‘We cannot continue to be part of environments that perpetuate inequality’

Anne Templeton has suggestions to build inclusive supervision environments.

If we want to dismantle inequality and build a more inclusive discipline then it is time to reflect on the issues of sexism and power dynamics that still persist, identify ways to improve, and work collectively to progress academia.

The work of Henri Tajfel is a vital influence in my research and that of many social psychologists. My impression of Tajfel was that he had created a thriving, positive research community with his students. When reading Jacy Young and Peter Hegarty’s writing, it became evident that the positive community was reserved solely for Tajfel’s male students.

I was saddened about the experiences of the female students who worked with Tajfel and the disparity in the type of supervision that the female and male students were given. It would be folly, however, to frame the narrative as though these were isolated issues with one person in the past. They are structural issues that persist in academia today.

The 2018 annual conference of the British Psychological Society’s Social Psychology Section held an initial collective discussion about how to combat exploitative systems and sexism in academia. It provided a space for members to raise topics they felt were important, and we will continue the discussion at this year’s event (2-4 September, in Edinburgh).

One focal point for creating an inclusive discipline is to improve supervision practices, through understanding and navigating power dynamics. Power dynamics in supervision is an issue I have been acutely aware of over the past few years as I have moved from the role of supervisee to supervisor. Supervision is important for encouraging students’ professional development, but it is also one of the most important factors affecting postgraduate wellbeing and burn out (Saavedra et al., 2019), and intention to continue in academia. Supervision provides a prime avenue to collectively move towards an inclusive, healthy academic environment.

Below, I highlight some considerations and offer solutions for supervisors to make supervision inclusive and supportive. I have woven issues of gender, race, disability and religion throughout to emphasise that an inclusive environment must incorporate these considerations. The list is not exhaustive, and you may know (some of) them already. However, I hope that if we acknowledge existing issues then we can focus on how to build an inclusive atmosphere for our students and broader academia in the future.

Give appropriate credit
It may sound obvious to say that credit should be given where it is deserved, but the contributions of women are often under-represented and this can have negative consequences on reviews of their papers. Women are less likely to be first authors on papers than men, but recent research suggests that they are also six times more likely than men to defer corresponding author status if they are the first author in a paper, meaning they do not handle the peer review process (Edwards et al., 2019). Deferring like this has been associated with significantly worse peer review scores and less positive editorial decisions (Fox & Paine, 2019). In an environment where the Research Excellence Framework is increasingly a judgement of academic worth, women in psychology are particularly under-represented in high impact journals (Odic & Wojcik, 2019). We are all increasingly asked to demonstrate the novelty and impact of our research, but men are more likely than women to use these types of terms in their publication titles and abstracts (Lerchenmueller et al., 2019).

There are some simple solutions. Be aware that the contributions of women, particularly women of colour, are often under-represented in publications and author order in papers. Give careful consideration to whether you are giving appropriate credit. Where women are first authors, ensure they are the corresponding author. Encouraging students of all genders to be first authors of their papers can help them take ownership of the paper and gain valuable experience of the publication process that will assist them in their career. Interview panels consider the authorship order of publications so having students as first authors can show their ability as independent researchers as they progress in their careers.

Communicate and agree expectations
The nature of power dynamics means that it can be difficult for students to raise issues if they feel their supervision needs are not being met. Universities often have structures in place to assess student evaluations of their supervision (e.g. annual reviews), but in reality the student is often speaking to a colleague of their supervisor rather than an unrelated or objective outsider.

You can mitigate this by working with students to agree on expectations for supervision. Ensure that students have an active role in agreeing aspects of supervision such as frequency of meetings, development of skills and opportunities, and timeframes for feedback. If something is not feasible (e.g. frequency of meetings) then discuss why, so that your students can make more informed choices. Aim to create space for evaluation of these expectations where students can provide input if they require adjustments.

Clearly communicate your expectations of students, e.g. focusing on developing particular skills, or work required for important deadlines. Aim to be flexible when agreeing expectations of the student and attend to issues that disproportionately effect women. For example, caring responsibilities may require flexible working which means that students do not reply to emails or send work within conventional 9-5 hours. Actively creating a flexible environment where expectations are mutually agreed on is important to retain our students and will build an environment that is inclusive of work-life balance and people with caring responsibilities.

Have an additional supervisor and/or mentor
Even if supervisors do create open channels of communication, students may still have problems that they feel unable to discuss with their supervisor. Students should have a named additional person that they can approach in such instances. This is crucial for ensuring that students are not tied to just one person who holds substantial influence over their work and position. Many universities have a second supervisor policy which is helpful for research, but the second supervisor is usually tied to the primary supervisor in some way (as they are expected to have expertise in the same research area). This makes it difficult for the second supervisor to attend to the students’ concerns without their position being compromised. One option is to have a designated person (or people) within the department who students can approach. The established procedure for reporting issues with supervision should be made clear to all students so that they are aware of the support their institution offers.

Provide effective feedback catered to the student’s specific needs
Imagine receiving particularly blunt feedback from dreaded Reviewer 2. Now imagine that the reviewer is in charge of your research and you are directly responsible to them. Supervisor feedback acts as the main reference point for students’ understanding of their success or (perceived) shortcomings. Receiving even constructive feedback can be devastating.

Supervision entails guiding students when mistakes are inevitably made and challenging students to learn and perform at their best. However, be aware that the tone intended when providing feedback may not be the tone in which the student reads the feedback. One option to ensure intentions are clear is to discuss feedback with the student in person and allow them to ask questions.

An aspect which is too often overlooked is positive feedback. I do not mean adding one cursory ‘well done’, but clearly describing what the student is doing well and why. This helps them know what to aim for as they move forward and can provide a buffer to the more negative aspects.

Be particularly aware of how disabilities might impact the type of feedback you give. For example, use fonts and colours that are accessible to people with dyslexia or visual impairments, or factor in additional time for students to read feedback before acting on it. Another way to make the feedback more inclusive is to ask the student what sort of feedback is most helpful for them, such as whether they prefer more verbal or written feedback. Also ask students to identify parts of their feedback they are unsure about, areas where they want more detailed feedback, and if they want more action-oriented feedback or more focus on conceptual issues. Frequently check the effectiveness of the feedback with the student to ensure that it works for them and to give them a more active role in their learning.

Involve students in the community
A recent study by Saavedra and colleagues (2019) demonstrated that not identifying with the community was one of the biggest predictors of PhD burn out, over and above hours spent on the PhD. Aim to encourage students to be part of the community. Tell them about events for student researchers (e.g. training events within the university, external postgraduate conferences), encourage collaborations between PhD students, and involve students in departmental events such as seminar series or social events.

A great way for students to feel part of the community and meet like-minded researchers is through hosting visiting speakers or researchers. However, an aspect that is often overlooked in social events is to ensure that events are affordable for students. It may be tempting to take visiting researchers to an upmarket restaurant to impress them, but this can be very alienating for students who could otherwise benefit from the opportunity to meet the researcher. Another important way to build inclusive environments is to be aware of accessibility considerations, such as avoiding loud venues, ensuring access for wheelchairs or walkers, and using microphones. This also includes ensuring events are welcoming to people of all religions, for example through being alcohol-free and observing fasting times.

Cultivate independent researchers
I passed my viva three years ago and now work as a lecturer, but I am still told by men ‘we should work together once you are more independent’. I have been discouraged from working on great research opportunities with my PhD supervisor in order to establish my independence. Many of my female early career researcher colleagues have reported similar experiences, but I am yet to hear of the same thing being said to our male counterparts. Bearing in mind that women’s contributions are often under-valued, ensure to promote their work. Pay attention to how much the work of students is promoted and ensure the contributions of students are not being under-endorsed.

Ironically, one of the best things my supervisor did (and there were many good things) was gently encourage me to become an independent researcher as I progressed through my PhD. I recommend his approach: encourage students to take ownership of their work, to be proactive about exploring ideas and learning new skills, and to be reflective of their abilities and avenues for development. Also encourage students to collaborate with others, including facilitating placements with another research group to develop skills and build a network of collaborators. These actions have helped me immeasurably both in instilling enthusiasm for my research, but also in securing jobs since my PhD and in developing my abilities as an academic.  

Facilitate professional development
A fundamental avenue towards creating an inclusive environment in academia is to engage in active mentorship about professional development. Interviews with doctoral students of colour suggests that poor relations with mentors leaves students behind in terms of invitations to publish and professional development activities (Ellis, 2001).

One option is to find groups or initiatives within your university that can provide a supportive environment for students who want to engage with them. In one example, women of colour reported that doctoral programmes could be isolating and frustrating due to institutional racism and sexism, but formal positive mentoring improved their appraisals of the institutions and provided them with vital professional development skills that were otherwise ignored (Aryan & Guzman, 2010).

One substantial caveat to this, however, is that academics in historically disadvantaged groups are often inundated with additional caring and service responsibilities that do not help their career progression (Baginhole, 1993; Social Sciences Feminist Network Research Interest Group, 2017). First, we need to stop burdening academics in these groups with solving the problem, but another issue is that we need to formalise and give due credit to mentoring schemes and other caring roles that are overlooked.

Crucially, use your own knowledge and platform to promote the work of students and develop their skills. For example, suggest conferences that will allow students to showcase their work, teach students how to do an ‘elevator pitch’ of their research, familiarise them with journals and the publication process, ask them to assist you in reviewing articles, involve them in book chapters or articles that you are writing to help them gain experience, and include them in media interviews or articles for popular outlets. There are many aspects of academia that are not obvious to people from non-academic backgrounds, such as how to give an academic talk, so discuss abilities and experience with students to ensure they are all given the same knowledge and opportunities.

A final note
I write these recommendations with full awareness that I am relatively new to supervising and that academics are experiencing substantial increases to their workloads. The recent UCU strikes have demonstrated that we work far above our contracted hours. This system is unsustainable and particularly discriminatory to people from disadvantaged groups. Within this system, it can be difficult to find time to supervise students to the best of our abilities. I would argue, however, that we do not have time to keep things as they are. Much of the content about power dynamics in the Young and Hegarty (2019) paper could apply to academia now. We cannot continue to be part of environments that perpetuate inequality. To make academia a more positive, inclusive environment, we need to update our practice and encourage our students to take those developments forward. By building inclusive supervision styles we can take an important step towards addressing the structural inequalities in academia.

- Dr Anne Templeton is a Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Edinburgh. 

[email protected]

Illustration: Michelle Kondrich

Aryan, B. & Guzman, F. (2010). Women of color and the PhD. Journal of Business Studies Quarterly, 1(4), 69-77.
Bagilhole, B. (1993). How to keep a good woman down. British Journal of Sociology and Education, 14(3).
Ellis, E.M. (2001). The impact of race and gender on graduate school socialization, satisfaction with doctoral study, and commitment to degree completion. The Western Journal of Black Studies, 25(1), 30-45.
Edwards, H.A., Schroeder, J. & Dugdale, H.L. (2018). Gender differences in authorships are not associated with publication bias in an evolutionary journal. PLOS One, 13(8), e0201725.
Fox, C.W. & Paine, C.E.T. (2019). Gender differences in peer review outcomes and manuscript impact at six journals of ecology and evolution. Ecology and Evolution, 9(6), 3599-3916.
Lerchenmueller, M.J., Sorenson, O. & Jena, A.B. (2019). Gender differences in how scientists present the importance of their research. British Medical Journal, 367, l6573.
Odic, D. & Wojcik, E.H. (2019). The publication gender gap in psychology. American Psychologist, 75(1), 92-103.
Saavedra, P., Ntontis, E. & Kyprianides, A. (2019). PhD supervisors and faculty members might help to avoid burnout as well as enhance engagement and organisational citizenship behaviour (OCB) among PhD students. http://dx.doi.org/10.20919/Psych(2019).001
Social Sciences Feminist Network Research Interest Group. (2017). The Burden of Invisible Work in Academia: Social Inequalities and Time Use in Five University Departments. Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, 39, 228-245.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber