Published in March 2021.
In today’s superdiverse urban societies in which deprivation and privilege often sit at the complex intersections of gender, ethnicity, cultural heritage, sexual orientation and life opportunities, it may seem retrograde to focus on gender. Nevertheless, gender is still the locus of many forms of inequality. In higher education alone, there is a persistent gender pay gap in the UK (just under 16% in 2018) and progress towards narrowing the gap is slow. This pay gap reflects some of the more day to day experiences of women in academia, experiences that can make it difficult for women to flourish as academics and lead to poorer promotion prospects. Only a quarter of UK professors are women (with black women making up less than 2% of all female academic staff).
Stories told by female academics include experiences of being at the receiving end of abusive or discriminatory behaviour, lack of confidence, lack of opportunities to develop leadership skills and feeling obliged to take on more caring roles (such as mentoring and supporting students) at the expense of personal career development. All these struggles often take place against a background of caring responsibilities at home, periods of maternity leave and unrealistic expectations of women working part-time whilst also fulfilling home caring responsibilities.
It’s critically important that these inequalities are not perpetuated within the next generation of early career researchers (ECRs). In this sense, gender can also be seen as a test bed for dealing with the many other forms of discrimination and inequality found in academia. Major projects such as Conexus are an academic microcosm and offer an opportunity to address some of these inequalities.
Personal experience suggests that the problem is both systemic and personal. Systemic in the sense that inequality is deeply embedded in the academic systems within which we work, and personal in the sense that sometimes all it takes is one positive interaction to turn an individual career around. Looking back at my own academic experience I can clearly identify the positive interactions that gave me the confidence to launch and persevere with new projects. Within Conexus, we have the opportunity to model those positive interactions and create an ecosystem in which a diversity of ECRs can thrive.
Conversations about the role of the gender champion in CONEXUS suggest that we can’t focus solely on gender and that, as well as promoting gender and other equalities within our team, we have to look at the way we deliver our research across all pilots and projects. These ethical questions apply to every project involving vulnerable individuals or communities but are especially acute in international research collaborations in post-colonial settings, in which it is essential to ensure that research is not just another form of extractive exploitation. This highlights the need to ensure ethical and responsible research practice in relation to our international project partners and research participants.
This obligation is critical in the case of nature based solutions, which usually involve permanent physical changes to local environments, amplifying the risks of creating inappropriate interventions with lasting negative consequences. Such risks can be illustrated through an anecdote about an informal settlement in Bangkok, Thailand. A team of international experts created a new public open space within the informal settlement. Internationally, the project was considered a success and won an award. However, within months the space had been trashed and was being used mainly by drug users. The international team had not understood the complexities of the context they were working in. Such experiences run the risk of unsettling the local status quo, and leaving a legacy of disillusionment and distrust, rendering future interventions all the more challenging.
We aim to avoid such situations in Conexus through our collaborative action research approaches, which are grounded in the places and communities we are working in and build on the considerable skills and knowledge bases of our local and international partner organisations. This is a complex task and we are still finding our way. But hopefully we will quickly develop the understandings, approaches and processes to guide us safely through the project, leaving a positive legacy for the entire CONEXUS community of researchers and participants, as well as the end users of our NBS.