Black female professors have to overcome bullying, stereotyping and institutional neglect in order to win promotion, according to a damning new report of their experiences working at British universities.
In interviews with 20 of the total 25 black female professors working in UK universities, Nicola Rollock, the report’s author, said that their experiences made for depressing reading.
“What they are saying is that their entire careers have been characterised by abuse and exclusion, and that their race has been the key to that,” said Rollock.
Black women make up just 0.1% of active professors in the UK compared with the 68% who are white men – figures said to have provoked the Duchess of Sussex to exclaim “oh my God” during her visit to the Association of Commonwealth Universities last week.
Rollock’s report – the first study of its type in the UK – found that 14 of the 20 women had been appointed within the last five years. But they all reported “shocking” accounts of their career experiences, with two having to take legal action after bullying.
The women, of black Caribbean, black African or other black backgrounds, reported being systematically overlooked for promotion, mistaken for clerical staff or shut out of participation in university activities.
One professor related how even contributing to departmental meetings was made humiliating: “I had my hand up for about half an hour,” she said. “The debate was going on and I just kept it up and everybody was looking at him and eventually everyone was looking at him, looking at me.”
Rollock said the women felt they received little support from their white female peers, whom they said tended to side with their male counterparts. One woman told her: “I don’t understand why everything has to be a battle and I know that it’s because I’m a black woman.”
Another said that even promotion did not solve the barriers she faced: “Actually it’s a really greasy, slippery pole and so you go higher up and you think: ‘Oh, life will be better.’ It just gets worse, actually.”
Kalwant Bhopal, professor of education and social justice at the University of Birmingham, said her research showed universities gave greater priority to tackling gender inequality than racial inequality.
She said: “In my research I found when people complained about racism at universities, it was often dismissed as a clash of personalities. When I give talks on this, I’m often asked: ‘How do you know it’s racism?’ I’m never asked: ‘How do you know it’s sexism?’”
The report, published by the University and College Union, recommends that universities be more transparent about the promotion process to professorial positions, while Rollock says the practice of heads of department being able to veto internal job applications should end.
The union said universities needed to overhaul their promotion structures to ensure “genuine equality of opportunity”.
The report also recommends that universities have dedicated initiatives for black female academics, to provide financial stability and career support from postgraduate study through to the early stages of their academic career.
It calls on universities to acknowledge the extra effort made by black academics in supporting black students and staff. “Where such work is carried out, black academics should be explicitly recognised and rewarded for such contributions as part of promotion considerations,” it says.
Matt Waddup, the UCU’s head of policy, said: “This report tells of a higher education system that is plagued by bullying and stereotyping, and forces black women to develop strategies just to cope. They don’t feel they can be themselves, yet also feel forced into the role of stereotype and role model.
“We need to look at how to transform a system that black female professors say is riddled with unfairness and bias. That starts with an overhaul of promotion structures to ensure genuine equality of opportunity.”
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