As part of the University of Essex’s initiative to decolonise the curriculum, the School of Life Sciences organised an Open Conversation on Inequality in Science to stimulate discussion on what can be done to make science more accessible and equal. The event was organised as part of an Education Strategy Fund award, received by Profs Leanne Hepburn and Alex Dumbrell.

The event welcomed three inspirational guest panellists; Dr Emily Sena, a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences at the University of Edinburgh and meta research scientist who is interested in how to make research more equal and inclusive, Dr Reem Al Mealla, a marine biologist, climate advocate and the only female field ecologist in Bahrain, and Dr Nick Aldred, a marine scientist and lecturer at the University of Essex who was the first in his family to attend university. Together, they covered the pressing issue of the continued inequality in science as well as the barriers they personally had to overcome to work in science.

Equality and Equity

Dr Sena opened the discussion by highlighting the distinctions between terms used, in particular the difference between equity and equality. While equality is making sure everyone is given the same resources, equity looks to address the imbalance between the resources people need and making sure everyone has what they need to be included.

For example, someone who hasn’t had family go through university or the academic interview process will not have the same resources as someone who has. Rebalancing these differences is how we reach equality and it takes diversity, inclusion and equity to get there. Dr Sena noted that these are ideas which needed to be actively engaged with rather than acting as box ticking exercises, for instance aiming to have a certain percentage of students from a certain background.

Dr Al Mealla, who studied at Essex, shared her own experiences in the difference between equality and equity. When she was looking at funding provided to do training abroad everyone was provided with equal resources for funding, however, international students such as herself had to pay further fees for expenses such as needing to purchase an additional visa. This means that although there are equal resources it is not equitable as some people have additional barriers and costs to overcome.

Overcoming barriers

All the speakers noted their experience of constantly having to reassert their right to belong. Dr Aldred said he had felt continually warded off pursuing science, being told when going into A levels and university that he would find it too difficult. This made him concerned about the number of young potential scientists are being lost at these early stages.

Dr Al Mealla agreed, noting that in Bahrain she faced barriers to even knowing that science careers were a possibility or the places it can be studied. She had only discovered her career path through watching Free Willy in her English class where one of the characters was a marine biologist. She looks to address these accessibility issues through her own outreach activities and continues to be motivated by speaking to children at schools and inspiring them to follow scientific careers.

However, she also raised the issue of accessibility to opportunities to continue the steps through research in terms of accessing funding as well as post-doc opportunities. Dr Sena echoed this sentiment and noted the need for PhD students to be given better training in other career options.

What universities can do

Numerous issues of inequality which continue to persist in universities meaning, as Dr Sena noted, black professors make up less than 1% of the total number in the UK and there are only 25 black female professors in the whole country. One of the ways this is perpetuated is a lack of understanding of the impact of intersectionality, which are not thoroughly addressed in initiatives such as Athena Swan, which aims primarily to improve gender equality in academia.

Dr Sena also emphasised the requirement for institutions to speak to experts as well as rewarding staff who are doing work on the ground while Dr Aldred highlighted the need for universities to make sure their messaging is clearly open and welcoming to people from underrepresented backgrounds.

Through their discussions the panel laid out a path to improving equality in science which would be long and difficult. It would involve a proper investment of resources as well as an acknowledgement of the current systemic issues and the complicity of institutions. It will be a process of engagement and learning on the part of those in academia while creating a welcoming environment.

While events and discussions such as these are productive in raising these issues, they are just the first step in the necessary journey to rectifying the unequal balance within science and those who practice it.