In the year since the Royal Society’s Research culture: Changing expectations conference there have been considerable efforts to improve equality, diversity and inclusion in academia. There is no doubt that 2019 has seen a welcome shift in diversity discussions: a move from gender equality to the need to improve working conditions of all people who are traditionally under-represented. In this blog post we consider these endeavours, the impact they’ve had and what still needs to be done.

Gender equality

The Athena SWAN Charter turned 14 in 2019. During this time it has transformed the gender diversity of university departments in the UK. To ensure its continued success, a review into the Advance Higher Education programmes, including the Athena SWAN Charter, has been commissioned  with a report expected in November 2019. Following the impact of the Athena SWAN Charter’s in the UK, similar initiatives have been set up overseas. Last year saw the first awards being made by the US’s AAAS STEM Equity Achievement Sea Change. In Canada, a pilot program, Made-in-Canada, was started, whilst in Australia, efforts continue with their Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) programme.

Sexual harassment

Academia has continued to feel the ripples of the MeToo movement. In the UK, the National Union of Students (NUS) and the 1752 Group, a lobbying collective who campaign against sexual misconduct by academic staff, published Power in the Academy and Silencing Students. These reports revealed the troubling experiences of UK undergraduates, and found that 40% of students had experienced at least one incident of sexualised behaviour from staff. The 1752 Group and the Office for Students are continuing to call for further investigation into the prevalence of harassment as well as the end of the use of non-disclosure agreements in cases of sexual misconduct. In October 2019, it was announced that two-thirds of UK universities would start training students in sexual consent.

Whilst UK efforts to understand and eliminate sexual harassment have focussed on staff-student interactions, we have not paid enough attention to the experiences of women academics. There is a push at a local level to include Codes of Conduct and other mechanisms to support victims of harassment at conferences and other professional meetings. However, without strong and sustained support at institutional, professional body and research council level, the fundamental culture change required to effectively eliminate harassment is likely to remain frustratingly out of reach. In the US, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recently reported that the “persistent” sexual harassment in STEM subjects and its adverse impacts on women’s careers is jeopardising efforts to close the gender gap in science. As a result, the NAS have voted to revoke fellowships of known sexual harassers.

Race equality

In February 2019. Nicola Rollock’s important investigation, Staying Power: The career experiences and strategies of UK Black female professors, into the progression of black women academics identified that, whilst white men make up 68% of UK professors, black women make up only 0.1%. The investigation revealed that women of colour have to overcome stereotyping, institutional neglect and bullying to be promoted. This is institutional racism. Taken  together with other structural biases, it results in white academics earning 14% more than their black counterparts. Rollock has argued that simply hosting events during black history month, or using women of colour on promotional materials, will do little to address the damaging effects of racism. Leading Routes, an investigation into the challenges faced by black postgraduate students accessing research funding, found that only 1.2% of research council funding was allocated to black students. Kalwhant Bhopal, a Professor of Education and Social Justice at the University of Birmingham, has emphasised that to see real change the Race Equality Charter will have to be “mandatory and directly linked to research funding”.

On a more positive note, the incredible campaigning of early career researchers like Hana Ayoob, Oz Ismail, Yolanda Ohene and Alex Lathbridge, co-founders of the platform Minorities in STEM, is continuing to transform academia in the UK. Whether it is on their podcast Why Aren’t You A Doctor Yet?, Twitter feed @MinoritySTEM or training events for researchers from minority backgrounds, they continue to inspire and elevate groups who are too often overlooked. In addition, the “Stormzy effect that followed the musician’s scholarships for black students resulted in a 50% increase in black British students starting at the University of Cambridge this year.

Of course, it is not only racism within academia and the underrepresentation of minority groups that we need to be concerned about – Angela Saini’s exceptional book, Superior: The Return of Race Science, highlighted the very real impact of academic racism on modern day society. The recent BBC Four documentary, Eugenics: Science’s Greatest Scandal, emphasised that eugenics, the selective breeding of humans to improve genetic and racial quality developed at the beginning of the twentieth century, was not only developed in the UK but championed by Fellows of the Royal Society. Superior could not have been more timely. A UCL inquiry into their historic links with the now debunked ‘science’ of eugenics has continued throughout 2019 and is expected to make recommendations early next year.


In 2019, the Royal Society of Chemistry, Institute of Physics and Royal Astronomical Society, published their joint report Exploring the Workplace for LGBT+ physical scientists. This study highlighted that the academic climate for LGBTQ+ people in the UK is broadly improving, with a significant fraction comfortable being out and visible in the workplace. However, there remain substantial statistical differences between members of the LGBTQ+ community and others, with measurably higher incidences of harassment and bullying in the workplace for LGBTQ+ people. Furthermore, the report highlighted a heterogenous experience within the LGBTQ+ community, for example one-in-five trans people have often considered leaving their jobs due to discrimination and 28% of LGBTQ+ respondents who sometimes considered leaving.  The report provided a range of recommendations that individuals, organisations and learned societies can do to create more inclusive and supportive environments for LGBTQ+ people, especially trans and non-binary individuals.

Visibility of the LGBTQ+ community in science has strengthened this year. The Institute of Physics held the annual LGBTQ+ STEMinar 2019 meeting which brings together a wide range of LGBTQ+ identifying STEM professionals and students. Furthermore, the second annual #LGBTSTEMDay was a huge success, both online and offline, and included talks, bake sales, and panel discussions. The day was supported by over 60 organisations, including the Wellcome Trust, Imperial College London and CERN.

Open access and DORA

The evaluation of science continues to dominate academic life, and metrics are continually proposed as an objective view. The rise of improper metrics such as the Journal Impact Factor (JIF) continue to plague good scholarship, and particularly impact equality and diversity owing to the inherent bias of peer-review and scientific publishing. The San Francisco Declaration of Research Assessment (DORA) has somewhat mitigated this – providing recommendations for individuals, organisers and scientific publishers to evaluate scientific output based on the quality of science itself as opposed to corrupted proxies. Milestones this year include signatories from over 1,500 organisations and 15,000 individuals, with notable recent inclusions such as the Royal Society of Edinburgh, UK Research and Innovation, and many organisations in South America.

Plan-S, which was launched by cOAlition-S in September 2018, with the support of the European Commission and European Research Council, states that by 2021 all scholarly publications funded by research council grants will be available in Open Access journals, on Open Access Platforms, or made immediately available through Open Access Repositories without embargo. With large funders like Wellcome on board, it is clear that change is coming.

Push back?

As social media and community activism strengthens our advocacy efforts, we seem to be constantly reminded that not everyone is on board with a more equal and fair research culture. When Forbes magazine announced their Top 100 Innovators in the US, the list only included one woman. In response to increased advocacy for women scientists, theoretical physicist Alessandro Strumia used a flawed analysis of citation rates of men and women to criticise women’s ability in the subject – claiming that women in senior positions got their roles unfairly, and it was, in fact, men who were hard done by in academia. Despite losing his visiting researcher position at CERN, Strumia continued to propagate these views, and indeed extended his extrapolation of his analysis to make the claim that women “just don’t like physics” in the Sunday Times.

As academia makes increasing commitments to Stonewall and several universities expand their policies to support LGBTQ+ students and staff, the Sunday Times has continued to publish “a stream of anti-trans invective”. Although large numbers of academics have responded to the Sunday Times coverage of transphobic views with messages of support and affirmation for trans colleagues, positive stories about trans scientists remain vanishingly rare in the mainstream press. Certainly, 2019 has seen academics making claims about the need for more “freedom of speech” being given very public platforms in which to do it. What is unclear is how these internal academic battles that have played out in national newspapers have impacted the public perception of science and the people who work in it.

What’s next? Collective activism

This year has seen increasing numbers of scientists becoming active in campaigning for improved diversity, and efforts being made to formally recognise their contributions. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) have announced Established Career Fellowships that allow time for activities that promote equality, diversity and inclusion awareness across physical sciencesOver 200 scientists, led by Professor Rachel Oliver, successfully called for the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee to investigate the impact of scientific funding policy on equality, diversity, inclusion and accessibility. The committee will be launching an inquiry on the topic and has recently requested data and information from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) as a precursor to the inquiry. This has also resulted in the launch of the advocacy group The Inclusion Group for Equity in Research in STEMM (TIGERS), who work together on efforts to promote equality, diversity, inclusion and accessibility.

Whether it is Extinction Rebellion, the School Strike for the Climate or the monumental achievement of 18% women’s biographies on English language Wikipedia, in the year since the Royal Society’s Research culture: Changing expectations conference the world has seen the power of collective activism. No matter how small or insignificant you feel, each one of us has the power to make a difference. In the words of President Barack Obama, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek”.



Disclaimer: the views and opinions presented in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Royal Society.

  • LeithMotive

    It is disappointing to see disability issues ignored completely. 19% of the working age population are disabled to some degree. That’s nearly 1 in 5 people the RS have forgotten about!

    Employers have legal obligations regarding disability, just as they do other protected characteristics like sex and ethnicity.

    I’m also curious why this blog hasn’t recognised the good work done by the RS for giving its latest book prize to Caroline Criado-Perez for Invisible Women, a book that has done much to highlight the disadvantage and discrimination that women face.