No title, no expert? (Part 2)

A microscopic view from the academic community

First, a quick recap from the previous post on this topic: we talked about public criticism and suppression of junior researchers, conveying the impression that the opinion of junior researchers will always be secondary to their seniors. The outlined example in previous post made it clear that the best research environments for learning and development are ones in which junior researchers are not afraid to be wrong.

The rule of the title – also a local phenomenon

The previous example of public criticism may sound serious, but these stories are the exception, right? Well, when we had a chat about the topic with friends and colleagues, we realised that many of us are familiar with this behaviour, and surprisingly many shared a story where they or their colleagues were not taken seriously or were looked down on just because of their (lack of) title.

Here is a collection of some personal stories:

“During a group meeting, one of the group leaders (an associate professor) complained about a recent paper rejection and said that the editor of the journal “just had a PhD” to justify that the editor didn’t have any competencies. I was quite chocked – having a PhD was evidently not competent enough?”

“When I was a PhD student, we had a great technician in our group. When a new PI joined the lab, he asked the technician for lots of advice about certain lab techniques and they had coffee breaks together. Once he realized she was “only a technician”, all conversations and coffee chats ended. She (and I) was very upset by this.”

“Last year, I organised a webinar and invited a PhD student working in a field we wanted to incorporate into our own research. My choice of the speaker was questioned by some people, because she was “only a PhD student” and I was asked to “inform the audience that she’s not an expert”. I was very frustrated by the comment and disagreed, because this person was clearly more experienced in the topic than any of us; after all, this was her thesis topic.”

Of course, this problem doesn’t happen in every research environment. But anecdotal evidence like this suggests that it is perhaps more prevalent than we realise.

But, why do some senior academics look down on those with less advanced degrees? Is it “traditional” thinking based on hierarchy? Can it, at least partially, be explained by culture?  Where does the need to value degrees/titles more than expertise come from? And how should we react to this?

The science behind it – master suppression techniques

Social power structures like these are known as ‘master suppression’ techniques. According to Norwegian researcher Berit Ås, the techniques are used by people in power to (consciously or unconsciously) reinforce or maintain that power. The (negative) treatment of individuals or organisations based on categorization manifests in systemic discrimination.

Examples of master suppression techniques are: diminishing an individual’s presence, making them invisible; declaring a person’s incompetence; withholding information; and blaming and shaming individuals or whole organisations. Like mosquito bites, they can be more subtle, but at the same time occur on an everyday basis both on an individual and on structural level.

Sounds somewhat familiar, right? Many, if not all, of us have experienced a situation that would fall within one of these categories.

According to the research on this topic, the short-term effect for the ‘victim’ includes feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, and insecurity. On the long-term, individuals can leave the work environment – if the power structure is strong, victims also suffer from health issues.

Sometimes, power structures can be difficult to identify, and they can even be unintentional, but the results for the individual who is affected by it are still the same. The question is: what can we do to resist master suppression techniques, to “break the pattern”? How do we create a positive culture in the working place?

Acknowledge expertise independent of the title and create a good research environment

From a victim’s point of view, the most important thing is to be seen, heard, and supported by other members of the group. Coaches say that if you experience a situation where domination or master suppression techniques are used, don’t look away! It may be very difficult if you are an early-career researcher, because you may feel vulnerable. However, we will only be able to demand change and create a respectful environment by acknowledging the problem needs to be counteracted.

“When a recent situation of suppression occurred in my environment, I first realised how much I internalised this power structure myself. Although I wanted to question the situation, I fell back into the old pattern of “I’m just a postdoc, I’m not in the position to raise my voice and demand an explanation”. Afterwards, I was angry at myself that I should have been honest and call the situation out. Next time, I promised myself, I will not be silent, but I will ask the person in ‘power’ to explain what they meant, hopefully they will realise themselves that their behaviour is inappropriate. I want to be a good example for more junior group members, too, and show them that together we can create a better social climate where everyone is respected.” (Katharina)

As we wrote in the previous post, the best research environments for learning and development are those in which junior researchers are not afraid to be wrong. The social environment can only be improved if everyone takes their responsibility. It’s difficult to maintain a dominating environment if people spot and resist master suppressive actions. Thus, group heads and research leaders must actively enforce such environments.

If you are an early-career researcher and you don’t dare to speak out to the person ‘in power’, try talking to your colleagues or a person of trust at the department or university level to get support and advice how to overcome the discrimination. It is about being seen and heard, and you can signal to your peers that you’re there to watch out for each other. It is often easier to speak up if you know that you have the support from your peers.

And if you are yourself in a powerful position, reflect on yourself whether you (even unconsciously) contribute to a negative environment. Try to change the ‘point of view’ and evaluate the situation from the other person’s perspective. And, when you spot an act of master suppression, be a good example and demand change.

If you want to read more about master suppression techniques, we can recommend the information at JÄMTSTÄLLT (in Swedish only unfortunately), or check out KI’s entry on this topic!


Did you enjoy reading this post and would like to join the discussion? Are there any other topics you would like us to cover? Let us know in the comments!

Blog post by Anthony & Katharina

Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay

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