Dear Jasmine… Addressing inequalities and biases in the early career research community

30 Mar 2021

Lost Voices logo

ARC North Thames researcher Dr Sarah Jasim has launched The Lost Voices, an initiative aiming to collate stories on inequalities faced by the early-career researcher (ECR) community, and help enact institutional change. In our latest blog post, Sarah shares her personal experiences and calls on the ECR community to share their stories.

Dear Jasmine/Jasim is how I am regularly addressed in e-mail responses. My name is not Jasmine, nor Jasim (this is my surname): it’s just Sarah.

This is something I’ve become accustomed to over the years, as it happens so frequently. Yet there is always that tiny voice that wonders why this happens when email addresses at UCL, as with most organisations, are formatted as surname.first name. I sign off emails with my full name, and I am yet to meet someone with ‘Sarah’ as a surname, so I ask myself what more can be done?

Being wrongly addressed so regularly is one of many ways that inequality and exclusion present themselves in the early career researcher (ECR) community. As a female ECR from a Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background, I encounter and grapple with many inequalities on a regular basis, as I’m sure so many of us do in different ways. As I transitioned from my Master’s in Public Health, to a PhD researcher in 2012, I began to slowly recognise the disparities that ECRs can face (some more so than others) and often silently struggle with.

During my PhD and first postdoc, I arranged and attended visits to places all over the UK for my research. On numerous occasions, I would be in the waiting room or reception, and the person I was supposed to meet would stare blankly at me, walk past me, or even call out my name and say ‘Sarah?’ Is somebody here by the name of Sarah?’, as if I possibly couldn’t be somebody with the name ‘Sarah’. Sometimes, when this would happen, there would be a look of surprise, shock, or even embarrassment.

I would absorb or internalise the interaction, as if it was somehow my fault. I would ignore or overlook what had happened so it did not adversely affect my research, or impact the rapport that I had been trying to carefully maintain. Many colleagues within the ECR community have faced similar experiences. For the majority of us, we have learned to accept these microaggressions - being wrongly addressed or awkward encounters - as common practice, and as something that is likely to continue unchanged throughout our careers.   

Until quite recently, there has been little institutional progress in Equality, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) initiatives within the ECR community, and issues connected to (but not limited to) race, culture, upbringing, gender, religion, disability, financial ability, sexuality or mental health are still not readily discussed or understood. This year we have seen the world slowly beginning to take notice of the structural inequality and prejudices that exist amid global outcries in response to gender violence and discrimination, racially motivated killings, and workforce mental health to name a few.

However, I wonder how much these sentiments have practically filtered down into the ECR community and the wider research environment? This is a community where work tasks are often prioritised above all else, where issues of discrimination and inequality are mostly hidden in fear of appearing incapable, and sometimes the sheer struggle to find people who ‘look like you’ at the senior level is daunting and demotivating. As early career researchers, we are dedicated to developing research that benefits the public, communities and wider society. Yet we are a part of that society and, in order to do our work effectively, we also need support from our peers and institutions to equip us with the skills we need to tackle discrimination.

I’m fortunate to have worked with pioneering academics, who have broken the mould in many ways despite the inequalities they have faced, and they have provided me with both inspiration and guidance – but not every ECR will have experienced this. Joining the B-MEntor scheme, as well as other mentoring and coaching arrangements during my first postdoctoral role, was pivotal in overcoming confidence issues such as imposter syndrome (feelings of persistent inadequacy despite evident success), which affects swathes of our ECR community.

I joined The London Postdocs to better understand the pan-London ECR community, and through contributing to the co-ordination of the second ‘National Postdoc Conference’, and attending national BME ECR conferences, I began to recognise how common these experiences were. They illuminated the inequalities faced by our ECR community, the disconnect between us all and, most importantly, between us and our institutions and funding bodies.

This prompted myself and The London Postdocs to mobilise our ECR community through ‘The Lost Voices’, a series of initiatives that will begin by collating stories on inequalities faced by our ECR community (funded by a UCL Researcher-Led Initiative Award). These stories are usually hidden stories, told to others who may understand or who have also faced similar experiences. With your help, I would like to shine a light on these stories and bring them out of the dark. We will use them to develop a skills webinar to help empower ECRs to overcome some of these experiences, and finally we will pose your questions to a panel discussion with senior decision-makers, with the aim of enacting institutional change.

We ask the early career researcher community (as an existing or previous ECR, an ally, or those who work with or alongside ECRs) to assemble and join us to highlight these issues. If you belong to this community, and would like to share your own experience of inequality – whether this is a ‘Dear Jasmine’ moment or something else - we urge you to please share your story with us.


By Dr Sarah Jasim, NIHR ARC North Thames Research Partnership Team; Department of Applied Health Research (DAHR), University College London (UCL); Care Policy & Evaluation Centre (CPEC), The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)

Editing contributions by Alex Teale (UCL), Jumani Yogarajah, Kailey Nolan (NIHR ARC North Thames), Dr Morag Lewis (The London Postdocs, KCL), Dr Rui Pires Martins (The London Postdocs, QMUL) and Dr Shaakir Salam (KCL)

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the National Institute for Health Research or the Department of Health and Social Care.

Republished from the UCL Academic Careers Office website

 

Can you relate? Share your story

The Lost Voices is a series of three initiatives aiming to collate stories on inequalities faced by the early-career researcher (ECR) community, to help empower us all and enact institutional change. It is led by The London Postdocs and the NIHR ARC North Thames Academy, and funded by a UCL Researcher-Led Initiative Award.

In the first phase, we are inviting early career researchers to share their story. So if you have experienced inequality, bias or prejudice in any form, please let us know by:

  • Share your story on social media using #TheLostVoices and #AcademicsAssemble
  • Sharing your story anonymously in the The Lost Voices Story Collection
  • Sharing your experience anonymously in the The Lost Voices ECR survey
  • Sending us a short video (maximum length: 2 minutes 19 seconds) detailing your experience via WeTransfer (see our Youtube channel for examples). The first 20 entries will be paid via e-mailed £10 vouchers (Lifestyle/ Amazon).

Find out more about ways to share on The London Postdocs website. The closing date for submissions is Monday 24th May.

What’s next?

The London Postdocs will be interviewing senior academics across different disciplines and institutions who have also faced inequalities in their careers – so we can all learn from their experiences. If you are a senior academic who has faced or overcome inequalities during your career, please get in touch with us at or contribute your anonymous views via The Lost Voices senior academics survey

We will then collect both early-career researcher and senior academic stories and discuss and debate these issues with institutional decision makers on Monday 24th May, with the aim of illuminating these experiences and inspiring further initiatives that drive change.

Related Content