Groups Names and a sense of Equality

I have previously written about academic research group names and a sense of identity and belonging. The arguments continue to do the rounds, so here’s a (brief) update on a few thoughts.

Who would think we would have so many issues with the assembly of a few letters? Apparently naming a research group is a thorny issue. (Photo from UnSplash)

A group name is not the only part of the identity of people working together. However, it can be important in helping reinforce and signal intent. ‘Surname-group’ continues to jar. It will be used as a default by many people, but it doesn’t have to the primary identity you sign up for.

The most reasonable argument I have heard pushing back against naming the group as something about “what you do” is that it can serve to limit opportunities to represent members of typically underrepresented groups. I’m nervous of pushing this argument, as how do we move towards a more equal and fair system if we are continuing to massively associate people’s (professional) worth by the surname of their supervisor.

In the spirit of DORA, if we wish to find out what people can do, and what skills they have, we could ask them or read their papers, rather than make crude assumptions about who we know. This “who-we-know” argument plays into privilege, because it means we are providing even more bias to which PIs (principal investigators) can get their name out there and gather up attention. There is also a bit of a complication here if you have a very common name, for example, 21% of the Korean population have the surname Kim or Gim. There is a bit more of a complication if you change your name, which is likely to be done by individuals from typically underrepresented groups more often (e.g. people who change gender identity and/or women who get married or divorced).

A peacock makes everyone look at them due to the beauty of their plumage, but how often do you see more than one peacock being successful? (Photo from unsplash)

The assumption that people would know what people in my group do because of my surname is incredibly big headed and problematic. I know that I (as an individual scientist) am well known for a particular area of work, but some of the people within the group work on very different topics and are known in their own right independent of me (and that’s really what I am working for when I think about training and supporting those in the team). It would be lazy for me to assume similar that this doesn’t happen in other research groups around the world. There is the problem of tenure and identity during promotion, but if you are throwing people who are more junior under the bus for these things, that’s a huge problem in its own right.

In terms of ‘narrowness’ and ‘do you understand what we do’ — enough people do understand what we do. The name is a bit long I’ll admit (and my previous post gives history on that), but it’s there to be inclusive of the team I work with, without grabbing all the potential identities that my colleagues may want within the space around me.

The group I lead is about the people within it. Yes, they further my career by being there, in that their success reflects well on me. However, members of the group are not my property. In this vein, I try really hard to correct the default position of saying “my post doc”, “my student” and instead try to say “a post doc in the group” or “a student I supervise”.

It also concerns me how much people are tied to the fact that someone’s professional identity is only there at the merit of their supervisor. This is especially problematic given the rising discussions about #MeTooSTEM and major cases of harassment and abuse which are coming to light.

Fundamentally the sense of people joining your ‘proxy family’ via inheriting my surname, cuts to the heart of my issue with the group name ‘being my surname’ argument . You could view this as a (subset of the) patriarchy in academic terms.

People may join the group I lead because I lead it, but the good people are passionate about me without me being around, and I enjoy being a cheer leader on their adventure. (Photo from Unsplash)

Ultimately, I want to co-create with the team I work with, and to do that I’d like to raise their autonomy. Of course, there are times when it is clear that I have to act as a their line manager or supervisor, and there are specific aspects of our relationship that require me to take the lead (e.g. safety management and developing culture). However, in general I want to provide as much room as I can encourage, within the framework of my place of work and immediate academic culture, to enable people to feel that they are part of a collective action.

We create our culture, and so can name things what we want. If someone else calls your group something else, you are free to correct them. There will also be times when an alternative name may be convenient/appropriate. Of course there are ‘field specific’ norms and cultures, but increasingly people are field hopping. This plays into yet another problem with respect to how names work.

Finally, if your argument rests upon the fact that research groups change focus over time — then is the best way to capture this by the surname of the PI? How on earth are the rest of us going to have a snapshot of what you were thinking when you hired and worked with this person three years ago. We can change our group name, just like we can change our place of employ.

Yes — I am aware that I am writing this as an academic who leads a group in a shiny university, and who is a white-western-male. However, I’m also know for my advocacy of equality, diversity, inclusion and accessibility in STEMM, especially concerning LGBTQ+ rights. Are you going to make the assumption that everyone in my group is a member of the LGBTQ+ community by their association to my work? (Some of them may be, but that’s none of my business, and certainly not yours — as it’s their story to tell).

As always — this post reflects a snapshot of my thoughts right now. I’m happy to be persuaded or to nudge these ideas around as time progresses. Hit me up on twitter if you’d like to discuss.

Medium is a social network, if you like this post, please ‘clap’ it below to recommend it to others.

If your are interested in the research group head to:

If you fancy getting in touch, telling me your stories, and helping me understand the world better, you can find me on twitter as @BMatB, or keep up to date with the group’s work via @ExpMicroMech.

Atomic sorcerer, based at UBC (Canada). Plays with metals. Discusses academic life. Swooshes down ski slopes. Pegs it round parks. (Views my own)