Asha is shortlisted for a UK early career fellowship. At the interview, she outlines a programme of personal development that includes a year in the US, followed by a transfer to a research group at a different UK university. Visibly pregnant, she describes the different skills she will gain and ideas to which she will be exposed in her carefully chosen institutions.
In their subsequent discussion, panel members don’t mention Asha’s pregnancy, but do praise her commitment and ambition. They award her the fellowship.
Up against Asha is Amanda. She has several good publications, including one with her ex-PhD supervisor (to whose research group she is still attached), one with another professor at the same university (with whom she has begun to collaborate informally), and one with colleagues overseas. But she plans to stay at her current institution. When asked why, she says she already has the freedom to develop her own research programme, while her husband is an academic at the same university and their toddler is settled in their nursery.
After Amanda leaves the room, the panellists question whether she will be independent enough, or is fully committed to achieving the highest level in her field. She doesn’t get the fellowship.
Whereas bias against pregnant academics is illegal and recognised as discriminatory, what might be called centrifugal bias – that is, bias against those who wish to stay in the same institution – generally goes unmeasured. Even when it is recognised, centrifugal bias may be seen by panels as justified as it chimes with their expectations of what a young academic should do.
When we raised this issue on Twitter recently, one mid-career academic cited feedback on an unsuccessful fellowship application that had explicitly stated that they “needed to travel abroad and move to the training”, while another said that in their speciality, “you were seen as less [eligible] if you hadn’t done your ‘BTA’ (been to America)”.
Formal research on this topic is sparse. However, anecdotally, centrifugal bias appears to disproportionately affect women. As one put it on Twitter: “[Centrifugal bias] is pretty much why, as a postdoc with three small children, I never even bothered applying for fellowships. I luckily got permanent lectureship at my postdoc institution; others weren’t so lucky. It shouldn't be like this.”
Academia’s centrifugal expectation dates back to the 18th and 19th centuries, when young Oxbridge humanities graduates were expected to conduct a “grand tour” of major European cities to extend their intellectual horizons, gain cultural capital and learn other languages. In science, too, the international exchange of young scientists has long been seen as a key means of replicating specialist techniques. The key text here is Harry Collins’ classic 2001 study, Tacit Knowledge, Trust and the Q of Sapphire, which sets out how no Westerners came close to replicating the quality of Russian lab-made sapphires until they spent several months working in that Moscow lab.
These examples are appealing. But there are undoubtedly risks in moving to another institution, in terms of mental energy expended and time taken to relocate and settle into a new environment, both personally and professionally. Moving can also be expensive. Moreover, given the modern world’s ubiquity of knowledge and technical connectivity, is it really necessary – or even desirable – to go to such lengths to shake off the supposedly deadening influence of the ex-PhD supervisor? To what extent should we still interpret miles travelled or institutions visited as a reliable index of academic “independence”?
On Twitter, academics were sceptical. One said: “Perhaps [we] ought to recognise that different people flourish in different circumstances? Some like to travel, meet new people, learn from diversity of contexts etc. Some flourish better by putting down roots and benefiting from [a] stable research ‘family’.”
While many comments from young academics suggested that some panels are still prone to centrifugal bias, it appears that at least some are able and willing to distinguish the goal of independence from the mechanism by which it is achieved. One academic tweeted that the research council panel they had chaired earlier this year had been “looking for developing independence as part of ALL applications. Some candidates staying at the same institution did not demonstrate this…others, also remaining, did.”
Reassuringly, a successful fellowship applicant (to a different panel) also affirmed this: “I managed to argue that I didn’t need to move institutions because I had a wide range of international collaborations and I was in the best place to do the work I had planned.”
Still, in an era in which we are confronting biases of all kinds, perhaps it is time we developed some descriptors and standards for centrifugal bias so that we can at least recognise it, call it out and (where necessary) start to measure it. Alternatively – and more radically – panels could allow (or require) the applicant to decline to stipulate where they would conduct their fellowship.
Otherwise, while young academics may take less of a career hit on account of pregnancy, they could still be punished for seeking to put down roots for personal, family or academic reasons.
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