Yaz Iyabo Osho
The topic of race and ethnicity in higher education has never been so prevalent, with a range of shocking statistics and accounts from the sector, such as no black academics in senior management positions in British universities, black students being 1.5 times more likely to drop out of university compared to their white and Asian counterparts and accounts that black academics experience greater scrutiny in HE and are less successful in applying for promotion compared to their white peers.
As a mid-career black woman academic, statistics and accounts such as these come as no surprise. Individuals from BAME backgrounds’ existence in academia, either as academics, professionals or students tend to pose specific challenges and hurdles which need to be navigated if survival, and of course, progression is to be achieved.
Universities: A beacon on liberal thought (and action?)
The University, commonly seen as a beacon of opportunity and liberal thought is clearly experienced differently by students and staff alike based on factors such as intersectionality. In addressing this issue, the Equality Challenge Unit’s (ECU) Race Equality Charter aims to improve the opportunities, success and progression of minority ethnic staff and students in higher education. It is too early to assess the long-term impact of this Charter given its launch in January 2016. Joining the ECU’s Race Equality Charter is not mandatory; but it does aim to tackle some of the problems faced by BAME students and staff in UK universities.
In January 2018, there were thirty-six members and nine award holders of the ECU’s Race Equality Charter. This proves that there is still a very long way to go for UK universities to adopt a strategic approach in tackling the institutional barriers faced by BAME staff and students.
Likewise, in research I conducted for presentation at Between Resilience and Vulnerability conference at the University of Gloucester this year, it was found that 63% of black academics surveyed had experienced some form of discrimination in their role. Key themes ranged from limited opportunities for promotion, feelings of marginalization and differential treatment by students based on their race. One respondent remarked: “as black lecturers, educators, academics, students, we not only come up against micro-aggressions, intersectional discrimination, marginalization and inequality and that is just in respect to the ivory tower, we also are also, as research has shown, scored lower in student evaluations.”
Negotiating gender and racial inequality
Although there is still a long way to go, the academic space is one where the tackling of gender inequality is arguably much further along. Racial injustice continues to persist where discriminatory practices, structural marginalisation and forms of exclusion are frequently reported by BAME members of staff. Compounding this issue further are the experiences of BAME female academics whose intersectional identities add additional experiences of inequity.
It was with these observations and experiences in mind that the Facebook group BAME Women Academics was founded. It was started up as a space for BAME female academics who are motivated in sharing their experiences of teaching and working in higher education; who wish to seek out professional advice from other BAME academics. It has also been a space to share best practice on BAME-related issues and to simply have a safe place (as safe as you can have in a closed group online), to vent that is our own.
As a result of the diversity in experience that exists, a space for ‘women academics’, although vital and incredibly useful, does tend to fall short in taking direct aim in tackling issues relating to gendered racism. Spaces specifically for BAME academic women help to zone in on issues and challenges which affect our everyday lived experiences and are crucial to articulating the issues at hand, and formulating effective and meaningful solutions.
Aligning BAME Women Academics
Much in the same way as Afua Hirsch had to defend the reality that racism still exists in society on Sky TV and the recently released Slay in your Lane has brought black women’s experiences into mainstream consciousness, this group does not have to defend its existence. Its members do not have to explain the reason for its collective existence or provide a disclaimer for their experiences shared, celebrated or lamented. In the first 48 hours of launching BAME Women Academics, over fifty members had joined.
Research by the Runnymede Trust has shown that BAME women academics make up less than 2% of the professoriate in UK higher education and that there are also a range of factors pushing out BAME female scholars. At a time when figures published by HESA show that universities employ more black staff as cleaners, receptionists and porters than as lecturers or professors, it has never been more important to mobilise BAME women academics into collective action.
The under-representation of BAME women in UK higher education is clearly marked, but the collective accounts of BAME women highlighting the racial and gendered inequality that exists can be exceptionally can be a powerful. For instance, the #citeblackwomen campaign online highlights this very issue by bringing attention to the under-representation of black women in academia, and firmly putting a focus on black academic women’s intellectual knowledge production.
Likewise, BAME Women Academics aims to empower its members through shared experience and understanding. Much in the same way as other women academic groups that have been launched have provided support for women academics in academia, BAME Women Academic would similarly benefit from the input from senior BAME academics who could not only share their experiences of succeeding in UK higher education, but also highlight coping strategies and offer virtual support to BAME PhD students and junior academics alike.
As BAME women academics, there is a tendency for us to wear many hats, arguably more than some women academics, sometimes these ‘hats’ are imposed and some volunteered, for instance, being a informal counsellor to BAME students; acting as the informal diversity and equality champion; being tasked with leading the drive for a more inclusive and/or diverse curriculum; mentoring less experienced BAME staff etc. This is the experience of many BAME women academics in regards to academic citizenship and the unpaid advocacy experienced linked to their intersectional identities. Unfortunately for progression and experiential purposes, the many ‘hats’ that we wear will not lessen, but continue to grow in UK higher education.
Yaz Iyabo Osho, is a Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader in Enterprise and Small Business Development at GSM London. She has previously held lecturing and research positions at Middlesex University, University of Westminster, Goldsmiths College, UEL and Kings College, London. Her research interests include, the experiences of BAME staff and students in UK HEI, inclusive curriculum practices, contextualised enterprise education, ethnic entrepreneurship and reflexivity in teaching and learning.