Accessibility statement

Department wins grant to understand the experiences of BAME staff and students

Posted on 7 October 2020

The under-representation of BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) individuals is a longstanding problem in chemistry and represents an enormous loss of talent. To help address this urgent problem, the Department of Chemistry has recently been awarded £5000 by The Royal Society of Chemistry to survey the lived experiences of BAME chemistry students and staff.

Demonstrating the seriousness of the problems faced by BAME chemists, a recent Royal Society of Chemistry study demonstrated that the UK chemistry pipeline loses almost all of its BAME chemists after their undergraduate studies. As such, the Departmental Equality and Diversity Group, chaired by Professor Caroline Dessent, wanted to take action to understand and address this problem.

The Department of Chemistry at the University of York has been a pioneering department in Equality, Inclusion and Diversity. For example, through the policies and practice developed in York, gender equality has been embedded in the Department’s culture to the benefit of all of its members, as reflected by the award of Athena SWAN gold status, held continuously since 2007.  The Department is now planning to use this experience to build the best possible environment to support BAME students and staff.

In the early years of our work on gender equality, the key activity was listening to the lived experiences of women and allowing them opportunities to talk. These discussions provided a space for individuals to be honest about any problems they faced, individually or with the Department itself. This new project will therefore carry out a broad listening exercise with BAME staff and students in the Department. 

Dr Sean McWhinnie an external consultant, who understands the chemistry context having been an inorganic chemistry lecturer and worked in Science Policy and Diversity for the RSC, and is himself BAME, will be employed to carry out the survey. In this way, consultations will be conducted in a manner that allows individuals to be as honest as possible. This work will allow us to identify the ways in which individuals experience racism, understand career aspirations and bottlenecks, and identify practical actions that any department could put in place to encourage individuals to continue with chemical careers.

Dr McWhinnie commented: “I’m delighted to be working with York Chemistry to explore this important topic.  Although nationally, the representation of BAME people in undergraduate chemistry is broadly what one might expect, representation at more senior levels remains very low.”

In particular, we hope to understand the lived experiences of BAME staff and students and the actions they believe would encourage them to continue in chemical careers. We also hope to learn whether there are differences in the experience of UK and non-UK BAME chemists. The results will be compiled in an openly-available report that will be disseminated across the chemical community.

Professor Dessent said: “We were delighted to receive support for this project from the RSC Inclusion and Diversity Fund and hope that our students will welcome the opportunity to contribute their experiences. We want to ensure the Department enables all of its staff and students to thrive, and think this is an important step in helping us achieve this goal.”

Dr Avtar Matharu, member of academic staff in the Chemistry Department, and Chair of the University Staff Race Equality Forum said: “This will be an important study, and I hope it provides rich information. The environment experienced by individuals in York will likely be very different from other universities, particularly those with higher current percentages of BAME students and staff.  We hope our project will stimulate similar work in other institutions and we plan to share all of our developed resources to facilitate this. In the longer term, it will be particularly important to understand how the lived experiences of BAME chemists change from department to department across the UK, and identify best practice in the widest possible terms”.

The Royal Society of Chemistry Inclusion and Diversity Fund provides financial support for innovative products, activities and research projects that foster inclusion and diversity in the chemical sciences. The survey of BAME experiences will run during the early part of 2021 and should report later in the year.