Ten talking points to #BreakTheBias

08 March, 2022

Ten talking points to #BreakTheBias

Ten talking points to #BreakTheBias

I have had the absolute pleasure of being a member of the Babraham Institute’s EDI programme equality4success since 2015, leading it for the last four years. As I come to the end of my involvement to move to another organisation, it seems timely to reflect on the talking points from the last seven years as we try to #BreakTheBias.


1. There is a desperate need to bust the myth of meritocracy in academia – without inclusion, it’s more likely to be mediocrity. I have had many conversations with people enthusiastic about equality and inclusion who then add “but we only recruit on excellence”, suggesting that being inclusive compromises that excellence, when often the opposite is true! If organisations are not inclusive then they are unlikely to be excellent, because they are only recruiting from a limited pool of talent. The recruits are simply those who can survive the current hypercompetitive system, and not necessarily the most talented thinkers and researchers. While UK and other funders “do not hold all the levers for change”, they do hold one of the major levers - the purse strings - and so need to implement a carrot and stick approach to bringing about change, perhaps through an assurance of inclusive processes and environment (possibly via schemes like the Athena Swan and Race Equality Charters). Without fast financial consequences, along with a recognition that how research and researchers are assessed impacts on inclusion, change will be cripplingly slow and academia risks being a mediocrity.


2. I think one of the most important aspects I have come to realise over the years, is that we cannot achieve equality in isolation. While this may seem obvious to many, the approach of putting the onus on individual organisations (e.g. through equality charters) gives the false impression that it is possible. It is not. Every research organisation is part of a very dynamic, hypercompetitive, global ecosystem. Therefore, efforts put in place in any individual organisation to make it a more attractive workplace, for example emphasising work-life balance, either do a disservice to the research staff (giving the impression that you will be competitive in a pool of those from less progressive environments), or are pointless as staff appreciate that they are competing with others who can work 100 hours a week. There needs to be a holistic approach to equality and inclusivity in research where organisations within the ecosystem come together to bring about global change. Babraham Institute is a member of EDIS - Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Science and Health that includes research organisations, funders and industry to tackle this challenge. On a European level, we are a member of an alliance of European research institutes – EU-LIFE – that again aims to work together with the European Commission and other policy makers to bring about change. I am encouraged that the current UKRI CEO, Prof Dame Ottoline Leyser, recognises this challenge and through holistic bodies such as the new UK Committee on Research Integrity, those within the whole ecosystem can work together to achieve a research system that is closer to a meritocracy.

Women at table


3. Related to above, is the important aspect (and one of the most enjoyable for me) of working with and learning from others. We at Babraham have benefitted enormously from working with the incredibly altruistic members of EU-LIFE, with whom we developed the resource-packed Horizon 2020 LIBRA gender equality project.  And while Athena Swan applications have often felt like a distraction from actually implementing inclusive initiatives, I have learnt much as an Athena Swan reviewer and being part of local Athena Swan networks. The latter often offered much needed therapy!


4. Inequalities don’t just affect the underrepresented, they affect everyone. For example, long queues at women’s toilets also delay those having to wait for them having used other facilities. Perhaps if more women were involved in planning, then there would be a better outcome for all. As part of the LIBRA project, we aimed to highlight the universal impact of inequality by making it personal to everyone through a poster campaign which provoked interesting and important conversations. I have also learnt that the back of toilet doors are the best places to disseminate information – you get to speak to a captive audience!


5. Dr Anne Corcoran, the first lead of Babraham’s equality team, initiated an excellent seminar series called My Life in Science which continues to run at the Institute. Speakers talk about their career as well as their science, the importance of mentors and advocates, successes and importantly failures and acknowledging the role of serendipity and luck in their successes. One of the early themes that came through this series was how critical it is for your science career to choose your life partner with your career aspirations in mind. However, a standout moment for me was when one attendee of a talk on gender equality by Dr Rogier Kievit realised that not everyone who applies for a job meets all the job criteria; there is a gender divide with men typically applying when they meet some of the criteria, while women often not applying unless they meet all the criteria. “You can apply without meeting all the job criteria?!” she said with incredulity, and subsequently completely changed her approach to job applications.

Invisible Women book cover


6. It was again through our participation in the European funded LIBRA project, when it first dawned on me that gender inequality goes beyond those in the lab, also giving rise to inequality of research outcomes. Pre-clinical research often assumes the male animal is sufficient to study, which unfortunately ultimately results in worse health outcomes for women. This is beautifully articulated in Carolina Criado-Perez’s book Invisible Women about the gender data gap that exists across so much of 21st century life. Please read the book and learn how you can make your research more inclusive so that everyone, irrespective of gender or ethnicity, can have confidence in its outcomes.


7. I have strong unconscious biases, as identified by the Harvard Implicit Bias Test, associating men with the workplace and women with the home. This may well be largely due to my upbringing and I aim to be aware of those biases when decision making. I have noticed that alcohol impacts on my ability to monitor those biases – again something I am working on! The DORA initiative, which not only highlights the critical aspect of inclusion in how we evaluate research, has also produced wonderful resources that colourfully articulate a plethora of biases with which researchers have to contend.


8. Bias isn’t necessarily obvious and therefore it can be important to point to the evidence of biases. We need to understand why we need to #BreakTheBias, and see how we can go about making a more inclusive environment.


9. There is a wonderful illustration of privilege and luck that you may have already seen. It is important that those who have benefitted by accident of birth, or by an equally serendipitous conversation at the bar during a conference, recognise that privilege and luck play an enormous part in achievement and those who have enjoyed “success” would do well to recognise that, and use their position to support individuals who are not in receipt of the same luck but are just as talented.


10. Change won’t happen by itself and needs investment. Genuine support and advocacy by senior leaders has been critical to our progress at the Babraham Institute. This support also needs to come with a budget to cover the training and initiatives to bring about change. Our membership of the European LIBRA project initially was a source of funding to recruit a manager to support the embedding of equality and inclusive approaches at the Institute. The institute has subsequently further invested in this, recognising that we will only be excellent if we are truly inclusive. One of the initiatives that Babraham has invested in that I am most proud of is the Roving Researcher scheme that aims to mitigate the impact of long term leave.


As I close, I would like to thank the equality4success team at Babraham, but particular thanks to Dr Laura Norton, Dr Joerg Stange and Elizabeth Wynn, Babraham’s successive EDI managers with whom I have enjoyed numerous interesting discussions on many of these talking points, as well as sharing many frustrations of the system. It’s time to change the system. #BreakTheBias!

Institute's EDI programme