Female and ethnic minority early career researchers will “reverse mentor” senior professors as part of a drive to remove barriers to career progression faced by under-represented groups in science.
The project, which could, for example, involve a black, female academic at the start of her career coaching a white, male professor, is part of a £5.5 million UK-wide anti-discrimination drive being funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.
Jon Rowe, director of research in the University of Birmingham’s College of Engineering and Physical Science, is the leader of the “reverse mentoring” project. He said that female academics in science, technology and engineering departments “often struggle to progress in their careers” and yet “the underlying causes of this are not fully understood”.
It is hoped that the mentoring project will expose some of the “unconscious biases” held by senior staff, which are often blamed for female and minority scholars’ career challenges.
“Quite a lot of the time, people who have been around at a university for a while assume they know everything…but actually they need to be educated themselves,” Professor Rowe told Times Higher Education.
Staff from Birmingham will work with researchers from two project partners, Aberystwyth University and University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, to ensure that participants “can still learn a lot but without putting themselves in an awkward position with their own co-workers”, according to Professor Rowe.
“In ‘normal’ mentoring, you tend to have a senior person whose job it is to coach a junior person. In reversing that, we will take, for example, a black, female junior academic, who will then explain to a senior white, male professor what it’s like being who they are, the journey they’ve come through and the challenges they have faced,” he said.
Researchers on the project will also conduct experiments on how academics’ work is valued in the run-up to the 2021 research excellence framework, compared with their non-minority colleagues, and they will trial establishing “ghostbusters” – empowering scholars to challenge senior-level decisions on issues relating to diversity.
A total of 11 initiatives, involving 23 universities, have secured funding from the EPSRC.
Another project, led by Heriot-Watt University, will create immersive virtual-reality games for line managers and research leaders to help them appreciate the challenges faced by disabled researchers.
Kate Sang, professor of gender and employment studies at Heriot-Watt and the programme’s director, said that giving managers insight into the “lived experiences” of what it was like for those with physical or mental impairments to work in a laboratory or attend an academic meeting could help universities to retain such employees.
“A lot of disabled academics are leaving the sector because they feel they can’t see a future for themselves,” Professor Sang said. “STEM can’t afford to keep losing PhD and postdoctoral researchers, but there’s also the broader question of what is the impact on research if it is only able-bodied, white men doing it?”