Do the friends you make at university influence your chances of success? This is the question Dr Katherine Woolf wants to answer in her quest to work out how to improve equality and fairness in the medical profession.
Katherine works at the UCL Medical School, where around half of the students are from a black or minority ethnic (BME) group. This compares with around 40% of London's population being BME, which sounds like good news for progress on ethnic diversity and equality. Yet all is not equal for BME students and doctors as they advance in their careers. Katherine explains, "Careful analysis of the data shows that BME students don't perform as well as their white classmates. There is a small but persistent performance gap, with BME students more likely to fail their exams at medical school".
It is obviously important to make sure that medical students who don't know their elbow from their ileum aren't allowed to graduate. It is also important that everyone has an equal opportunity to achieve their full potential, regardless of their race. Katherine and her colleagues want to know why BME students are less likely to succeed than white students, and what can be done about it.
They have explored a range of factors that might explain the difference. Different socio-economic status, personality types and educational background all have some effect, but don't fully explain the 'ethnic gap' in performance. Katherine's latest research — which she'll be reporting at the British Science Festival in September — focuses on friendship groups at medical school.
Students tend to make friends with people of similar ethnicity, and their exam results tend to be similar to their friends. "Who you know affects what you know", says Katherine. "We think that the social environment in which learning takes place, inside and outside the classroom, is important."
Students from BME groups may be affected by what psychologists call 'stereotype threat'. Katherine's research shows that BME students are subject to stereotyping in a way that white students are not. The stereotype of the BME medical student is someone who is under a lot of pressure from their parents, is good at book learning, but not good at communicating and dealing with patients. While students rarely report overt discrimination, stereotyping can increase anxiety and reduce performance.
If stereotyping is a factor in success, then who you make friends with at university might be important. Stereotypes can be reinforced if ethnic groups are socially divided, which is a wider problem for equality. Katherine is very clear: "This does not mean that minority ethnic groups should be pressured to integrate." she says, "Social networks are very important support mechanisms and there is a lot that the majority can do to break down barriers and stereotypes".
Katherine's top tips for improving equality and fairness at medical school (and in life) are:
- Be aware that these issues exist. It is too easy to write ethnic inequalities off as someone else's problem.
- Be willing to question the status quo. Just because things have always been a certain way doesn't mean they are right.
- Take active steps to help people talk about their ethnicity, which is often a taboo subject.
- Listen to students, staff and patients from BME groups whose voices are often ignored.
Watch a lecture by Katherine about ethnicity and attainment in UK medicine.