The paper unwritten: is my sexuality holding me back in academia?

Kieran Fenby-Hulse asks whether being gay limits opportunities for researchers

March 30, 2016
Homosexuality and homophobia

I have missed the deadline now. It did look to be a great opportunity, but…. Do I feel disappointed? Yes, absolutely, and for so many reasons. Did I make the right decision? I think so, at least it was the decision I felt I had to make. Has it impacted on my career? Well, it’s another opportunity missed; another “silence” on my CV…

This is my current state of mind following a call for papers for a conference on responsible research. It seemed the perfect forum for me to air my ideas on issues of equality and diversity in research: an international conference, with an eminent keynote; a great opportunity to network, share my thoughts and obtain an international perspective on my research.

So, why didn’t I put in an abstract?

Simply, because the conference is to take place Ghana, a country where, at present, acts of homosexuality are illegal. Now, while some may argue that nobody need know that I’m gay while I’m over there, that’s not as easy as it may seem. For one, my research involves discussions of sexuality in research (indeed, this blog is part of that research). Moreover, there are signs, mannerisms, culture; it’s part of my identity and who I am – not something I can easily hide, or wish to for that matter. My wedding ring, for instance, tells part of that story. Conferences are sometimes quite uncomfortable events as I find myself continually “coming out”, small talk forcing me to make the conscious decision of whether to correct someone when they assume I have a “wife”. Having been married to my husband for five years now, I am not comfortable with concealing this aspect of my life, and neither should I even feel I have to. This, however, can make things difficult in some research contexts, both in the UK and abroad, and I feel it impacts on the decisions I make regarding my career, including where I am comfortable presenting my research, where I undertake my research, and where I might apply for work. The conference in Ghana raises all these questions; and to complicate matters further, and what really niggles at me is that, by not attending, the issue isn’t discussed and remains hidden.

I should stress at this point that this blog isn’t about LGBT rights in Ghana, but rather research careers, internationalisation and mobility. It is about what I call the silences on my CV: the conferences I didn’t attend, the funding opportunities I was unable to apply for, the jobs that were closed off to me; all possibly affecting the advancement of my career. Indeed, the current focus on research mobility and increase in funding for international projects by funders such as Research Councils UK, the British Council, the European Union and the Newton Fund (to name a few), while all brilliant and important initiatives, are not necessarily open to all, and at present there remains little support for those who may feel uncomfortable or have questions about undertaking research in particular regions or on particular topics.

More importantly, though, is that when it comes to job applications and promotion, these missed opportunities are unheard. They are silences; they are papers and grants unwritten. And while taken on their own they may not seem significant, they can mount up over a career. What I’m not asking for here is mitigating circumstances, but I do want to open a conversation about how we think about recruitment, promotion and peer review, and also what an increasingly mobile and international research environment means for diversity, equality and our research. Is there support for those who feel uncomfortable or who have questions? And how might we judge the CVs of those who have not been able to seize as many of the opportunities on offer? What is it we value in academia? Are candidates with a longer list of publications and grants always the most excellent candidates, or are they those with most privilege?

At Coventry University, a responsible approach to research and supporting responsible research environments has been embedded across the early and middle career researcher development programmes. Issues such as that described above are discussed critically and in a safe and supportive cohort-based environment to not only raise awareness, but also to think through how as a research community we can enhance and improve the environments in which we work. It will be interesting to see where these discussions go and what initiatives we might be able to develop to support equality and diversity in research.

While this blog has focused on a single issue regarding sexuality, it is important to stress that this is only one example of why we need to start to challenge the status quo and openly discuss the place of equality and diversity within research environments. Indeed, there are issues regarding access, care work, disability, health, race, religion, class, gender that can all result in systemic inequalities that affect the diversity of our research community. This blog merely seeks to give voice to one issue that, to my mind, is silent and is of increasing importance as we move to a culture that increasingly focuses on and values international research and research mobility.

Kieran Fenby-Hulse is programme manager for early and middle career researcher development at Coventry University. This post originally appeared on his blog.

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Reader's comments (1)

I don't see career progression as a sexuality issue per se, a married same-sex couple would have the same mobility issues as a mixed gender married or long-term couple. If you had children then you'd find that these problems you face get much more difficult. Why do you feel uncomfortable talking about your husband? Academics are relatively broad minded people (I say relatively because the equality agenda goes our the window when children come into the equation) so why hide this aspect of your life? I understand the Ghana event omission but in any other context why would you stump yourself academically?

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