By Dr Varuni Wimalasiri
Overall there were 85 Black Professors in the UK’s Professoriate of 21,000 in 2019 (Rollock, 2019). Whilst 11.2% of White faculty occupy the senior role of Professor, at 4.6%, Black faculty are two and a half times less likely to make to this position (Advance HE, 2018). There are just 25 Black (African Caribbean) female professors in the UK today, making them the most under-represented group in academic faculty (Rollock, 2019). Research has shown that there are significant barriers to progression including injustices and systemic racism to prevent progress (Arday, 2020). In these circumstances, a celebration of the 25 Black female Professors in our UK Professoriate is significant and important. Especially when we consider the arduous journey’s they have seemingly overcome to arrive at these positions. Earlier this year, photographer Andrew Knight hosted an Exhibition in London called ‘Phenomenal Women’ showcasing portraits of some of these Professors.
Nicola Rollock (2019) of Goldsmiths College led a study to understand reasons for lack of progress in Black female faculty by interviewing 20 out of UK’s 25 Professors, which then led to the release of the ‘Rollock report’. There are repeated accounts in this report by this group of being undermined regularly in meetings, ignored during daily interactions by colleagues and repeatedly being passed over for progression in favour for lesser skilled faculty. Passive bullying and racial micro-aggressions are reported as being normal place for most of these academics throughout their career. A staggering 72% of Black and Minority ethnic (BAME) members, working in higher education, have been subject to bullying and harassment from managers. Unsurprisingly, quite a few of this group have considered leaving HE institutions altogether at some part of their career (Rollock, 2019). It is likely that most do, as at entry-level the representation of BAME staff is comparable to percentages in the general population in the UK (Advance HE, 2019).
Recent discourses and academic debates have started to unearth deeper levels of institutionalised racism that systemically disadvantage BAME groups (Arday & Mirza, 2018; Rollock, 2016). One such problem arises out of the label ‘BAME’ itself. This category holds all non-White people including- Asian – Asian or Asian British; Bangladeshi, Asian or Asian British; Indian, Asian or Asian British; Pakistani, and other Asian backgrounds, Black – Black or Black British: African, Black or Black British; Caribbean, and other Black backgrounds, Chinese, mixed, other ethnic backgrounds, including Arab. Even the word ‘Black’ is often used interchangeably to refer to people of other BAME backgrounds (i.e. Chinese and Indian ethnic groups) and is reflected in the varying statistics for this group. This blind acceptance of thinking that such a diverse range of ethnic groups can fall into just one category is problematic. Advance HE, the body that reports on statistics in HE has recognised this limitation and started reporting data disaggregated by more detailed ethnicity categories (Advance HE, 2019). Universities UK and National Union of Students in a combined report, have also recognised the barriers to creating realistic equitable outcomes for students due to limitations that arise out of the current system of categorisation (UUK-NUS, 2019).
Moreover, Eurocentric Epistemological perspectives dominate HE curriculum in most disciplines in what Delaguo et al (2002) call an ‘Apartheid of Knowledge’. More Universities are talking about decolonising the curriculum to address this, in a call to challenge long-standing biases and omissions that limit how we understand knowledge and society (Muldoon, 2019). In addition, research methods are also largely dominated by Epistemologies from the Global North where they were initially developed. Research with marginalised communities in the UK and elsewhere are helping us to understand threats to validity that arise out of these limitations. We are starting now to use methods guided by decolonised approaches to understand the lived experiences of ethnic minorities in a way that is true to their authentic lived experience, instead of trying to interpret them through a predetermined lens (Wimalasiri, 2020). Widening participation by deliberately finding ways to engage and include more individuals from BAME communities is also seen as a key to improving inclusion in HE (UUK- NUS, 2019) and is likely to have an impact on retention and progression of BAME communities in HE in the future. Race Charters and Diversity programmes are some of the effective instruments at our disposal to allow us to make effective and lasting changes to redress balances and provide equitable solutions. Seemingly, we are at a pivotal moment in HE history where we are openly starting to acknowledge limitations and shortfalls and actively looking to change these. Changes are afoot, yet there is a long way still to go.
In reaching academic excellence despite of the significant barriers they have faced these 25 women are making history in UK’s professoriate today! Their stories help our awareness and understanding of not just Black Faculty but of the strength of the human spirit told in a way to empower us to consider how we might all be part of this change. They are an inspiration to us all and the true embodiment of the acclaimed poem by Maya Angelou, ‘And Still We Rise’!
Delgado Bernal, D. & Villalpando, O. (2002) An apartheid of knowledge in academia: the struggle over “legitimate” knowledge of faculty of colour, Equity & Excellence in Education, 35 (2): 169-180.
Rollock, N. (2019), ‘Staying Power’: Career experiences and strategies of UK Black female Professors. UCU report.
Arday, J. (2020) Fighting the tide: Understanding the difficulties facing Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Doctoral Students’ pursuing a career in Academia. Educational Philosophy and Theory: 1-8.
Arday, J. & Mirza, H.S. (2016) Dismantling Race in Higher Education. Palgrave Macmillan.
Wimalasiri, V. (2020) Ethical and Methodological dilemmas in research with Refugee populations: At the intersection of Gender, Displacement and Work. British Academy of Management, Conference on the Cloud,2020.