigate daily – for example, Dr Amy Bonsall’s artistic exploration of experiences of endometriosis emphasises the richness that ensues when lived experience meets research.

Following from the artistic expression of research, the “who researches and what we research” question is also indelible in what we consume.

In her work on cultural representations of mathematicians and who/what is considered mathematics, “Disordering mathematical identity stories through dramatic filmed parody ‘Math Therapy’” published in The Mathematics Enthusiast, Dr Kelly Pickard-Smith, the book’s co-editor, exposes how images of mathematicians on screen and stage significantly contribute to the notion that mathematics is equated with white, male genius types.

Problematically, these cultural images endure and permeate culture to the point in the UK that the government’s social mobility tsar Katharine Birbalsingh has proclaimed that, in England, “girls don’t like hard maths”, when the reality is girls are culturally socialised from all angles – from the TV watched, the clothes and toys available to them from a very young age – into binary gender roles (problematic in themselves), which they then see play out in research careers further down the line.

Role models

What makes the ResearcHer book so significant is that it is targeted not at academics, but at students aged between seven and 15, and it is aimed at all genders. WIASN, Emerald Publishing, Facebook and the Gender Institute at Royal Holloway, University of London have partnered to ensure that this book can be gifted to as many disadvantaged schools around the world as possible.

Making diverse life experiences and research journeys visible to a young audience is an essential tool in the kit for ensuring that children from all backgrounds, experiences and identities can see something of themselves somewhere within the book: a child who is autistic might read about Dr Jennifer Rudd and see that she says “I’m autistic! I act differently and think differently...” and see how Dr Rudd’s research has taken her across the world.

Another child may read about Dr Sarah Mohammad-Qureshi’s early experiences of racism at school and the isolation that she experienced throughout her academic science career and how she shifted her professional focus into the essential work of equality, diversity and inclusion.

Reading about Cinderella Temitope Ochu’s journey towards her PhD candidacy might inspire someone to realise that their own writing skills might be more suited to academic writing than creative writing and, finally, they might be able to see something of themselves in Dr Melissa Anne Beattie’s openness about her queer identity and how she utilises her difference as part of her pedagogical identity.

Perhaps young people reading about these utterly remarkable, yet also gloriously ordinary, researchers might be inspired to think that a research career could be within their reach.

Dr Amy Bonsall is a member of Women in Academia Support Network (WIASN) and is based at Royal Holloway, University of London, United Kingdom. Dr Kelly Pickard-Smith is a member of WIASN and is based at South West Academic Health Service. ResearcHER: The power and potential of research careers for women by the Women in Academia Support Network is published by Emerald Books, PB, £16.99.