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Undervalued and overworked: BAME women in academia

07 May 2016

Navigating through predominantly white, academic spaces as a female student of colour can be challenging. We have to contend with white reading lists, tokenistic gestures from our peers and academics and a lack of descriptive representation within our academic staff. Last term, I left a seminar in tears because my white, male lecturer had singled me out in conversations about plans to bomb Syria and police brutality, issues which I felt with every inch of my body. Many of my peers gave me sympathetic looks as he continued to probe, directing questions at me, as though I could possibly represent the feelings and thoughts of all people of colour during this period of global mourning. I left in tears, deciding not to report the incident, despite advice from one of my tutors, it was the end of term and I didn’t want to have an enquiry hanging over my head during my final year along with the million and one other things going on.

While this incident was particularly in your face, feelings of discomfort for me within academic spaces tend to be much subtler. And from discussions with BAME women within academia, it seems as though things don’t get better the more you progress, in fact, quite the opposite. The forms of discrimination faced by academics of colour are again, not always easy to pinpoint, or at least prove; they may come in the form of unconscious bias during recruitment and promotion – manifestations of structural inequalities which are often overlooked.

I’ve met two BAME female lecturers in my time studying at university, both of whom are some of the most dynamic, interesting women I’ve come across. I remember attending a “Why is My Curriculum White?” event in which one of these women was a panel member and from this point it became blatant that academia would not be my chosen path. She spoke of her increased workload (without recompense), how they are often brought in on temporary contracts under diversity drives, how they are expected to lecture on ‘black issues’ only and how BAME academics are placed on panels as a token, to make the university look squeaky clean.

This isn’t to say that the BAME female academics who I’ve come across aren’t doing the most and pioneering exciting pieces of research, but that the barriers faced only become greater as you progress. UCU’s research, earlier this year revealed how there are only 17 BAME women in senior academic roles in the whole of the UK. But what is being done to about it? Drives for diversity fail to explore the insidious forms of racism, the old boys clubs and networking which lead to promotions and feelings of isolation amongst BAME staff.

It’s no secret that as BAME men and women, to be taken seriously in certain (most) professions, you have to work harder than your white counterparts. A report from Black British Academics notes several examples where BAME senior lecturers, lecturers and readers felt as though they were better suited to a role than their white counterparts and didn’t get the job. One particular instance noted was when a non-white and white lecturer at the same level went for a senior post, the white lecturer was given the promotion – despite the fact that he had one piece of published work to the other lecturers four. I know what people will say; “but maybe they were just better suited to the job, maybe there were other factors which influenced the decision?” Maybe that is true, maybe it isn’t, but the report highlights several instances were the credibility of BAME academics are questioned, not only by senior members of staff, but also by students. Whether it is marks being constantly scrutinised, the fact that BAME academics are paid on average 6.4% less than their white counterparts, a lack of mentoring by senior members of staff or small things like un-offered, unofficial networking invites.

Sunny Singh, author and senior lecturer in English at London Metropolitan University tweeted just yesterday, about an incident where she called out racist slurs included in a student’s work, and the lack of support afforded to PoC and women in academia.

In order to move towards more inclusive, academic spaces a greater awareness is needed of how informal forms of discrimination operate. Climates under which students and academics of colour feel safe, must be fostered, or else we will continue to produce generations of students who either drop out or spend the duration of their degrees feeling unwelcome and underachieving. A transformation of the attitudes of academic staff and a better understanding of the ways in which race and gender intersect are essential. Not only this, but there must be greater transparency during periods of recruitment and promotion. Diversity breeds creativity, but it’s not enough to introduce superficial, tick boxing initiatives; academic institutions must also improve the experiences of those who are already here.