The ViDSS Blog

Dismantling the ivory tower: Our perspectives from within

In academic spaces, individuals from underrepresented social groups often face systemic barriers that hinder their full participation and success. Such barriers include systemic biases in hiring, promotion, access to resources, and lack of representation. Underlying factors, including persisting racism, sexism, and ableism, manifesting through stereotypes, exclusion, and microaggressions, promote the formation of hostile environments that further discourage underrepresented scholars from succeeding in academic careers. As a result, academia loses valuable perspectives, talents, and contributions that could foster innovative and impactful research, reflecting the diverse experiences and insights of society as a whole.

The lack of inclusivity in academia has deep historical roots tied to broader societal structures of inequality and discrimination. Throughout much of history, universities have been dominated by advantaged groups with privileged backgrounds, often reflecting and perpetuating existing power dynamics, while marginalised individuals have often been systematically denied access to higher education, let alone faculty or leadership positions within academia. The prominent perspectives and theories have often been shaped by the dominant social groups, resulting in a Eurocentric bias and exclusion of non-Western knowledge and perspectives. Notably, in the social sciences, colonisation and imperialism have had their own imprint, creating a lens of superiority and domination through which scholars have been viewing non-Western cultures and societies. Up till today, many curricula contain texts, viewpoints, and methods that continue reinforcing these biases while excluding valuable work by underrepresented scholars and their diverse perspectives.

While there have been efforts to promote the inclusion of marginalised groups in academic spaces, those who make it to early-career positions still face systemic barriers to full participation and career advancement. On an individual level, this can manifest in heightened levels of stress and anxiety, imposter syndrome, isolation, perfectionism, and burnout. Everyday microaggressions, such as subtle slights or invalidations, further contribute to emotional distress and frustration. Oftentimes, affected individuals have to come up with solutions themselves, discouraged from speaking out due to hierarchical structures, normalisation of bias, and the culture of denial.

In addressing the deep-seated problems of discrimination and marginalisation within academia, we must recognise that solutions need to go beyond individual efforts to structural change. But how can we collectively drive systemic change? Isn’t it reasonable to feel discouraged and disconnected in the face of such a daunting list of challenges? This underscores the importance of coming together and creating and using platforms for marginalised voices. It is by sharing our experiences that we can recognise our common struggles and strengths while fostering solidarity and mutual support. Together, we can express frustrations, identify our collective needs, and build each other up. We, as the authors,  consider moments of joining forces incredibly empowering and are grateful to have had many such experiences in various workshops, discussions, and conversations that we have organised or participated in within our teams, departments, and the Vienna Doctoral School for Social Sciences (ViDSS).

Creating and maintaining bottom-up spaces and initiatives, however, needs to be a sustainable action. Therefore, it is vital that such efforts are supported by resources from the academic communities. One such space sustainably embedded in the ViDSS is the forum Navigating Intersectionalities and Creating Opportunities in Academia, where we are part of the organising team. The forum brings together researchers at the Faculty of Social Sciences who experience discrimination and those who want to offer support. Through social gatherings, workshops, and guest lectures, we aim to facilitate peer support, raise awareness of discrimination in academia, and foster solidarity.

It is crucial to note that while these approaches to coming together in formal and informal settings have been effective for us, they may not be universally beneficial for all marginalised scholars, suitable for all situations, and sometimes not possible due to institutional constraints.

Other initiatives in which we are actively involved include mentoring and coaching for students and early career researchers within national and international conference associations. These activities aim to provide meaningful and tailored advice exchange by pairing marginalised scholars with mentors and coaches who understand and address their unique challenges. In addition to mentoring, we also participate in buddy programmes, which provide an additional layer of support, allowing scholars to connect with peers who can share insights and experiences, including the often-overlooked soft knowledge of academia.

Last but not least, as academics, we value the cultivation of an inclusive and critical research and teaching agenda in our daily work. As researchers studying sensitive topics related to discrimination and marginalised communities, we are committed to advancing social justice through research by combining scientific integrity with social responsibility. Driven by this motivation, we actively address bias in research, spanning both theoretical frameworks and methodological approaches. As peers and colleagues, we provide each other with thorough feedback and create environments conducive to discussing our ideas and designs. We practice presentations, review code and meet for writing sessions. And we always make time for each other to catch up over coffee. As teachers and advisors, we aim to embody the educators we have admired or the ones we wished we had. To this end, we adopt a supportive and encouraging approach while critically evaluating current teaching practices and curricular frameworks.

Creating spaces for exchange, fostering mentoring and buddy relationships, and critically assessing our research and teaching practices are among the actions we are personally taking and encouraging as some potential bottom-up catalysts for systemic change.

Indeed, the challenges are daunting, and the path is thorny – all the more reason for us to persevere and embrace agency. By sharing our perspectives from within, we not only acknowledge and celebrate our resilience but also honour those who came before us, making academia accessible to us, so we can continue to dismantle the ivory tower. (19.03.2024, Ahrabhi Kathirgamalingam and Aytalina Kulichkina)

ViDSS students Ahrabhi Kathirgamalingam and Aytalina Kulichkina conducted workshops on discrimination in academia on different occasions. (© Ahrabhi Kathirgamalingam and Aytalina Kulichkina)