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Research careers – the danger of self-editing

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by Cancer Research UK | Analysis

14 May 2024

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'It’s important to be yourself’... it's a phrase that's often thrown around, and perhaps it's especially true at work where we spend most of our time… but what does that actually mean? And are we always honest about who we really are? Marjolein Schaap gets into what this means for researchers…

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Research Careers

I didn’t know I did this, but recently I’ve become aware that I tend to change things about myself that I don’t think are valued.

It seems to happen particularly when I am in a new environment or situation, just to make sure I ‘fit in’. For example, I am very conscious about my accent – I am Dutch, but I always strive to sound as English as I can. Its not that people find it hard to understand me – but, in my mind, I feel that it sounds more credible and therefore, people will take me more seriously.

Maybe that sounds strange, but I was glad to hear from an expert recently that I don’t appear to be the only one. During our annual Women of Influence meeting, allyship expert, Suzy Levy, explained that this is a phenomenon called ‘editing’. Apparently, we all do it, but some more than others. Marginalised groups, for example, are more likely to self-edit than others to assimilate to the norm… or what is perceived as the norm.

It’s easy to say that everyone should be able to be themselves, but for a lot of people, that is easier said than done, especially if the norm is ‘white’, ‘able-bodied’ and ‘middle-class’.

Easier said than done…

Levy suggests that people edit when they don’t feel safe to be themselves. This made me wonder what this means for researchers working in academia where there is a significant lack of diverse voices.

It’s easy to say that everyone should be able to be themselves, but for a lot of people, that is easier said than done, especially if the norm is ‘white’, ‘able-bodied’ and ‘middle-class’. The following quote shared by a panel member during the discussion on allyship at our Women of Influence meeting illustrates particularly well how ethnic minority groups might feel on a daily basis: A white workplace is like an itchy sweater – only once I’m home, I feel safe, and I can take it off’.

This illustrates the many facets of why diversity in the workplace is important, and how it can be overlooked as we all too easily assume that people experience things in the same way as we do. It also means that some people might spend a lot of energy on ‘fitting in’, energy that could be spent on driving scientific progress.


Building networks

In academia it’s key to connect with others and build collaborative networks, but how do we build those if we are editing all the time?

The first step is actively choosing to be a better ally for our scientific colleagues. A lovely example of how impactful this can be was given by Ed Roberts, Junior Group Leader at the CRUK Scotland Institute, at the WOI event. He setup the Betty Macgregor Annual Memorial Award Showcase to celebrate women who have made a disproportionate impact in cancer research. But Ed also points out that it is equally important to engage in everyday allyship, which can simply be taking the time to listen to other people’s experiences.

Ultimately, we all benefit from a world in which everyone feels like they can be themselves, but we need to be prepared to do the work, to start listening to people who don’t look, act or sound like us.

I encourage you to think what you could do as scientists to make space for others, to create an environment in which people feel valued and appreciated for who they are.

Read our interview with Dr Ed Roberts about the importance of inclusion in research and his allyship efforts

Read our Diversity Data Report

Marjolein Schaap


Dr Marjolein Schaap

Marjolein is a Research Programme Manager focussing on Careers and Discovery Research

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