• Hour glass icon106 minutes : 8 minutes reading | 98 minutes video

Thriving together: creating more inclusive research communities through the research management relationship

Session details

Date: 15 September 2021

This session looked at creating more inclusive research communities through the research management relationship.


  • Dr Jessica Gagnon, STEM Equals team, University of Strathclyde
  • Dr Marco Reggiani, STEM Equals team, University of Strathclyde

Session overview

Biased working cultures have created structural disadvantages throughout higher education, particularly in disciplines/areas where women, LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer), BAME (Black Asian and Minority Ethnic), working class, and/or disabled individuals are underrepresented.

As line managers and supervisors of doctoral and postdoctoral researchers, part of our work includes supporting researchers so that they may thrive (as much as is possible) as they navigate an unequal system.

Topics covered:

A review of the systemic inequalities faced by doctoral and postdoctoral researchers

An examination of the benefits and challenges of engaging in the work necessary to create fully embedded inclusive policies and practices

Line managers and supervisors of doctoral and postdoctoral researchers sharing best practices across subjects/disciplines

An exploration of strategies for improving policies and practices to create more inclusive research communities

Session recording

Shared learnings

The facts surrounding postdoctoral researcher wellbeing are stark.

  • 78% of postdocs think that high levels of competition in the academic environment have created unkind and aggressive working conditions
  • 53% of postdocs have sought or wanted to seek help for anxiety or depression
  • 61% of postdocs have witnessed bullying or harassment
  • 43% of postdocs have experienced harassment themselves
  • 37% of postdocs feel comfortable talking about bullying and harassment.

Systemic inequalities

As the facts above suggest, the postdoc experience can be difficult, yet for some researchers from underrepresented backgrounds it can be far harder. The roots of postdoctoral inequalities extend far before individuals actually become postdocs, from concerns over PhD student selection discriminating against applicants from underrepresented backgrounds, to lower PhD completion rates for students from underrepresented backgrounds.

Once individuals reach postdoctoral level, researchers can face all of the same systemic inequalities that can affect other members of staff and students. For example, multiple research studies into STEM disciplines indicates that discrimination, exclusion and inequities are faced by researchers who are women, LGBTQ+, BIPoC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour), disabled, and first-generation or working class.

Yet increased diversity and inclusion in the workplace has a positive impact on innovation and economic growth, and can result in higher productivity of underrepresented staff.

Importantly, discrimination and inequalities aren’t always visible or reported. Ensuring postdocs feel able to discuss EDI issues is a crucial step to creating a fair and inclusive academic environment.

Ownership, burden and barriers

Supervisors, PIs and Line Managers take some responsibility for creating more inclusive working cultures but can’t solve systemic inequalities single-handedly and barriers exist, including limited time and working within an unequal system.

Those facing inequality challenges are often expected to be the ones who fix the challenges, placing additional burden on them. For instance, PI identity can lead to disproportionate burdens and unequal demands, particularly on women and BIPoC academics who may be given various additional tasks, including ‘diversity work’ for their university.

What’s more, multiple discriminations can lead to a hierarchy of underrepresented groups – for example the prioritisation of gender equity to the detriment of other issues such as race, sexuality, disability and so on.

Vignettes from group discussion activity

[Discussing an external speaker for a campus event] “I went to him after the [talk] to ask him questions, and the questions he asked me back [were] nothing about research. It’s about, ‘Are you originally from [country in Asia]? [Did] you stay here because you married an English man?’ … I was shocked. … I’m not a scholar in his mind – I’m just somebody who’s staying here because of finding an English man, even though that’s not the case.”

Woman, staff

“We counted on one level of our building how many men there were on posters and there was something like 32 faces of men and none of women.”
“We tried to do an initiative where we focused on a woman in the department. … We got a massive backlash for one sheet of paper we put … up on a building filled with pictures of men. … This one little thing that we were doing was causing such an uproar. … One of the instances [of defacement] was the eyes of the woman were scratched out [on the flyer] outside of her lab space.”

Woman, PhD student

“I don’t really know any outwardly LGBT like people who are above me … so I don’t really have any role models.”

LGBT+, staff

Regarding visibility of [the] LGBT community … I am trying to see what [the University] is doing or not doing and I can’t see a lot. … Regarding women … at least in our department [there’s] Athena Swan but … I haven’t seen this for example for LGBT or other minorities. … If you look at my colleagues you can see from miles away they … don’t understand the difference between gender, sexuality.”

LGBT+, staff

[After enduring a campaign of abuse, bullying, and harassment] “I asked to put in a [formal] complaint, and I was told not to [by my supervisor]. I was told it would be too much pressure and strain on my mental health. … He said, ‘Let’s try and solve this informally’. … They said, ‘You’re going away [on a research trip] for [a few] months. You’re not going to see him that much. When you come back, he’s leaving’. … Came back, he’s not left. He’s … getting his own students to supervise.”

Woman, staff

Practical tips

Tip What you should do/know
Lead by exampleJoin and engage in support networks relevant to you,
Take breaks and time off
Learn significant dates for cultural and religious celebrations
Add your pronouns to your signature, social media,
Use gender neutral and inclusive language
Set up a reading and discussion group around inclusion
Know where the nearest gender neutral toilets are to your office/laboratory.
Have a code of conduct for your research groupMake it clear what is expected from everyone, for:
how they interact with each other and with those outside of the group, how they approach their work,
how they manage their work-life balance.
This can help ensure that everyone feels included and supported, as well as empowered to raise any EDI issues.
Be aware of the different levels of support that can be provided from individual support or mentoring through to institutional level support.Know what can you do as an individual
Know what can your department or faculty do
Know what systemic support is available across your university?
Be aware of where postdoctoral researchers can find peer supportKnow what networks or societies there are at your university, including researchers with caring responsibilities, BAME researchers, disabled researchers, LGBTQ+ researchers, first-generation or working class researchers.
Know how to signpost your postdoc towards these networks.
Know if there is a peer mentoring programme at your university/institution.
Be aware of the complaints procedures if a researcher experiences bullying, harassment or gender-based violence.Know if there difference processes for formal and informal complaints
Find out if your researchers aware of the support they’re entitled to.
Be aware of where can researchers access mental health support and is there a wait time to get it?Know where and what is support is and how long it will take to access it.
Be aware of the procedures required for different types of leave, for example family/maternity/paternity/parental leave, bereavement leave, long-term sick leave or if researchers need to suspend their studies for any other reason.Know where you can find this information
Do you know the procedure if researchers need to change their gender in university systems?Find out if there are different procedures or contact details for different system.
Whilst you aren’t expected to instantly recall every minute detail about every one of the above procedures. You should be familiar with them, know exactly where to find the relevant information and be able to access it immediately.
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