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A Technician Lens

A Technician Lens

By Kelly Vere, Director of Technical Skills and Strategy, University of Nottingham

Most initiatives, articles, blogs and thought pieces regarding equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in higher education have traditionally focused on advancements for the academic members of staff conventionally responsible for providing a rich learning and research environment - the professors, lecturers and postdoctoral researchers perhaps most vital, and most visible, to those within and beyond academia. While these activities are undeniably essential, it is crucial that we remember that there are other colleagues within the research ecosystem who also make essential contributions to research, teaching and knowledge transfer – the technicians. 

Technicians make vital contributions to universities and research institutes. Their expertise enables teaching, research, knowledge exchange and outreach activities. This is being increasingly recognised through the Technician Commitment, a sector wide initiative to ensure visibility, recognition, career development and sustainability of technical skills, roles and careers within UK higher education and research. On 27 February UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) became the first funder to sign the Technician Commitment, as both a funder, and as an employer.

It is vital to appreciate that EDI initiatives do not just apply to academic or research staff groups. Indeed, it is arguable that the issues are more serious in the technical community where EDI is often not as advanced.

Taking a team science approach

STEMM-CHANGE is one of eleven EPSRC-funded Inclusion Matters projects driving a positive change in culture and practices across Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM). The STEMM-CHANGE programme has several linked projects that will enable a step-change in approaches to promoting EDI in the workplace. It is led by a multi-disciplinary team at the University of Nottingham in collaboration with a diverse range of project partners. STEMM-CHANGE takes a ‘team science’ approach and is unique in that it acknowledges the diversity of the roles of staff that contribute to the research effort.

STEMM-CHANGE has been working with Technician Commitment signatories the University of Liverpool and the John Innes Centre, and project partners the Science Council to highlight and address EDI challenges facing technicians alongside academic and research staff.

In order to raise the sector’s awareness of EDI in the technical community and to ensure the challenges identified can be tackled effectively, the team launched a report entitled ‘Equality, Diversity & Inclusion: A Technician Lens’ on 14th November 2019 at the STEMM-CHANGE annual conference at the Royal Society of Chemistry, Burlington House, London. For the first time, utilising data and qualitative feedback from national workshops and presentations, the report identifies the EDI challenges facing the technical community in UK higher education and provides sector recommendations to advance equality, diversity and inclusion for all.Key observations made in the report include the low numbers of technicians who are of black, Asian or minority ethnic representation in UK higher education as well as the lack of female technicians in subjects such as physics and engineering and the higher numbers of female technicians in subjects including biosciences, medicine, dentistry and health and agricultural, forestry and veterinary science.

The proportion of technicians that are of black, Asian or minority ethnic groups (10%) is lower than the proportion of academic staff (16%) and lower than the proportion of all non-academic staff (12%). The low numbers of black, Asian or minority ethnic technical staff presents a significant challenge, and also a significant opportunity, for the technical community in UK HE. Reports cite a need for greater numbers of technicians across Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in the UK across all sectors. Recruiting from diverse communities presents an opportunity to grow the UK’s technician community and enhance the skills base.

Qualitative findings demonstrated that many technical staff were unaware of the EDI challenges they faced within their own community and were unfamiliar with initiatives such as Athena Swan and the Race Equality Charters. Where technical colleagues were aware of institutional programmes of activity, many reported a lack of inclusion of technical staff and consequently a lack of technical representation on institutional EDI committees. Inequity in working arrangements (i.e. flexible working) between academic and technical staff groups were cited by some technical colleagues as a barrier to advancing EDI in the technical community and female technical colleagues in engineering and physical sciences reported a lack of practical considerations in traditionally male dominated subject areas. Examples given included a lack of appropriate changing facilities and PPE equipment and safety wear/footwear being unavailable in appropriate sizing. A number of institutional equality and diversity champions/professionals demonstrated a lack of awareness of the roles of technical colleagues. This is perhaps unsurprising given the historical invisibility of technical roles. It was evident that the two communities rarely came together.

This report presents the first steps to identifying and understanding the EDI challenges facing the technical community in higher education and makes a number of recommendations in order for the sector to begin tackling the challenges identified. It is clear there is much more to be done but by shining a light on this vital, yet traditionally invisible community, we hope to advance equality, diversity and inclusion across the technical community to the benefit of all.