Researchers complain of bias against women and ethnic minorities

Many researchers also ‘harbour unrealistic expectations’ about academic careers

September 16, 2017
Black female scientist
Source: Alamy

Many researchers believe that UK universities do not treat women and ethnic minorities fairly on issues such as career progression, rewarding them for their work and getting them involved in decisions, according to a new survey.

About a quarter of respondents to a biennial survey of research staff at higher education institutions disagreed that institutions treated all staff equally in these areas, with fair day-to-day treatment also flagged up as problematic, but to a lesser degree.

The figure rises to about a third disagreeing that promotions and rewards are fair and decision-making inclusive when the analysis looks at only the answers of women in research leadership positions.

The findings, revealed in a report by researcher development agency Vitae, bring together the 2017 results of the Careers in Research Online Survey and the Principal Investigators and Research Leaders Survey. Together the questionnaires gathered anonymous data on the working conditions, career aspirations and development opportunities of more than 11,600 research staff between March and May this year.

Although the majority of those surveyed believe that their universities are committed to equality and diversity, the results reveal that there is “increased uncertainty…overall as to whether there is fair treatment and equity of opportunity for different sub-groups”, says the report, Five Steps Forward.

Since the last surveys in 2015 the proportion of respondents who strongly agreed that their institutions treated people fairly fell, while the proportion saying that they did not know increased. “This pattern appears to indicate more cautious attitudes, which could result from greater awareness of the challenges relating to equality and diversity,” it adds.

One quarter of research leaders disagreed or strongly disagreed that all staff are treated fairly with regard to promotion, 26 per cent in terms of rewards, 28 per cent for participation in decision making, and 15 per cent in terms of day-to-day treatment.

The proportion of research staff who felt this way about the same topics was slightly lower, with 25 per cent disagreeing or strongly disagreeing that there was fair treatment in terms of promotions, 22 per cent for rewards, 23 per cent in terms of decision making and 13 per cent in day-to-day treatment.

The report recommends that institutions “undertake detailed scrutiny” of their survey data and trends “to identify perceptions of discrimination and unjustified inequalities”.

“Institutions should ensure that improved equity and diversity policies are consistently implemented and that they offer mechanisms to help people identify and rethink any research practices and processes that may lead to discrimination,” it adds.

The report also finds a rise in researchers “harbouring unrealistic expectations” about academic careers, with 80 per cent of research staff aspiring to an academic career.

“Researchers need to recognise that academic positions are limited within higher education and not to have unrealistic expectations of securing one,” it says, adding that universities should support a “broad-minded approach” to researcher careers and promote the message that all career paths are “equally valued”.

Meanwhile, a survey of more than 57,600 postgraduate research students at UK universities reveals that they find it difficult to get involved in the wider research culture at their institutions and beyond.

A third of students responding to the Higher Education Academy’s annual Postgraduate Research Experience Survey said that they did not have these opportunities.

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