UCL School of Life and Medical Sciences


ACO Blog Post- 'Dear Jasmine...'

This months ACO Blog Post is authored by Dr Sarah Jasim, UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Healthcare, who asks the ECR community to join in the 'The Lost Voices' initiative.

Lost Voices

Dear Jasmine… 

Authored by Dr Sarah Jasim, NIHR ARC North Thames, Department of Applied Health Research (DAHR), Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care, UCL; Care Policy & Evaluation Centre (CPEC), LSE

Editing contributions by Alex Teale (UCL), Jumani Yogarajah, Kailey Nolan (NIHR ARC North Thames), Dr Morag Lewis (The London Postdocs, KCL), Dr Rui Pires Martins (The London Postdocs, QMUL) and Dr Shaakir Salam (KCL)

Dear Jasmine / Jasim is how I am regularly addressed in e-mail responses. My name is not Jasmine, nor Jasim (this is my surname): it’s just Sarah. 

This is something I’ve become accustomed to over the years, as it happens so frequently. Yet there is always that tiny voice that wonders why this happens when email addresses at UCL, as with most organisations, are formatted as ‘surname, first name’. I sign off emails with my full name, and I am yet to meet someone with ‘Sarah’ as a surname, so I ask myself what more can be done?

Being regularly wrongly addressed is one of many ways that inequality and exclusion present themselves in the early career researcher (ECR) community. As a female ECR from a Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background, I encounter and grapple with many inequalities on a regular basis, as I’m sure so many of us do in different ways. As I transitioned from my Master’s in Public Health, to a PhD researcher in 2012, I began to slowly recognise the disparities that ECRs can face (some more so than others) and often silently struggle with. 

During my PhD and first postdoc, I arranged and attended visits to places all over the UK for my research. On numerous occasions, I would be in the waiting room, or reception, or the front of a building, and the person I was supposed to meet would stare blankly at me, walk past me, or even call out my name and say ‘Sarah?’ ‘Is somebody here by the name of Sarah?’ as if I possibly couldn’t be somebody with the name ‘Sarah’. Sometimes, when this would happen, there would be a look of surprise, shock, or even embarrassment. I would absorb or internalise the interaction, as if it was somehow my fault. I would ignore or overlook what had happened so it did not adversely affect my research, or impact the rapport that I had been trying to carefully maintain. Many colleagues within our ECR community have faced similar experiences. For the majority of us, we have learned to accept these microaggressions - being wrongly addressed or awkward encounters as common practice - as something that is likely to continue unchanged throughout our careers.    

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Until quite recently, there has been little institutional progress in Equality, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) initiatives within our ECR community, and issues connected to (but not limited to) race, culture, upbringing, gender, religion, disability, financial ability, sexuality or mental health are still not readily discussed or understood. This year we have seen the world slowly beginning to take notice of the structural inequality and prejudices that exist amid global outcries in response to gender violence and discrimination, racially motivated killings, and workforce mental health to name a few. However, I wonder how much these sentiments have practically filtered down into the ECR community and the wider research environment? This is a community where work tasks are often prioritised above all else, where issues of discrimination and inequality are mostly hidden in fear of appearing incapable, and sometimes the sheer struggle to find people who ‘look like you’ at the senior level is daunting and demotivating. As early career researchers, we are dedicated to developing research that benefits the public, communities and wider society. Yet we are a part of that society and, in order to do our work effectively, we also need support from our peers and institutions to equip us with the skills we need to tackle discrimination. 

I’m fortunate to have worked with pioneering academics, who have broken the mould in many ways despite the inequalities they have faced, and they have provided me with both inspiration and guidance – but not every ECR will have experienced this. Joining the B-MEntor scheme, as well as other mentoring and coaching arrangements during my first postdoctoral role, was pivotal in overcoming confidence issues such as imposter syndrome (feelings of persistent inadequacy despite evident success) which affects swathes of our ECR community. 

I joined The London Postdocs to better understand the pan-London ECR community, and through contributing to the co-ordination of the second ‘National Postdoc Conference’, and attending national BME ECR conferences, I began to recognise how these experiences illuminate the inequalities faced by our ECR community, and the disconnect between us all, most importantly between us and our institutions / funding bodies.

This prompted myself and The London Postdocs to mobilise our ECR community through ‘The Lost Voices’, a series of initiatives that will begin by collating stories on inequalities faced by our ECR community (funded by a UCL Researcher-Led Initiative Award). These stories are usually hidden stories, told to others who may understand or who have also faced similar experiences. With your help, I would like to shine a light on these stories and bring them out of the dark. We will use them to develop a skills webinar to help empower ECRs to overcome some of these experiences, and finally we will pose your questions to a panel discussion with senior decision-makers, with the aim of enacting institutional change.

We ask the ECR community (as an existing or previous ECR, an ally, or those who work with or alongside ECRs) to assemble and join us to highlight these issues. If you belong to this community, and would like to share your own experience of inequality – whether this is a ‘Dear Jasmine’ moment or something else - we urge you to please share your story with us.