Minorities in Academia
Minorities in Academia
I don’t think I understood the problems of inclusion in Academia until after I started my second postgraduate degree. My undergraduate was in Psychology, a discipline that apparently has been regarded as ‘female’ in the last few years. Also, I did my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Barcelona, Spain. Even though the city seems quite diverse, you hardly see people from different ethnic backgrounds, especially at the higher education level.
My experience changed completely, when I moved to the UK, and saw such a variety of people from so different backgrounds everywhere I was going. However, once I started my MPhil in Philosophy I noticed other changes. All this variability that I was perceiving in the streets wasn’t visible when I was attending my seminars - the population of female was very low and individuals from non-white background were absent.
The Leaky Pipe Phenomenon
If we look into some data provided by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), the differences in equality on higher education are extremely clear at top senior level. While 75.4% of UK professors are male, only 24.6% are female, with only 1.9% of those is from a black background Here, I have only highlighted the case of gender and ethnicity, but the differences become even more dramatic when we look at data about sexual orientation and disability.
This sudden changes in inclusivity as we move forward in the academic ranking is known as the Leaky Pipe Phenomenon, a trend that is accentuated in Sciences disciplines. Below, you can appreciate this in the case of Philosophy were the percentage of female in the profession decreases dramatically as we move into more senior positions.
So why those differences? What is happening in the transition from undergraduate to postgraduate? In this post, I will exclusively focus on the case of female inclusion at postgraduate level as it’s something I can talk first-hand and offer some insight about the measures that are in place to change the situation.
Barriers to minority groups in academia
A year ago, I attended a workshop part of the BPPA conference at the University of Birmingham focused on analysing the causes of this lower intake of females at the postgraduate level. It was there where I discovered the term ‘chilling behaviours’. These are subtle and usually (un)conscious behaviours that can occur on a daily basis towards an individual of a minority group. These are presented in various forms, from interruptions when the individual in case is talking, to corrections or inappropriate remarks or comments about the traits of a person. In some moments they can be very clearly identified, but most of the time are displayed in forms of microaggressions and as such, they are difficult to recognise and point at.
How can I accuse my fellow students of having ignored my turn of question when no one actively says: “Adriana can’t ask a question?” However, if my turn is ignored and I don’t have the chance to ask (or I do after all senior members have asked something) this will count as a chilling behaviour. In the end, they are behaviours that discriminate a particular population that already has more difficulties to be integrated with a context. In the case of academia, this will be more acute when the environment is male-dominated, so if you want to share your point in front of them, unless you are giving the chance to do so, you will need to become more assertive.
The problem with these behaviours is that they creep slowly into the person’s psyche. The more I’m ignored, the more difficult I’ll have it to relate with others, leading this to make it more difficult for me to show my point of view or my opinions. This will undermine my chances to share my research and to network and thus, lowering my opportunities to get into jobs. Similarly, this will also affect my self-esteem since I will feel diminished and my interest in academia will probably decrease, and with this the likelihood that I apply for a postgraduate degree or go for a senior position.
Photo credit to Wippetywu
In a similar way, female students also suffer from the stereotype threat. Any minority population is at risk of suffering from the ways they are evaluated and perceived. Because of this, they end up (perhaps) performing worse because of that threat. For instance, if I’m one of the few female speakers at a conference, I’ll probably perform worse than the rest, when my attention is drawn to this fact. The pressure that I’m exposed to will lead to the beliefs of ‘I’m not good enough, everyone is going to be wondering how a woman can be doing this’. These thoughts will impact my performance and I might then appear in front of the audience as nervous and insecure, reinforcing the stereotype that females are insecure when talking in public.
Thus, there are many everyday behaviours that can impact the performance of an individual, and most of them can appear as (almost) imperceptible. Recognising them and targeting them is one of the first steps to act towards the change. Also, easy measures can be put into practice, such as giving priority in the Q&A to members of minorities or organise conferences that have a clear representation of minority groups in their panels. The previous measures, are part of the Good Practice Scheme in Philosophy in the UK, and should be implemented in all conferences that request funding.
Support groups and measures
Photo by Brittani Burns on Unsplash
Luckily, while there is still a long way to go until we achieve a fairer society, in the last years, different support groups and communities sought to increase awareness of this problem. For instance, in the case of philosophy, at a national level, we have the Society of Women in Philosophy UK, an organisation that offers support for female philosophers in the form of resources, mentorship and advice. This also works at the student level and in Glasgow, there is the group of Minorities and Philosophy, a postgraduate-lead group that support inclusiveness of any member of a minority group.
This is not just limited to Philosophy - the University of Glasgow also has other groups to support students from minority groups in other disciplines. The Hufton Group has already been in place for quite a long time in the Department of Gender Studies and they organise monthly discussion sessions. There is also student support for members of the LGTBI+ community.
The University has also joined the Athena SWAN charter that promotes equality and diversity in academia. This charter gives out different types of awards to the Schools at the Universities that have actions in place to promote the inclusion of female members in academia. For instance, the School of Physics and Astronomy, the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences and the Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine hold a Departmental Silver Award, followed with the Institute of Health and Wellbeing with a Gold award. The Gender Equality Steering Group at the University works together with Athena SWAN to revise the action taken in each of the Department and facilitating the implementation of new measures.
With all these different measures in place, I hope that we can start seeing significant changes in the next years on the transition between undergraduate and postgraduate level, with a higher intake of members from minority groups. At the PGR Blog, we have posted many posts recognising and welcoming this variability in academia, from stories on disability and academia to the role of females in the lab. Are you a member of a minority group and would like to share your experience in academia? We would like to hear from you! Comment below or on Twitter or write for us as a guest blogger.