Perspectives from minority staff working in polar research
A recent study published in the journal Earth Science, Systems and Society sheds light on the experiences and viewpoints of staff working for British Antarctic Survey (BAS) from minority backgrounds. The research, conducted by co-authors Anya Lawrence (University of Birmingham) and Luis Escobedo (University of the Free State in South Africa) was commissioned by BAS as part of their Diversity in UK Polar Science Initiative.
The study found that while BAS has taken steps to enrich the careers of underrepresented groups and implement measures promoting equality, diversity, and inclusivity, the employees’ sense of belonging at BAS is still affected by structural and everyday practices that shape their lives through identity processes.
Laura Dance, Director of Corporate Services at British Antarctic Survey said: “We welcome the findings and thank the authors and staff for contributing to this important work. As an organisation, BAS is working towards ensuring all employees feel included and appreciated and this research helps us to understand what we are doing well and where we can improve.”
Mariella Giancola, Head of HR at British Antarctic Survey said: “We know there is still a huge amount of work to create an open and inclusive culture at our BAS Cambridge HQ, on our research stations and ship. We are striving to make improvements through several work packages, including Athena Swan, Disability Confident, our EDI internship programme and EDI Network.”
BAS currently has low levels of ethnic diversity, with only 3% of the workforce from minority groups, compared to the national average of 18% in the UK. LGBTQ+ representation among staff stands at just 2% (3.1% in the UK) and only 1.8% of the workforce declare having a disability (17.8% in the UK). Before 2013 only white male scientists held Directorial posts at BAS, but this has since changed.
The study aimed to explore the lived experiences and perspectives of minority employees at BAS, aligning with the organisation’s goal to enhance opportunities for underrepresented groups. It identified several issues, including a fear of saying the wrong thing, a misunderstanding of disability due to the physical fitness required to work in Antarctica, and a lack of knowledge on how to interact with individuals from ethnic and religious minorities.
The study did highlight that many staff commented on one of the strengths of working for BAS was the collaborative and transdisciplinary that attracted them to work for BAS in the first place.
The authors of the study argue that the lack of inclusion stems from the internal identification processes of the dominant majority group, rather than isolated and deliberate actions of individual members. They note that individuals belonging to the dominant group have internalised national, ethnic, gender, and other forms of belonging from an early age, resulting in boundaries when interacting with non-members, even when the intention is to erode such boundaries.
The authors emphasise that the workplace culture and issues faced by minority communities are not unique to BAS but are prevalent in many research organisations. The authors argue that the issues must be addressed by recruiting new staff from a range of backgrounds if they are to ensure that polar research remains relevant and innovative for the future. Other tactics include tackling microaggressions and culture issues that are prevalent in many research organisations.
The Diversity in UK Polar Science Initiative was launched in 2019 to mark the 200th anniversary of the discovery of Antarctica to promote polar science to underrepresented groups. Upcoming work includes an inclusion and positive community action session at the UK Arctic Science conference. BAS is also running a work experience programme this summer, which aims to increase UK students’ understanding of diversity, inclusion, and supportive practices within STEM careers.
Calving Out a Space to Exist: “Marked” Identities in Polar Science’s “Unmarked Spaces” by Anya Lawrence and Luis Escobedo is published in Earth Science, Systems and Society, DOI: 10.3389/esss.2023.10070