Gujarati, Academic, Woman: Navigating different cultures and identities

EACR member Diviya Gorsia writes about her experiences of being a South Asian woman in academia

By Diviya Gorsia

I count myself incredibly privileged to have had the support and insistence of my parents in educating their own only daughter as not all South Asian women will have had this; however, I am no stranger to the experience many South Asian women face. Most South Asian women that attend university are often quizzed by family members, not on their university experience or their course but if they’ve “found anyone” at university. This set the general tone of the expectations that the South Asian community has of women – our ambitions and academic achievements are a secondary concern, with the primary concern being finding a partner. After finishing my undergraduate degree with a 1st Class Honours, and a place on a prestigious postgraduate course, why was “Oh there’s lots of Indian boys at Imperial” the first response from every Indian aunty? Should I not be aspiring for more? Should I not be pursuing my ambition to positively contribute to society?

From the start of my PhD journey I felt as though I was constantly trying to prove my worth, that I belonged in academia and that my supervisor wasn’t wrong for hiring me.

Fast forward 6 months and I was offered a PhD studentship at the University of Leicester for an incredible project with a phenomenal supervisor. In typical Indian parent fashion, it was the first thing Mum would mention when we would bump into family or people from the community, her genuine excitement and happiness for me was really heart-warming to see but the excitement and happiness was soon dissipated for concern and when she would hear “Oh she’ll find it a lot harder to find a guy if she’s doing a PhD, boys find it intimidating”. I couldn’t help but feel frustrated hearing my achievement being diminished to a reductive traditional approach of what the South Asian community expects of women.

The Academy… has very different expectations of women of colour than their respective communities… we are expected to fight for not only for racial equality but also for gender equality

Over time the frustration has slowly melted away leaving a need to initiate a conversation about women from our community pursuing further education and challenging the cultural problematic norms that act as a barrier. It is by no means an easy or pleasant conversation addressing cultural expectations of South Asian women and the standards we are expected to live up to; but if we do not start the conversation, how can we expect to the older generation to understand.

The Academy, on the other hand, has very different expectations of women of colour than their respective communities. Women from ethnic minority backgrounds are held to different standards across different institutions and academia is no different; we are expected to fight for not only for racial equality but also for gender equality, without seeing any incorporation of intersectionality into academic feminism and little to no representation of people who look like you in academic positions. But in countless instances of gaslighting, microaggressions and offensive remarks, how can academic institutions seriously expect to retain their present intake of individuals from marginalised communities without reflection in their role in contributing to institutionalised racism and without a support system for these individuals.

Looking back on starting my PhD almost two years later, now that I’m in my final year, I can’t help but laugh at the rose-tinted glasses with which I viewed academia. Students have a romanticized view of what their journey as a PhD student will look like, and I was no exception. The first 6 months of my PhD was very much a honeymoon period, not only with my project, but also with the people surrounding me– I hadn’t felt overtly different to them because of my ethnicity initially until the role of being the one of the few spokeswomen for South Asian women was slowly pushed onto me. From the start of my journey I felt as though I was constantly trying to prove my worth, that I belonged in academia and that my supervisor wasn’t wrong for hiring me. The pressure I had put on myself to succeed from my Masters was not easy to get rid of and felt more amplified, if anything. It wasn’t enough to show the community it is worth pursuing academia, but also to prove to the academic institution that women from ethnic minority backgrounds are more than capable and deserving of representation. We are more than a tickbox to show your “progressive” ideals, we are more than EDI leads, we are not ethnicity experts purely because of our skin colour and most importantly our experiences are not monolithic.

you will find people who are willing to listen to your experience and take on an active allyship role

Finding academic role models that relate to your experience is almost impossible but for those of you aspiring to go into academia, you will find other students who are underrepresented in academia and can relate to your experience, and you will find people who are willing to listen to your experience and take on an active allyship role. Minorities in academia are doing all that they can to change the environment in academia in the hope that we see diverse representation across the Academy. You may feel the need to assimilate and not “rock the boat” as is so often heard in the South Asian community, and that’s okay but let it be your choice, not a decision you feel is forced upon you. In 2018 in the UK, there were 4735 female professors, of which 4340 were white women. Only 150 were Asian women. 25 were Black women.[1]See page 260 of the Equality in higher education: staff statistical report 2018 by Advance HE We have a long way to go but the thought of being in a position to help open doors for those with protected characteristics is what will keep me in academia. In the wise words of Shymala Gopalan Harris, “You may be the first to do many things, but make sure you are not the last”.


About the Author

I am a final year PhD student at Leicester Cancer Research Centre, focusing on applying a personalised approach to detecting, monitoring and treating endometrial cancer using both a liquid biopsy and bioinformatics approach. I am passionate about science communication and its role in promoting equity in healthcare and academia.

Contact the author: Twitter @DiviyaGorsia | LinkedIn

This article was originally published in a longer format on the website Not Your Wife and has been republished with permission