What are the barriers to success for underrepresented ECRs in maths, physics, computer science and engineering?

Recommendations for improving equity, diversity and inclusion in maths, physics, computer science and engineering, based on research into the barriers faced by early career researchers from underrepresented groups in these disciplines



28 Jun 2023
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Early career researchers (ECRs) do not start on a level playing field. There is growing awareness of how ECRs, having completed undergraduate and graduate STEM courses, are excluded – or self-exclude – from ongoing academic participation. We set out to understand the barriers that individuals from historically underrepresented groups face in their academic career after getting their PhD, in a systematic scoping review. Since these barriers might be different across disciplines, we focused on STEM subjects that have persistently lower levels of participation from historically underrepresented groups: mathematics, physics, computer science and engineering.

For example, the proportion of female first-degree students in mathematics is 40.10 per cent, dropping to 29.9 per cent at doctoral levels, and 27.4 per cent in lecturer or senior lecturer positions. Women make up just 7.4 per cent of mathematics professors. The numbers are concerning when we consider ethnicity. In physics, 18.5 per cent of students are black and minority ethnic groups, yet only 5.6 per cent are lecturers or senior lecturers and 4.2 per cent of UK professors are black and minority ethnic groups, according to The Royal Society.

What we learnt from the review

ECRs from working-class or first-generation backgrounds differed in their family knowledge of academia’s structure, which could put them at a disadvantage, the review showed. Despite this, the impact of social class on ECRs’ experiences remains largely underexplored in research when compared with gender. Gender inequalities in STEM cannot be ignored, but it is important to consider that a focus on gender alone can risk obscuring other inequalities or experiences; in particular, intersectional experiences – for example the experiences of those where their gender, ethnicity and social class interact to amplify the challenges faced.

Focusing only on increasing numbers of underrepresented groups in academia in STEM can have problematic consequences, the review showed. These efforts often lead members of these groups to feel a sense of tokenism. For instance, women in physics can perceive their career success is undeserved and due to institutional quotas, rather than because of their talent, several studies located in the review indicated.

Working with stakeholders, including academics and members of innovation and impact teams, we co-developed recommendations for universities based on the review findings, which aim to increase retention and success of ECRs in STEM from underrepresented groups:

Interventions to promote ECR success that consider complex and intersectional experiences

Current practices to promote equality in mathematics, physics, computer science, and engineering often focus on increasing numbers, rather than analysing how ECRs experience their role. Interventions must consider experiences in common that ECRs from underrepresented groups face as well as particularities in the intersection of being part of multiple groups. So, in addition to general programmes, tailored interventions need to be put in place. These need to be reassessed periodically with the purpose of evaluating their impact on ECRs well-being, sense of belonging, and motivation, since securing academic positions is just the first step in creating diverse and inclusive spaces. They must also consider that not all ECRs follow a traditional, linear career progression.

Supported mentoring programmes for ECRs

Mentorship is valued by ECRs from underrepresented groups in mathematics, physics, computer science and engineering, evidence shows. However, mentorship programmes need to be developed in a responsible way. They must consider both ECRs’ and mentors’ needs, ideally creating a work schedule or career progression plan in which mentorship is viewed as equally important to publishing or teaching. If this is not done, mentorship could have detrimental effects on ECRs’ and senior staff’s motivation. The university culture needs to drive senior researchers to provide a supportive environment for ECRs and create conditions for senior staff to participate in mentorship activities. Mentoring should focus on different levels of ECRs as, on some occasions, line managers are also ECRs.

Challenge pressures about productivity and metrics

Barriers for ECRs from underrepresented groups are shaped by university culture, especially productivity pressures and metrics, the review showed. Any programme that aims to improve ECRs’ experiences needs to account for institutional culture, otherwise changes will not be sustainable and will communicate contradictory messages. Universities need to challenge traditional productivity measures, as well as promoting collaboration to achieve realistic productivity goals. For instance, non-research activities – such as mentorship and collegiality – could be included in staff’s progression criteria. To deal with the competitive culture, strategies such as research group support, peer advocacy about employment and workers’ rights, and a culture that welcomes sharing staff preferences, such as teaching activities, are recommended to de-centre the pressure on productivity and metrics, and to recognise the value of non-research activities for academia and ECRs.

Better support for ECRs on parental leave

Women ECRs in particular face work-life balance challenges in the disciplines we researched. The idea that motherhood is a barrier or will be penalised needs to be challenged with concrete actions. Universities need to provide support not only for women but also men, with gender neutral programmes to support childcare, for instance. Creating collaborative research environments within projects can help to ensure that those wishing to take parental leave do not see their leave as an interruption or disadvantage, as the research teams continue the projects, and they can integrate once parental leave is finished. Better support needs to be provided to ensure that ECRs on fixed-term contracts are not penalised in terms of parental leave, parental leave pay, contract endpoints, which may occur while they are on leave, and the allocation of project outputs upon their return from leave.

Barriers for ECRs from underrepresented groups – based on gender, minoritised groups and social class – persist across the disciplines we examined, evidence showed. Changes at university and departmental levels need to be enacted to ensure equality, diversity and inclusion in these disciplines. Importantly, interventions need to go beyond numbers, and ensure that ECRs feel a sense of belonging with their departments.

Key recommendations

(a) Create interventions to promote ECRs’ retention and success, that consider individual experiences as complex and intersectional.

(b) Promote consistency and evidence-based strategies for mentoring programmes for ECRs.

(c) Challenge pressures about productivity and metrics.

(d) Provide better support for ECRs who wish to take parental leave.

Read more about the research project upon which this advice is based here: Finding the Way: Understanding the Barriers to Retention and Success for Early Career Researchers in Mathematics, Physics, Computer Sciences and Engineering

Lucy Yeomans is a lecturer in education, Daniela Fernandez is a postdoctoral research associate and Lauren Stentiford is a senior lecturer in education, all at the University of Exeter.

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